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.