10 crime fiction cliches I can live without

I read a lot of crime fiction — and in the past I have read more crime fiction than any dozen people of your acquaintance, unless your acquaintance includes people who read incredibly fast, are moderately obsessive about doing so, and have arranged their lives so as to yield a constant inflow of books. Noah’s Archives is what most people would call “the guest bedroom”, for instance; guests for me would be impossible, since it’s stacked pretty much floor-to-ceiling with boxes of books.

In my youth, it used to be that I could plough through just about anything for the sake of being able to say that I’d read it, and there were only a very, very few books that annoyed me sufficiently to make me shut them down and move on to the next volume in my teetering chest-high stack of “to be read”.  But I am older now, there are more calls on my time, and my disposition has transited from generally sunny to generally surly 😉  And in the intervening years, I’ve developed mechanisms for avoiding books that I have learned from experience will neither amuse nor instruct me.

This started by my realizing that there was no point in my even starting a book that had a swastika on the cover; neither World War II stories nor thrillers where some Nazi plot rooted in WWII is coming to fruition in the present day is likely to hold my attention, since I just don’t find those stories very interesting.  I expanded this to include any story which had the word “Templar” in the title, or on the cover. “Intrepid archaeologist fights against an organization of Knights Templar determined to keep their secrets while they strive towards world domination” is a story that might have interested me the first time, but the 50th or 100th time left me cold.

Over the years, I’ve found that there are certain story elements — let’s call them cliches — that authors are fond of including in their stories that annoy me, for various reasons, but which are not helpfully signalled by a swastika on the cover. I don’t expect writers to stop using most of these any time soon, but there’s a small chance that I might prevent one or two from moving forward down the path of least resistance.  In the meantime, I may be able to help you identify these cliches in books that you might consider reading, and perhaps I’ll save you the time and trouble of ploughing through them … you may even realize that you actually like this sort of story and gravitate towards it.  (Apparently there are myriads of middle-aged men who like nothing more than a 900-page paperback with a swastika on the cover, written by someone pretending to be Robert Ludlum.  All I’m saying is, I’m not one of those guys.)

1. The detective’s close friend is sociopathic and violent

I first noticed this in the Spenser novels of Robert B. Parker; it seemed obvious that Hawk was in the stories to do things that were violent and intimidating, which allowed Spenser to keep his hands clean. Spenser could stand by while Hawk broke someone’s bones in pursuit of information, then take that information and use it to solve his case. You’ll notice that Hawk doesn’t seem to actually solve any problems or answer any questions; he’s the heavy. There’s also a character like this in some Harlan Coben novels; a wealthy sociopath who enjoys it when the detective asks him to do something violent. (I got so bored with Harlan Coben’s stories that I got rid of all my copies of his novels, so I can’t check the name or details.) This is kind of like having Dexter on speed-dial. I really think this is cheating the reader. The author needs things to happen to move the the plot forward; has figured out that those things won’t logically happen without violence being done; but can’t bring himself to make his precious detective do those violent and inappropriate things because he thinks, probably correctly, that the reader will think the worse of the detective. So he invents a character who is there to do the violence that the protagonist cannot. That’s cheap.

2. “My BFF Velma” syndrome.

The detective has a best friend who is unattractive, or somehow challenged, or bitchy and gay, who is willing to endlessly listen to the theories of the detective, ask stupid questions, run errands, and make phone calls at pre-arranged times, but who never actually contributes anything original to the plot. The BFF is pretty much there to keep the detective from having to do chapters in internal monologue. That’s not a friend, that’s a spear-carrier. When the author couples this with a BFF who is from a background such that the detective gets to demonstrate tolerance and acceptance of different racial origins, or sexual preferences, or ability levels — that’s just tacky, tacky, tacky.

