Sunday, March 03, 2013

All Aboard the Cliché Train!!!

There’s a certain type of mystery plot out there that is really starting to get on my nerves. The plot isn’t confined to a single sub-genre. The book can be set in a charming English village where an elderly lady plays the role of amateur sleuth. It can just as easily be a tough-as-nails hardboiled story about a tough wise-cracking PI. But for some reason, many authors think it’s a clever idea to use the following twist ending: the killer is gay.

What does the author of such a tale expect me to do? Throw my hands in the air and scream “Oh, my God!!! A gay person!!! I thought they were only mythical creatures that hid in forests, picked berries while the moon was full, and secretly stole pens whenever you needed them!” This twist ending has long outgrown its shock value… and its welcome. And the ending has introduced a brand-new set of clichés to the genre, clichés I’m sick of seeing.

See, the killer might be gay, but he did it all for love! Sure, he  might have killed seventeen people, but the real criminal here is society, which just wouldn’t let Bob and Harry shag each other! Now, good reader, go stand in a corner and meditate on how you are every bit as responsible for these heinous crimes as Bob and Harry were!

Every once in a while, an author decides to put a spin on this motive. A gay killer will commit the crime out of another motive—say greed—but love is still there as a motive, and I think the author expects this to redeem the murderer’s actions. Sure, Bob might be a greedy little asshole, but once he got the money, he and Harry would have moved to the French Riviera (everyone knows the French are a-okay with homosexuality) and lived a happy life planting roses and walking along the beach.

I’m annoyed by this. Not because I’m a raging homophobe, but because we’ve created a brand-new stereotype, the Misunderstood Homosexual. In our fiction, whenever these people turn out to be criminals, society is almost inevitably to blame. I have always hated when an author corners me and delivers a banal homily about how my ignorance has helped to create the fictional situation that resulted in seven murders via gunshot, three stabbings, two strangulations, one-and-a-half poisonings, and one rape scene. And homosexual characters have become the latest fads for delivering us this kind of “crime novel,” which takes itself too seriously because it’s Real Literature and it’s telling us the straight dope about life, dawg! (Kids still say ‘dawg’, right? You dig me, daddy-o?)

If this film is more historically accurate
than you, there's a bit of a problem...
One of my biggest pet peeves is how, in a historical mystery, the author will often take some time out for a lecture on civil rights. And so Sister Luna of the Convent of the Heart of Our Lady of the Perpetual Sorrow, back in 13th century Italy, will suddenly rise at the dinner table and lecture Father Claudio about how cruel society is to women, to black people, to Jews, and to homosexuals and how she certainly hopes that one day people will learn better and will treat minorities with respect. Now I’m all for minorities having equal rights, but I’m afraid that the real-life Sister Luna would have laughed at such a speech. Such attitudes didn’t exist back then, and these segments always feel like the author is trying to protect the poor reader’s sensibilities. “Now I know you learned back in Grade 1 that girls can do everything boys can do, but once upon a time people didn’t think so. Fortunately, in my story everyone except the crabby old priest (who’ll be murdered in Chapter 17 anyway) is totally cool over minorities and totally treat them as equals.” This is particularly maddening when the same author tries to reproduce historical accuracy in all other details.

The long and short of it is this: I’d like to see some more diversity when it comes to portraying minorities, and maybe see some more evil examples. By this, I don’t mean I’d like to see a return to the “Yellow Peril” novels complete with stereotypes that would offend everyone from the NAACP to the Italian Anti-Defamation League. But I would like to see more diversity among such characters, rather than the homogenized nonsense we usually get. It’d make reading crime fiction a bit more interesting. Nowadays, when I try picking up “serious” crime fiction, most of the time I simply cannot get through it. It all feels the same: slightly patronizing, slightly preachy, very arrogant about its artistic merit, and ultimately quite forgettable.

A lot of stuff like this in a university library...
But I admit this is a gross generalization on my part. I do not try to get a comprehensive picture of the new books that are published every year. I just cherry-pick book lists and read stuff that interests me. It could be that I just have atrocious luck trying to read these very bad books and thinking that it represents the genre’s status as a whole. But I don’t think I’m exaggerating too much. Critics go absolutely mad over these novels, and the mystery genre is one that has been taking itself too seriously for far too long. Desperate to get serious critical attention, the genre panders to the tastes of academia. As a result, genre studies are almost exclusively (a) inquiries into hardboiled stuff that is sure to put down Agatha Christie and her ilk as inferior, or (b) the importance of gender throughout crime fiction. (I know there is other stuff that is written on the subject, but I work at a university library. We have shelves of books about noir and hardboiled and women, but almost nothing on Agatha Christie's plotting ability. In fact, the only such book I’ve ever spotted on the shelf was Robert Barnard’s A Talent to Deceive.)

