Recently, I wrote about the early mystery collaborative
known as DAPA-EM, an Amateur Press Association publication consisting of (at
its height) thirty-five separate mystery newsletters bound together and sent
out to members every two months. While much of the conversation within
DAPA-EM’s pages was of literary merit, there was also a lot of fun nonsense
about pet peeves within the mystery genre.
Some of these irritations revolved around cover art. It was
collectively decided in a tongue-in-cheek manner to never to read books with a
swastika on the cover (which always seemed to indicate over the top purple
prose within the pages). Impaled fruit
covers also came in for a share of mockery during a time period in which they
abounded, although there were one or two contributors who felt these
spectacularly uninventive covers were actually collectible. I have no doubt the
current popularity of cats on covers and bad, repetitive, generic, clip-art
covers would be eviscerated if DAPA-EM was still publishing.
The standard clichés of mystery writing were often whacked
around like errant tennis balls with a sum zero effect of making any of them
disappear. In fact, like tribbles on the Enterprise, genre clichés have a way
of multiplying exponentially – not only are many of the old ones still around
(writers still put silencers on the end of revolvers, and there is still an
ever growing roll call of defective
detectives), but many new clichés have also been established.
Quite naturally, different readers are more accepting of
some genre conventions than others. What doesn’t bother one mystery fan can
drive another to fits of apoplexy (such as silencers on revolvers). However, aside
from the aforementioned S-on-Rs, here
are a few of clichés in the current incarnation of the mystery genre guaranteed
to make me personally throw a book
across a room – which, apparently, is frowned upon in the middle of a
Before I begin, I need to make it clear, I’m going to
overlook cat mysteries with cutesy titles, dog mysteries with cutesy titles,
and mysteries with recipes, since I don’t want to get the dangerous folks who
enjoy them and buy them by the barrow load mad at me.
Instead, let’s start off with serial killers…especially
brilliant, evil, serial killers who are smarter than the broken down, anguished,
detectives who are the only ones available to chase them. I am so done. Hannibal
Lecture is the standard. Val McDermid, in particular, and one or two other
scribes get a pass because they are brilliant writers who manage to take the
cliché and twist it into something new and frightening. In general, serial
killers are drab, boring, sick, sordid, and screwed up. Yes, they exist, but
there aren’t enough of them to go around (thank goodness) for every mystery to
contain one – especially now Dexter has killed off four season’s worth before
HBO killed Dexter. The other issue here is the attempts to make serial killers
more and more horrible and scary by making their murders more and more
depraved. Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Stop describing in great detail killers
carving off faces and desecrating corpses. Enough!
Parker has Hawk. Elvis Cole has Joe Pike. Rafferty has Cowboy
(if you don’t know who the last duo are then do some research – you’re in for a
treat). Beyond those three sets of characters, let’s have no more invincible
psycho partners for the hero to turn to when he doesn’t want to do his own
dirty work because of his moral code, or needs somebody to haul his cookies out
of the fire.
Terrorists…especially brilliant, evil, terrorists. See
serial killers above for further. If I see the word terrorist on a book, I
immediately put it down before it explodes. These books are particularly
dangerous if the hero is a burned out, disgraced, agent who nobody believes,
and the heroine is statuesque and wears glasses to show how brilliant she is.
Moving on …
Out of control Sherlockian deductive reasoning. Sherlock is
brilliant. However, he is the only character who should be allowed to deduce a
killer’s identity from his hat size and a butt print left behind on a damp park
bench. Stop giving us deductive savants who solve crimes by their esoteric
knowledge of sixty-seven types of bananas while displaying the social skills of
a sociopathic chimpanzee with Tourette syndrome – no matter how high functioning.
Penniless private eyes with a drinking problem. It was a
cliché back in the day. It’s worse than a cliché today. And while we are on the
subject of private eyes, I’m totally over vampire private eyes, zombie private
eyes, werewolf private eyes, and any other supernatural variation thereof.
Simon Green, Jim Butcher, and Patricia Briggs et al. have mined this twist to
death and – not to put too fine a point on it – beyond.
Computer hackers who can get into any computer anywhere,
anytime, within thirty seconds. Aaaaaaagh! Even the North Koreans and the
Chinese can’t do it with any kind of consistency. If they could, you wouldn’t
be reading this because the Internet would be crashed, your money would be
worthless, the world would be in chaos, and we would have new Asian overlords.
Rouge cops…We have enough problems with police
accountability. Don’t get me started.
Enhanced surveillance video and digital photographs. Not
even NASA could enhance the stuff I routinely saw as evidence. Most of it looked like Bigfoot in a snowstorm. If the
pixels don’t exist, you can’t enhance a photo of the tattoo on a hand caught in
the reflection of the rain spatter window of a bus driving by.
And what is with all the family angst in mystery fiction.
Why does every cop have to have a bad marriage, horrendous relatives, or
vicious ex-spouses? Also, the number of single parents with bratty kids who
expect their mystery solving parent home on time to take them to ball games and
parties is getting out of control. I don’t want to read about family torment for
chapter after chapter, I want fictional detectives to do something clever, say
something clever, catch the bad guy and save the world. If a fictional detective
has a problem taking care of his/her life responsibilities maybe he should be
the focus of a self-help book and not a mystery.
Here is a cliché that make me cringe from my toenails to the
tips of my rapidly receding hair. Detectives who put their gun down because their
partner is being held hostage with a gun to his/her head. The first time I worked
with a new partner, we would always discuss what to do if he/she was taken
hostage with a gun to his/her head. It
was always very clear. I was never going to put my gun down as it’s the best
way to get us both killed. If my partner had screwed up bad enough to be taken
hostage with a gun to his/her head, they had less than five seconds to make a
move to give me a better shot or I was taking the one I had available. This cut
both ways. If I was the one who screwed up, it was up to me to unscrew the
situation and give my partner a better chance. Welcome to the real world folks.
So there’s the tip of my mystery peeve list. I love the
mystery genre, but I have a curmudgeonly list long enough to fill another
couple of columns. I bet you do as well, so feel free to leave your pet mystery
peeves in the comments below.