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?








Bad Blood (2011)

Bad Blood

9023326-largeAuthor: John Sandford, the major pseudonym of John Camp.

Publication Data:  First edition as shown September, 2010 in hardcover; 2011 Berkley mass-market paperback, etc.

About this book:

It may come as a surprise to my readers that I am a big ol’ John Sandford fan. Generally, my reading list is composed of puzzle mysteries written before 1960. But I’ll always make an exception for a good writer, and Sandford is a good writer.  I’ve collected him ever since I discovered him, very close to the beginning of his fiction career, and I’ve recommended him ever since to my friends who like modern thrillers.

And this is his best book EVER.

His career started in 1989 with Rules of Prey, the first of what are currently 23 novels featuring Lucas Davenport and containing the word “Prey” in the title.  (Another novel of his in the “Kidd” series also came out in 1989 under his real name, John Camp, but this series was less well received and the books were later reissued as by “Sandford”.) At first the Prey series were fairly standard serial-killer novels, well written and constructed, and with only a faint spark of the excellent writing to come.  But people liked the Lucas Davenport character, the series took off, and a novel followed just about on a yearly basis ever after.  Davenport solved crimes, slept with beautiful women, and rose in the ranks of the Minnesotan police services. His personal life became more complicated and he finally settled down with a surgeon named Weather, adopted a kid, had a kid, etc. A fairly standard course of development for your typical muscular protagonist. All 23 are worth your attention.

In 2007, though, Sandford started another series featuring rural cop Virgil Flowers or, as he is known to many in Minnesota, “that fuckin’ Flowers”.  Flowers is a cop known for his collection of T-shirts featuring musicians, his three (or four?) marriages, his many women friends, and his other career as a free-lance writer of hunting and fishing articles. But he’s also a dogged investigator with a great deal of intelligence about the way people think and what makes them act the way they do, which makes his investigations interesting and believable.

This book begins with the murder of a hard-working farmer by a teenager who works at a grain facility. Although the teenager has tried to make it look like an accident, he’s soon detected and arrested. Then it’s announced that he’s committed suicide in the cells. When the medical examiner says it wasn’t suicide, but murder, Flowers is assigned to the case, and settles in to work with the local sheriff, an attractive single woman about his age.

As the book progresses, we learn that the crimes have to do with the activities of a rural religious sect known as the “World of Spirit”.  And this religious sect is concealing a secret that is so volatile and illegal that, by the end of Flowers’ investigation, a dozen people are dead, others have walked away from their lives and vanished, many farmhouses have been burned to the ground, and the local jail is so overloaded that they have to access all the cells from neighbouring towns.  And the local sheriff is about to become so famous that there will soon be a reality TV show about her everyday life.

I won’t go into the details — this book certainly deserves to be read and enjoyed without knowing too much about it, because the reader is surely going to enjoy it. But the great thing is that this book builds and builds and BUILDS to a climax that is so huge and exciting, and lasts so long, that you will not be able to put the book down past the halfway point. It’s that good.

One problem with thrillers is that they have to be tightly plotted and build to a big climax; what I frequently find is that a slender book builds to a huge climax, or a book full of ill omen and portent builds to a sputtering inadequate climax. Sometimes the plot escalates because of a plot point that isn’t organically related to the book, and that makes the book bathetic or merely hard to believe. It is really, really difficult to create a plot structure that keeps the reader interested all the way, that builds properly from little to big events, little to big action, where the main character learns things about the plot in a way that seems reasonable to the reader all the way through, and which serve as the platform for organic plot developments.

It’s also difficult to create realistic characters to act out all these plot twists. What is most difficult, to my mind, is to create realistic villains and/or antagonists. They’re either too crazy (a fault to which Sandford occasionally succumbed early on) or too randomly motivated, or not motivated at all, or motivated by things that don’t ring true to the reader. Sometimes they’re way too evil, and sometimes they’re not evil enough. Sometimes they are far too stupid, and do stupid things to give the protagonist a slam-dunk solution that makes him look clever.  Sometimes they are far too smart and it becomes obvious that no human could ever catch this person. It’s a delicate balancing act to get the characters juuuuuust right.

And that’s why I think this is Sandford’s best book. He balances everything perfectly. Yes, it is a terrifically exciting and high-action finish; the thing is, though, that it’s all put together in a believable way. These people would do the things that Sandford has them doing, and for the reasons that he gives us. That is so rare that in itself it’s worthy of comment. But when you have also a plot that is nail-chewingly exciting, and thrilling, and twisty, and unexpected, and occasionally even funny — you have a wonderful book.

The quality of the writing itself is very high. Sandford has the knack for muscular prose — prose that reflects the way a man looks at the world and descriptions of things that are phrased as a man would describe them. I expect some people will be turned off by this immediately because they’ve had a bad experience with macho doofuses on the level of Tom Clancy or the execrable Robert Parker.  Parker’s hero Spenser does everything except chew crowbars and spit staples. But Sandford has the extremely rare knack of writing good muscular prose that is of interest to anyone. Personally, I tend to dislike macho men in real life mostly because I come into conflict with them so often, for various reasons. But I actually think I would be capable of getting along with Lucas Davenport, and I would be proud to buy Virgil Flowers a beer, mostly because I perceive that while they are indubitably macho, they are absolutely not assholes. That is rare characterization indeed.

If I were recommending that someone start reading Sandford, I’d suggest Dark of the Moon, the first Virgil Flowers novel. Yes, all the Lucas Davenport novels are in paperback, and yes, they are all worth reading. But Virgil Flowers will hook you hard, and then you’ll go on and enjoy them all, whereas the early Davenport books are iffy.

Notes For the Collector:

Abebooks.com offers a first edition of this novel, signed, for $25-$50. (There is a really interesting edition signed by both Sandford and the gentleman who is cited in the dedication for $100, and that would absolutely be worth having.) You can get a fine but unsigned first edition from Abe for $25, and since the first edition sold for US$27.95, I think this is a bargain. The prices for other editions, including first paper, are what I think of as “normal”.

It is always my contention that a well-written book will hold its value, if not continue to gain, and I firmly believe that Sandford novels will continue to appreciate. I really never stop myself from buying Sandford firsts when I see them at used bookstores for a reasonable price, even if I have two or three copies of the same book already. This book in particular is just so damn good that I wish I had a dozen laid down.