Let me give you some examples of what I mean, the stuff I’d like to see more often. Take the debut novel of William L. DeAndrea, Killed in the Ratings. In that book, we get two prominent Jewish characters. One of them is a Jewish gangster who fits a demeaning Jewish stereotype, right down to (still!) living at home with his mother. The other is a Jewish police officer named Rivetz, who nearly compromises the entire investigation in his determination to slam the handcuffs on the gangster. He complains that just because one man happens to fit into a stereotype, it gives people an excuse to condemn everyone belonging to that group on the same ground.

Or how about Bill Pronzini’s Nightcrawlers? Several plotlines mingle through the book, but by far the strongest plotline involves a series of gay bashings that become more and more violent. One of the Nameless Detective’s partners, Jake Runyon, has a gay son whose boyfriend becomes a victim of these criminals. So Jake begins to search for the men who are responsible, and in his search he comes across all sorts of gay people. Some are in loving relationships. Some are alone. Some are in poisonous relationships where a dominant party controls the weaker party entirely. Either way, being gay does not confine you to a single personality type. The characters are complex and do not fit a universal cookie-cutter mold, and the author does not take the opportunity to patronizingly lecture his readers.

But what about groups that are portrayed as evil already? For instance, it’s totally cool to show religious people are complete nutters. I mean, anyone who wants to dress up in a toga and do some razzle-dazzle with a piece of bread has got to be delusional, right? That’s what some authors seem to think – like a certain Canadian author who wrote that-book-that-must-not-be-named. She seemed convinced that anyone who becomes a priest must be running away from the world, which has injured him in some way, and that he didn’t choose the religious life, this is just his coping mechanism. Also all priests are potential pedophiles and raging homophobes. (It wouldn’t surprise me if they spend their spare time strangling alley cats and throwing deadly scorpions at the poor children.) In fiction, it sure seems that all priests are pedophiles and all nuns are evil ruler-wielding maniacs who enjoy beating kids. This is because they’re all evil, right? From time to time, an author portrays a religious person positively (usually because he’s the detective), but he's far overwhelmed by the negative examples. And even when a religious person is portrayed positively, he or she is usually a rebellious sort who disagrees with their church on [select any combination of the following: abortion, gay marriage, divorce, women priests, celibacy among the clergy]. Where have the good priests like Father Brown gone to hide? In the annals of out-of-print hell, I suspect – go on, search the Kindle store for Father Bredder. I dare you. Even the good Father Brown got a terribly mediocre TV series to represent him. He’s just not evil or rebellious enough. Evil priests are all the rage, dude. (We’re so in touch with the 18-29 demographic.)

I suppose I’d like to see the Margaret Millar treatment a bit more often, by which I mean her portrayal of a religious cult in How Like an Angel. She creates a fictional cult and some of its rules are completely nuts. The main detective, Joe Quinn, plainly shows his skepticism and throws around some one-liners and insults the cult and some of its members. But Millar portrays the group with sympathy – she doesn’t share their beliefs, but she shows that they believe all this nonsense, and that belief is sincere. Even the cult’s “Master” seems sincere, instead of being your typical sleazebag who’s only looking to bilk people out of their money. This makes the novel far more interesting than it would have been had the Master been some cartoonishly evil fraudster and if all the cult members had been easily-duped idiots who blindly obey their Master. They’re allowed to think, feel, reason—yes, even doubt! It’s refreshing to see such a — well, human — portrayal of religious people.

So that’s my rant, and take it for what it is, a rant. Maybe I’m wrong and all these stereotypes I’ve mentioned are subverted in major book series that everyone has read but me. But in the reading that I have done, these trends seem pretty pronounced and they prevent me from dipping my toes further into the waters of brand-new books. These clichés are simply ones that annoy me and that I would like to have disappear for good.

20 comments:

  1. I'm inclined to agree Patrick. We need to look no further than some of the abysmal Agatha Christie adaptations to find instances where her fine source material was changed for the purposes of a so-called twist. But that is an entirely different can of worms I'm afraid. Which reminds me: if you ever get around to it, will you ever treat us to how the recent Poirot adaptation of "Appointment with Death" is actually a remake of "The Mummy"?