3. The amateur detective as wish-fulfilment fantasy

When I read about an amateur detective who has a lovely house, three well-behaved kids, a husband who cares about her feelings and initiates sex three times a week; a career that doesn’t seem to require her to actually do anything to maintain it (she can stay away from the office for weeks at a time); a slender figure and a large clothing budget; the ability to invite 6 people over for dinner at a moment’s notice and produce a gourmet meal; attracts admiring male glances whenever she goes anywhere; has great landscaping, pets, vehicles, handyperson skills, credit, exercise habits, etc., etc. — I don’t see a detective.  What I see is an author who is trying to live out a fantasy life. This has a long history; Dorothy L. Sayers is quoted as saying something like, “Whenever I am short of cash, Lord Peter gets a new piano.” It’s an indication to me that the books are worthless, because if the detective is required to demonstrate some skill, ability, or knowledge, she automatically has it instead of having to go to the effort of acquiring it. And most of the events of the books are more for the author’s pleasure than the reader’s.

4. Characters in historic times exhibit societal attitudes and mores that reflect more modern values.

99% of women in Victorian England did not treat their female servants as equals, agitate for the right to vote, argue with their husbands, have extra-marital affairs at the drop of a hat, pursue careers reserved to men, and prove themselves capable of unarmed combat or marksmanship. Similarly, ancient Romans did not consult their slaves’ opinions nor refrain from whipping them for reasons connected with conscience, people of colour in 1930s southern US states did not converse as equals with white people, and mediaeval monks did not regard non-Christian religions as potentially equivalent. Most of these are laudable and even highly desirable social tropes, and we are lucky to have achieved a higher degree of enlightenment and equality than our historic predecessors. But putting modern values into the mouths and lives of people in historic times does not, as some authors fondly think, mean that we’re all the same and always have been. What it means is that you have failed to understand historical context and are lying to your readers. I accept that, say, Florence Nightingale was at the cutting edge of social change. What I do not accept is that there were hundreds of Victorian Englishwomen who felt the same way and who solved mysteries while maintaining a lifestyle so onerous that they had to make their own soap.

5. The detective relies upon extra-sensory perception, witchcraft, telepathy, pseudo-science, and, to quote the oath of the Detection Club, “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God”.  

Or, rather, they may do so in books that do not qualify as mysteries. But if you have a detective who tries to solve mysteries by having seances, using tarot cards, sucking blood from the veins of potential witnesses, discovering poisons hitherto unknown to science, practising naturopathy, palmistry or Lombrosian face-reading, or by having an unaccountable FEELING about someone’s guilt, not only do you not have a mystery, you do not have me as a reader. If we actually could solve mysteries with telepathy or Scientology, there would be no point in having a police force.

6. Detectives with an unusually specialized area of knowledge who constantly run across crimes that involve that area of knowledge.

For instance, the proprietor of the only “rare yarn” store in the world, headquartered in a small town, is constantly encountering book-length situations where someone nearby is strangled with yarn, or a piece of rare yarn is lying beside the body, or a yarn collector is killed, or the proprietor of a yarn museum comes to town and is killed just before making an important announcement to the national press. One such novel is fine. Two are barely possible. Four is entirely beyond the bounds of probability, and twelve is just asinine.

7. The female detective who is torn between the romantic attentions of two gorgeous men, one of whom is a police officer and the other a constant source of useful information; the male detective who is torn between the romantic attentions of two gorgeous women, one of whom is his ex-wife and the other a constant source of sexual interludes.

These ideas demonstrate both an inability to create realistic characters and an inability to plot sensibly. The reason the female detective has two gorgeous men at her beck and call is that her police officer friend gets her places that she can’t legitimately go, and her other friend does things like look up credit history that the detective cannot legitimately acquire, and the female detective gets laid a lot. Meanwhile, neither of the men does the realistic thing and finds another girlfriend, or beat up the other guy and send him packing, or occasionally run away with the other guy. This is wish-fulfillment fantasy coupled with cheating the plot into place. Usually male detectives with two girlfriends follow the same pattern; both provide useful plot material like arrest records and credit information, and sexual interludes that the author fondly thinks are interesting to the reader. One of the women is usually an ex-wife because the author wants to demonstrate that the man has qualities sufficient to attract a quality woman, but is single because he gets laid more that way, and gets to have twinges of regret for his sexy ex that make him more human for half a chapter. What usually happens in real life in these situations is that both women come to the realization that the man in question is a two-timing asshole and both leave, occasionally with each other.

