One of the interesting things about honey is that it doesn’t spoil – well, not in the conventional sense (although it does ferment if it’s not stored properly). That’s why raw honey has just about an indefinite shelf life. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of most other things, including crime fiction. There are some themes in crime fiction that seem to have gone on long past their “sell-by” dates. Now of course, crime fiction fans are varied as the genre is, so not everyone has the same list of these “spoiled” themes. But I think we can agree that the best novels don’t rely on shopworn elements. Rather, they contain depths and richness in the plots and characters so that they don’t need to depend on plot elements and characters that are past their “sell-by dates.” Here are just a few plot elements and character types that I think are past their “sell-by” dates. We’re all different, though, so feel free to differ with me if you do.
The “Persecuted Female Victim/s”
It’s quite true that women are far more likely than men to be raped and otherwise victimised. So it wouldn’t be realistic if a novel didn’t take that into account. And novels that address social justice for women can be both moving and brilliantly written. For instance, Unity Dow’s The Screaming of the Innocent tells the harrowing and heartbreaking story of Neo Kakang, a young girl who’d gone missing five years earlier. At the time, it was assumed that she was most likely the victim of a wild animal. But Amantle Bokaa, the young nurse who discovers a box containing the girl’s bloody clothes, becomes curious about what really happened to her. Bokaa’s search for the truth highlights the unpleasant reality of life for many Botswana women. It’s a difficult book to read, but a brilliantly told story. That novel seems to be an exception, though. As Bernadette at Reactions to Reading reminds us in her excellent review of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes), there are a number of novels in which there seems to be an emphasis on putting female characters through as much pain and suffering and humiliation as possible. Some novels dwell on what happens to these victims to a gratuitous extent, and what’s worse, for no productive reason.
By contrast, Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) features Merete Lynggard, an up-and-coming politician who disappears one day during a ferry ride with her brother Uffe. At first, everyone thinks her brother pushed her overboard during the heat of an argument. But her body hasn’t been found. Five years later, Carl Mørck and his assistant Hafez al-Assad re-open the case. Before long, it’s clear that Merete Lynggard could very well still be alive. This novel alternates between Merete Lynggard’s perspective and that of the two sleuths. As we follow what happens to Lynggard, we see that she is no stereotypical “persecuted female.” She’s a very strong character who’s determined to stay alive or at the very least, choose her own death. It’s refreshing, if I may share an opinion here, to have a character who is a victim in many senses, but who refuses to act like one. That sense of strength may be the reason for which Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander has become such a popular character. She’s certainly endured plenty, and Larsson’s Millenium trilogy doesn’t “sugarcoat” Salander’s experiences. But Lisbeth Salander is by no means a victim in the classic sense. She finds her own ways to survive and she takes her revenge.
The “Tortured Detective”
This is a difficult issue when it comes to crime fiction. On one hand, crime fiction fans want well-rounded and believable sleuths. And the sad fact is that we all have sorrow and difficulties in our lives. So we can often identify better with a sleuth who also faces or has faced struggles. And being a detective is traumatic. That line of work has no choice but to affect the sleuth. It wouldn’t be realistic if the sleuth didn’t have some sort of reaction to that trauma. That said, though, there are many novels in which the sleuth falls into the category of the stereotypical “tortured detective.”
I actually mean two things by that. One is the sleuth who’s faced tragedy and simply doesn’t seem able to function. I’m sure we can all think of fictional sleuths who’ve put us off because they seem to have no ability to pick up their lives over the long run. That can be irritating, as the reader almost wants to say, “Get some help! Pick up your life!” The same might be said of sleuths who seem to fall into the same life pattern again and again and don’t grow. The other thing I mean by the stereotypical “tortured detective” is the scenario where so many terrible and traumatic things happen to the sleuth – just for the sake of drama in the plot – that readers want to call out “Enough!”
All of that said, though, there are some fictional detectives who’ve faced, and continue to face, sad things that do affect them (sometimes permanently), but still function. They have lives and do some growing. For instance, to return to Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes), Carl Mørck has undergone quite a lot of trauma. He was shot in the line of duty, and one of his colleagues was killed. Another was left paralysed. That certainly affects him and that’s clear in the novel. But Mørck hasn’t lost his will to live. He still has a sense of humour. He functions. That makes his character both human and appealing. The same is true of Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur. Erlendur has certainly had some sadness in his history, and his personal relationships are far from perfect. He has his weaknesses and scars, so to speak. But he goes on. He functions. He tries to live his life the best he can. He’s got a lot of personal strength in that sense. I like Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon for a similar reason. She’s had her share of sorrow and trauma both in and outside of the job, so to speak. And yes, her troubles affect her personally and professionally. But she’s not so debilitated by them that she can’t function. She tries to move on and she picks up her pieces.
The “Mindless Killer”
Admittedly, there aren’t that many believable reasons that one person kills another (or a series of others). The decision to take a life is often not an easy one, so in real life, there’s got to be a compelling motive, even if that motive is a “flash” of rage or jealousy. The same is true in crime fiction. Of course, there are individuals who’ve been warped by circumstances or who have severe mental illness or psychosis. For those individuals, the motive to kill may seem “mindless” to others, but they make perfect sense to the individuals themselves. Stories that include such characters (e.g. Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon) can be compelling when the characters are well-drawn. But all too often, novels feature serial killers with no real believable motive to murder. The result is all too often a bloodbath with no depth to the plot.
It’s certainly possible to create a very well-written and absorbing novel in which a killer commits multiple murders for a psychological reason. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning murder of a seemingly inoffensive and beloved clergyman, Stephen Babbington. Poirot is just beginning to look into that death when there is another, similar death. Later, there’s another. What’s fascinating about these murders is that the motive is psychological. And yet, it’s not at all mindless. There’s a very believable and logical reason for which these murders are committed.
These are just a few themes that I think have gone past their “sell-by” date; you’re by no means obliged to agree with me. What do you think? Are there themes you think should be retired? If there are, what are they?