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    1. I've been trying to make a video out of that, but I think I'll give up and just do a text recap. What happened was that I decided I needed to do some reshoots... but one accident caused by my youngest cousin later, and the wall of my room looks completely different. That would require reshooting the whole thing, and I just don't have the heart to do it.

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  2. One of the things I enjoyed about writing my Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, was writing about Freeman Wills Crofts as a religious writer. This was so obvious to me reading his work that I was amazed no one had ever picked up on it before that I had seen, outside of Erik Routley.

    I always used to get a kick reading in English mysteries from the Golden Age that a character suffered from "religious enthusiasm"--a sure sign of madness! Enthusiasm about anything was frowned upon, but religion, especially. Of course this gets into the old conflict between the religious establishment and the evangelicals. Crofts was an Anglican, but rather an evangelical one.

    Here's a quotation from that Kate Watson book that makes me want to tear out my hair:

    "Arthur Conan Doyle has long been considered the greatest writer of crime fiction, and the gender bias of the genre has foregrounded William Godwin, Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Emile Gaboriau and Fergus Hume. But earlier and significant contributions were being made by women in Britain, the United States and Australia between 1860 and 1880, a period that was central to the development of the genre. This work focuses on women writers of this genre and these years, including Catherine Crowe, Caroline Clive, Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs. Henry (Ellen) Wood, Harriet Prescott Spofford, Louisa May Alcott, Metta Victoria Fuller Victor, Anna Katharine Green, Celeste de Chabrillan, "Oline Keese" (Caroline Woolmer Leakey), Eliza Winstanley, Ellen Davitt, and Mary Helena Fortune--innovators who set a high standard for women writers to follow."

    Is it "gender bias" that foregrounded Poe and Wilkie Collins, or their unique genius (and Collins reputation underwent a major revival in the 1920s and 1930s)? Did the fact that Hume's Mystery of a Hansom Cab was a huge international bestseller have anything to do with his foregrounding (almost no one ever talked about his other books)? And Anna Katharine Green has always been recognized in genre histories. Unlike a large number of the other women listed above, she wrote true detective novels.

    Nowadays genre historians tend to ignore the contributions of men in the Golden age who didn't write hard-boiled. Should I suggest that gender bias accounts for this?

    Interestingly Dorothy L. Sayers played a big role in the Collins revival and she also wrote rather dismissively of M. E. Braddon and Mrs. Henry Wood. Was the formidable (and feminist) Sayers projecting male gender bias here?

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    1. See, that attitude in particular pisses me off. "The only reason so-and-so is remembered is because he was a MAN!" How about no? How about the women authors you're trying to pass off as accomplished, important contributors to the genre delivered hackneyed stuff that wasn't particularly inventive or imaginative (and therefore by modern standards is part of its brilliant approach)? How about if men like Poe had the imagination to come up with something new and telling it in a fascinating way? How about if men like Conan Doyle, Freeman, Crofts, Rhode, Carr, etc. had the plotting ability to add their own twists to the genre? But then I'll offend some psychotic umbrella-wielding fem-libber (who has inexplicably begun to lisp in my imagination). This is why I avoid reading gender into my mysteries at all costs. I don't give a damn if my author was male or female so long as they could write a *mystery*, dammit!

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  3. Gender scholars have fully embraced Victorian sensation fiction in a way that earlier historians of the genre had not. Writing from the Golden Age of DETECTIVE FICTION onward, this latter group tended to be interested in the origins of detective fiction as a unique genre.

    Hence the emphasis, I believe, on Poe, Gaboriau, Collins' The Moonstone (seen as a genuine detective novel), Anna Katharine Green and Arthur Conan Doyle.

    Braddon's sensation fiction involving crime wasn't really emphasized, but nor was that of, say, Benjamin Farjeon (yes, a man--and note how he's one of the few Victorian sensation writers NOT being revived today--anyone care to guess why?).

    Most sensation fiction wasn't held in that high repute for a long time (even Collins' reputation had to be restored to an extent). Green was criticized for soppy melodrama and overly ornate language, though her plots were sometimes praised.

    So I don't think it's fair to stamp all the historians and critics of those times with the scarlet letters "gender bias." I do think it's true, however, that some critics have tended to disparage domestic mystery fiction.