8. An interesting plot hook in chapter 1 that is promptly forgotten as the book moves forward.

Erle Stanley Gardner was good at creating interesting plot hooks — for instance, a pretty young woman is being well paid to gain weight and comes to Perry Mason for advice. In Gardner’s books, the weight gain is the tip of the iceberg and leads inevitably to a complicated and illegal plot and a murder that, crucially, remain connected with the pretty young woman and her weight gain. In the work of lesser authors, the young woman is merely a pawn in a larger scheme and disappears offstage after about chapter four. I rarely find out what is really happening because I so object to being treated like a forgetful nitwit that I usually don’t get beyond chapter six or so.

9. Cats who solve mysteries and display human-like qualities in the process.

Also probably dogs, gerbils, chimpanzees and any other animal you can think of, but for some reason writers mostly seem to like to suggest that cats have innate detecting skills. These emphatically are not mysteries; they are fantasy novels with mystery elements, because cats in real life do not solve mysteries, are not telepathic, and have a brain the size of a walnut that is focused 99% on food and sleep. And I personally am not fond of reading books about cats unless they act like real cats. If you are the kind of person who likes to fantasize that cats are not amoral and vicious, but instead interested in cooperating with humans in the solving of crimes, then I’m in touch with the heirs of a deposed Nigerian prince and only need a few thousand to get his millions out of Africa.

10. People who act against their own best interests or simple common sense, just to make the plot move forward.

The second victim who refuses to bother the police with the unusual piece of evidence she discovered right after the first murder. In fact, second victims who do all kinds of crazy and stupid things against their best interests or any sane person’s better judgment; I usually visualize these characters as having “Next to Die” written on their foreheads in red Sharpie.  “I won’t tell anyone about the rare postage stamp I found beside the body until I have a chance to talk in a lonely location at midnight with my friend the philatelist” is really not something people do outside of books, and it’s unfair to suggest that anyone is such a complete suicidal nitwit merely to keep the plot moving. To quote Ogden Nash on the topic of the Had I But Known novel, “And when the killer is finally trapped into a confession by some elaborate device of the Had I But Known-er some hundred pages later than if they hadn’t held their knowledge aloof,/Why, they say, why Inspector I knew all along it was he but I couldn’t tell you, you would have laughed at me unless I had absolute proof.” Trust me, the inspector rarely laughs at anyone who is offering him information. And I object to those hundred pages of padding merely because you think I’m willing to accept that people who pick up rare postage stamps beside corpses are stupid enough not to mention it to the police, let alone wave it triumphantly on camera on CNN.

Well, that’s ten — or, rather, that’s the FIRST ten I can think of.  What are yours?








11 thoughts on “10 crime fiction cliches I can live without

  1. curtis evans says:

    Great piece. Poor Velma!

    So true about the modern historicals, where the protagonist always seems to be light-years ahead of her/his contemporaries (the lead in Foyle’s War is like this too).

    I think those wish-fulfillment fantasies are for the readers too though (indeed, some of the authors may not actually buy into this stuff persoanlly). And it goes beyond the cozy. There’s wish-fulfillment in Nero Wolfe (everyone wants that brownstone) and male fantasy in the traditional hard-boiled novel. Of course in Stout and the better hard-boiled there’s more to the books than that.

  2. Albert says:

    I think most of the items you mention are to be found in mysteries written after 1970 or for women; they are essentially political in nature or are just lazy writing. That’s why I rarely read anything like that. I think that writing a good mystery in the modern world is essentially a lost art because the authors are interested in writing about just about any subject except the detection of crime. That is too bad because the material is there in abundance. R. Austin Freeman or Arthur Reeve would be having a field day right now. The technological applications for crime and detection today exist in vast quantities, but all too many authors would rather write fake historical novels, because that gets them away from having to learn something new about our increasingly complex society. In other words, it gets them out of having to use their imaginations and doing some hard research.

    I think what you are really talking about is the artistic failure of the modern world. But this is not just endemic in the mystery field; it exists in every aspect of western culture. There is also a general failure of progress in the science fiction field, the mainstream novel, poetry, painting and the performing arts. If you look, for instance, at this year’s movie blockbusters, it is interesting to note just how old many of these characters are. Sherlock Holmes is a small industry. Godzilla’s first appearance was in 1954, Captain America’s first appearance was in 1940, the X-Men’s first appearance was in 1963, and so on. What we have is a cultural failure of the creative imagination. Edward Hoch was probably the first author to deal with the concepts of computer crimes with his short story “The Computer Cops” (1969) and its three successor novels in the early 1970s. Where are his successors on this subject now that we actually have these things?

