Words! Words! Words! I’m So Sick of Words!*

ClichesIf 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.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Annie Hauxwell, Michael Dibdin, P.J. Parrish, Peter Lovesey

44 responses to “Words! Words! Words! I’m So Sick of Words!*

  1. Margot: Your impatience with the cliche over the importance of early time in an investigation made think of crime fiction when travel and communication were not that of our era.

    In Stephen Legault’s mystery, The Third Riel Conspiracy, the investigator arrives days after the murder after a journey of several hundred miles by rail and horse.

    Boney, in the Napoleon Bonaparte series by Arthur Upfield, turns the cliche around by often insisting he benefits from arriving days or weeks after the murder.

    Legault’s book and Upfield’s series are testament to the importance of the intelligence of the investigator being as or, in many crimes, more critical than starting an investigation before the body has cooled.

    • Bill – You’ve got a very well-taken point. An investigation is easier if the police get information quickly. But really, cases are solved through skill, hard work, a little luck and team effort.

  2. As soon as I saw the title of your post, I thought MY FAIR LADY. A favorite film in our household. The “You’re the only one who can do this!” thing is the one that bothers me the most. And although it doesn’t exactly fit in this post, a pet peeve of mine is when a policeman is directly involved someway with the crime (related to the victim, related to the suspect, etc.) yet is still allowed to be part of the investigation.

    • Tracy – That is a great film isn’t it? And I love the play too. I agree also that it’s both unrealistic and annoying when cops who have no business investigating a case do so. It’s not professional and it doesn’t happen in real life.

  3. ‘This is a murder – no-one is allowed to have any secrets or privacy’ – that’s my pet hate, because it doesn’t make any sense, it’s often used in circs where it’s not true. I can see it helps the author because everything must be revealed, but I hate policeman who use it as a rude and pushy excuse to ask aggressive questions…. Inspector Dalglish, I’m looking at you. But not only you….

    • Moira – Oh, you’re so right. It isn’t realistic (Who really tells the complete, honest truth in those circumstances? Perhaps some might, but not as a rule.) What’s more, it just sounds hokey. And yes, Dalgliesh is guilty of that…

  4. Very good points, Margot (as I run to check my manuscript for any of those bad phrases). 😀

  5. I had fun going through this post esp ‘time is what we don’t have’. I don’t know how many times I have heard/ read this.

    Incidentally, I learnt something new. Had no idea that there were registered drug addicts and officially-licensed dealers. Which country is this?

  6. Col

    Probably going a bit off track here. One book I read earlier this year, had the resolution to the crime a chapter or so from the end, but then had an aftermath chapter, life getting back to normal etc…. that obviously set up the premise of the author’s next book. Unsubtle marketing – in my book and a real turn off.
    I’m sure I’ve come across this before but can’t place an earlier example. Camilla Lackberg – hang your head in shame!

    • Col – I’m not a big fan of that kind of marketing, either. No, thank you. I don’t blame you for being put off by that. It certainly adds nothing to the story one’s reading.

  7. Ms. Kinberg, I won’t say they’re my least favourite; in fact, I quite like it when Poirot says “Always I am right” and “I, Hercule Poirot…” once too often. I also love Wodehouse even if his writing and his humour sounds clichéd after a while. James Hadley Chase made the line “I gave him my cop look” popular. There is also the Sherlock Holmes quote about having eliminated all possible clues, that which remains is the truth, or something like that. I think clichés or oft-repeated lines define a writer and his or her writing style, like the brand or trademark of a company product.

    • Prashant – Now, that’s interesting. I think there really is a difference between signature phrases like that and clichés. The former can, as you say, help to define a character or a style. The latter is off-putting.

      • Your reference to “signature phrases” reminded me of the editorial column in one of India’s leading newspapers. Some thirty years ago, the paper was edited by one of the country’s leading journalists at the time and people eagerly waited to read his editorials every morning. Although the editorials were without byline or credit line, you could make out when he wrote it. I used to apply the same principle to the famous cryptic crossword of London’s The Times. One particular crossword every week had fairly easy but brilliant clues and I could solve it almost entirely. Most other days I couldn’t crack it. His (or her) distinct line of clueing gave me ample clues to solving the crossword.

        • Prashant – Oh, those are great examples of the way signature phrases and catchwords can make a person’s writing or speaking style distinctive. What’s really interesting is that you didn’t even need the name of the author of either the editorials or the puzzles to know who wrote them if I may put it that way.

  8. Margot, I loved this post — and was relieved to be able to provide you with an example of a narrative alternative to the ‘You’re the only one who can do this!’ cliche.

    I share your peeves, to which I would add my own: ‘This has all the makings of a serial killer.’ One day, I would love figure out the degree to which serial killers in crime fiction outnumber serial killers in real life.