    Look at the way Julian Symons wrote about Mary Roberts Rinehart, for example. On the other hand, at the time a great many male critics praised Rinehart's work. Today we know about Ogden Nash's HIBK taunt at Rinehart and tend to assume that male critics were always hostile to her, but that's not true. In my book on criem writer Todd Downing's 1930s mystery criticism (Clues and Corpses), for example, I show how Downing was a great fan of not only Christie and Sayers, but also Rinehart and Eberhart and other women writers. He also was aware of women's Gothic fiction from earlier in time. Later in the 1940s and 1950s he read such women writers as Dorothy B. Hughes and Margaret Millar.

    Anyway, this is all something of a tangent to what Patrick was writing about, though I do think it ties in with Patrick's point about how so many modern academic studies either focus on the hard-boiled men using the classical detective novel as scapegoat or on non-hard-boiled women exclusively (apparently assuming non-hard-boiled men did not exist). As Jon L. Breen says, there are a great many worthy forgotten crime writers--of both sexes.

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  4. Man, what book triggered this rant? And seriously... Louise Penny and that book? AGAIN? I'm about ready to open a Kickstarter account to get you a good therapist and a year's supply of Xanax. Or I could just give the money to you to go on relaxing vacation. ;^)

    I have to say I'm gay and these kinds of books have never bothered me as much as they do you. Ignorance posing as expertise is what bothers me. Like David Duncan's nonsensical discussion about transvestites and gay men in THE SHADE OF TIME, a book I loathe as much as you do all the types of books described above. It was written in 1946 but there was no excuse for what he passed off as fact. Pandering to stereotypes (which do exist, BTW) in a negative way only reveals more about the author than anything else. I just close the book, shake my head, and move on.

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    1. John, it seems that every time I'm ready to forget "that book", another book comes along and reminds me of it. This rant was largely inspired by the Marple adaptation of THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY which changed the killers to lesbians and played some sad violins while they kissed to tell us that they did it all for love. I don't care, they still committed a pair of horrific crimes. As if that weren't enough, along comes author Blah and writes a novel wheere, you guessed it, a character has a backstory about Pedo Priest and Evil Nun teaming up to try and abuse/rape him! Hooray! I tried laughing it off but just couldn't do it.

      John, I haven't read that particular book and I'm not all that tempted based on your plot description. The kind of book that I've described is *still* being written, surprisingly enough, and there was a particularly high-profile example of it in 2011. I don't understand why some authors still think that revealing the killer is gay still makes for a shocking twist ending. It just isn't. It's as overused as the twist ending of BEAST IN VIEW. I admire BIV for creating the twist in the first place, and for its characterization and smooth plot. But every time people have used the ending, it was like smashing a teapot, glueing it together, and smashing it all over again. It's more glue than teapot now, and nobody can use this particular teapot for their tea.

      I'm sure if I came across a novel with such a plot twist from 1936, I'd be impressed with the author for tackling it in the first place, and would base my judgment of the novel as a whole on other factors. But it's gotten old. It's more boredom for me than being offended -- you gotta have *some* sort of stock characters here and there. Basically, I'm just tired of seeing this twist. Retire it for the next twenty or thirty years, and then use it only sparingly (if at all). Let's try something new with the genre instead of sticking to these twists.

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  5. I'm thinking Sister Luna wouldn't have been laughed at - she'd have been beheaded or something - if she was even allowed to sit at a table with the priest in the first place. But I get your point about historical fiction adopting loads of modern day morals and beliefs. The thing is I think it would be deathly bloody dull if it didn't - and certainly a poor commercial decision on the part of any author given that so many crime fiction readers are women and women have generally been treated pretty shabbily in real history - so a lot of us probably wouldn't want to read historical fiction in which we appear only to be raped and/or pillaged.

    I'm struggling to think of any examples of your "the killer is gay" gripe but that might just be because my memory is bad or I've read different books. I certainly can think of examples of the kind of broader political correctness gone mad that you're talking about - here in Australia it manifests itself as not being allowed to include Aboriginal people as anything other than all-wise people who embrace all humanity and are NEVER the killer and if they are briefly a suspect it's only to prove that someone white is a dirty rotten racist. Like you I'd hardly want to return to the bad old days of rampant and real racism in our literature but surely we can be mature enough to acknowledge that people in minorities come in all personality types, some of which aren't particularly nice.

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    1. I think she would have done the laughing, though, maybe even at the execution.

