SIGN UP FOR THE MULHOLLAND BOOKS NEWSLETTER for breaking news, exclusive material, and free books

Top Ten Clichés in Crime Fiction

Dec 04, 2013 in Guest Posts, Writing

Illustration by Bjorn Lie

Illustration by Bjorn Lie

Rob W. Hart—associate publisher of, class director of LitReactor, and all-around friend of Mulholland—knows his crime fiction. We’d wager he’s read a fair bit of it. And when you read a lot within a genre, you begin to notice some familiar signposts… Today on our blog, Rob lists his crime fiction bugbears.

Any cliché can be twisted and reinvented so that it’s fresh and exciting. Clichés can serve as enduring and comfortable tropes that remind us why we love the crime fiction genre.

But that’s not always the case—sometimes they can be tired rehashes of scenarios and traits that have been done to death, resurrected, and then killed again.

Here are, from my vantage point, the top ten clichés that continually pop up in crime fiction.

1. The deep and intense relationship with alcohol.

Has there ever been a private investigator or a hard-boiled protagonist who didn’t drown his or her feelings in a bottle? Bonus points if that alcohol is amber and smoky. Vices are fun, but too often, they’re overused as a defining characteristic.

2. The deep and intense relationship with music.

A lot of authors name-check musicians. In crime fiction it’s almost always jazz or the blues. Again, amber and smoky. Where’s the polka? The Norwegian death metal? It would be great to see some characters with a little range.

3. The uptight female character as potential sex toy.

If a prudish but pretty woman meets the male protagonist in the first 50 pages of a story, you know they’ll end up having sex. It’ll be liberating for her, a moment of vulnerability for him—and the author will get to work out some deep-seated sexual fantasy. Everyone wins!

4. The Sherlock-type figure.

A protagonist who is brilliant, quirky, and seemingly infallible… save his or her inability to relate to people. Usually accompanied by a level-headed but easily-flustered accomplice, who serves the dual purpose of sounding board and conduit to the human race. Sound familiar?

5. All (broken) families are alike…

Cops, private detectives, spies—they’re all haunted. They’ve faced the worst of humanity, and sometimes their own mortality, and it leaves them broken. You’d think they would seek comfort for that breakage in their families—instead they push them away, for dramatic effect.

6. Everyone has daddy issues.

Daddy issues are an easy way to explain away prickish behavior. Got a protagonist with a fresh mouth, or who is quick to throw a punch? Just factor in some abuse by a father figure, and it’s like a free pass—you can’t really blame them right? And thusly, a dark character attribute turns into a storytelling crutch.

7. The snitch as cannon fodder.

You know that joke about how it was always the crewmembers in red shirts who were killed on Star Trek? In crime fiction it’s the snitch. They’re a safe kill—not so virtuous that we really feel bad, not so integral to the main cast that we’re terribly shocked. But they’ve usually got a strong enough relationship with the protagonist that you know some bloody vengeance is coming down the pike.

8. The narrator goes native.

How often do you see this? The protagonist needs intel or supplies, so they go someplace that’s clearly not on their turf. Say, a black or Latino neighborhood. There’s an elder-type figure or gang leader who gives the protagonist a pass, because they have some sort of shared history or mutual respect. And we all learn a valuable lesson about equality.

9. The bad guy gets captured on purpose.

This is especially useful if you want to give the villain a little more time to monologue, on their twisted philosophy or dastardly plan. And when the tables turn—oh, the drama!

10. The brilliant serial killer.

Maybe we should call this one Hannibal Lecter-type figure. It certainly goes hand-in-hand with the Sherlock-type figure. Done well once, hammered into the ground after that. Bonus points if the brilliant serial killer is quick to irrational anger, or has some kind of personal history with the protagonist.

Those are mine. What do you think are the biggest clichés in crime fiction? Share in the comments or tweet @robwhart.

31 Responses »

  1. 11. The psychotic tough-guy buddy.

    He’ll come save the hero deus ex machina and/or finish off the villain with more violence than our likeable hero…

  2. The one that got away. Bad guy, that is. Leaving our hero haunted by a a particularly heartbreaking case that was never solved or avenged.

  3. Also, the criminal — master thief, hitman — who undertakes ‘one last job’ before retiring somewhere idyllic with the woman of his dreams.

  4. The male/female detective buddies who resist one another sexually, thus creating sexual tension between them for the whole novel (or multiple novels).

  5. Female protagonist with rocky marriage and a deeply troubled relationship with a sister — the sister’s husband may or may not be abusive to her. Those cliches are easy fodder for sub-plotting, but too much is too much.

  6. Now, if only the ridiculous phrase “hard-boiled” would vanish.

  7. The scribe buddy who records all the hero’s adventures

  8. Broke. Always broke. Doesn’t have even one nickel to rub together, and runs retreads on his jalopy, which always breaks down at the worst possible time. Or best, since being stuck by the side of the road invariably, if artificially, increases stakes.

  9. The young female policewoman who works hard to be one of the boys, but hates their immature and unprofessional ways.

  10. Great list. Agreed on the partner who metes out all the violence so the main character gets a squeaky clean conscience. I get tired of that, even if I love several series where the “hero” is best friends with someone with an outlaw heart (Clete Purcell, Mick Ballou, Joe Pike, Hawk, etc)

  11. Aren’t “daddy issues” the driving force behind every kind of fiction since the 1960s?

  12. The scalding hot shower taken by the hero 2/3rds into the plot that cures whatever physical and mental damage they have one so far in the story, and magically gives them the insight into the overlooked clue that solves the whole puzzle.

  13. The ‘will they won’t they’ tension between the male and female detective investigating the case.
    The run-down offices with bad coffee machines at the police station, while forensic labs seem to have the coolest, most stylish interior designers and an unlimited budget.
    Detectives with quirky hobbies which make them out to be an interesting human being.

    I could go on… although for each of these I can also think of good examples, where it simply doesn’t matter if they use these devices.

  14. The one I hate is, I think, the symptom of the plot that got too tangled for the writer to handle any other way. It’s basically The One Where The Killer Did It All Because He/She Was Stark Raving Mad.

    I get so sick of that. It’s a cop out. Anyone can do anything ‘because they were mad’. Show me how and why an ostensibly sane person does it.

  15. Don’t forget:
    1) the ‘will they won’t they’ tense feeling kept on in book after book when the two main detectives are male and female;
    2) entering dark and dangerous-looking places where they suspect armed criminals may be lurking without backup or weapons or torches;
    3) detectives with quirky hobbies (preferably of the Zen persuasion) to prove that they are human beings after all… and incredibly wise.

    However, having laughed at all that when they are used badly, I have to say I’ve seen all of the above used very well too! Good writers can get away with anything.

  16. Big Papa’s question makes me want to expand it to—aren’t these same clichés to be found in much of non crime fiction? Daddy issues, buddy sexual tension, alcohol dependence, etc? It’s a great list and made me laugh, and serves as a warning to think hard and deep when employing one of the usual plot suspects. Thanks to Rob for his wit.

  17. Wife murdered. Viciously. Most dangeruos thing a woman can do is marry a detective.

  18. The worst cliche is where the amateur witnesses the worst kind of violence, murder what have you, and never suffers any ill effects in the aftermath. If it a female witness sex is the standard cure all.

  19. The gruff, stressed-out police sergeant/chief who’s getting heat from upstairs/downtown and just wants the protagonist to solve the damn case while keeping it under wraps.

    The protagonist’s old neighborhood that’s a living, breathing organism of its own and does its best to interfere with their solving the case/exposing the neighborhood’s dark secrets.

  20. The spouse married to a homicide detective or criminal lawyer who then gets angry or threatens divorce when the detective/lawyer has to work on a murder case.

  21. Any and all of these can be used in a non-clichéd manner; the reason something becomes a cliché is because it has some basis that leads to people using it until it is over-used.

    And whether something is cliché or a legitimate usage is often similar to the distinction between archetypes and stereotypes – whether the commentor likes or dislikes the work in question.

  22. Prologues that get inside the killer’s or the victim’s head.

    OK, you can have prologues that get inside the killer’s or the victim’s head, but only if they’re not in italic type..

  23. The [divorced, alcoholic, drug-addicted] ex-cop who is indispensable to the current case.

    An ex-military cop who still has PTSD issues.

    Cops without any kind of college degree whose education was the “school of hard knocks” (most cops have a bachelor’s degree now).

  24. As Ecclesiastes say, there is nothing new under the sun. Themes will repeat. It’s how the individual writer develops them that’s dynamic and unique.

  25. thank you, ms. seewald; you seem to be the only commenter who looked behind the quick and easy one-liner to appreciate the structures that lie behind every damned story ever written.

  26. I talked with an agent last weekend who told me I needed a trope in my opening paragraph (!) so the reader would know what type of novel mine is. Now I’m not sure what to do. My opening has my MC in a jail cell wondering who will bail her out. She has not yet become a PI intern. I’ve been stewing about this.

  27. There are usually two main investigators at most (A counter example is in the poisoned chocolates case)
    The crime is usually discovered after it has been committed (A counter example is in matlock episode 76)

  28. Excellent list. The quality of writing in crime fiction is better than most other genres, but it also seems bedeviled with more than its share of cliches. I did a piece on this same topic a while ago that touched on some of the same points:

  29. The off-the-grid computer hacker who can find out anything, anytime, anywhere with just the quick run of the keyboard.


  1. Guest post on crime fiction cliches | Rob W. Hart
  2. MCCCLXX Deckarklichéer – Theomis
  3. Weekend Window Closing Wrap-Up: December 14, 2012 | ComicMix

Leave a Response