Thursday, November 10, 2011

Set pieces in crime fiction

It  occurred to me as I relaxed under the shower today that countless crime-fiction protagonists had done the same before me, usually with the water turned as hot as they could stand to wash away emotional or physical scars, or else just to sober up.

The laceratingly restorative shower is a set piece of hard-boiled crime fiction, right up there with the protagonist who looks in the mirror and doesn't like (or else comments wryly on) what he sees or that classic, the dame who walks into the PI's office.

What are some other stock scenes in crime fiction past and present?  What is their purpose? How do you react to such scenes?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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57 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

The shower and the mirror can get me to roll my eyes. The dame (or guy) who walks into the PI's office can work. If done well it can establish characters and set up the whole story. Not well, and it's Death by Exposition.

Another set piece that can irritate me is the hero searching a house or office, and you know from the second paragraph he's going to find a body. Those scenes can work, too, but they have to be well disguised.

November 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I have often cited Robert Crais' entertaining version of the dame-comes-into-the-office scene in Stalking the Angel. The dame does, indeed, come to the office, to be greeted by Elvis Cole standing on his head.

November 10, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

The scene where the cop / P.I. / other investigator falls in love with the main female character. She might be the dame who walks into the station / office, she might be the girl who opens the door of an apartment or house in the early stages of an investigation, attends the murdered person's funeral, etc. etc. She might be anything from the village virgin to a tool of Satan but either the guy will fall for her so hard he'll wish he'd never seen her, wish he'd never been born, or he'll fall so superficially, fleetingly in love with her for only the length of the novel or even just a part of the novel (he'll fall out of love with her if he realizes in time that she's poison) but fall for her he must.

And depending on the time period in which the novel takes place, this female will be one of the off-the-shelf male-fantasy ideals of that time.

Because I tend to gravitate towards crime fiction of the 1920s-1950s where these scenes were first developed and subsequently reworked over and over again, I actually rather like many stock scenes and their familiarity. I might laugh and think "Not again?!" or I might just enjoy going along for the ride.

November 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, these set pieces don't necessarily bother me, though I can recall a few looked-in-the-mirrors that I could have done without.

Here's something I had never thought of until your comment: neo-noir, subject to some harsh opinions in thie space, seems largelt to have abandoned the dame the hero will fall so hard for that he'll wish he'd never been born, etc.

November 10, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I think it would be fun to read a mystery with a male investigator of whatever sort who falls hard for the female lead and the female lead has absolutely no interest in him except to accomplish whatever she's paid him to do.

Fun, but probably not ever going to happen. I don't even know if men would bother to write that kind of crime novel. Probably not compensatory enough.

November 10, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

How does one relax in a shower? Can you really relax standing up? You can relax in a bath but with the ever present danger of slipping and breaking ones neck or the water temperature suddenly changing from ice cold to scalding hot showers are not relaxing places even before Hitchcock put a lot of unpleasant imagery in our heads.

I remember reading a long Gore Vidal diatribe against people looking in mirrors as a cheap writers way of getting in a description. I avoided this technique for years and years. But then I read a piece from Gore Vidal about his favourite post war American novel which turned out to be The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag. If he's wrong about that he might also be wrong about the mirror thing, I thought to myself and began using the mirror description trick again.

November 10, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

If the shower's been going then the mirror's fogged up, so that's no use for character delineation anyway.

I liked Volcano Lover.

November 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, Megan Abbott comes close to some of what you suggest. She said about her excellent, and deservedly award-winning Queenpin that:

"My abiding interest was to write a basic hardboiled tale but one in which a woman-woman relationship was foregrounded. The men are in there primarily to mediate the two women's relationship with each other, much as female characters function so often in classic noir triangles."

And someone, maybe her or Christa Faust wondered aloud on a covention panel about a female counterpart to, say, Laura, all about a woman's futile desire for a man, rather than the other way around.

November 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, one closes one's eyes and enjoys the hot water. I can do this without falling asleep.

I once wrote a scene for a workshop in which the protagonist sees himsef in an old group picture. This offers the implicit comparison of the protagonist with his friends or colleagues.

