Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Guest Post: "Pet Peeves in Mysteries" by Denise Weeks (alias Shalanna Collins)

Things that annoy readers is a topic that comes up here from time to time. Back in late January Jeanne of the Bristol Public Library offered a guest post on the subject. Of course, there are comments in regards to reviews here and other places. Please welcome today author Denise Weeks (who also goes by Shalanna Collins) as she offers a few thoughts of her own on the subject….

Pet Peeves in Mysteries

Do you have pet peeves?  What are some of yours?  I wince when game show contestants can't add two one-digit numbers, I hate to see street signs that have misplaced apostrophes, and I go crazy when I see some of these tricks in mysteries.

First off, that ever-popular TSTL (too stupid to live) heroine.  PLEASE stop meeting strangers in dark alleys at midnight, alone, with no backup.  PLEASE don't go down into the basement at 2 AM during a power outage armed with nothing but a flashlight because you "heard something."  Especially when the neighbors have been knocked off one by one over the past week!  I like heroines who think like I do, and most readers are too clever to do these things.

OH WHOA IT'S A CLUE--BUT LOOK, SOMETHING SHINY!  Our Heroine finds a Real Live Clue, but we can't let her immediately grasp what it means and how important it is, because then the book would be over. So for a hundred pages or more, the reader is carefully distracted from whatever it was, even though someone else might mention it just to keep that "fair play" ball in the court. About three-quarters of the way in, someone says something innocent that reminds the sleuth about this clue.  AHA! Now we know what that meant!

But even worse is when the sleuth realizes the importance of that dull paper clip--and doesn't announce what it is. The sleuth jumps up from breakfast yelling, "I know! I know how Bogdorp offed Manimal!" And then proceeds to make phone calls that we don't overhear and go running around to set up police officers to be lurking in the background when the perp is confronted. The perp is cornered and either pulls a gun or does a full confession. Sigh.

If you are going to do this, TELL US what it is that she/he realizes. Don't be COY. I hate coy.


And you constantly see people (including the detective) getting conked over the head hard enough to knock them out (to unconsciousness, for up to several hours) and then leaping up to pursue the perp.  NO.  This requires a trip to the emergency room.  Heard of a concussion?  And if your heroine has a large goose egg and stitches, she can't shinny up the telephone pole right after she's wheeled out of the clinic.  Closed head injuries leave lasting effects.

And what about the ending of every "Murder, She Wrote" episode?  Presented with some flimsy guess or inconsequential bit of evidence, the hard-boiled perp hangs his head and proceeds to confess in detail.  A clever murderer who knows that physical evidence and wild conjectures may or may not convince a jury would never blab all.  And they shouldn't even say, "I was in Luxembourg at the AccordionFest when this happened. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it." Especially when the only evidence Mrs. Fletcher has is that he plugged the wrong electric guitar into the amp. Even ONE fingerprint can be explained away if someone often visited that victim's house (why couldn't I have stumbled two weeks ago over the victim's cat and caught myself on that framed needlework on the wall, and that's why my blurred print is on the glass, not because I touched it by accident while beating Aireheadina over the head with a tire iron that you still have not found?)  What SHOULD these perps say?  "I assert my right to remain silent.  I want to call my lawyer."  And then clam up!

I do love "Murder, She Wrote," because it's always entertaining and it features bit players and character actors you never see anywhere else.  But there's a formula they follow, and perhaps it's not the best.

Then there's the stunt that is endemic to category romance. "If You Don't Know, I'm Certainly Not Gonna Tell You." So many plots hinge on something that a character doesn't tell another character, even when it would be perfectly natural and usually obvious to say. If they'd just TALK to each other or ask for clarification, there'd be no plot, so we get to suffer as we flip pages and moan, "Why doesn't somebody just ASK why the sweatshirt was inside-out?" And don't talk to me about when a person sees someone with an attractive companion and jumps to the conclusion that s/he is cheating, and then it turns out to be a long-lost sister or cousin or mom, or a talent scout from MGM. JUST ASK, WHY DONCHA.

If your detective doesn't ask questions that a five-year-old would think of, readers assume you intend us to think the detective is stupid. We hate that. If he can't bring himself to ask, get a five-year-old. There is very little that a five-year-old will restrain herself from asking. "Mommy, is Tayllorr a lady or a man?"

