Thursday, December 13, 2012

When authors blow their chance to use a cliché

I'm reading a crime novel now whose author passes up a tremendous chance to use a cliché, and I'd like to ask you for examples of crime writers who do the same.

In this case, the novel's narrator offers a passing observation about a supporting character's absence from a given scene, another character explains why that character is missing, and the scene goes on.

I realized as I read that the author had placed the missing character in a situation common for the type of crime novel in which he appears. Except that by relegating the exchange to a minor role, he made the situation seem fresh, like something real people could be doing, rather than like something Characters in a Crime Novel would do. You can bet that when the book is published, I will highlight the scene in question and hail it from the rooftops as an example of writing that revivifies a crime-fiction a convention.

After all, crime fiction is a fiction of conventions. Or is it?

Now, your job: What other crime writers pass up the chance to use clichés? And how do they do it? Do they write novel characters, situations, or scenes? Do they resolve typical situations in surprising fashion? Do they frame a typical scene, situation, or character so cleverly that it seems new?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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23 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

These may not be "on point" and responsive to your query, but I offer two for consideration:

I like the way Paul Auster uses and distorts conventions of the mystery novel in _The New York Trilogy_; it is a bit like a blend of Poe, Borges, and Elmore Leonard.

I also like what Gabriel Garcia-Marquez does in _Chronicle of a Death Foretold_; he eliminates the "whodunit?" aspect and focuses instead on the "what the hell were they thinking?"

Now, I will try to think of some titles that are more responsive to your question. Still, though, your question led me immediately to think of those two off-the-wall examples.

December 13, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

I also like what Agatha Christie did in _The Murder of Roger Ackroyd_. She tweaked the conventions of the time, and using an ironic twist involving the narrator, offered readers something that was new and different at the time. Even when you know what's coming, you can admire Christie's daring gambit; well, it was daring when she did it.

December 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's always good to reminded that writers of all kinds have been attracted to crime novels, so yes, I'll accept your suggestions.

But I was thinking more of crime novels that tiptoe their way around conventions rather than blowing them out of the water--of books that everyone would agree are crime novels, in other words.

December 13, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aha! Fine suggestion of Agatha Christie. Thanks.

December 13, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Consider this:
http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/vandine.htm

Any crime novel that breaks one or more of these rules is a crime novel that is off to a good start.

I will rummage through my swiss cheese memory for examples. Off the top of my head, William Kent Krueger's latest, an effective stand-alone "crime" novel entitled _Ordinary Grace_, stands out as a repudiation of Van Dine.

In the meantime, Van Dine's rules may provoke ideas from you and others.

December 14, 2012  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I'm not sure I understand the example situation in the novel you're reading, but maybe it's because you're intentionally being vague. I can't think of any examples of subverted cliches, but maybe that's a good thing. When it's done well, perhaps it shouldn't be super-obvious, or maybe that in itself would be a bit of a cliche. Maybe? Just thinkin' out loud.

December 14, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

Kelly makes a great point. If I understand correctly, Kelly, you are saying that the absence of a cliche is less obvious than the presence of a cliche. Isn't there an expression that says, "The absence of evidence is not the same thing as the evidence of absence"?

On another line of thought, Peter, when Hammett and Chandler were writing, many of their tropes and expressions were not cliches because they were more or less original. I suppose plenty of top of the line writers now will someday become famous because other writers will copy their tropes and expressions, making them the new generation of cliches.

I recall reading advice from, I think, either a creative writing teacher or English composition guru, and the advice went something like this: never use a figure of speech that has been used by someone else. Well, that is quite a challenge.

Given the formulaic nature of crime/detective fiction (e.g., refer to Van Dine), perhaps the avoidance of cliches by crime/detective fiction writers is not necessarily a good thing.

Well, enough of my rambling. Now, I must return to grading end-of-semester undergraduate literature class essays, a species of writing that embraces every cliche ever devised by the human mind.

December 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., one Monsignor Ronald A. Knox also wrote a set of tongue-in-cheek rules for detective stories, and Josef Škvorecký wrote a book of stories, each one of which deliberately breaks one of Knox’s rules. The book is called Sins for Father Knox.

And here's Dashiell Hammett on Van Dine’s The Benson Murder Case:

"This Philo Vance is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition and his conversational manner is that of a high-school girl who has been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary. He is a bore when he discusses art and philosophy, but when he switches to criminal psychology he is delightful. There is a theory that any one who talks enough on any subject must, if only by chance, finally say something not altogether incorrect. Vance disproves this theory: he managed always, and usually ridiculously, to be wrong."

December 14, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

From the quotation, I excerpt the following: "There is a theory that any one who talks enough on any subject must, if only by chance, finally say something not altogether incorrect. Vance disproves this theory: he managed always, and usually ridiculously, to be wrong."

Somewhere in all of that is both an encouragement for and an indictment of anyone who has ever commented on a blog posting. I feel like lowering my head into my hands and muttering, "Mea culpa, mea culpa!"

December 14, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

You say the following: "You know that crime fiction is full of stock situations and characters: the sleazy, down at the heels private detective. The tough P.I.’s friend on the police force. The cop who breaks the rules because he’s so brilliant. The loyal secretary in old-time P.I. stories. The femme fatale. The drunk reporter. Presumably all these types exist in real life, and there’s no reason not to use them."