Interesting you should mention Hitchcock. Psycho naturally came to mind as I wrote this post, and it occurred to me that for male characters, the shower was a place of refuge while for Janet Leigh, it was anything but. I should write an academic article on "Hot Water, Hot Women: The Shower as Gendered Space in American Crime Novels and Films."

November 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Whoa! Fogged-up mirror! Powerful metaphor!

November 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

OK, what Megan Abbott was not what you suggested. But it does share that element of taking a common crime-fiction motif, and flip-flopping it in some way related to sex. If you come across Megan, though, I bet she'd get a kick out of your idea.

November 10, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

You buried the lead. Hot Women then Hot Water.

November 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mmm, I have to decide if I want the slow buildup, or the immediate punch.

November 11, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"I looked at my face in the mirror behind the bar and didn’t like it too well. It was getting thin and predatory-looking. My nose was too narrow, my ears were too close to my head. My eyelids were the kind that overlapped at the outside corners and made my eyes look triangular in a way that I usually liked. Tonight my eyes were like tiny stone wedges hammered between the lids. – The Moving Target, Ross Macdonald, 1949

Macdonald had another good Archer-looks-in-the mirror passage in, I believe, Find the Victim, but I can't find it online. Something about Archer looking into a broken mirror in a white-trash trailer (is there any other kind?). Broken mirror? Archer's disturbed peace of mind? Get it?

I should write an academic article on "Hot Water, Hot Women: The Shower as Gendered Space in American Crime Novels and Films"

Peter, if you do, and you know how I feel about gendered anything so I hope you don't... Be sure to include the first great shower scene in film, Kim Hunter's in Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim, 1943. Steamy fog, menace, tension, the unknown. I'll bet Hitchcock saw it.

Yes, Adrian, one can relax in a shower. The day spa I belong to has fabulous showers with shower heads that gush forth a wonderfully obscene amount of water; like standing under a mini waterfall.

Peter, re a female counterpart to, say, Laura, all about a woman's futile desire for a man, rather than the other way around... I think one might have to turn to 19th c. Gothic fiction or 20th c. Gothic Revival (?) fiction for this story.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a pretty good mirror scene, but I'd have hesitated to discuss mirrors with an author who fancied hmself a psychologist.

Don't worry. When I write about gendered space, I'll do so under an assumed name.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I think the standard female protagonist story goes 'oh, he's a selfish jerk, but since I'm strangely attracted to him, I will just hope there is some extraordinary explanation for his behavior that reveals him to be a true gentleman."

The standard male protagonist story goes, "She is a vixen, but she is HOT. I'll check back in a couple of hours and she will probably fall into bed with me, though I will never understand way, but who's complaining? Probably one of those inscrutable female mood swing kind of things."

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Isn't the standard male-protagonist story more "I can't...I can't...I will...I did...I'm screwed"? at least in noir?

November 11, 2011  
Blogger wstroby said...

I always thought Charles Willeford broke new ground in THE WAY WE DIE NOW when he had his hero, Hoke Moseley, actually masturbate in the shower. When was the last time Jack Reacher did that?

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, that's relaxing, not to mention a new twist on an old set piece.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Yeah, I think noir has more of a sense that it's all a really bad idea, but it's still the same trajectory...

Also, the woman either dies first or is a treacherous queen of doom.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A femme fatale!

Either Faust or Abbott has asked rhetorically whether are any hommes fatales (or why there are none. I forger the details.)

November 11, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Sorry to get into real life, but wasn't, say, Ted Bundy an homme fatale?

If you've ever watched any of those sensationlistic true crime shows on the networks, they would seem to be more common than you'd think.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wouldn't think of an homme (or femme) fatale as a killer, but rather as someone who seduces another person into killing.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Good point. I wonder if Clyde Barrows fits the bill. (I can't remember if Bonnie ever killed anyone herself, but definitely he lured her into complicity.)

Ditto, Charles Manson.

Unfortunately, these are not fictional situations.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, without knowing anything but the barest details of the Manson family story, I'd guess he's probably closer to the fatale type (depending on how he lured other members of the family.)

