Monday, April 9, 2007


"Omit the use of a magpie, raven or parrot as an instrument for stealing jewels."
…Carolyn Wells, "The Technique of the Mystery Story" (1913)

HALLIE: Every era has its clichés. In "Murder for Pleasure" (1941) Howard Haycraft inveighed against "secret passages, sinister orientals, and twin brothers from Australia."

Today, we crime fiction writers manage to steer clear of sinister orientals but we have our own raft of clichéd plot devices. Atop my list is the "I-can’t-talk-to-you-now call" – the book opens, the sleuth gets a frantic phone call (or email or text message or…) from a friend (or relative or co-worker or acquaintance or…) who is desperate to talk. No, the person can’t just come out and say what it's all about (because that would make it a very short book). They have to meet.

The sleuth goes to said appointment, waits, and, Zut alors! the friend fails to show up. Sacre bleu! It turns out that the friend has been murdered, or kidnapped, or otherwise mysteriously dispatched.

The only person who’s surprised is the sleuth. Unfortunately, this is a plot device I used in at least one book…before I realized it was a cliché.

Got a cliché to share??

HANK: Merde. Back to the drawing board to erase the twin jewel-stealing parrots from Australia.

Cliches, huh? Don't have to search much farther than a draft of the very first attempt at a mystery I ever wrote, circa 1991, and whoa. It was terrible. (Someday we should talk about point of view. I had, let's say, maybe six in this partial manuscript.) Anyway, the turning point of the whole thing was that someone didn't fall into the trap (I won't even go into it) because they were: LEFT HANDED. And of course, the murderer didn't realize that.

Okay, laugh. But in defense of others, I think a cliche can still work if it's well written. (Mine wasn't, trust me.) A trusty old plot with a touch of writer magic can seem new again. Can't it?
Ah, maybe not. Twins, the secret baby, an anagram name, an opened and critical letter that's left behind, something spelled backwards or mirror writing, the old "I took the wrong beeper because they looked alike and now I'm getting the messages for the murderer..." I guess you'd have to be pretty Agatha to pull those off.

JAN: I think a cliche is only a cliche when it's used as shorthand. The truth is, there are only so many reasons to be murdered, so many ways to murder, and so many ways to find out about a murder. I think when you make anything, from an image to plot point, unique to your story, rich in detail and attitude, you can, for the most part, avoid cliche.

For example, you could definitely say that a popular modern cliche in mysteries is the use of pets, most often cats, to show both the lonliness of the protaganist and his or her ability to love and nurture. And yet, Spencer's devotion to Pearl is witty and specific enough that it generally isn't irritating.

But being known officially as the dialogue police, or the DP, I can tell you that all this supposed tolerence goes out the window when authors let their characters speak in cliches ---even when prefaced by the "I know this is cliche, but...."

RO: I don't know... I love Irish cops, sleazy lawyers, and strippers with hearts of gold, as long as they show up in fast-paced, well-written books. There's a guy in Florida -my idol- who sprinkles characters like these in all of his books, and no one would ever consider his writing cliched. I may resurrect the sinister Asian (more pc) in my next book....

HANK: Hmm. I just asked my husband about the switched-beeper cliche, and he said he's never heard of that. So, I'm taking it back, and using it.

HALLIE: I LOVE the switched-beeper (scratch cliche) scenario...I wanted to claim it.


  1. I like that switched beeper thing too. I don't write mysteries so they all sounded pretty good to me, to be honest.

    I'm picturing a restaurant beeper for myself.


  2. Rats. I should never have mentioned the switched beeper. Although do people still have beepers? It would probably be difficult to get someone else's phone....back to the drawing board.

    But actually, Professor Motew, that's interesting. Maybe mystery writers are so immersed in them and have read so many of them, that what seems tired to us, seems clever to someone who only reads them from time to time.

  3. I've seen the switched pager thing in a few movies (though romantic comedies, not mysteries), and it was a plot-turn device very early in The West Wing series, when Sam Seaborn accidentally exchanges pagers with a recent lover who turns out to be a call girl.

    Though I think most people now get paged/text messaged via cell phones (certainly emergency services people have gravitated that way -- our fire chief has a city-distributed Blackberry!), getting someone else's phone is probably still pretty easy. Was it Letterman (?) who did a thing on what more people lose than anything else -- and cell phones had eclipsed car keys and wallets, mostly because they don't fit into things well and we tend to lay them down places for easy access. Since so many of them have black leather covers now and are pretty much equally flat, with equally bad clippy things, a switch is probably still viable. Much like getting the wrong wheelie-bag off baggage claim at the airport.

    I'm not a mystery writer, just a reader or viewer, but the one thing that seems overused now is the compassionate cop or forensics investigator talking to the dead in a pivotal, motivating moment. "Talk to me sweetheart. Help me find who did this to you," and then (s)he suddenly looks down, and there's this ...noticed ...thing ... heretofore overlooked.

    [Enjoying this blog!]

  4. Does anyone watch 24? The whole thing is a cliche (how many times can the bad guy escape? )and yet it kind of works. Got to love Jack Bauer.

  5. I haven't watched 24, but heaven knows there's tons of cliches on Law and Order. And they don't seem to be hurting the ratings any!

  6. OK,. I'll admit the beeper idea came from the only other mystery I've ever attempted to write. It was 1991, and it was called Greenskeeper. It had maybe, six points of view. Not that I knew that at the time.
    Anyway, the switched beeper was very key.
    And now, of COURSE you're right Susannah! Sam and what's her name. The first episode of the much-missed West Wing.
    Which Studio 60 was never as good as, even though we tried. And you know, it was totally un-cliched, very orginal. But just--weird.
    WHich goes back to the original post, maybe, that it's about the writing.
    You think anything, written really well, could lose its cliche-ness?

  7. We need to make sure you've heard what happened to our beloved Elaine Viets. She had a stroke--and is in the hospital. It sounds as if she'll--eventually--recover. But it might be a tough go.
    Her fellow bloggers on the Lipstick Chronicles are collecting good wishes for her--stop over there if you haven't already. And some are suggesting heading to the bookstore and sending good karma by purchasing one of her books...can't hurt.
    We send her all our thoughts and deepest best wishes...