Stale Plot Devices

I’m still researching mystery clichés to use for the novel I’m planning to write, probably because researching is easier than actually sitting down and writing. To be honest, though, I don’t need to research clichés. I’ve read thousands of mysteries of all kinds — suspense, gothics, detective stories, cozies, police procedural, legal thrillers, medical thrillers, crime fiction — which certainly qualifies me as an expert on stale plot devices. In fact, when I started writing, I thought these devices were a necessary part of the genre because they were so common. It was a real joy to discover that I could write whatever I wanted — I didn’t have to follow in the fingerprints (I’m trying unsuccessfully to be non-clichéd here, using “fingerprints” rather than “footprints”) of those who have gone before.

Besides, mystery clichés seem to be everywhere. I’ve been watching tapes of “Mystery Woman,” TV movies originally released by Hallmark Channel, and these are the absolute most cliché-ridden mysteries I’ve ever had the misfortune to watch. The only reason I have the tapes is that Jeff (my life mate/soul mate) taped them before he died. (Well, obviously he taped them before he died. As far as I know, there aren’t any VCRs where he is. Come to think of it, there aren’t that many here anymore, either.) The movies are so bad they were funny when we watched them together, but somehobadgew the humor escapes me when I watch them alone. If the clichés were presented in a whimsical manner, as I hope to do in my story, then the movies would have been redeemable, but presented as they are in all seriousness, oh, my. So not fun!

For example, though the location doesn’t seem to be specified in the scripts, the movies were filmed in Simi Valley, and the real bookshop is in Pasadena. Big areas. And yet every mystery the mystery woman gets involved with, the police chief himself shows up. No underlings. Just the police chief. He is such a bumbling idiot that he doesn’t know the first thing about law, doesn’t know when it is acceptable to arrest someone, doesn’t know how to interpret the evidence. He needs the assistance of a DA to keep him on the right track legally, and the assistance of the mystery woman to interpret the evidence. How the heck did he ever become police chief if he’s so ignorant, to say nothing of being rude, cocky, and boorish?

Not only does the police chief show up for every murder in the city where the bookshop is located, when the mystery woman discovers a dead body at a spa sixty miles away, the police chief shows up there too. This silliness makes it seem as if there is only one person employed in law enforcement for sixty miles around. Even if he were the police chief of a one-cop town, he would not be investigating a murder so far from his base. That privilege would fall to the county sheriff.

Worse yet, when he threatened to arrest someone (the wrong person, of course) he said he’d take them “downtown.” What cop talks like that? “Downtown.” Sheesh. When cops arrest someone, they take them to the police station. Or to jail. Not “downtown,” whatever that means. I tried to find the origin of this cliché and couldn’t, but my guess it is that it could have come from either Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series or perhaps Dell Shannon’s Luis Mendoza mysteries.

Just as bad, in the movie the people who owned the spa sixty miles away had hired the mystery woman to film a brochure, which is why she was on the site to find the body. And yet it had never been established that she was a photographer. So why didn’t the people at the spa hire a real photographer? How did they hear about her? And why would they hire someone who was notorious for solving mysteries since they had something to hide?

Worst of all, the mystery woman has a caretaker for her shop, an enigmatic character who can do anything, and if he can’t, he knows someone who can. He can find any bit of information, hack into any computer, has access to the DMV, IRS, CIA. In itself, this is a bit of a cheat. Anything she wants to know just falls into her lap without effort. Well, almost anything. In one episode, where the mystery woman’s DA friend won’t let her see a will even though wills are public record, the mystery woman had to break into the deceased’s house to steal the will. Apparently, her caretaker can find out anything except things that are public record.

Maybe I’m going to have to rethink the whole idea of spoofing mystery stories for my book. After watching these movies, clichés no longer seem fun.


(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”) Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

6 Responses to “Stale Plot Devices”

  1. mrjonmoore Says:

    What isn’t a cliche now? It how we use them, hey?

  2. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    In Australia the police station is often referred to as the cop shop.

    One thing that became a cliche on the television show Police Woman were the shower scenes with Angie Dickinson as Pepper Anderson. Yep, just about every episode had to have Angie showering away. Of course us guys didn’t mind terribly. I think some of us imagined we saw more of this squeaky clean female cop than we ever did.

    Maybe you could check out the movie Stop! Or my Mom will Shoot! It’s about a tough detective who for years has avoided having his little old mother visit him. Why? She tends to take over his life. This is a very funny Sylvester Stallone effort with Estelle Getty as the mother. LOTS of the old cliches but they have fun with them.

    The mother ruins the cop son’s gun by washing it in the sink and sets out to buy a new one. She doesn’t like the ‘cooling off’ period business in a legit purchase and finds a less legit seller. Of course she doesn’t know she’s buying an illegal firearm.

    Apparently Estelle did as many of the stunts required of her character as she was able. In this way she won Stallone’s admiration. All up she was a good sport.

    I also have a soft spot for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Kindergarten Cop, It starts of as cliche riddled but becomes something else.

  3. Cliff Says:

    Any city of reasonable size has a ” Dowtown “- always has . Where have you been?

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      My objection is to the use of the word “downtown” as a synonym for “police station.” Besides, not every town has a downtown (I live in a place with a population of 400,000 and there is no downtown). Towns that do have downtowns don’t necessarily have a police station downtown, and towns that are large enough have multiple precincts, so people are taken the appropriate precinct, not downtown.

Please leave a comment. I'd love to hear what you have to say.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: