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Top Ten Clichés in Crime Fiction

Illustration by Bjorn Lie
Illustration by Bjorn Lie

Rob W. Hart—associate publisher of MysteriousPress.com, 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.