We all have those things in a book or series that just annoy the heck out of us. Jeanne of the Bookblog of the Bristol Public Library (something you should be reading if you are not already) is back today with a list of pet peeves. Like some of mine, they can be overcome by the work of a talented author.
Mystery Pet Peeves
I have been reading a number of what I refer to as my “happy little cat mysteries.” By this I mean paperback mystery books with a cat on the cover. There may or may not be an actual cat in the book and some of them aren’t particularly happy, but the description serves my purpose. It means I want to be entertained and I’m willing to be forgiving in some areas providing that other aspects of the book are good. Interesting characters, for example, or learning something new, an ingenious plot, or even an unusual setting, any of these can redeem a book with problems. Give me fully fleshed out characters instead of cardboard one (and no, hobbies and quirks don’t make a character!) and I’ll happily overlook plot holes, unbelievable small town murder rates, and cops who are delighted to have an amateur poke into investigations.
However, by reading so many close together I’m finding myself frustrated by some of the same scenarios over and over. It gives the books a cookie-cutter quality that I find off-putting. Lesa of the incomparable Lesa’s Book Critiques blog recently wrote about one such problem, that of the dueling boyfriends and the heroine incapable of making a choice. Here are four others that I find annoying:
He Doesn’t Love Me Anymore! I don’t mind romance in my mysteries, and a good one can turn me to mush, but I am tired of insecure heroines who suspect their partners of infidelity at every turn only to have the mysterious flower order to Ruby turn out to be a long lost aunt who celebrating a birthday. It seems to be an attempt to add tension to a relationship, much like soap opera lovers have to have a crisis every week. Which brings me to:
You Can’t Be a Detective, You’re Married! Why is it that some authors believe that being married or being in a relationship means the heroine has to give up investigations? For the most part, it seems to me to be another cheap plot device to inject conflict. You knew she poked her nose into murder investigations before you married her, so get over it. And for the author: you trust your readers to believe a small town can have at least one clever murder a year, but you don’t trust us to believe that a man or woman can deal with a spouse who sleuths? Fortunately, Mrs. Pollifax’s Cyrus doesn’t share that prejudice nor Amelia Peabody’s Radclilffe nor … well, you get the idea. Sleuthing together can be downright romantic, in fact: just think of the TV show Hart to Hart or Castle.
Don’t You People Ever Talk? This goes along with point one above, but can include any other relationship in the book: parents and children, business partners, etc. There’s a situation that has the character concerned but which could be cleared up with a simple conversation. After 200 pages, all is revealed and it’s been a misunderstanding. As an attempt to add tension or distraction to a book, it gets old fast.
The Incredible Immovable Obstacle! Like a superhero in reverse, this character – usually a boss or authority figure—functions only to block the heroine (or hero, this one appears for both genders) from investigating. Usually he or she is also a generally vile human being with no redeeming virtues. He’s pre-reformed Scrooge, Caroline Bingley, Mrs. Danvers, and Thenardier all rolled up into one. (Actually, I always think of Shirley Jackson’s, “One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts.” Sometimes it’s the only possible explanation for people’s behavior.) He or she serves no other purpose in the book than to make life difficult.
This said, none of these are hard and fast rules. Every objection can be overcome with good writing and purpose. A writer once convinced me that her heroine absolutely had to go into the deep dark woods all by herself, an action that could have made me put a book down in disgust instead of willingly following her. The books that cause my irritation are ones who use the above as excuses to force the heroine to do, or fail to do, something in order to stall a solution. This is especially true when the characters are superficial to start with.
On the other hand, there are writers who can use all of the above to great advantage. One recent book had Our Heroine in hot pursuit of the Dream Boat, overcoming all the odds, and winning him—only to find that his love for her was conditional on Our Heroine changing her ways. I did not audibly cheer when she dumped him, but I may have punched the air. It lifted the book from an amusing little cozy to a memorable one, and made this a series I’ll follow. Likewise, a stock bad boss in another series has become a bit more understandable as his motivations have been revealed. We don’t necessarily like him any better, but his actions don’t appear random and unreasonable anymore. It’s upped my interest in a series that I had viewed as marginal.
So keep those cozies coming!