Bonnie and Clyde would make an interesting case, considering the element of sexual attraction in femmes fatales. I'd long ago read that the movie turned Barrow's homosexuality into impotence. (Warren Beatty, according to one source, simply objected to playing a bi-sexual character.) Homosexuality or bisexuality would certainly make him someone Bonnie Parker might have lusted after without being able to attain her desires. Sounds potentially fatale to me.

November 11, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Set pieces? Cliches, you mean? :)

Masturbating in the shower is probably the most powerful turn-off I've encountered. You can deduce a huge number of negative character traits for the male lead from that.

The mirror thing is difficult. Best replaced by something else, like a friend's comment. Too many details about a character's appearance don't work well anyway. Readers like to form their own image.

I hate the run-down P.I. office scene with the bimbo walking in. Poking fun at the cliche doesn't really help in closing the distance between reader and protagonist. It creates distance between author and story.

My own aversions: Female leads who live and dress like male leads (i.e. jeans and trainers, meals of hamburgers and fries, morning runs, crappy cars full of debris and trash, stupid cop boyfriends only good for sex, and the predictable outcome that makes the female smarter and tougher than than the men.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Nan said...

At least on television, it is the open front door. You know there will be a dead body inside, or the place will be ransacked and the owner missing. Around here when it happens, one of us says, 'uh,oh that isn't good.' :<)

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, I.J., I really did mean set pieces. There is something to be said for such scenes as homages to a tradition. And authors can twist and tweak and make fun of traditions in addition to dreadily following them or else sliminating them entirely, e.g., the Robert Crais example I cited above. Knowing the dame-enters-the-office tradition is not necessary to enjoy that scene, but readers who so know it will get extra pleasure for recognizing it. Besides, I think the office in quesiton is neat and clean, rather than run down.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nan, don't the heroes know to stay away from the damned door when they hear that ominous music welling up in the background?

November 11, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I always thought Charles Willeford broke new ground in THE WAY WE DIE NOW when he had his hero, Hoke Moseley, actually masturbate in the shower

wstroby, if Raymond Chandler were still alive, I would love to read his thoughts on this gratuitous, titillating adult version of a little boy's potty joke as "breaking new ground." I presume this is more "gritty realism." Do men (and women) do this? Of course. Although I don't particularly consider myself a prude, I imagine I come off (no pun intended) as one when I say I don't really care to read the details. Nor do I care to know the color of a man's urine as he pisses against a wall nor the consistency of his shit when he's had tummy trouble.

But then I suppose a guy's wife or girlfriend would rather he whack off in the shower or tub than in bed than leave her to strip the sheets and put new ones on.

God, some "men" never do grow up, do they?

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wouldn't judge that scene (or just about any other) without having read it. I haven't read that book, but if Willeford had included such a scene in his novel The Shark-Infested Custard, I might have regarded it as one more expression of the aimlessness and futility of its characters' lives. But again, I'm loath to judge a scene or a book by a second, er, hand account.

November 11, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

It's not the scene, it's the action. I'm probably more cynical than you, Peter, but I can't help but suspect the writer went looking for a "reason" to have his character masturbate because he wanted to have masturbation in his novel, not because he tapped his pencil against his teeth and thought: "How should I indicate my protagonist's sense of aimlessness and futility."

I find an awful lot of this stuff in contemporary crime fiction, as writers constantly look for new ways to jar readers' sensibilities. "Breaking new ground"? "Raising the bar"?

For me, I.J.'s complaint that this "doesn't really help in closing the distance between reader and protagonist. It creates distance between author and story" applies here.

But then I'm a dame, and maybe guy readers (to whom tough, hard-boiled, etc. crime fiction has always been targeted) get off (figuratively) reading about other guys' hand job experiences and techniques. You know, that old locker room stuff.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Once again, I can't tell without having read the scene. I do know, especially from the most recent Willeford novel I read, that he was big into men hanging out together, so you could be right about the locker-room stuff.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Not to attempt to sway your judgment, Elisabeth, but wstroby is an author who reveres Richard Stark and Hammett. The one novel of his that I have read and thought highly of has a female protagonist and no gratiuitous sex that I can recall.

