Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Great Moments in Lousy Writing

Harlan Coben is a pretty good mystery writer. I don't like his Myron Bolitar novels, but that's because I don't like the main character, a sports agent, at all. But some of his other books are top-notch: Tell No One, which was made into a movie by the French director Guillaume Canet (Ne le dis à personne) is excellent, as are many of his other stand-alone novels. Each stand-alone has a similar theme: something in the distant past of a character's life is eventually revealed, with strong repercussions in the present day, changing what many of the characters thought they knew.

His latest book, Caught, is about the disappearance of a high-school lacrosse player, and, while it starts slowly, you get the trademark Coben reversals in the last 50 pages. It's a good summer read.

However, there was one passage that stood out (p. 209):

Something was niggling at the back of Wendy's brain. It was there, just out of sight, but she couldn't quite get to it.

Is there anything more infuriating in mystery writing than this cliché? The reader learns that something is triggered at the back of the detective's mind, and it's like a great big sign reading, "IF YOU WANT TO FIGURE IT OUT, THIS IS AN IMPORTANT CLUE."

What are some other mystery novel clichés that turn you off?


PersonalFailure said...

Well, if you have nothing better to do for the next few days, I give you

Mystery Tropes from TV Tropes.

My favorite is Everyone Is a Suspect. Really, unless your victim happens to be Hitler, how many people will risk life in prison/the death penalty to teach him or her lesson?

Anonymous said...

i hate reading passages containing cheesy dialogue whose sole purpose is to introduce to the characters an answer to a mystery that the reader already knows from previous chapters. i suppose that's unavoidable though.

Gingerbaker said...

I can't stand the way some villains spill their secrets to the hero just before the villain thinks he is about to kill the finally-captured hero, almost always using some ingenious scenario which doesn't involve simply putting a bullet through his head.

Gingerbaker said...

Oh yeah - another cliche that leaves us howling at our house when we see it in movies. The hero finally incapacitates the villain, assumes he is out cold or dead, and turns his back on him. To have him, of course, attack unexpectedly.

Whenever this scenario starts to unfold, we gleefully scream at the screen:

"Step on his neck, step on his neck!!" :D

Michael J. Swart said...

I don't read many novels, but having the "obvious" suspect turn up dead is always crummy.

One cliche that I don't mind at all is having Mr. Body turn up dead really really early. Empathy for the demised victim is second to the whodunnit question and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Blake Stacey said...

"What are some other mystery novel clichés that turn you off?"

What, you mean other than the ones I used myself?

Thordr said...

well, if you don’t mind me broadening the scope, as I don’t read mystery novels, I tend to read more sci-fi and fantasy. The cliché tool of dues ex machine. annoys me. We have a problem, ok, the problem is really big now, we are all going to die, oh, wait I have this nifty little tool here, click, problem solved. One reasons I don’t watch Dr. Who.

Jonathan Lubin said...

It ticks me off when Our Hero, a policeman or private investigator, suddenly finds himself in the Bad Guy’s sights. Or his Noble Wife winds up being threatened by BG.

andrew said...

okay, this is something that happened a lot in hercule poirot: the detective finds some little clue that he fails to share with the readers, and had we known it, we could have figured everything out ourselves.

James Cranch said...

The "deus ex" pattern mentioned by Thordr is the reason I read science fiction but avoid fantasy.

I think an integral feature of good science fiction is that it takes place in a world which need not be our own, but in which the rules of the game are defined early (long before they are relevant to the plot development).

Good science fiction can contain entirely implausible things, and can even have things we'd regard as magic (an excellent example is John Wyndham's The Chrysalids, one of my favourite books). But if the reader knows very precisely what their applicability is, there can be no deus ex.

Anonymous said...

I hate it when the bad guy makes his first appearance more than halfway into it. We've been trying to decide which of the characters are The Bad Guy, and then it turns out to be someone we haven't been introduced to yet. What were those first 200 pages for?
I agree about Hercule Poirot - annoying when it comes to the solution. @ James Cranch, I also want all the rules explained at the start, so I can fit the rest of the story into a framework - whether it's real or imaginary - and try to figure out the mystery based on that.