Friday, April 26, 2013

My Favorite Cliches

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

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Thinking of Wilfred Owen, Stopping at A Target in New York

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

The Fictive World of the Lazy Sociopath!

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.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Late-August Weather Report in Los Angeles and Home Techtonics

Hi everyone,

I just found out that New York State has used my poem "Home Techtonics" for their Regents test -- so all high school kids in that state were freaked out about me. It's from my collection, East of Los Angeles. I've done a vlog with it. I'm really proud that they thought to include me. Thank you New York!

I've posted another more recent poem as well.

Home Techtonics

The Late-August Weather Report in Los Angeles

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Top Ten Mystery Shows Ever

Today, I recycle an article I posted on a different blog. I like this one though!

The Top Ten Mystery Shows Ever Ever Ever

Let me start here: I expect you to disagree with me. I expect you to argue.

I also expect that there are those out there who are rolling their eyes, thinking that I should be talking about books, not television. But the thing is, when television is done well, I love it, and television has done mystery, crime, suspense, and spy thrillers well, especially well in the last ten years.

Below are my top ten -- some are barely known, and some are incredibly well known. As a crime and suspense novelist, this list is important to me, and these shows have taught me what I love about good story-telling.

I’m leaving out strict police procedurals. Why? I don’t like them as much. Law and Order was certainly interesting, but not as fun for me as some of these others.

10. The Shield -- I start off with a show that seems very much like a police procedural. Our main character is a police officer after all. But this is really a tragedy abobout the slow loss of humanity of a character played ingeniously by Michael Chiklis. There has never in the history of literature been a better dirty cop. He was brilliant and evil, and by the end of every episode, you found yourself buying into his flawed but attractive logic.

9. Sherlock -- There have been a number of good and great remakes of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but this one has to be my favorite. By the way, I could never stand Basil Rathbone (there’s something to argue with me about). There’s something about the way this BBC show captures the essence of the character, his strangeness from Watson’s point of view and the way that he brings the world to life. I am completely addicted to it.

8. Homicide: Life on the Street -- Another long dead show, but it was brilliant. Again, it feels like a police procedural until we realize that it’s not the procedure that’s being followed, but genius of Andre Braugher’s Pembleton and the humanity of Kyle Secor’s Bayliss. There are other characters of course, but these two fit into the mold of the two kinds of competing traditional detectives, the hyper-genius and the knight.

7. Monk -- While this show was ostensibly about a detective, it was truly about man’s capacity for compassion. Our lead character has to look beyond his own hang-ups and difficulties to empathize. In many ways, ridiculous as he was, he represented us. He showed us how to see beyond our own needs and do the things we need to do to change the world for the better.

6. Psych -- The USA channel is going to be featured a lot on my list, and Psych is one of their best. It is fast paced and hilarious. It’s part comedy and part mystery. I think there is a very particular group of people that it appeals to -- gen-xers mostly -- because it is filled with reference that only we would get. I watched it with a twenty year old and had to explain to him that the camera angles were all meant to be funny in one of my favorite episodes. But he hadn’t seen any of the 1980s movies that those angle were referencing.

5. Covert Affairs -- This has great action scenes and is beautifully shot. It is less story heavy and focuses much more on plot than the others on this list, but it makes really great use of Piper Perabo, who is a brilliant actor. She’s a spy who’s probably a bit unrealistically naive, but Perabo plays her so well that we get caught up in her life. She’s a stand in for us who are just as shocked as she is by all that she’s going through.

4. Lovejoy Mysteries -- This BBC show from the 1980s stars Ian McShane of Deadwood fame. It has built up a kind of cult following. Our lead character, Lovejoy, is a scoundrel and antiques dealer who has his own kind of code. He’s willing to cheat -- a little. Those people who go over the line have to be dealt with.

3. White Collar -- This show has built and become stronger. If you start from the very beginning, you’ll like it a lot, but as you go on, you will love it. It follows Neal Caffrey, an art forger and con-man, who has been let out of prison conditionally, as long as he helps Peter Burke, an FBI agent working in the White Collar division. Peter Burke is currently my favorite character on television. Although the show began using Peter as a kind of slightly clumsy buffoon to Neal’s genius, Peter has grown into the true genius of the show who follows a rock-solid code. He is truly a knight for the 21st century.

2. Nero Wolfe Mysteries -- These are absolutely brilliantly done by Timothy Hutton. As far as I am concerned, Hutton can do no wrong. Anyone who loved Rex Stout’s absolutely brilliant novels will fall in love with these. Hutton is apparently obsessed with making sure that he stays true to Stout’s original vision down to the set design and of course to the acting. If you have never seen these, you must rent them right now. Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe are the best detectives in literature. I don’t care what anyone else says, and Hutton did them brilliantly. Why would I put this in the number two slot then? Nostalgia. Gen X nostalgia.

1. Magnum P.I. -- No gen-xer can think about Magnum without getting sentimental and weepy. We love him. But it’s not mere sentimentality. The stories were brilliantly developed. The characters were drawn out well. Who didn’t openly weep when Magnum lost his Michelle again and again? Who didn’t gasp when Magnum committed murder in his most important episode? Who didn’t love and hate Higgins at the same time? It was the one show my parents allowed me to break my bedtime for. As far as I am concerned, it was the best thing ever on television. Without Magnum, I wouldn’t be writing crime fiction today.

So, do you disagree? Which part? This is very heavy influenced by my testosterone and age. Should I put Jessica Fletcher in there?