This is the shadow side of my previous poem, "Parley with Barbarians" posted 2 weeks ago. I've been cocooning lately, not going out much, enjoying the freedom to read a lot, and I've been writing poetry too. I'll have up part 4 of the cliches in a couple of days!
Hope you are all well.
Saturday, May 11, 2013
A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about my favorite mystery show clichés. Since then, people have been writing and calling me telling not to forget all of theirs. It’s tempting to make fun of television and movie writers who use these, but the truth is that we love them. I love them. If I didn’t, I’d stop watching television mysteries.
Here are three new ones:
1. Exceptionally Hungry Coroners:
Crime scenes and morgues are places where filmmakers like to show just how long their characters have worked at a job, and how gritty they have become. I’ve been a professor for a lot of years now, but if I were to eat a sloppy roast beef sub, dropping bits of lettuce and getting mustard on my shirt, I would expect a student to raise her hand. “Do you think you could eat during a lunch break?” she would ask.
“You don’t understand,” I would say, “I’ve been teaching 20 years now, and I no longer am affected by being in front of a class. It doesn’t disgust or frighten me any longer.”
“Yeah, I’d expect that, but the sandwich is kind of distracting you from your job.”
“I’m just so jaded about teaching that I’m willing to eat in inappropriate places.”
“Um, maybe you could wait until your lunch break.”
2. Bomb Cliches:
I would like to see inside a television bomb maker’s lab as he puts the finishing touches on his bombs. “This simply will not do. I have the red wire where the blue wire should be. I’m going to have to rewire the entire thing.”
Of course, the red wire/blue wire cliché is so old it’s not used often any longer, but that doesn’t mean that television makers have stopped.
What about the comically oversized digital clock with a glowing red display. It keeps nearly perfect time. Why? Do the bad guys not know when they’ve set the bomb? Do they not own watches? And where do they get these ubiquitous bomb timers? Stores should stop selling those timers. They have only one use.
“This will not do. How is the other side ever going to identify this as a bomb if we don’t have the bomb clock? How are they going to know how much time they have left? No, this will not do!”
Of course, the bomb timer is not exactly correct. It’s only pretty close. There’s always a moment after the clock hits zero when there’s a pause so everyone can look at each other dramatically.
Finally, explosions can throw the lead actor across the room and halfway through the drywall, but the concussive force is never enough to kill. Our hero, grunts once or twice comically and pulls himself out of the wall deadpanning a line.
3. Fairly Stupid Bosses – Comically Impractical Investigators
This scene generally plays out like this:
“Sir, I think I know who the killer is.”
“Didn’t I tell you that you are off the case.”
“Yes, but I remember that the governor’s son was on the island right at the hour of the murder. We have footage of him too.”
“MacLamore, when I say you’re off the case, that means you’re off. We follow playground rules here, son. Once a rule is laid down we don’t bend for any reason. EVER!”
“But he confessed.”
“Detective MacLamore, I don’t want to hear it!” He slams down a fist on his desk.
The corollary to the exceptionally stupid boss who can’t see what our hero Detective MacLamore says is the impossibly impractical homicide detective (think Law and Order) who doesn’t come up with the easiest solutions.
“He seems to have been waiting on the street for hours.”
“Did you check traffic cameras and parking tickets in the area?”
“Good one Lieutenant. We also might have gotten a partial print.”
“Well, have the lab run the prints.”
“Oh yeah, good idea. Also there was a bit of the car registration left.”
“Check the DMV.”
The detectives nod their heads seriously and head out in different directions.
Of course, all of these are done with us in mind. It’s great to be one step ahead of everyone in the show. The best is to figure out who did it just moments before the detective do. One of my favorite clichés is that the murderer is always one of the first people introduced in the show -- someone you wouldn’t expect. I spend the next hour trying to second guess and figure out which one it is. Fantastic.
This is the third installment of this series. What are your favorite cliches? Let me know.
Monday, May 6, 2013
Television Cliches Continued
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about all of my favorite television cliches, like when characters being stalked are too proud to accept police protection or when cars on the freeway don’t slow down for even when there is a gun battle.
Since then friends have been reminding me of more television cliches, things that just don’t work in real life, but we love them nonetheless. Here’s the continuing list. By the way, these are not necessarily bad things. They make our favorite shows more fun. We come to television and the movies for fantasy. After all, real life is always just a little bit disappointing.