      One of the things that amused me about political correctness gone wild is in the audiobook of Arthur Upfield's THE DEVIL'S STEPS. The detective, Bony, is Aboriginal, and some of the suspects in the book insult him because of this. It is meant to be a disgusting, ignorant attitude. But apparently nobody realized it, because the book starts with an apology for the racist attitudes within the book and a reminder that it was written back in a time when racism was socially acceptable.

      I don't really like naming specific books because that'd mean I'm spoiling the twist, at least for the gay-killer twist. I don't like spoiling endings for anyone.

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  6. I really enjoyed your piece - I haven't come across everything you mention, but certainly agree about the historical fiction with the kindly, right-thinking protagonists - as you say, totally out of place. And I would LOVE to read another book on Christie plots: I regularly consult the Barnard book. I also enjoyed a kind of fetschrift that either Keating or Symons edited for a big birthday of hers (maybe called Agatha Christie, Queen of Crime) - some of the chapters of that dealt with her plotting in an interesting way.

    Also - from the point of view of the reader solving the crime, I often read books and think 'surely this can't be this obvious? There's right-thinking characters and people who hold the wrong views - please let it not be the bad person who did the crime.' I would love to be surprised, but find I am not always....

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    1. We've had book after book on noir/hardboiled. You'd think they'd analyzed everything after a while, but apparently not. So why do we only get one book on Christie's plotting? I say there's so much to learn about it, especially after the publication of John Curran's two books analyzing Christie's notebooks. (The library has refused to purchase it, but I should be grateful: they got two biographies of the ever-lovable Patricia Highsmith.)

      Yeah, I had a prof who liked to read older books and point out how the author has a character express viewpoint X only to be shown the error of his ways and how the [silly little] author is telling you about orthodoxy's wise ways. All this was being lectured at us in a sneering, half-patronizing way. It made me want to open a modern book and point out examples to the reverse. However, I like passing my classes, so I didn't succumb to temptation.

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  7. Given that in the past gays in popular fiction
    were almost always portrayed as either moral
    degenerates or pathetic misfits, the current
    vogue to depict them as Victims Of Society
    can perhaps be partially excused as an
    overzealous effort to correct a historical
    imbalance.

    If you would like to read a mystery series
    in which gays are portrayed as believable
    human beings rather than walking cliches
    I commend to your attention the Dave
    Brandstetter novels, featuring a gay
    LA-based PI,and penned by the late
    Joseph Hanson.

    Allow me to take this opportunity to express
    my appreciation for your site; as a reader
    I'm a relative newcomer to the mystery genre
    and I've found your reviews to be a invaluable
    guide to what is worth (and not worth)reading.

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    1. Thanks very much for your comment. It means a lot to me -- part of my hope for this site is that people use it as a reference tool, where they can look up reviews that, whatever their faults, will at least be honest.

      During my recent read of BOOKS TO DIE FOR, Marcia Muller chose one of Hanson's Brandstetter novels for her contribution. While my feelings on the book as a whole are very mixed, Muller's piece was excellent and got me to hop over to the Kindle store stat to purchase the book in question. Unfortunately, Mount To-Be-Read has prevented me from getting to it just yet...

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  8. I hear ya. I don't tend to see the gay stereotypes as much in the books I read, but the religion is always evil one gets me. And in the book I just finished, all men were evil. Which meant I correctly spotted the killer because he was the only nice man we'd met so far. Until he turned out to be the killer, or course.

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    1. That's another annoying one, though it tends to crop up more in noir than anything else.

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    2. It's those "nice" ones, you really have to watch out for!

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  9. I clearly am reading the wrong books as I am not seeing these issues at all in the books that I read.

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    1. I wouldn't call those the "wrong" books in that case! ;)

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  10. Great blog - I came across it through a Facebook share and am glad I did. I read a lot of (and write) thrillers and would like to add to the compendium of predictability. Inevitably, when it comes to the many thrillers with a political edge, the evil doers are inevitably those with an Arabic surname or of the Muslim faith. Never mind that the region consists of numerous countries whose people have vast ranges in beliefs, languages and relgious affliation, or that people with Arabic surnames may be from cultural minorities that have nothing to do with Islam (some are Christians for example), - they're all bad with no saving graces. As a variation on this theme, the next most predicatable enemy of the day are the evil Russians. It gets so tiring. D. J. McIntosh

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    1. Well, North Korea is slowly making its own evil-villain reputation, so maybe the Russians will drop out sooner or later... After all, the recent remake of RED DAWN literally substitutes North Korea for Russia.

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