Friday, November 30, 2007

The sins of private eye writers

I ran across this from the editors of Thrilling Detective today. Great stuff. And of course being the simpleton I am I've used several of these trite devices myself.

Any story that begins with the P.I. sitting at his desk, drinking from the office bottle.
Any story that begins with a sultry woman walking into a PI's office while he's sitting at his desk, drinking from the office bottle.
Any woman with "legs up to here."
The Mafia. C'mon, guys, get with it. Give the Sicilians a break. There are tons of hard-working Russians, Iranians, Irish, Jamaicians, Hiatians, Greeks, Jews and WASPS who'd like proper respect paid for their great contributions to organized crime.
Arab terrorists (see above).
Any P.I. who flashes a photostat of their license. I mean, photostats? Who uses that term anymore? Hello! It's not 1929, anymore. And by the way, gunsels aren't actually guys with guns...
Excessive references to jazz. Nothing wrong with jazz, really, but jazz snobs are a dime a dozen these days. Anyone fifty or under who listens exclusively to jazz is probably a geek or a snob. It's more likely they grew uplistening to the Stones or the Sex Pistols or Garth Brooks or Elton John or Nirvana or Motown or soul or Public Enemy or the Beatles. And chances are they're still listening to 'em. There's no shame in admitting pop culture exists. Name-dropping Mingus or Charlie Parker doesn't make you an intellectual.
The detective should be a man or woman of their times. At least Amos Walker KNOWS he's an anachronism.
Private eyes who drive classic automobiles or brightly-coloured sports cars. C'mon, forget Magnum, P.I. What sort of idiot tails someone in a car that draws attention to itself? Can't you just see it? "Hey, Mugsy, isn't that the same 1955 cherry-apple red T-Bird convertible in immaculate condition, with the mag wheels and the white pinstriping that was behind us yesterday?" "No, Bugsy, it must be another one."
And be very careful before using any of these:
(These are from our mailbag, compliments of our readers)
The bourbon in the drawer
The fedora and the trenchcoat
The stacked secretary
The psycho sidekick who does all the dirty work that the virtuous P.I. won't.
The treacherous femme fatale (this is probably the most predictable plot twist of all).
Obsessive fitness. All that jogging is tiring us out...
Tedious subplots and tragic pasts force-fit into the story to make the P.I. look more human, or have more depth, with no connection to the main plot.
Faux literary self-reflection after using violence.
Extensive Vietnam flashbacks. Okay, so Vietnam was to another generation of PI's what WWII was to Hammer. I recognize this. I understand it. I don't even mind the occasional reference to service. But guys, if I wanted to read a friggin' war novel, I'd read a friggin' war novel.
Let's put political correctness on the hanger next to the lime green leisure suit. And gratuitous political uncorrectness right beside it.
Serial killers. Hammett gave murder back to the people who commit it for a reason, remember? Serial killer stories are too often just cozies with more blood and less tea.


JD Rhoades said...

Are Gulf War flashbacks okay?

pattinase (abbott) said...

This serves to remind how very versed a writer should be in the historical elements and requirements of a genre before attempting to write it. I have only attempted one short story with a PI and in that one, he was retired. So afraid of getting it wrong even after reading hundreds of them.

Imagine how many sf's a writer should read before attempting that. The vocabulary alone is daunting. I'm gonna blog on this too. It's a great subject.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Hey, thanks for the nod, Ed.

I should point out that It's not so much the clichés themselves (which, in the right hands, can still work their magic) that bug me as the fact that there's so little understanding of even why they became clichés in the first place.

Like the lunkheads who think, post-Chandler, that every P.I. should make like the bastard love-child of Henny Youngman and Groucho Marx.

It's like they read Chandler (or more likely saw THE BIG SLEEP) and completely missed the point.

But hey, if I run for prez, wanna be my vice guy?