And hey, if you have more, please let me know. Let’s grow this list.
1. Television Shows Inside Television Shows Are Oddly Personal
The hero has been thinking about a murder victim who was dressed provocatively. He broods in his apartment because he hates that the victim is being blamed for the crime as we all hate it. Suddenly, he decides to check the television news, and the newscaster is talking about the case right at the moment that he turns it on.
There are any number of news stories that I’m interested in and follow. When I brood about injustice, and I flip on the television to see the 5 o’clock news, inevitably the newscaster has just finished talking about it. I can see that he’s been discussing it, but I don’t know what he’s said.
I sit down and endure the five minutes of commercials for beer and panty hose until the news comes back on, but the whole channel 12 news team has started gently teasing the weather guy about his new haircut, and it’s not going to be until the 5:30 program that they get back to my thing.
2. The Snide Miranda Rights
The television cop reads the bad guy his rights victoriously, his voice full of heroic justice and domination over the forces of evil. He’s doing this as a matter of form, of course. He has to do it. It’s the law, but it just has to come out of his mouth in a careless way and in a private place to count.
I’ve known a lot of police officer, and in these matters, they are not careless. Frankly, it’s a rare cop who’s careless in any matter regarding the law. Mostly, they want to be sure that the criminals are well aware of their rights, and that they understand their rights, so their arrests are not thrown out in a case.
3. Knife Wounds
There are two effects that knife wounds generally have in television and the movies. They are usually either instantly deadly or they have little effect. Lucky is the television good guy who is stabbed or even shot in the shoulder. That requires little more than a sling for the last five minutes of an episode.
And the victim who is stabbed in the stomach has just about no chance of living.
Except for the very well placed shot, it takes a lot of effort to kill someone with a knife. People aren’t like balloons or space suits -- puncture that outer layer and the rest is not going to be destroyed. No, it takes work to kill a living thing that wants to live.
At the same time, once muscles, tendons, and bone have been insulted with a hole, it takes a long time for them to heal. A shoulder would is a terrible thing. Sure, you’ll live through it, but think about the years of rehab, and the fact that those tendons might not just grow back.
4. The Exciting Stakeout
The stakeout is one of those time honored tropes. The cop sits outside a house as he gains valuable insight into a bad person’s life by looking through a pair of binoculars.
Have you ever tried to stake someone out? I asked a friend’s permission to do this once, just for the sake of realism in a story, just so I could gain a real understanding of the process.
It turns out that very few people walk outside their front doors and make major revelations about who they are and why they have made the poor and evil choices they have made.
For me it was very much like staring at someone’s front door for five hours.
5. Famous Guest Stars
I’m sitting there, enjoying the mystery, trying to figure out who did it. I’m presented with four possibilities: the mother with the limp looking to avenge her son, the shifty eyed teenager who enjoys drugs, a man with a beard who never looks directly into the detective’s eyes, and that character played by the man who won the academy award last year for that dramatic movie everyone saw.
Well, I wonder who the bad guy is? I wonder if he’s going to have a big dramatic scene at the end that we’re all going to marvel at?
6. Finding Evidence
This is the big one that I missed last time. I love the scene where the scientist come in with the machines radiating blue light. They find a single hair or dried drop of spit.
“Karl,” one says, “check the DNA Spectolectrometer.”
Karl nods seriously. He opens the machine that has a glass screen that he controls with his fingertips, and he nods seriously as it checks the entire database in fifteen pulse pounding seconds.
“Yes,” Karl says. “It was the mayor’s son.”
“The mayor’s son? I never would have guessed. Good thing we brought this vital piece of equipment along.”
These are fun scenes, but come on now. Forensic science is difficult work for professionals, and it takes a lot of hard work and time.
Anyway, as galling as these could be, they’re all fun, aren’t they? I can lose myself in this kind of television. I love every single one of them.
Saturday, May 4, 2013
Wow, that was difficult. I just finished directing (with Lloyd, Michelle, and Ann) the Writers' Weekend. It's been over a week that I posted, but I'll be on this more. Today, I post a poem. I'll be back with more blog posts during the week. I like these poem videos. What do you think? More of these or back to the silly vlogs that I love so much?
