Guest Post by Caz Frear, author of Sweet Little Lies

Crime fiction tropes – are they friend or foe?

‘The word trope has come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.’

So if we take ‘trope’ to mean an accepted crime genre rule, then who are we – certainly, who am I, a mere newbie– to question them? After all, formulaic crime fiction isn’t bad crime fiction. And If a reader is parting with their hard-earned cash, choosing your book over the multitude of others, surely the least they deserve is an adherence to the rules – a protagonist they respect, an interesting side-kick, a villain they can hiss at, a moral dilemma at the heart of the book, etc.

Well, in the main, yes, the reader has every right to expect this, and if you stray too far from what the reader expects, you’re in ‘acquired taste’ territory, not instant-bestseller land. Writing to cater to reader expectation isn’t unimaginative, I’d argue, it’s both respectful and shrewd, and it shows an appreciation of the utmost importance of the author-reader contract.

So the crime trope is our friend, basically. Tropes have been working fine since the days of Arthur Conan Doyle and they certainly didn’t harm Agatha Christie’s billion-plus book sales. No, it’s the trope’s wayward cousin we must be wary of.

I mean, of course, the cliché.

It’s often said that clichés exist for a reason, and it’s often because they are true. Personally, I don’t mind the occasional cliché. Clichés can be handy for immediately rooting the reader when you’re dealing with very minor characters who only take up a few lines (the brassy blonde, the smarmy estate agent, the ‘manic pixie dream girl’, as brilliantly coined by the film critic, Nathan Rabin.) However, when it comes to main characters and the main plot, crime clichés can be a killer (if you pardon the dreadful pun) yet we don’t always manage to avoid them. And I include myself whole-heartedly in this royal ‘we’ – I’m as guilty as as anyone. I even give a quick nod to the cliché in a scene from Sweet Little Lies – a conversation between Cat and DCI Steele.

“What I’m trying to tell you, Kinsella, is that you don’t have to become the dysfunctional cliché.” Steele holds her hand up, halts my obvious observation. “And yes, I know I’m sitting in this bloody office on Christmas morning, drinking cats-piss vodka like something out of a Raymond Chandler novel….”

It’s such a fine line to tread, making your characters familiar but not clichéd. I always thought that if I made authenticity my goal, I’d avoid the main pitfalls, but even this ended up confusing me. Why? Because, of all the detectives I met while researching the procedural elements of Sweet Little Lies, none – I repeat, NONE – had…

-A hugely dysfunctional home life. Sure, they all talked about making sacrifices and relying on the patience of their wonderful other halves, but there were no messy divorces to speak of – yet. No, ‘It’s me or the job’ ultimatums.
-A dark secret. Ok, so they were unlikely to spill their soul to me, but what I can say is that no one seemed outwardly ‘haunted’ or irreparably ‘damaged’, which is just how we like our fictional crime-fighters to be.
-A kamikaze maverick streak. With families to support and pensions never far from the mind, the do-or-die rebel is a very rare thing.
-An over-dependency on alcohol. It happens, of course, but not as much as crime fiction would have you believe, was the general gist.
-A serial killer with an obsession with them. Several would have loved this though!
-An encyclopedic knowledge of blues, jazz, country or classical music. Why do we love a muso detective so much? The most ardent music fan I found within my detective clique, “quite liked the Foo Fighters” and that was about it.

So if the authentic detective – the True Detective, if you like – is really is a home-loving, emotionally stable, rule-following, moderate-drinking, Foo Fighters’ fan, who isn’t currently on the radar of any dangerous sociopaths, as far as they’re aware, why don’t we write more books about them?

Because we love a crime trope, let’s admit it. And while it’s true that we crave fresh voices and different perspectives, and it’s important for us to feel enlightened in some way, challenged to a certain extent, essentially within genre fiction, we want to know what we’re getting.

Old stories told in new, exciting ways.

Thanks Caz! My review of Sweet Little Lies will be up shortly…

The Health Of Strangers – Lesley Kelly

BLURB: Nobody likes the North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team, least of all the people who work for it. An uneasy mix of seconded Police and health service staff, Mona, Bernard and their colleagues stem the spread of the Virus, a mutant strain of influenza, by tracking down people who have missed their monthly health check. Now two young female students are missing, raising question after question for the HET. Why were they drinking in a bikers’ bar? Who are the mysterious Children of Camus cult? And why is the German government interfering in the investigation? Mona and Bernard need to fight their way through lies and intrigue, and find the missing girls – before anyone else does.

