Crime fiction clichés to avoid

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.


8 thoughts on “Crime fiction clichés to avoid

  1. Maxine, I (Kristi V from NN, by the way) appreciate your posts on crime fiction, and (for various reasons that aren’t at all interesting) I’m unlikely to ever join Friend Feed or Twitter. I’ve recently started reading crime fiction again (not sure why I ever stopped), and so I’ve enjoyed perusing your review archives before I head off to the local library or bookstore. I’ll send my Mom, and a friend who also loves European crime fiction, to Petrona as well.

  2. Maxine, you filled in a couple of categories that I thought of as well. I find the maverick loner particularly annoying.
    I would also add animosity between local law enforcement and the FBI to my list. Is there is an equivalent in the UK? I asked a former police detective now blogger about this and he said that he worked with the FBI on several occasions and they were there to help and advise and not officious at all.
    I stopped reading a series recently because the FBI profilers were made out as buffoons and a combination of “woman in peril” and “maverick loner.”

  3. Thanks for popping over, Kristi, and for your encouraging words! Mack, I don’t think there is an equivalent in the UK to the various FBI-CIA-sherriff’s dept-police department turf wars that seem to be such rich food for plots in the US scene. (Karin Slaughter for example throws the coroner’s office into the mix.) Over here, so far as I know, it is basically “official police” vs “private detectives” with “private security” being lowest on the status tree. Helena Handbasket, however, manages to have a turf war between herself (unlicenced PI), the official police and the FBI, all in England, which is impressive!

  4. Good list. How about the “forensic scientist as a detective”? It can make for the occasional interesting investigation (like in Cornwell, Reichs and the CSI TV series), but in real life these scientist do not question witnesses or interrogate suspects, but focus on what they know best, be it pathology, toxicology, psychology, etc. It often seems that these expert witnesses are turned into detectives merely in order to be able to include plenty of graphic descriptions of injuries and rotting flesh.

  5. cromercrox – thanks for the link. Science fiction is my other genre interest. I like the names that were put to the rules-of-thumb.
    Bibliophile – this is one of the reason I don’t watch CSI. In one episode of the Miami CSI franchise, one of the CSI techs actually told a detective what he should check next and the detective indicated he would get right on it.

  6. Oh dear. I’m certainly guilty of the mounting body count in at least one book. I did it knowingly, but I’m not sure that makes it any better. That’s a great list, all of which I recognise only too well.
    As you say, the UK doesn’t have the equivalent of FBI vs local law. But one of John Harvey’s recent books had tensions between the police and the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which is our nearest equivalent (though functionally different). And tension between the police and the security services is a occasional theme (Reginald Hill’s ‘Death of Dalziel’ springs to mind), as is tension between different local forces. There was also the terrific BBC series, ‘Between the Lines’, based on the UK equivalent of Internal Affairs. Having spent some time working in police environments in my non-writing life, I’d say that all these have some basis in reality…
    I was interested also in the comment on mobile phone signals – I’ve seen the suggestion that mobile phones have rendered at least some aspects of thrillers obsolete because it’s too easy for the victim to ring for help. Certainly, one advantage of writing about Mongolia is that communications are often problematic… On the other hand, I’m currently in the middle of writing a novel set in that strange time before we had mobile phones (and indeed before household phones became universal), and that’s raised a whole new set of narrative challenges…

  7. Michael – you are let off! Exempt! Cliche is one word that cannot be applied to your books.
    I hope I don’t come over as a grumpy old so-and-so. Many of these aspects (phones not working) do feature rather cleverly in some novels, for example, not just crime fiction. It is the occasions in which these events happen in a sort of “lazy shorthand” that I don’t like it – one feels an “autopilot” alert.
    Setting a novel in the past is certainly one way around it. It is always interesting to me how gripped my daughters are by stories such as Little Dorrit, with nary a ring tone to be heard.

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