Friday, April 26, 2013
I found myself talking to my student the other day, warning him against having a scene at the end of his novel where all the potential bad guys listen as his detective sums up the scene. Why? It’s cheesy. People don’t like it, I said. It’s a cliche.
But that’s not exactly true, is it?
If people didn’t like that particular cliche, they’d stop buying Agatha Christie novels. And sure, it is a cliche, but we have all sorts of modern cliches that we love and keep watching and reading. I have a list of of them, point them out to my wife (whether she wants me to or not) any time I see them.
The thing is, maybe I should rethink that dictum that I used to harrang that poor student.
Here are my six favorite cliches.
1. No one slows down on the freeway. This one is purely for television and movies.
Imagine this scene: the good guy is chasing the bad guy down a freeway in Los Angeles. Both parties have guns and are swerving, smashing into cars, and blasting away.
I’ve driven the Los Angeles freeways for years, and any time that anyone is acting erratically, I get out of that person’s way.
In television and the movies, these nearby cars are full of drivers with appointments that they really really need to get to. Gunfire and accidents be damned. They’ve got that meeting at 4pm, and they will not pull over or vary their speed for any reason whatsoever.
2. The dying really want to reveal the killer.
If I’m ever lying on the street after having been shot and someone comes up to me and asks, “Who did this to you?” I think the conversation is going to go something like this.
“Um, could you just call me an ambulance?”
“You’re dying. No time for that now. Tell me who did this to you so I can find justice.”
“Really, at this moment I’m less worried about justice and more about stopping the bleeding.”
“No, you’re going to be dead in a few moments. Nothing can be done. Who did this?”
“You’re not really a doctor, right? I’d really like to get the opinion of someone who went to medical school, so if you’re not going to call, I think I’m going to try to myself.”
And on and on. Instead we always get the bit where the victim says something that can be understood in two ways. The victim is always more concerned about catching the bad guy than his or her own health.
3. No one takes a break in their work when talking to the police. They just don’t have the time.
I’ve talked to the police as a bystander and witness a couple of times, and there has never been a moment when I was so busy that I couldn’t take a break from what I was doing.
If you’ve ever seen Law and Order, there’s always a scene with a witness doing a nondescript job, and he just can’t stop.
“Who killed your mother?”
“Well, I’ll give you my theories as long as I don’t have to pause in stacking these boxes. These boxes have to be stacked in a certain order at a certain time. Otherwise, bad things happen.”
“No problem, we don’t want you to get fired. You keep on stacking those boxes at a ridiculously fast pace while we talk.”
4. People are really annoyed to see the police.
Witnesses, victims, everyone hates to see the police coming to their doors. If there has been a crime in my neighborhood, I want the police to show up. I thank them. They’re the people who are keeping me from being a future crime victim. If they have time, I’m going to give them thanks and a cold beverage of their choice.
For some reason though, so many people in fiction are just annoyed that the police have shown up after a crime. In fact, you can often tell who the bad guy is because he’s the only one who’s not a jerk to the police in first chapter.
I’m sure that people are rude to police officers all the time, but come on, not everyone is hostile to the uniform. I’m certainly not.
5. No one wants police protection.
I’m always flabbergasted by the character who has a hitman after him but doesn’t want police protection. “Well, I can’t live in a bubble. I can’t run scared my whole life.”
Really? How stupid are you?
Why not live your life in a bubble until the murderers stop coming after you? Probably, this one dude who wants you dead is going to be stabby for only a short span of time. During that time, having a couple of cops hanging out isn’t the worst thing.
This is an open invitation for all police officers: I am currently not being hunted by anyone, but if you want to have an officer sit outside my house just in case, I’m perfectly all right with that. In fact, I feel extra safe because I happen to live next door to a police officer right now. I hope every criminal in the greater Los Angeles area knows that the cops are next door to my house.
6. The detective walking the street showing pictures to everyone.
This was the hallmark of the 1980s detective television show. Simon and Simon run into a roadblock. All they have is a photo, so they wander the streets during a musical montage showing the picture to people of all ages doing various sporting activities. The people shake their heads sadly until finally the song that the network paid a lot of money for is coming to the end and someone nods enthusiastically and points in a direction.
Bingo! We have our kidnap victim.
* * *
Here’s the thing however -- these are all cliches, and I enjoy a lively round of point out the implausible to my wife, but I also know that these cliches make the stories more exciting and more fun.