    Coincidentally, another blogger I followed posted his Top 10 Reading Peeves today, too. Must be something in the stars…

    • Angela – Thanks for the kind words. And trust me, your Jayne Keeney novels are an antidote to those pet peeves. Really. And I do love your contribution. I get a bellyful of that too. I’ll bet the ratio of fictional serial killers to real life serial killers is about 10 or 20:1 – maybe more. Thanks too for sharing that other link. I’ll have to check out those pet peeves.

  9. Very interesting to try and separate a phrase that reflects a character’s personality and one used too often. It is easy to slip into parody without realizing it.

  10. I’ve not read them myself but I remember Mum saying Patricia Wentworth’s ‘Miss Silver’ detective novels were absolutely full of the phrase “Miss Silver knitted…” which was used as a device to break up passages of dialogue.

    None of my characters knit, but I’m always aware of too much of that type of short simple action, which can get terribly repetitive after a while.

    • Tess – You know, you’re quite right about that ‘knitting’ phrase. I hadn’t thought about those phrases when I was preparing this post, but you’ve got a very strong point. Thanks for filling in the gap. You’re wise to be aware of how easy it is to get repetitive.

  11. Margot — How about “I’ve got a hunch,” or “we’re truly dealing with a diabolical intelligence here … ”, or, more in espionage novels, “this regime places no value on human life,” or “force is the only language they understand.”

    • Bryan – Oh, those are absolutely priceless as examples of those kinds of comments. And you do indeed see them very much too often. You know, come to think about it, one could do a whole post on just espionage/spy overdone phrases…

  12. Keishon

    I didn’t know you were a P.J. Parrish fan! Yay. I have Dead of Winter to be read sometime in future. I do get tired of the protagonist being the only one “who can do the job because he/she is the best” and who gets out of the most dangerous situations. They are always asigned the most difficult, newsworthy, conflict of interest cases and they almost always enter into a face to face showdown with the bad guy with the idea that “I must do this alone.” or they know where the bad guy will be *eye roll* or the bad guy tells the hero to “come alone” or whatever phrase to get them there by themselves with back-up that miraculous shows up to save the hero.

    Some of these are more situations vs. phrases sorry. I tried…

    • Keishon – No need to be sorry. Those are definitely ‘eye rollers’ for me too. In real life, cops and other detectives do not typically go into certain situations alone. It’s dangerous and real cops know that. And that stereotypical ‘showdown?’ I’ve read that one once or twice, or…… *sigh.* And a bout miraculous ‘rescues?’ it takes an awful lot to convince me of something like that. And yes, I like P.J. Parrish’s work, and I hope you’ll like Dead of Winter.

  13. I love reading the comments here. You have caused a bit of a stir Margot! I like stirs… and you can quote me on that.

  14. kathy d.

    Okay, to veer off a little, right now it’s not words I’m tired of hiring or love hearing. It’s plot devices. I read two books recently in which the person hiring the detective is the murderer. So, I’m tired of that variation on a theme. It’s not that it’s not a good way to resolve a murder mystery, but I am suspicious right away of the one who hires the detective.

    • Kathy – I know exactly what you mean. I’m tired too of certain plot devices and that is most definitely one of them. One of these days soon I’ll have to do a post on that…

  15. I actually finished a book recently that had the words…”time is what we don’t have!” I was shocked because I was enjoying the book. And I did like the book regardless. (Murder in Belleville, Cara Black)

    There is one catchphrase in one particular series of books that drives me crazy, even though I love the books. In the Jane Haddam series about Gregor Demarkian, he is always described as “the Armenian-American Hercule Poirot” which doesn’t even fit.

    • Tracy – Yes, I can well imagine that phrase would bother you. And you’ve reminded me that I need to get better acquainted with Haddam and her work. Thanks also for the mention of the Cara Black novel. It’s an example of how a novel can have a strong plot, etc.. but still have those catchphrases…

  16. I can see where you’re coming from Margot – when I start to feel the way you do now I switch to my next favourite genre – horror! I’ve managed to calm the nerves enough to take Dean Koontz, Tick Tock, from the shelf (after about 3 years) and I’m 2/3 into it . . .

    • Susan – There really is some good horror fiction out there for those who want a break from crime fiction (or any other genre for the matter of that). Koontz is one of those who can really create a horror story without making it into a gore-fest.

  17. Grief, I need to go back and look at my work. I try to avoid these and hope I have, but…..
    I cannot think of a specific example off hand but Patricia Cornwell sometimes repeats the obvious (more than once) and has a few set phrases which do niggle. I tend to get impatient with her at times and of late more than ever. Perhaps you have (0h dear) hit the nail on the head!

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