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.

Sexism, yards and Tim

Browsing through my RSS reader after two or three days "off" leads to some interesting snippets.

Women bloggers face a sexist atmosphere online, apparently. At a meeting in Austen, Texas, Rebecca Fox, a blogger and managing editor of said "Name-calling and denigrating outspoken women creates a sexist climate online". Robert Scoble, another scion of the internet, said  "…Whenever I post a video of a female technologist there invariably are snide remarks about body parts and other things that simply wouldn't happen if the interviewee were a man." The Times AlphaMummy blog asks its readers whether they think women are criticised more harshly for their opinions online. A man called Kentucky responds: "Sounds like a bunch of dimb tarts who couldn't hold their own." A woman respondent replies: "Kentucky you spelt dim wrong!" This is a perfect example of a brilliant non-aggressive, total obliteration, put-down which I find it hard to imagine a man would have managed – or me, I would probably have risen to Kentucky's bait. (I'm learning, slowly).

On to more profound matters. I could not agree more with Dave Knadler when he writes: "Blogging is no piece of cake, what with the need to motivate the research staff, root out cliches and watch the profanity, but after all is said and done at the end of the day, it's as simple as pie compared to yard work." Although I have only a tiny garden, each time I look out of the window I feel the guilt-burden of lack of essential maintenance. Why don't I just do it? I don't know, but I don't.

And this thought is worryingly perceptive: there is something about being called Tim.

By the way, if you think this blog is not much about crime fiction these days, it is because a lot of the discussion is going on at Friend Feed – please join us, and the fun, there.

Little Dorrit

This is just wonderful. Not much more to be said, really.666028-LittleDor-12235646872_18

Mouse or hippo?

Sometimes, I just have to smile.


Nature 458, 263 (2009). doi:10.1038/458263e

The Research Highlight 'Pogo-stick pictures' (Nature 458, 11; 2009) described the subject of the accompanying image as a mouse cochlear hair cell. It is in fact a hippocampal neuron.


[PS don't ask me to correct this post title. It is a joke, possibly not a very good one, but a joke.]

People power and guestlords

"I'm going to put people in my place, so when the history of this administration is written at least there's an authoritarian voice saying exactly what happened". This remark is attributed to George W. Bush, last night in Alberta, commenting on the memoirs he is writing (or thinking of writing).

Putting people in place is the business of "guestlord", which is the adorable name you are given if you write a guest post on Lords of the Blog, the House of Lords' blog. This particular guestlord is Lord Renton of Mount Harry, chairman of the House of Lords Information Committee, who asks "when does a Blogger, writing about himself, turn into an Inquisitor and ask lots of questions?" In his initiative People and Parliament, he and his team want to know. 

  • How could the House of Lords improve public understanding of its work?
  • How could the House of Lords increase people’s interest in its work and Members?
  • How could the House of Lords best enable people to interact with it?
  • They particularly want to hear from young people, so not only have they set up an e-consultation but are also Twittering, so you can follow or contribute that way. Who thought these Lords were old fuddy-duddys? I'm impressed: I wish many professional types half the age of these elevated bloggers and Twitterers were taking to the social web with such enthusiasm. (Can you imagine bankers blogging and Twittering to improve public understanding of their work, allow people to interact with them, and provide updates on what they are doing to improve their stewardship of our money? Some way to go, I think.)

    Clare Dudman on what we do and don’t need

    A couple of weeks ago, the Keeper of the Snails, Clare Dudman, posted two lists – do needs and don't needs. Her post was inspired by the question of why we are continuing to produce cars that nobody wants. Clare is very sensible, so her do needs are things like clean water, sanitation, comfortable clothing, 4 TV channels and so on; and her don't needs are things like celebrities, fashion, more than 4 TV channels, politicians, etc.

    There is a lot of discussion in the comments to Clare's post about what we do and don't need, which I recommend perusing. Globalisation seems to be high on most people's lists of don't needs, with local produce, etc, highly prized. Here is my contribution:

    Don't need:

    * Banks
    * "Customer service" departments of companies, especially when "outsourced", and even more especially when outsourced to other countries where operators do not understand the product or the language.
    * Oversimplistic and petulant demands, opinions and expectations by people on internet forums
    * Adverts in TV programmes
    * Junk food
    * Salt in ready meals and other prepared foodstuffs
    * Free newspapers and especially when left to litter train compartments

    Do need:
    * Integrated train network system
    * Decent underground station at Kings Cross that can cope with the number of (attempted) passengers
    * The ability to walk down and cross York Way without risking life, limb, lungs.
    * More individual choice in shops and fewer chain stores selling the same thing as each other
    * Actual people answering the phone (in organisations).

    And another do need – more English-subtitled films of (other) European language crime fiction.