November 11, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Well, just because I object to the idea of a written depiction of masturbation qualifying as "breaking new ground," doesn't mean I couldn't find some other opinions about crime fiction in common with wstroby.

And, Peter, if you do decide to write about gendered space in the shower with hot water and hotter women... be sure to insert "the male gaze" with predictable regularity.

I thought of this "gender" nonsense in two different incidences last night.

1) One of the windbags on TVG said about a filly who had run her last race against colts that she was "back in with her own gender" in the next race. Puh-leez! Horses don't have genders! Even geldings are males.

2) An interesting episode of PBS's intelligent but corny-titled "Secrets of the Dead" on new, 21st forensic evidence in the (in)famous Hawley Crippen murder case has the narrator reading a script which notes that the early 20th c. investigators did not have the sophisticated biological tools with which to determine the "gender" of the human remains found beneath Crippen's house. I was relieved when the forensic scientist who recently re-investigated the remains spoke of his success in determining the "sex" of the individual.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Gender" sometimes gets into my newspaper if I happen not to be copy editing the story in question.

I can assure you that the phrase "male gaze" crossed my mind -- as did, naturally, the word "desire."

Good god, do these academic assholes really think they're saying anything?

November 11, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

do these academic assholes really think they're saying anything?

Reminds me... I recently read Dorothy B. Hughes's In a Lonely Place. I've seen the film several times; don't know why I didn't read the 1947 novel sooner. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. I can't think of many novels that maintain as sustained a level of tension for 200+ pages as does this one!

Anyway... The luck-of-the-draw copy I received via the LAPL happened to be the 2003 reprint from The Feminist Press. Oh-oh, I thought. Of all the nonsense and, speaking of masturbation, the mental masturbation in the academic jargon and theorizing in the Foreword and Afterword, I think this was the observation that had me ready to fling the book at the wall... Lisa Maria Hogeland, citing the passage where Dix Steele's cop friend Brub is so angry and frustrated at not having captured the serial rapist/killer that he says something along the lines of "I'd kill him myself if I get my hands on him;" to which Ms. Hogeland, in predictable feminist fashion claims: "Heterosexual masculinity itself might be simply murderous." Oh, I see, all heterosexual men are potential (secretly?) murderers, serial killers, serial rapists. That being a male heterosexual = crazed killer?! I tell you, that drivel makes me madder than a wet hen!

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Hen" -- interesting you should invoke an animal sometimes used as an anti-woman stereotype. Sure you're not a tool of the patriarchy?

November 11, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Well, you know what they say: "The rooster may crow, but the hen lays the egg!"

Sorry! Gotta fly the coop; I'm off to a hen party!

November 11, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I've read Dorothy Hughes and liked her books very much.

In Finnegans Wake, the hen is the feminine picking through the midden pile of history. It's not a negative role.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth. are you trying to reclaim a positive connotation for "laying an egg" in contemporary -- you're going to love this one -- "discourse"?

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana/Elisabeth, Dorothy B. Hughes has been much talked up in recent years at crime fiction conventions, sometimes by some of the people I've mentioned here. I wonder if this indicates a resurgence of interest in her work.

November 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: So feminists should read Joyce to reclaim (another word that ought to push Elisabeth closer to the edge) hens?

November 11, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

This post has gone through so many metamorpheses, some of which I have no opinion about.

But horses' genders? Did I miss something? There are female horses or there would be no offspring. But did this post mean that only males -- geldings, too -- race?

I don't follow horse racing nor read Dick Francis' books so I don't know.

The rest: Everyone should read what they like to read. I'm not worried about those who read about sex, but am worried about the books with the bodies piling up or the torture victims, and why anyone reads and likes the latter.

I can't even begin to think about who likes the gratuitous violence, put in for no literary reason, but to sensationalize and get to the lowest common denominator. I don't get it at all.

