Time for some more crime fiction clichés. Last Saturday’s episode of Beck began with a gangster and his family narrowly escaping being shot. Later, at home at night, he is an easy target standing next to a picture window in a well-lit room and is picked off by a sniper. Surely closing the curtains or blind was an obvious precaution to take?
Here’s one suggested by my friend Dorte on Facebook: she says that every time she and her husband see someone walking a dog, they know a body is about to be discovered. Yes!
Sarah Rayne is tired of the police officer who arrives at the crime scene and says, ‘OK, what have we got here?’ I’ll add that I wish I had a fiver for every time I’ve heard him or her say ‘Listen up!’ back at the station.
And what about this one? The plain clothes officers are in a car waiting for a suspect to show up. When he arrives, they get out and they start running after him BEFORE he has spotted them, thus alerting him to their presence.
Here is one that was fresh when it was first used, but now we can see it coming: exterior shots of the police closing in on a building alternate with interior shots of the villain about to dispatch a victim. We are meant to assume it’s the same building, but when the police burst in, the place is deserted: they were different buildings.
It’s not easy within the parameters of the genre to find original ways of doing things, I know that and I sympathize, but the best writers do find ways.
I read that Ian McEwan asks early readers of his drafts to mark clichés with the acronym FLL (short for ‘the flickering log fire’). I thought of that recently when I was reading a novel by an otherwise fine writer and was brought up short by a reference to ‘nerveless fingers.’ Once was bad enough, but I was even more surprised to come across those nerveless fingers again a few pages later.
Even Homer nods. Every writer has moments of inattention, moments when they are on autopilot. In the heat of composition they reach for something to express their meaning, and what pops into their head is – ‘nerveless fingers.’ I don’t hold it against this writer – we all do it and I am as guilty as anyone. The cliché is a symptom of lazy thinking, and hopefully is replaced by something better on the next trawl through. Sometimes though the writer simply remains blind to the cliché, doesn’t even recognise it as one. And that is what editors are for. I have been lucky with mine, who have saved me from some howlers – that’s not to say that none have still slipped through the net – but maybe it is true that generally speaking editors don’t edit as much as they used to do. A pity.