After greatly enjoying Lesley Kelly’s debut novel, A Fine House In Trinity, which also made the shortlist for the Bloody Scotland Crime Book Of The Year (now the McIlvanney Prize), I was looking forward to seeing what she came up with next. I’ll admit I was a bit dubious when I read it was a post-pandemic novel, as they aren’t generally my thing; however, this book is set firmly in present-day Edinburgh. A fair proportion of the population have been struck down with a flu for which there is no cure. Many have died in two huge waves of it, but those who survived it are now immune (although plenty have lost people close to them), and many of them now work on the frontline in the continuing fight against the disease – such as our team at the North Edinburgh Health Enforcement Team. They’re made up of a combination of cops paired with health workers – a pairing that isn’t always sweetness and light… We have Mona, from CID, a typically keen copper, who works with Bernard, a health promotion officer (who’s suffered a horrendous personal loss at the hands of the pandemic) – he believes education is the solution, while Mona definitely prefers jailing people. We also have Maitland, a green – but very keen – cop, who works better with his partner, one-time nurse Carole. There’s good banter between the teams, particularly Mona and Bernard, with Mona’s impatience with Bernard’s touchy-feely way of working. The team’s job is to track down those who don’t appear for their monthly health check. In most cases, this is due to someone’s chaotic lifestyle due to drink or drugs; occasionally it’s because they’ve succumbed to the disease between their monthly checks.

Crime fans needn’t worry though – there’s plenty to keep you interested! Representatives of the German government become involved when a German student, the daughter of a politician, disappears. And when it’s discovered she attended the same church as three girls who overdosed, with two dead and one still in a coma, panic builds. Then another girl from the church goes missing…

What these girls are dying from is a combination of drugs that are named on the internet as being possibly effective against the disease – however, there are dozens of such crazy theories about. What the HET need to find out is this: who is selling them the lethal cocktail that is leading to their deaths? And what’s the connection between the church they all attend, and the dodgy pub owner who lets them use a backroom for services? Could he be involved in this drugs scam? And where exactly are the missing girls? Are they alive…or dead?

There’s LOADS more happening, but I won’t be a spoiler. This is a hugely more confident novel, with the same easy, realistic dialogue (something that’s actually quite hard to pull off) and a plot that grabs you from the off, and doesn’t let go. Kelly can definitely be filed under “hot new talent” in the Tartan Noir drawer. I’m delighted this is the first in a series – Songs By Dead Girls (great title!) will be released in 2018 by Sandstone Press (one of my favourite publishers!)

What I’m Reading – Caro Fraser

Today I have a guest post from Caro Fraser, whose wonderful new novel, The Summer House Party (currently 99p on Kindle, folks!), I’m currently engrossed in. Intriguingly, she’s the daughter of George Macdonald Fraser of “Flashman” fame (I love wee literary facts like that!) Anyway, over to Caro… 

I currently have two books on the go. Three Sisters, Three Queens is my book club’s choice, and it’s about sisters Margaret and Mary Tudor, and their sister-in-law, Katherine of Aragon. It’s the first novel of hers that I’ve read, and so far it’s pretty good, though I’m not sure I much like the narrator, Margaret. I’m also reading Quentin Crisp’s The Naked Civil Servant. Most people have seen the film starring John Hurt, but the book itself is well worth a read – it’s a brilliantly witty, elegantly written gem, and an astonishing insight into what it was like to be gay in the unforgiving era when homosexuality was illegal.