November 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think Elisabeth was poking fun at the unfortunate use and misuse of the word "gender." Be exceedingly wary of using the word when the subject is anything other than grammatical gender, unless one is an academic, in which case one will be expected not ever to say or write "sex" when one could use "gender" instead.

November 12, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I have to admit that I haven't totally reconciled myself to Joyce's schema and where women fit into it, but I'd hardly claim to understand it either. But the hen isn't a bad creature in the book at any rate.

November 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nothing wrong with hens. but hen-pecked is no compliment. Of course, "homely" was not originally an insult, either. Women have it tough with it comes to adjectives.

November 12, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

Reminds me... I recently read Dorothy B. Hughes's In a Lonely Place. I've seen the film several times; don't know why I didn't read the 1947 novel sooner. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. I can't think of many novels that maintain as sustained a level of tension for 200+ pages as does this one!

I hope Elisabeth is still monitoring this thread because I've always suspected the movie In A Lonely Place is screwed up because the filmakers decided to turn the villian into the hero, but since I haven't read the book, I've never been entirely sure about this idea.

Humphrey Bogart's behaviour in the movie only makes sense if he is indeed a psycho. But the movie tries to tell us that this poor misunderstood lamb is undone by an overly suspicious woman. I didn't believe it for a minute. In the 40s and 50s, perhaps more than any other decades, it was popular to blame women and mothers for everything.

Hitchcock's Suspicion from a few years earlier is an utter mess for exactly the same reason. In 'Before The Fact' by Frances Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox) on which Suspicion is based, the husband is a psycho. But in the movie Hitchcock turns it upside down. It's the woman who is the psycho, with her fantasies and her suspicions.

Later on, Hitchcock lied about this and claimed the studios forced the change on him, but in recent times memos between him and the studio have come to light which show the change was his own idea.

Hitchcock might have been a good director, but he seems to have been a seriously creepy individual.

November 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I recall the husband in Suspicion as a charming rogue, so you could well be right.

Until now, I've heard that Hitchcock was creepy in treatment of actors, especially blonde female ones. He was famous for radically altering his source material, but I had not previously heard that he did so in creepy fashion or lied about it. Thanks!

November 12, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

All the set pieces I can think of go back to the Athens of Pericles.

However since I'm pressed for time I just posted a piece on Widgetinghour about plumbing in literature (it's short).

As for how I respond... as the writer intended, if he or she knows what they are doing.

November 16, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

All the set pieces I can think of go back to the Athens of Pericles.

However since I'm pressed for time I just posted a piece on Widgetinghour about plumbing in literature (it's short).

As for how I respond... as the writer intended, if he or she knows what they are doing.

November 16, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

P a D, speaking of literary traditions with roots in Athens, have a look at this old blog post.

November 16, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

The most interesting aspect of that post is that nobody posted a comment. Offering a context for this quote from the Poetics would open a good debate on Noir.

I avoid going to most contemporary films because the premise that an audience enjoys grotesque imagery is so fashionable.

Even after a relatively ordinary story like "The Help" I was not particularly comfortable.

There are few links on today's Widgetinghour.

November 17, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

As it happens, the source from which I took that excerpt provided no context. It was a little collection of snippets from a number of volumes in the Loeb Classical Library. But I do have the full Poetics in the house should I decide to revisit the subject.

November 18, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

Most literary rows could be avoided if writers could take a more light hearted view of genre.

Auerbach's "Mimesis" when one battle further, when critics started wrangling over Auerback.

This gives enough context, I think.

classicreader.com/book/2601/4/

It's worth thinking about Noir is such a pragmatic and representational form.

http://widgetinghour.blogspot.com/2011/11/theres-noir-and-then-theres-grotesque.html#links

November 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"The graver spirits imitated noble actions, and the actions of good men. The more trivial sort imitated the actions of meaner persons..."

Someone with an ax to grind could hit crime fiction over the head with that.

November 19, 2011  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

I've never met a graver spirit. They sound dull and worthy.
This should keep axes and wits sharpened:

http://www.stjohns-chs.org/english/shakespeare/classical/poetics.html

November 21, 2011  

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