I'm going to attempt to return to crime fiction; I've been short of inspiration for posts because of the Friend Feed discussion of links and blog posts. So, here goes. Via Mack Lundy (admittedly at Friend Feed!), here's a list at Mysterious Matters blog of "10 characters to put out to pasture". The post discusses the challenge for genre fiction of "balancing the tried and true with the new, interesting and exciting". While appreciating that staple characters are inevitable, the blogger never wishes to read again about the bitchy teenage girl; the sleazy male boss;the alcoholic, cold society woman; the garrulous neighbour; prematurely adult child; hard-as nails but secretly sensitive editor; snobbish matriarch; arrogant "dude" that the heroine nevertheless falls for; the wisecracking detective; and the town crazy.
Well, my first reaction to this list is "get out more" – i.e. read more varied books! I read tons of crime fiction, but rarely come across these cliches, most of which I think must be limited to very particular subgenres. (I have come across them from time to time, of course, and not just in crime fiction.) However, there are certainly plenty of over-used situations and characters in the books I read, so here are a few:
Woman in peril (also identified by Bernadette). Why do women (and less often men), even police officers, regularly put themselves into a situation they know is likely to be dangerous but don't tell anyone beforehand and don't set up any contingency plan?
Mobile/cell phone does not work. Variants are lost it, no signal, etc. Other variants include power cuts, wind blowing down trees across road, baddie cutting phone line.
Spooked by a stalker. How many books do I read (and put down before finishing, usually) in which a woman character is conscious that someone is stalking her – mysteriously entering her house, hacking into her computer, turning up at social gatherings pretending to know her, and so on. Woman goes into passive mode and does nothing practical about it. Everyone assumes she is the mad one. She can't convince them otherwise. And so on.
Efficient police reaction to discovery of body/crime. I once saw someone die by jumping into a canal. The police reaction to this event was the opposite of fiction. In novels, the police rush to the scene, a battery of high-tech forensics is used, a pathologist is called and examines the body in situ, and all hands are on deck in professional, efficient manner. In my real-life example, they did not care. Less dramatic cases are treated with similar lack of interest – for example I was once knocked off my bike by a motorist turning right across me. He initially stopped to see how I was, then drove off. A witness wrote down his numberplate. I reported the incident to the police, but by the time I got home from the station about an hour later, there was a message on my answering machine saying that they could not trace the number so were closing the case. Some years later, I had a much more serious accident caused by a hit and run driver. The police were notorious by their absence. [I have had many positive experiences with the police over the years, but not so far as observing them trying to solve actual crimes.]
Policewomen. Perhaps more of an issue for films/TV, but police women always seem to wear designer, tailored suits; high heels; great hairdos and makeup; and be briskly efficient – causing their male colleagues to cower. How universally realistic is this?
Maverick loner. Male detectives, whether or not in the police force, ignore the rules or any advice they are given, are insubordinate (the boss is inevitably a buffoon and/or corrupt), and "go their own way", fearlessly uncovering corruption, crimes and associated evil. It is much rarer for the detectives to get along and work as a team, within the rules. [Variant: professional police resenting private eye on their turf.]
Body count. More people are murdered, or bodies found, as a novel progresses. Each novel is a stand-alone piece, of course, but in a series, it is not believable when this happens in each book, especially one set in a geographical region known for its total or almost total lack of murders per annum. Does the murderer have to compound the initial crime by murdering more people, or could a different tack be followed?
First chapter then flashback. Start the book with a dramatic event in chapter one, by all means, but it does not have to be a description of a murder from the victim's perspective. And the next few chapters don't have to shift (usually to the past) and gradually lead up to the crime. There's nothing wrong with the structure, but it has been done too often.
"People smuggling". I've read a lot of books in the past year or so in which this crime features, usually concerning people in one country paying large sums of money to be smuggled into another country to start a better life, then having to do awful things when they get there to pay off the debts. I don't mind if the book is trying to provide a perspective on some aspect of this criminal activity, but often it is "thrown in" as one of a mosaic of themes – is it the "body in the library" of current crime fiction?
There is nothing whatsoever wrong with most of these examples. But given the very high popularity of the genre, it would be nice if authors and publishers could be more original more often, instead of similar themes and situations cropping up repeatedly. It can be done: examples I've read recently include The Lying Tongue by Andrew Wilson and Shadow by Karin Alvtegen, but there are plenty of others.