If you’re kind enough to read this blog, you’ve probably guessed that I read a lot of crime fiction. You’ve probably also sussed out that I am a devoted fan of the genre. One of the drawbacks to reading a lot of crime fiction though is that after a while, one starts to notice patterns, even kinds of remarks, that start to become cliché. If you’ve ever groaned to yourself, ‘Oh, here it comes!’ you know what I mean. Now, what counts as ‘I’ve seen this too often’ is a little different for each person. So I can only speak from my own perspective. But, to show you what I mean, here are a few kinds of comments and remarks that I could do without reading, at least for a while.
…and time is exactly what we don’t have!
I think most of us agree that a well-written crime novel has a sense of tension, even urgency. And that’s fine. I like that ‘tingle’ myself. But comments like, ‘Time is exactly what we don’t have’ don’t add to that suspense. Readers know that the first few hours and days of an investigation are critical. To comment on it falls dangerously close to ‘telling instead of showing’ territory, at least for me.
Annie Hauxwell’s In Her Blood takes another, more innovative approach to ratcheting up the urgency without resorting to cliché. Investigator Catherine Berlin gets caught up in a case of multiple murders when an important informant is found dead. She’s up against formidable opposition too as she looks into the case. There’s the loan shark who had a very good motive for murder. There are also some in Berlin’s own office who are getting in the way of her case. But what really adds to the urgency here is that Berlin is a registered heroin addict with a limited supply of the drug. When Berlin’s officially licensed GP source is killed, she has only a few days to solve the crimes before she’ll go into withdrawal and be unable to continue the investigation. And instead of clichéd remarks about the proverbial ticking clock, Hauxwell keeps the focus on the remaining time Berlin has before she will have to stop investigating.
P.J. Parrish’s Dead of Winter also avoids the ‘time’ cliché. Police detective Louis Kincaid takes a new job on the police force of Loon Lake, Michigan. Soon after his arrival, Kincaid discovers that the reason for the opening in Loon Lake’s police department is that Officer Thomas Pryce, whom Kincaid is replacing, was recently murdered in his home. Kincaid starts asking questions and it’s not long before his boss Brian Gibraltar gives him the ‘green light’ to investigate the case officially. Bit by bit Kincaid discovers that Pryce may have had information that wasn’t safe for him to have. That’s when the body of another officer is discovered. Although this victim was no longer on the force at the time of his death, Kincaid believes the deaths are connected. He’s soon drawn into a very dangerous web of official obfuscation, and he realises that there aren’t many people he can trust. In this case, it’s not commentary about time that adds to the suspense. Rather, it’s the very real possibility that someone is targeting cops that builds tension.
You’re the only one who can do this!
There are very good reasons why a particular sleuth is well-suited to a particular investigation. In fact that uniqueness adds to the sleuth’s character. But the author doesn’t need to resort to clichés to make that clear to the reader. For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Emily Inglethorp is poisoned one night. Captain Arthur Hastings is staying at the family home Styles Court at the invitation of the victim’s stepson John Cavendish. When he happens to encounter Hercule Poirot, we learn (and without cliché, too) why Poirot is so well-suited to investigate. It was because of Emily Inglethorp’s beneficence that Poirot and some fellow Belgians were able to escape the ravages of World War I and start again in England. In that way, Christie shows without telling why Poirot is in such a good position to investigate.
Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney is exceptionally well-suited to look into certain kinds of cases. She is Australian, but she’s lived in Thailand long enough to understand a lot about the culture, and she speaks fluent Thai. So for instance, in The Half Child, she’s exactly the right person to help Jim Delbeck find out why his daughter Maryanne jumped (or fell, or was pushed) from the roof of the Pattaya apartment building where she lived. Rather than resorting to clichés, Savage lets the reader know that Keeney is multilingual and familiar with the local cultures. That’s enough to explain to the reader why Delbeck would choose her and it’s much more effective that way.
Leave the case alone! (alternatively, ‘Back off!’)
Let me start by saying that it can add quite a lot of suspense to a novel when there is pressure – believable pressure – on a sleuth to leave a case alone. It can be very realistic too, as it’s not hard to imagine crimes where some important people would want a case let go. But there are ways to convey this to the reader without depending on comments like ‘Leave it alone.’
For instance, in Michael Dibdin’s Ratking, Detective Aurelio Zen is seconded from Rome to Perguia to investigate the kidnapping of magnate Ruggerio Miletti. There is a lot of pressure, both inside the police department and from the members of the powerful Miletti family, for Zen to let the case go and allow it to fade quietly away. But Dibdin conveys this without using clichéd remarks. Instead, various characters give Zen no-so-thinly-veiled hints that it might be in his interest to let things go. It’s all couched (at least at first) in vague terms and hints. But Zen is both intelligent and canny; he knows exactly what he is been asked to do. When he decides not to co-operate, he finds himself in a very dangerous and suspenseful situation. And no clichés are needed to show the reader just how dangerous it is.
Peter Lovesey uses a similar strategy in The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond. Diamond investigates when the body of actress Geraldine ‘Gerry’ Jackman is discovered in a local lake. Diamond is already under a bit of a cloud, since one of his previous investigations is being questioned. So this time he’s under rather closer supervision. At one point Diamond has a confrontation with another character, and that leads to the ‘suggestion’ that he should leave the case alone and let his assistant John Wigfull take charge. But Lovesey doesn’t resort to clichés. Instead, Diamond is removed from the case officially, and finds his own way to discover who killed Gerry Jackman and why. It’s all done in a ‘show not tell’ way that avoids the kinds of comments and remarks that can make crime fiction fans roll their eyes.
This isn’t in the least bit to say that authors should never, ever use certain phrases such as ‘You’re really the only one who can do this.’ But it can be effective to use other means too to get the message across. These are just some of my ideas. What are your least favourite ‘eye rollers?’
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner’s Show Me.