Life is so full of cliches that we are shocked when we encounter anything that is (or anyone who is) completely original.

However, today's news headlines confirm that some cliches--so horrible in their redundancy--are inescapable. God help us.

Writers who attempt complete originality do so at their own peril. The conventions and the cliches are there for a reason: They are reflections of real life.

December 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: You're right that many of the tropes were not yet tropes when Hammett and Chandler wrote -- or rather they were, but H&C revealed themn as such by doing better. I'm reminded of the old joke about the person who was unimpressed by Hamlet because it was full of cliches.

If one thinks of tropes as types rather than as cliches, it may become easier to siggest that crime wriers should feel free to tuse them, but to use them well.

In the example that gave rise to this post, the author may have been having a bit of fun with the brief passage in question. All will be revealed when the novel appears.

December 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly, I have to be vague because the book is not yet available. I don’t know if this will help, but I’ll try anyhow. You know that crime fiction is full of stock situations and characters: the sleazy, down at the heels private detective. The tough P.I.’s friend on the police force. The cop who breaks the rules because he’s so brilliant. The loyal secretary in old-time P.I. stories. The femme fatale. The drunk reporter.

Presumably all these types exist in real life, and there’s no reason not to use them. But the trick is to use them, and introduce them, without hitting the reader over the head. And yes. too deliberate an avoidance of a formula only makes the formula all the more obvious by its absence. I recently read another crime novel that did something like that, too.

December 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Originality is a modern cliche, R.T.

December 14, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

I offer you a new sub-genre of crime fiction (i.e., one that I am now dealing with while using your blog to break away now and then in hopes of preserving my sanity): the undergraduate literature course essay, many examples of which are in themselves crimes against humanity.

December 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ha! Let me go change the names and other details on some of the stories I have to edit at work.

December 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I just read an Associated Press account of the school shooting in Connecticut. The story referred to a photograph of students, "some crying, others looking visibly frightened."

"Looking visibly frightened." Think about that for a moment.

December 14, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

I have several reactions:

(1) Maybe we need to give the writer(s) a break on this one. Writing and posting breaking news stories in such a volatile and horrible context could excuse lousy writing.

(2) Among other issues involved in your excerpt, I see that my proscription against adverbs might have helped the writer(s).

(3) Our 24-7 media culture--saturated and over-cooker--encourages and permits all sorts of violations of common sense and decent writing.

(4) On a side-bar issue, I am disgusted that news hounds track down parents and children, getting them to do on camera interviews. Shame on the news hounds. Shame on the parents. God help those poor children.

Now, back to more wretched writing from my undergraduates.

December 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe we need to give the reporter a break on this one, but not the Associated Press editor and the copy editors at the outlet that published the story.

I’m not sure how much the 24-7 media culture has to do with crappy writing. Crappy editing, yes. Crappy writing, I’m not so sure.

(That bit of redundancy from an Associated Press reporter who clearly did not read his own writing reminded of a spectacular bit of redundancy that appears in notices posted at liqour stores in Pennsylvania. We cannot serve you, the notices say, if you "appear to be a visibly intoxicated person."

(That requires elaborate annotation to fully lay out its multiple redundancies.)

And I absolve the newshound in the matter of the photograph of the children. It was of a group of kids being led from the school, and it had clearly been taken from considerable distance. The photographer got in no one’s face. My trouble with the accompanying story was the utter pro-forma sameness of it. You know, the shocked comments from neighbors, and so on, saying exactly what neighbors have learned to say, and appearing well-pleased to say it.

December 14, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

You say: "(That requires elaborate annotation to fully lay out its multiple redundancies.)"

I recently had a conversation with my department's grammar goddess, and we discussed the issue of split infinitives. She is old-school but is now willing to accept them. I am also old-school but remain hostile to them. What is the current attitude in the newspaper world? To split or not to split--is that a reasonable question?

With respect to the news coverage of current events, we now have the obligatory parade of officials making obligatory, empty-headed comments at obligatory, pointless news conferences. Watch also how the politicians intrude themselves into a story about which they know nothing and can do nothing. Soon we will have all sorts of social activists chiming in on the issue(s). Perhaps I need to switch now to TCM instead of the news channels.

December 14, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

You say, "And I absolve the newshound in the matter of the photograph of the children."

My hostility is aimed at the on-air commentators who present line, impromptu interviews of children and parents. Parents are, I suppose, fair game. Children, however, should be off-limits.

December 14, 2012  
Blogger R.T. said...

CORRECTION: "live" not "line."

December 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You and your grammar goddess are both right. The prohibition against split infinitives has no grounding in English syntax. Splitting infinitives is more like wearing white in the winter or failing to dress for dinner. It's a breach of etiquette rather than a broken law.

At the same time, split infinitives grate on my nerves, and I won't use them in own writing. I would likely remove them from a story I was editing, but I would not correct them when proofreading a page.

On news coverage, you're right, but it's too easy to blame politicians and social activists. Everyday, ordinary people are just as much to blame.

December 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nice that you specified "on-air" commentators. I like to tell people that for all my rants against my newspaper and against newspapers in general, one thing that will make me feel good about both is to watch television news anywhere in America, network or local, for three minutes.

December 14, 2012  

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