    Stieg Larsson trilogy: books, film and journalism

    Via an email from Quercus, and from various blogs, Stieg Larsson’s brother and father have established an annual 200,000 kroner Stieg Larsson prize, in Sweden, for any person or organization that acts in the spirit of his journalism: “Since the 1970s Stieg Larsson had specialized in investigating and documenting Swedish right-wing extremism. In 1995 he was one of the journalists involved in establishing The Expo Foundation. He was the editor-in-chief of the anti-racist magazine Expo, and his commitment to democracy and anti-fascism was well known in Sweden as well as abroad.” Download the press release for more details .

    In the UK, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO has also been announced as one of the shortlisted titles for the Books Direct Crime Thriller of the Year award at this year’s Nibbies, alongside Martina Cole, Tom Rob Smith, Linwood Barclay, C.J. Sansom and  Kate Atkinson. Stieg Larsson's father, Erland Larsson and his brother, Joakim Larsson, will be attending the ceremony in his place, on 3 April 2009. You can read about the books on the shortlist here, and vote for your favourite here.

    The film of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO opened to "explosive" figures in Sweden and Denmark, according to Screenplay Europe. Some 350,000 people queued for the 140-minute film of Stieg Larsson's sweeping tale of dark secrets in a darker family, putting it at the top of both box offices over the weekend of 5 March. The film was released in Norway last week (13 March), and will soon open in Finland (27 March) and in France, where it has been rumoured that it will open the Cannes Film Festival on 13 May, with the French title of Men Who Do Not Love Women.

    The second book in Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy is THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE. My review of the book is here, at Euro Crime. The third and final volume, THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST, is published in the UK in October.

    Sunday Salon: more on Karin Alvtegen

    TSSbadge3 Last week I wrote about a wonderful author whom I’d heard about but had not, until then, read: Karin Alvtegen. Here’s a quotation from one of her books, Betrayal,  and here is the author’s website.

    Since last week, I’ve read Shadow, her latest book, and immediately Missing, which has been deservedly shortlisted for the Best Novel category of the Edgars this year. Next I’ll read Shame (can’t wait) – and sadly, that is it (for now – there is another book, Guilt, but although it has been translated it is “unavailable”). My reviews of Betrayal and Shadow have been submitted to Euro Crime, and my review of Missing is in draft.

    In my opinion, Karin Alvtegen is one of the very best crime-fiction authors I have ever read. Her books are a superb fusion of plot, character, suspense, psychology, history and insight – and they race by. Each is different, yet has certain elements in common. Fans of Lisbeth Salander, the main character of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, will I am sure find much to their taste in Missing, for example.

    Shadow is about an eminent Swedish novelist, Axel, who has won the Nobel prize for literature. Although the book could not be more serious, the author has a few jokes at the expense of her profession. Early on in his career, Axel agrees to attend a literary evening in which some authors will read from their books and hope to sell a few signed copies.

    The evening’s organiser left the room and only the authors remained. He had known Torgny for some time, while the other two were strangers, one a first-time novelist and the other a crime writer. The latter had apparently sold a good number of books, although it was incomprehensible to Axel that people read such drivel. 

    Axel’s son is not of a literary disposition.

    Unlike his father, Jan-Erik was the type who simply saw a dustbin when he saw a dustbin, and not a ‘vessel for unwanted memories’.

    Sarah Paretsky and voices of women

    Reading a post on the ever-interesting blog by crime-fiction author Sarah Paretsky, creator of V. I. Warchawski – and, incidentally, learning where and how you can take a quick snap of Barack Obama's home – I read this:

    If you watch movies, you may not ever have noticed, but most of the speaking parts go to men.  In fact, 72 percent of speaking parts go to men.  Women can talk less than a third of the time on screen, but, in fact, this mirrors real-life social experience.

    A variety of studies, most recently at the University of San Francisco, show that in mixed groups, whether at work or at play, women can speak about a third of the time.  If we take up more time — more space — than that — we’re labeled as conversation hogs, as aggressive bitches, and social pressures are marshaled to silence us.  Notice for yourself the next time you’re at a dinner party and a woman seems to dominate the conversation:  a wall comes down between her and her neighbors.  Women as well as men stop listening to her. 

    I find this rather strange. In all my many years at work, I would say without a doubt that women talk far more than men in meetings and in general conversation. (I work for an international company so have many colleagues who are American and from across Europe and elsewhere in the world – so it is not just to do with tight-lipped Brit males.) At home, although the man in our house is outnumbered 3:1, I would say that the women speak a disproportionate amount of the time (none of us is a great chatterer, though, our house is more likely to be silent rather than filled with conversation by either gender). Around and about, when I see men and women together, I think women do most of the talking. Films may well skew the speaking parts towards the testosterone-heavy gender, and in the workplace, the top roles (i.e. the person who has the last word) may well be more likely to be taken by those of the male persuasion. But in my experience, women talk more than men, whatever the social situation – and don't get frozen out for doing it. Naturally, if anyone drones on and is boring, people tend to ignore her – or him!