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Crime Fiction – Ten Cliches to Avoid

Crime fiction is big business at the moment, but there are certain situations that have been overplayed so much that they have become genre cliches and everybody knows what to expect next. Here are ten cliches you should try to avoid and thoughts on how to subvert the cliches if you do decide to use them.

Cops and Doctors

You can find this perennial favourite in both crime and historical fiction. You’ll see it in ER, NYPD Blue and in cross -genre shows like the X Files. The doctor says “OK but only for a minute” or “It’s touch and go. The next few hours will be crucial” or “It could be minutes, it could be days… you never know with coma cases” The policemen usually say nothing. They just stand around and chew the scenery in frustration.

Mulder and Scully actually spend a lot of their time hanging around in hospitals but you don’t notice so much because the patients aren’t your run of the mill criminals or witnesses.

And that’s the way to get around this one. Get a new twist and add some tension. Maybe the patient is related to either the cop or the doctor. Or maybe the doctor is an amateur detective and knows better than the cop? But beware of the “Dick Van Dyke” syndrome… that leads you into a whole new area of cliche

The New Partner

In this scenario a veteran cop has to get a new partner after the death of his old one. The rookie is either keen as mustard and eager to please, or burned out from personal problems. It’s probably best known in modern times from the Lethal Weapon movies. Screenwriters tried to add some tension early in the series by having Mel Gibson as a borderline suicide case, and that gave the first film an edge; but it was lost in later instalments. By the time the fourth movie came came along they had fallen so deeply into a buddy movie relationship that all drama was lost in favour of light comedy.

You need to do some serious subverting if you want to use this situation. People have tried having a dog as the buddy in K9, having their Mom as the buddy in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, and having foreigners as the buddy in big Arnie’s Red Heat.

Outside the strictly police procedural we’ve also had the robot buddy in Robocop, the ghost buddy in Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), the alien buddy in Alien Nation, the magician buddy in Jonathan Creek, the ex-serviceman buddy in both Sherlock Holmes and Poirot. The list just goes on and on.

However you do it, filling in the blanks is easy in this scenario. What you need is something new. How about having the cop being given a politician doing a meet-the-people stint. Or, on a completely tasteless but might be funny level, how about the schizophrenic cop who is his own buddy?

The Rookie in the Morgue

Once only the province of young students in Quincy, this one now turns up on TV in the CSI franchise or Crossing Jordan and in print in the Kay Scarpetta books. There are usually two ways this one can proceed. Either the young cop rushes out, hand at mouth, or he stands still, icily cold and detached, as the autopsy proceeds.

Inspector Morse tried to subvert this situation by having the old timer as the squeamish one, but how about having the rookie as the pathologist?

Whatever you do, try not to give the pathologist a chance to be smug and patronizing while explaining large chunks of the plot. In the UK, this is overdone in Silent Witness and Waking the Dead, and is just a lazy way to advance the story.

The Cantankerous Lieutenant Chews Out The Cop

In films and television shows this happens to every protagonist, and Clint Eastwood for one must be tired of it. In the Dirty Harry series he was rarely out of his boss’s office.

It usually ends up with the lieutenant and the cop snarling at each other, so how about having one of them being completely calm and laid back? Or how about having one of them being deaf?

And if you must write this scene, please don’t use lines like “I’ll have your badge for that”, or “I’m not covering for you this time”

The Slimy Defence Lawyer

This one was a hot favourite on NYPD Blue and was guaranteed to get right up Sipowitz’s nose. Once you’ve introduced the sharp suit, the slick hairstyle and the briefcase, this guy will inevitably say, “My client has no further comment,” or “You had no right to talk to him without me there.” Everybody knows the rest.

Again, serious though is needed to bring a new twist to this situation. Your lawyer could be an ex-cop who knows all the moves, or a relative or lover of one of the cops? How about a lawyer defending himself? Or a counter-culture lawyer covered with tattoos and piercings?

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