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I tend to agree with you that these are modern-day problems, but a certain part of my mind is suggesting that part of that is simply because the basic sub-genres hadn’t been invented yet during the height of the Golden Age. I suspect if the cozy had been invented in 1930, as a strictly commercial idea, it might have been that Edgar Wallace wrote 230 novels in “The Cat Who …” series.
      I’m not sure that I agree that there is a massive artistic failure of progress in western culture — or rather I agree with the situations you cite, but I look at it as the huge disintermediation of culture that took place after the invention of television. There are massive amounts of crap in every cultural channel from writing to dance, to be sure, but the individual consumer has the opportunity to “niche in” — like you and I do with Golden Age mysteries — and find richness and depth in a very small vein of culture. This wasn’t possible until recently because of sheer lack of availability. I think the average intelligence level of cultural consumers en masse is such that most are content to wallow in the shallow end of the cultural pool, and hence the proliferation of the cozy mystery, but there are gems in the huge flowing sewer for those who look. I agree that artistic progress doesn’t look like it once did — there seem to be no more “movements” like there were in the last century — but I suspect that things like slash fiction, shipping, etc., may well be the equivalent. Why have an artistic movement when everyone can write their own novel about popular characters and publish it, to be read by three others?

  3. BRADSTREET says:

    Sort of agree and disagree with this. The historical characters who are essentially modern characters in fancy dress are very annoying (as Curtis points out, Foyle displays none of the attitudes that one would expect a person from that position in that era to have). Similarly, the lack of common sense often drives me up the wall. Especially nowadays. when everybody has probably read enough books and seen enough films to know what happens to people who act like that.

    As for the others…most detective fiction has an element of wish fulfilment fantasy. Some disguise it more than others, but it is there in most of them. The hard-boiled private eyes and the rich amateur and the cool professionals might seem light years apart, but they do tend to be people we would either like to be, or people with whom we wish to spend some time. It’s recreational reading. People watch programmes about other people buying dream homes, cooking tasty meals, getting really good at their hobbies. That’s wish fulfilment. Sometimes the hero is not well off, but lives in a houseboat and only works when he wants to. That’s wish fulfilment. If it gets too much, then you turn off, but I don’t really have a problem reading about people who may be better off than I am, as long as the story is well told.
    The ESP bit can be an annoyance, but it depends on how it is done. In the LOVEJOY books of Jonathan Gash the central character has what amounts to superpowers that enable him to tell whether an antique is real or not. However, they don’t tell him anything more than that, and if there is some mystery he has to puzzle it out himself. This does bleed into the question about detectives who have specialist knowledge which they are always using in the detection of crime. All of the books tend to be about antiques (a pair of rare duelling pistols/ ancient artifact that could be the holy grail/ buried treasure and so on) but there is sufficient variety for it not to become ridiculous. Plus, Lovejoy is drawn into the stories either by greed, or a desire for revenge. I remember a telly show from a few years ago called ROSEMARY AND THYNE about a pair of crime busting gardeners. After the third dead body turned up in the shrubbery it became fairly hilarious, but people stuck with it because they liked the characters, and becuase it was generally well made. A lot of this is really about the skill of the writer. Good ones can often get away with it, whilst bad ones make you reach for the paper shredder.

    The stuff about the violent best friend is very true. For myself, I would rather that the sleuth gets his/her results without resorting to cracking skulls together. Morality aside, it is rather ridiculous that the character can keep on breaking the law like that without the police ever hauling them away for GBH. If violence has to be used, then it should have consequences. Although the Bond movies have tended not to show this, the books are quite honest about it. In GOLDFINGER we are shown Bond to be feeling very shabby and jaded after he has had to kill someone in the course of duty (even if it was in self-defence). Similarly, the fight with the psychotic assassin in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE is not the stylised fight scene that we might expect. The chapter in the book is quite harrowing, and we see that the hero is very lucky to get away in one piece.