Real investigation isn’t as much fun to me. The biggest cliche? The private detective. This profession exists, of course, but there are much easier and more practical ways to engage in investigation than fictional detectives use.
But who wants practical? I bought that Dick Francis book to lose myself for a few hours.
Maybe I’ll rethink my advice to that student.
John Brantingham’s newest cliche-filled crime novel is Mann of War. You can check out his own blog at johnbrantingham.blogspot.com.
Sunday, April 21, 2013
Here are two more of my prose poems. I'll have a book with both of them out in a year or so! Good news for me! Hope you enjoy them.
Thinking of Wilfred Owen
Stopping at a Target in New York
Monday, April 15, 2013
I have to admit that I have a fascination with the lazy sociopath. I think anyone who has read The Sociopath Next Door also is. These are people who have figured out that what they really want out of life is to get by doing as little as humanly possible, and they will tell any lie, commit any crime as long as it get them to that goal. When they have accomplished that goal, they will hurt you just to hurt you.
So many writers understand this kind of evil so well. When these characters are done well, they give us a clear insight into the kind of selfish thought process that produces petty evil. For grand evil, you have to read fantasy -- I mean Stalin and Hitler levels of brutality.
I don’t like evil characters who know they’re evil and keep going anyway because they’re turned on by it. That might be realistic, and it might not be, but that character is too easy to hate and adds no complexity to the story. And so many great writers have captured that self-serving impulse that allows them to ignore the fact that they’re doing bad things.
Here’s a list of some of the best.
Lawrence Block’s Keller from the Hitman series has such a low-key charm that we forget that what he’s doing -- killing people for money -- is a really terrible thing to do. But Keller doesn’t see it that way. He has techniques that allow him to stop thinking about his crimes, and as he does, we do too. And anyway, the people he’s killing all seem bad. And just as we’re settling in comfortably with the logic of his crimes, just as we are all right with his bad because he’s not so bad, Keller kills a nice couple just living their lives so their heir can get the insurance, or he kills a completely innocent woman because he’s been hired by her husband. And we realize that Keller’s just in it for a little bit of money, and that we too have been bamboozled by his logic. A brilliant character.
I think I am the only person in the world who believes that Jack Ryan from Elmore Leonard’s The Big Bounce is Leonard’s best. What I like about it is the way Jack is portrayed. He sees himself as a kind of lovable loser who is just stealing from rich, evil people anyway. Once again, we kind of agree, but he’s conning people, he’s hurting people, and he’s stealing from people just for the “bounce,” the thrill of it. It’s a great way to explore the pettiness that goes into petty theft.
James Cain understood the petty evil of selfishness about as well as anyone. The Postman Always Rings Twice is possibly the best look at this face of evil that anyone has ever done. All the characters are focused on themselves. They are all sociopathic. It is a revelation about how poisonous that kind of self-centeredness can be. It is interesting too that Cain never makes evil fun or alluring, at least not to me. He paints it with all the pointless pain and humiliation as these kinds of people bring to themselves and those around them.
What is memorable about Sue Grafton’s novels isn’t the petty evil surrounding her, but the beauty of Kinsey Milhone’s life. Her small circle of friends is wonderful, and we all want to return to that place again and again. Her friends are her refuge, but that refuge is such a relief because Kinsey is surrounded outside of it by people who will commit unspeakable acts for a little bit of gain. They hurt others for a little money or just because hurting people is fun. Grafton captures this idea so very well. My favorite? I’m not sure. To me these are all equally strong, and I’ve read most many times.
My favorite moment of dumb, stupid evil however is the pointless selfishness of Terry Lennox in the Raymond Chandler’s masterpiece The Long Goodbye. There is no sense to what Lennox does. He puts Philip Marlowe in the worst possible situation just because it’s easier for him. He’ll do anything he can to avoid a little work, and sometimes, he seems to hurt people for sport. Chandler captures people well here and in all of his work.
What these writers are telling us, as so many great writers do, is that this kind of petty evil is everywhere. The author of The Sociopath Next Door makes the claim that one out of every twenty-five people is sociopathic after all. They are telling us we are likely to run into this brand of evil over and over, and the way to push our way through it is to maintain our own sense of moral courage. They are saying rising above all of that is the way to be heroic in this world.
I guess that’s one of the big reasons I love this genre so much.