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.

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(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.

Let’s Play the Cliché Game!

My exercise class suggested I write a book about them. One woman even volunteered to be the victim, though I can’t imagine why anyone would want to kill her. She is lovely, charming, and utterly delightful. I wasn’t going to write the story since it seemed a good way to lose a lot of friends, but at the lunch the other day, I almost whacked one of my classmates with my exercise bag, and she deadpanned, “I’m not the one who volunteered to be the murder victim.” So I decided to write the book. I mean, how could I not use such a perfect line?

I’d like to do the book campy with exaggerated uses and sly mentions of mystery clichés. For instance, I could get a call from one of the women who says she has information, but won’t give it to me over the phone. I immediately rush over there, of course, since such a call is a precursor to being murdered in cheap mysteries, but when I get there I find . . . I don’t know. Something innocuous. That the cell phone battery went dead. (Or better yet, I call the cops, and they think I’m hysterical.) Then there’s the “Don’t Go There” ploy, advice that a character ignores. When she does Go There, she almost gets herself killed. (Someone suggested this should be a buxom blonde, and of course, I know the perfect person for the role — a lady in red who is a buxom blonde or rather a buxom sometimes-blonde, and she definitely would Go There.) Of course I would also mention the old fictional women from small towns who stumble on so many murders, there couldn’t possibly be anyone left alive in the vicinity. Perhaps even use the alcoholic, donut-eating cop, misogynous cop.

I’m going to start out writing the book the way the idea unfolded in real life, beginning with the suggestion of my writing the book, our planning the murder, etc. leading up to the day we go to class and find her dead for real. The victim is such a good sport, she let me take a photo of her being dead to use for the book cover. (She sank to the ground gracefully, and fell into the perfect pose. Hmm. Maybe she is an eminently suitable victim after all. In the mystery world, she would be too good to be true.)

For now, I’m collecting clichés to use in the book. What do you think are the top clichés in mystery/suspense/thriller fiction? Who are the stock characters? What clichés and other mystery genre conventions do you absolutely hate?

But be careful! You might just end up in the book.

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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.