Word crimes – or how to catch a killer by their writing.

A book was published a few years ago that was described as a ‘must read’ for any crime writer looking for ideas. I would like to suggest it could also be a useful guide for anyone wanting to include letters or other messages in their work that ring true for the characters they are portraying. I.e: Would my character really use words like that? Is the writing consistent with their age, level of education, intelligence etc?

The book in question is More Wordcrime – Solving crime with linguistics, by John Olsson. Olsson is a forensic linguist and, as the title suggests, this is not his first book on the subject. He is often used as an expert witness for trials where the authorship of letters, text messages, suicide notes etc. is in dispute. His job is to identify the use of words, slang, spellings, and grammatical structures that are out of the ordinary for the alleged writer of the text.

One case he cites is David Ryan, who was subsequently jailed for the murder of Diana Lee. His defence was that he wasn’t at the scene at the time of her death as she had sent text messages the next day. However Olsson’s examination of the text showed the last few texts were not in keeping with her usual style. (She didn’t use spaces after commas; he did).

Often a message written by someone purporting to be another will show that they know enough about them to use a catch phrase they are associated with, but use it in the wrong place, or too often. One victim for example regularly started her Facebook messaging with ‘Haha …’ Her killer continued her messaging after the murder to distract from the actual time of death – but he put ‘Haha’ at the end of each message as well – something she never did.

Some of Olsson’s findings were not helpful to the police. For example witness statements from ordinary people that used technical terms (like ‘extrajudicial’), or legalistic language (like ‘proceeding in a vehicle,’ instead of driving a car) would suggest the witness had had some inappropriate assistance in writing their statements.

Aside from crimes he cites that could inspire a crime writer, there is a message in his work for all aspiring writers who are aiming for authenticity in their fictional missives.

You still might not find a publisher, and decide that a jewellery heist would be more profitable. At least you stand a better chance of getting away with it if it, should you choose to cover your tracks with fake texts and letters.

(This post first appeared on my blog in 2018)

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