And then there's the ubiquitous sleuth or cop who has "demons," whether it's alcoholism or a murdered loved one.  Zzzzzzz...*pop*  That is a real snooze.  The depressingly "heartbroken" dark hero or heroine is obsessed with recurring thoughts of the wife/husband or fiance or spouse-and-children who were violently or suddenly taken from them. This tragedy may have happened a while ago, but the sleuth has been scarred. Not scarred enough, I might note, to avoid immediately taking up with whoever is the detective assigned to the current case. Pages are filled with how wonderful the ex was and how stunning the new one is. This romance is typically begun in the first book in the series and thus has to be featured in the next book. Sometimes that hampers the plot.

I avoid this last situation in my books because I find it so ubiquitous in all the other series. In the NICE WORK series, Jacquidon broke up with college beau Colin almost a year ago. They'd been cohabiting when she discovered him cheating casually. With a man. He had been dismissive of her and was ruining her self-esteem anyway ("You're not really good enough for me," "I wish I could find someone better.") So she bought her own house, knowing her job was secure over at CSD where she had a very encouraging boss. Ha! Anyhow . . . we don't dwell at all on this, and there's exactly one reference to the past romance.

In the MARFA LIGHTS series, Ariadne had pretty much gotten over Aaron's desertion, although she kept thinking she'd surely hear from him soon, when she hears he has crossed the Veil and has left her all his worldly goods (probably because he took so much from her and used her credit cards to buy the stuff he used to travel and relocate with, promising he'd bring her to be with him once he was set up in "the wilderness.") We don't dwell on that romance. She has enough trouble discouraging Gil, the creepy preacher who was Aaron's best friend, and a few others out in Marfa.  And it's amusing.

I think these authors feel they have to compete with all the other dark, pathetic, twisted, bereaved/deserted protagonists who can NEVER be HAPPY.

There's something to be said for a cheerful protagonist. Jacquidon Carroll is basically happy and cheerful, despite her situation (being a suspect in the murder of her boss--whom she does mourn!! That's another of my pet peeves, when NO ONE cries or mourns or feels sad or even tries CPR when the victim is offed), and her sister Chantal is the "happy moral compass" of the stories. True, Jacquidon does get kind of messed up emotionally while she is targeted as a suspect, and the visits to the BDSM clubs really unnerve her (they're checking out leads, not just having adventures). But she's not always thinking about some awful thing in her past.  Ari French (my other sleuth) is introspective and low-key, and she *does* think about her
losses, which can get heavily philosophical.  But she never falls into the abyss and then leaps into a cop's arms.  In my techie ghost story romantic suspense, LOVE IS THE BRIDGE, everyone is generally upbeat.  I get enough downbeat super-serious sadness from real life.  I read for escape and adventure, not crying catharsis. Thus I do not read "torture porn," kidnap fantasies, or books in which any animal is harmed. Your mileage may, of course, differ.

Let's spare an eyeroll for those hot-and-heavy romances with the cop on the case.  So unlikely in real life.  I also think that the "keep out of the investigation" dicta coming from those cops would make more of an impression on me, were I the sleuth. And I disbelieve the leaking of info they always do when on the phone with the sleuth.  "Yeah, he had a Swiss bank account.  Me, too.  I have a dotted Swiss account!"

AND . . . your heroine must save herself. You cannot have someone else accidentally open the door and rescue her. She must summon help or do the butt-kicking herself.  Let's say she manages to send smoke signals to the cops, or flashes the miniblinds in an SOS pattern, or gets a cell phone to connect while the bad guys are discussing how to dispose of her body. She must do whatever it is that spurs the rescuers on. Or she has to kick the guy in the groin herself and run to the street or to the nearest police station. Make her be the HEROINE! Make her be the one who figures it all out, if you can.

So what? Who cares about my pet peeves? Do you have pet peeves? Let's hear 'em so I don't do 'em in the next book!

Denise Weeks (alias Shalanna Collins) ©2016

Denise Weeks is the author of the Jacquidon Carroll "Snoop Sisters" series as well as the Ariadne French traditional mysteries, along with several standalones like LOVE IS THE BRIDGE.  She writes YA fantasy as Shalanna Collins.  Like many homegrown Texas humorists, she isn't funny.  Her favorite foods are curried yak, chocolate, and French fries. She knows (but is not telling) a plethora of alchemical and occult secrets. Homeland Security has identified her as a person of interest.  (Okay, just kidding.  She doesn't really eat curried yak.)  She is currently at work on yet another novel.  Visit her at


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I pretty much agree with all you've mentioned. Good post!

