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February 1, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Criminal Cliches
Mystery fans have much to admire: the clockwork timing and technological know-how of Harlan Coben, the silky suspense of Ruth Rendell, the biting social commentary of Simon Brett, and the way characters sizzle and back alleys steam in the hands of Ian Rankin. But despite the many advancements in crime-writing from these and other authors, many hoary old conventions are still—if you’ll excuse us—done to death. Consider this a plea for current and future mystery writers to cease and desist from overusing these criminally bad clichés.
1. Any suspicious death that is ruled a suicide always turns out to be a homicide.
Even though in real life, suicides, especially by gun, far outnumber homicides, suspicious deaths in mysteries never turn out to be suicides. If police do classify the death as a suicide, you can count on the hero or heroine spending the whole book bucking the system before finally discovering that the crime scene was, in fact, cleverly staged, and that—omigosh!—the death was actually a homicide.
Eye-rolling intensifier: in staged suicides, it’s become way too common to have the victim be left-handed, a fact that, for some reason, can only be discovered by the iconoclastic detective who bucks the system. Handedness completely overthrows suicide theories when the bumbling police (see number 3 below) realize the left-handed victim could not possibly have shot himself from that particular angle.
2. Any good detective must be depressed—and have a drinking problem.
The downside of Hammett and Chandler’s legacy is an abundance of alcoholics in crime fiction. Readers are asked to believe that people who can barely get out of bed and stumble through the day are somehow brilliant and energized when it comes to solving challenging crimes. Seriously, how can they be so depressed and still do their jobs?
3. Police are bumbling idiots, especially in cozies.
You can find the local constable having tea in the kitchen, waiting for orders from “upstairs” as to whether they should nab young Lionel, found with the bloodied letter opener and standing over the body in the library, or let him go when the Dowager Duchess directs the constable to let Lionel go. Under this convention, it’s always the amateur who solves the mystery. This probably dates back to Inspector Lestrade in the Sherlock Holmes canon and was kept alive by a conspiracy by a cabal of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and others of their ilk.
4. The first chapter of a thriller is given over to the killer’s italicized thoughts.
And many times, we return throughout the novel to the killer’s disturbed inner monologues. You should probably worry if you start thinking in italics.
5. Crime-scene work that is relegated to “waiting for forensics to show up.” (Bonus cliché: having the police inspector avert his or her eyes at the autopsy.)
This way, the author’s lack of crime-scene investigation and crime-lab knowledge is neatly covered up.
6. The detective spends the penultimate chapter confined in a boat, basement, or trunk.
This happens to female detectives even more often than it happens to males. And why? There’s zero suspense here, especially if it’s a series hero. Come on—we know they’re getting out by the last chapter.
7. The current mystery forces the detective to confront his or her own past.
Publicity departments probably use a special app to churn out the boilerplate for this tired “twist” before they print it on the back covers of mystery novels. Usually, the past is linked to a suspect or a location, and the detective, no matter how boozed up or depressively catatonic, is compelled to confront a dark episode in his or her own past. Occasionally, this will even lead the author to pen a series prequel. But we say, enough!
And the exception is: While we heartily recommend that mystery writers ignore these overdone conventions, many will continue to use them anyway, sometimes to great effect. After all, who knows more than a mystery writer about getting away with murder?
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