    As for cats, widlebeest, gerbils, herrings and the like solving crimes….I hate them too!

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I think we’re on the same page … I can suspend my disbelief long enough to accept that Lovejoy can have one single special talent. I can accept a certain amount of wish fulfilment fantasy when, for instance, a physically-fit and aggressive PI is created by a writer who can’t walk around the block without breathing heavily (no names, but this is a true story). I rather like reading about people who have somewhat better lives than I, but there’s a certain category of cozy that features protagonists who are just so damn perfect, it sets my teeth on edge.

  4. Nigel Holmes says:

    Modern characters in Victorian dress are certainly irritating; but it’s surely makes sense to choose to write about characters who are ahead of their time, providing they still belong to it. For instance both Forester’s Hornblower and O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin are in some respects ahead of their time, but in others they have prejudices and limitations that clearly reflect the world they came from.

    But I really just wanted to pass on a joke that stayed with me from a television review I read years ago, describing Derek Jacobi’s Brother Cadfael as a man so out of touch with his time, at any moment you expect him to protest, “But this is positively medieval!”

  5. John says:

    I can’t say that many of these bother me or that they are in fact clichés because I choose not to read many of the types of books that employ these plot features. But I agree wholeheartedly with the abuse of #4. It’s the main reason I cannot bring myself to read many “historical” mysteries. Also, #8 is reason enough for me to stop reading a book. It was the primary reason that my reading of Poul Anderson’s MURDER IN BLACK LETTER was utterly ruined. I should’ve stopped but as I had chosen it as one of my Reading Challenge books I had to suffer until the final page or I couldn’t count it towards filling another spot on the Bingo card.

    #5 is really not a cliché because ti belongs to a completely different type of book. With the exception of the Solange Fontaine stories (F Tennyson Jesse’s detective who has the ability to sense evil) I have never encountered it in detective fiction. But I find it all the time in supernatural thrillers. But then the entire point of those books is fantasy.

    “but there’s a certain category of cozy that features protagonists who are just so damn perfect, it sets my teeth on edge.”

    The above sentence is not only confined to cozy mysteries but can be applied to ALL contemporary fiction. I’m getting tired of beautiful and perfect people in all forms of entertainment whether it be books, movies, or TV shows. Bring back normal people with personality flaws and crooked non-bleached teeth!

  6. TracyK says:

    Very interesting list, and I am in agreement. I avoid most books of the kind you have described. I am guilty of reading those in #4, but females who behave in an anachronistic manner do irritate me. And #7 is very irritating. I also read much more indiscriminately when I was younger, but then I did not have as much access to books (or money for books) or to information about books so that I could choose better.

  7. Ho-Ling says:

    With #5, I think that supernatural powers alone don’t make or break a detective story. MORIKAWA Tomoki’s “Snow White” (2013) was about a detective who used a magic mirror (from Snow White) which could tell the answer to any question, but it was still an excellent fair play detective (in fact, it won the Japanese Honkaku Mystery Grand Prize two weeks ago). A plot can feature magic and other supernatural elements IMHO, but still be completely fair as long as the rules are clear and the writer keeps a close eye on how he/she incorporates those elements in a proper detective plot.

    And regarding #9, and as I mentioned Morikawa anyway: what about a group of shapeshifting cats with a fiendish plot to kill a group of humans, and another shapeshifting cat trying to prevent that? 😛 (“Cat Food” (2010).

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I think I can agree with you as long as it’s a single element that is, as you say, very carefully handled. There are crossover stories such as science-fiction ones written by Larry Niven where there is a scientific discovery — such as a field that changes the rate at which time passes — but everything else in the story is fair play. I’m not super-strict about this, but I object to, say, a mystery where a werewolf and a vampire team up with a zombie to solve a mystery. That’s too many weird elements and the writer can have any solution desired just by pulling it out of his … hat. 😉

  8. Sakamae says:

    Well thank you. I’ll remember this for the future. I did have an idea for crime fiction, but I’ve never read a single crime fiction book in my life. Perhaps that good. So that I don’t adapt to clichés. At least I’ll avoid these points.

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