I think the two best books I’ve read in the past few years are, without doubt, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Her style is beautiful, the momentum of her story-telling never flags, and she gets under the skin of all her characters and brings them superbly to life. I definitely recommend them to anyone who hasn’t read them. Another recent favourite is The Pier Falls, a collection of short stories by Mark Haddon (who wrote The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, which I confess I haven’t yet read). They’re all very different and are beautifully written, though as they’re rather dark they may not be to everyone’s taste. A book EVERYONE should read is Misery, by Stephen King. He is often dismissed as low-brow and populist, but for my money he’s the best storyteller writing today.
I also have a special soft spot for women’s fiction of the 1930s and 40s, and writers like Dorothy Whipple and Winifred Holtby, who recognised that ordinary and everyday events possess their own drama, and who write about them with elegant understatement and wry humour. For anyone who likes books of that era, I’d recommend The Priory by Dorothy Whipple, and South Riding by Winifred Holtby. The Tortoise And The Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins is also a strange and unexpected treat.
Books I want to read – if writing my own books ever gives me the time – include the last in the Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy (I wish she’d hurry up and publish it!), and, of course, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time. I’d also quite like to read Ulysses by James Joyce, which I’ve started a few times. Maybe one of these days I’ll finish it….

The Other Mrs Walker – Mary Paulson-Ellis


BLURB: An old lady dies alone and unheeded in a cold Edinburgh flat on a snowy Christmas night. A faded emerald dress hangs in her wardrobe; a spilt glass of whisky pools on the floor.

A few days later a middle-aged woman arrives back in the city she thought she’d left behind, her future uncertain, her past in tatters.

She soon finds herself a job at the Office for Lost People, tracking down the families of those who have died neglected and alone.

But what Margaret Penny cannot yet know, is just how entangled her own life will become in the death of one lonely stranger . . .

Billed as “a detective story with no detective,” The Other Mrs Walker tells the story, initially at least, of Margaret Penny. Margaret has returned to Edinburgh after 30 years of living in London, to where she ran away at the age of 17. She returns, tail between her legs: unemployed, as she’d stolen large sums of money from her previous employers; homeless, as the flat she’d rented for years was being sold and her tenancy ended; and heartbroken, as she discovered that the man with hair the colour of “wet slate” didn’t belong to her but in fact to another family – his wife and two children.

Bedding down in her mother’s box room, she needs a job quickly. This is where “the Edinburgh way” proves useful – her mother’s friend, Mrs Maclure, who’s known to everyone, recommends her to the Office for Lost People. Their job is to track down possible family members of those who have died with no obvious close relations – mainly, it has to be said, so the City Council doesn’t get billed for burying them. So Margaret is given the task of finding out the history of Mrs Walker, who may or may not have been married – rather like her own mother Mrs Penny (not, in her case!) Again, it’s the Edinburgh way. And Margaret turns out to be something of a natural at her new job…

In between the chapters about Margaret’s dogged investigations, we head all the way back to 1929, initially, and learn about the Walker family, and a girl called Clementine, named after the song, who loved oranges. As we revisit this growing family periodically, I wondered how it could be that so much misfortune could be visited upon one family – death, insanity (a result of grief), a father going to find work in the US and getting no response from home… Meanwhile, a pair of ruthless individuals had taken up residence with the remaining offspring, and were makings money from them however they could, regardless of how immoral their schemes were.

Certain items reappear time and time again in the book, like oranges, and an ornamental cherub with a missing arm.

This is a wonderfully original debut, which demonstrates how families can fracture, and fall apart – and that, ultimately, it’s not impossible that they’ll meet again. Not that that guarantees any happy ever afters… It also shows how desperation can cause anyone to forget about pride and self-esteem – and other members of your family. The children are brought up with the understanding that they must look after themselves, asmakingss no-one else to take responsibility, not even siblings.

If you like dramas, with some mystery, set – even partly – in wartime, like Lissa EvansCrooked Heart, Sarah Watersheds‘ The Night Watch, and Kate Atkinson‘s  Life After Life, all of which I adored, this will appeal to you. It’s a book I found desperately sad – these stories you read about people dying alone, sometimes undiscovered for a considerable time, always affect me. Paulson-Ellis has taken such a scenario, and woven a life from it, as well as the tale of Margaret Penny, who has reached 47 and realised how easy it is to lose everything you thought was yours.

Mary Paulson-Ellis is an original and exciting new voice to look out for on the Scottish fiction scene, and I’ll definitely be looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next. Meanwhile, if you enjoyed the titles I mentioned, I’d highly recommend this.

My thanks to Picador Books for my copy of this novel, in exchange for an honest review.