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…