Amy Bennett said...

I like intelligent characters--both sleuths and villains--so I agree with a lot of what you've said. And nothing drives me crazier than "I can't tell you right now" being used to drag out the story! Normal adults don't do that!

Jan Christensen said...

I'm afraid to talk about pet peeves because I suspect I may have done what I'm peeved about in one story or another myself But two I recently found in different books: Time line off--main character eats lunch twice in one day, and character finds out he has something valuable when he checks it out by going to an expert. He leaves it in plain sight at home, but stops for a long time to visit with friends before going home, and of course finds the article gone when he gets there.
I do agree with your peeves, especially the heroine not saving herself and To Stupid To Live characters. Your books sound like a lot of fun, and your bio is a hoot!

Kathy/Kate/Kaitlyn said...

By sheer coincidence, I'm blogging about my pet peeves in cozies over at www.mainecrimewriters.com today and there is very little overlap. Just means there are lots of peeves to go around, I suppose.

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson

Susan said...

I agree wholeheartedly. Mysteries are so much better when everyone acts like sensible adults - and are so much more challenging to write believably, which is probably why the 'pet-peeve' kind are so ubiquitous. By the way, I loved both MARFA and BRIDGE... great books! Will have to get the other one soon.

Shalanna said...

Thank you, everyone, for your thoughts--especially since you agree! (LOL) I have gone back into a book numerous times to be sure my heroine is motivated properly and not just doing something because The Script Says So, and that the event passes the "would she really DO this?" test. Kaitlyn/Kathy--great minds obviously think alike. Susan--I don't know how all these books with flaws get past any editor and get such rave reviews (sigh). Jan--happy to hear that you liked my bio! And you should pick up one of the books or do a sample or "Look Inside," or even ask me for a free Kindle copy, if you think you MIGHT review it (grin). In fact, that offer's always open to anyone! Amy--I really hate the "I can't tell you" deal that is in almost EVERY "Murder, She Wrote" episode. Shortcut and not worthy of the writer. Marilyn--we have similar tastes! Read on!

Karen Packard Rhodes said...

You hit on one of my deepest pet peeves -- that which I call "character glop." It's the obligatory deomon or demons, or the oh-so-awful relationship that the character just can't seem to get over. If it can't be made absolutely necessary to move the story, it should go. There's too much of it on today's TV dramas, too, making them more like soap operas, which I haven't had anything to do with since I was about 11 years old. On the other hand, when it can be made a necessary part of the story, it can work. If done right. I also have no use for the Too Stupid to Live character. Heh.

Nancy LiPetri said...

Great list of peeves! My favorite, which carries over to movies and TV, is the Why don't they just tell each other? Those silly romances (I'm picturing Hugh Grant) that go on and on and get slap-sticky over a few obvious words the characters should exchange. I yell at the TV, "Just tell him!"

Susan Oleksiw said...

I love your list of pet peeves. I've learned to suspend my rational mind when I read mysteries because so many of the sleuths are TSTL, as you point out. I try to remind myself that if I wouldn't do it, then my sleuth certainly shouldn't because she's supposed to be smarter than I am. Great post.

Elgin Bleecker said...

Thanks for the post. Your peeves are mine, and I will add one. This is close to your Don’t Be Coy item. But instead of the sleuth being coy, the author is being coy. A few years ago, a very popular novel used the device of ending a chapter just as the sleuth discovered something important. The following chapter went to another character in the story, while we, the readers had to wait to find out what the sleuth learned. He did this again and again. For years, TV and movies have used this trick.

Earl Staggs said...

Good piece, Shalanna, and your peeves are my peeves. Especially the one about a recovering alcoholic protag. One more and I'll take up drinking myself. Let me add another peeve. I call it the Perry Mason Reveal. I liked the show, but I always knew how it would end. At the last minute, Perry would bring in astounding evidence the audience had no way of knowing and voila! Whoever was on the witness stand at the time would break down into a tearful confession. Made me want to shout,"Play fair, Perry!"