By Lori L. Lake
I’ve been reading adult mysteries since the age of nine, when I first tackled the Perry Mason series. (Encyclopedia Brown probably doesn’t count.) Over the years, I’ve read more than 3,000 mysteries and thrillers, some of them fabulous and some disappointing duds. Over that time, I’ve developed a list of conventions that sometimes work – but that also often spell trouble.
Here are my thoughts on various conventions in some of the most “unbelievable” mysteries – and you can take that “unbelievable” as a plus or a minus.
1. Don’t bother to go into the real world and research how cops, investigators, lawyers, and detectives actually do their jobs. This kind of information will only confuse and upset your audiences who already have preconceived notions from TV and the movies which must not be dispelled. Feel free to use terms like “Book ’im, Dano” and LUDS (for phone records), and of course every suspect is, indeed, called a “perp.”
2. Don’t worry about forensics or technology. Everyone knows that all fluids and substances can be dabbed or placed on a slide, popped into a machine, and spun around by centrifugal force like in the “CSI” TV show, resulting in the emergence of a ticker tape of information that reveals all the chemicals and toxins. In addition, footprints, chips of paint, and tire impressions can be tracked with ease; DNA results from body fluids are obtainable overnight; retinal scans are common; and a fingerprint can be lifted from any surface: Velcro, felt, onion skin paper, etc.
4. Criminals, especially bank robbers, NEVER give themselves up, preferring instead to have major shootouts that are guaranteed to leave them riddled with holes. If, by some strange chance, they manage to be captured alive, they can also be counted upon to brag to those with whom they are incarcerated ensuring their ultimate conviction.
5. A gun is a gun is a gun. Really classy detectives carry Glocks—with or without safeties—and most criminals (especially drug dealers) carry sawed off shotguns or automatic rifles. Cops sometimes still have to carry those old-fashioned, single-action revolvers. Every shot smells like cordite, and nobody ever has trouble hearing even after firing a weapon within an enclosed space.
6. Even though danger and possible death is patently obvious to the reader, sleuths or detectives will always take off on their own without telling anyone, usually because they think they won’t be believed or they are positive they are the only ones who can handle the situation. They will open doors they shouldn’t, enter huge complexes where it is easy to get lost, and often become trapped and have to fight themselves out of warehouses, meat-packing plants, or machinery such as presses or crushers.
8. Police experts, the FBI, the Secret Service, and various private detectives and lawyers have studied almost every facet of law enforcement and generally know all there is to know—or they always know who to find it out from—and that person usually works just one office or one street away. Nobody is a specialist in their own little world…except the medical examiner who always looks like s/he’s been up all night drinking, crying, and not sleeping because of the horrid job s/he has to do. If, by chance, the detective does not know some small piece of information about forensics, technology, procedure, etc., s/he will not be given that information until it is too late for it to: 1) make sense, 2) save lives, or 3) keep him or her out of big trouble with the boss. If the detective has to get the information from an expert, usually s/he will have to travel by plane to Quantico or Miami or New York or Hollywood or some other sexy hotspot where people s/he meets there will coincidentally have something nefarious to do with the case.
10. All head wounds render the detective only temporarily out, or, at the very least, groggy, but still retaining most faculties. In addition, despite cranial fracture or concussion, s/he is still able to wrestle the evil villain off the edges of roofs, over small cliffs, in the rain or cesspools of mud, and through fire, explosions, or gunshots.
11. Most gunshot wounds hit the detective in the shoulder or in the “bullet-proof” vest, requiring only a short time in the hospital – if the detective actually allows him or herself to be taken to the hospital. When under medical care, usually protagonists refuse treatment, or they accept treatment and wait until no one is looking, then manage all by themselves to disconnect the oxygen, morphine drip, feeding line, and heart monitors so they can put on their bloody clothes and sneak out of the hospital.
12. Many sleuths worth their salt have at least one of the following: 1) a shadowy protector good with a gun and his or her fists (ie. Bubba in Dennis LeHane’s books or Ranger in the Stephanie Plum series); or 2) an investigative partner with whom they are supposed to share everything, but from whom they keep key data and information (see most police books); or 3) a spry, elderly man or woman who watches out for them (ie. Sue Grafton’s or Sara Paretsky’s books); or 4) someone at home from whom they keep all their worries, instead choosing to carry the weight of all the pain, anguish, responsibility, etc. right up to the point where their spouse/lover/child/parent is threatened or harmed. The exception to this rule is Robert B. Parker whose girlfriend is a great listener and actually a psychiatrist with whom he shares a lot…however, he DOES have Hawk as a protector.
14. It is possible for the average citizen to stumble upon as many as 20 or 30 dead bodies in the course of one series of novels. This even happens with sleuths who are technically criminals (Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr, for instance).
15. All drug dealers are badly shaven, take drugs themselves, and are ready to kill at the drop of a hat—except the king of the drug cartel who lives in Beverly Hills or some rich part of NYC next door to the mayor or Clint Eastwood or someone else famous, and he is able to order others to kill on command. Unfortunately, the hired killers are usually inept in some way, leaving vital clues and/or living witnesses which lead right back to the kingpin.
17. A disproportionate number of villains are represented by minorities, especially Middle Easterners, German scientists, Asians, Colombians, and Russians. Most of these villains are intent on taking over the world. Nobody ever explains why they would WANT to take over the world.
18. Serial killers and psychopathic murderers usually got that way because of poor mothering. Their fathers are rarely, if ever, mentioned. Serial killers usually seem perfectly normal to everyone around them, holding down regular jobs, keeping up their yards, and apparently just enjoying murder and mayhem for recreational purposes…except for when they are caught, in which case they turn to bizarre, frothing-at-the-mouth behavior that is liable to throw everyone into a complete panic. They also become supernaturally strong and can carry dead bodies or passed-out detectives twice their weight right over their shoulders.
19. Sociopaths have problems with their consciences. Psychopaths are clever but crazy and bloodthirsty. Both of the terms are obsolete synonyms for “anti-social personality disorder. Whatever they’re called, in fiction both have a tendency to lurk around in the darkness, just out of the sight or hearing of their victims, thinking bizarre, discombobulated thoughts that show them to be bonkers. But somehow they still manage to carry off their murders without leaving much in the way of clues, and it usually takes 300 pages or more for the intrepid sleuth(s) to catch them. When they get caught, they’re usually either bonkers - or fully aware and laughing maniacally. Or both.
20. Once the villains have captured the detective or sleuth, they are never in any hurry to dispose of them. Instead, the villains spend considerable time explaining how and why and when they committed their crimes, often exulting in their cleverness. They also often say things like, “I’m real sorry I have to do this, but you just happen to know too much. You should never have seen/done (fill in the blank).” Even when it is clear that reinforcements are on the way, the arrogant criminal just has to get those last bits of explanation in so he or she can chortle at the sleuth, which inevitably gives our hero just enough time to get free and safe the day.
And those are my “laws” so far. Anybody have others to add?
© 2010 Lori L. Lake, www.LoriLLake.com