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February 13, 2008


Brian Lindenmuth

The protag/pi who demands the release forms and checks himself out of the hospital.

The psycho sidekick is actually one of my favorite cliches. I would love to see a pastiche story where a whole group of "main" characters get kidnapped and all of their sidekicks team up to save the "heroes". Could be a lot of fun

Elaine Flinn

Add cops who can't manage relationships - and/or whose spouses can't handle their jobs. I mean, what the hell? What did they expect when they married a cop? A 9-5 job with no stress? :)

Barry Eisler

Is "overused cliché" redundant?



The PI or police detective who goes back to his/her home town and in between sleeping with all their old girlfriends/boyfriends manages to solve both the crime they were sent to investigate and an old crime that has baffled everyone for many years.

PJ Parrish

Guys who slide some dumb wisecrack in at tense moments. Hammett got away with it but most the stuff that came after that sounds forced and stale.

Oh...and descriptions of wet pavement and other fake noir gems.


David J. Montgomery

Barry: Ha! After I wrote that, I thought to myself, "Is that redundant?" But I decided that, since the genre is so ridden with cliches, I'd only focus on the ones that were overused. :)

Elaine Flinn

Don't believe him, Barry - he did that on purpose to see if anyone was wide awake.

You, apparently, were. :)


Cliche is not in the idea, it's in the execution.

And the majority of these "hot young writers" coming out today have poor execution.

No one has an original voice anymore - they're all just doing THEIR version of Lehane or Parker, or Leonard.

There is so much weak fiction being published that I think most all reviewers - including you - have inadvertently lowered your standards. The truly great book is so rare these days, and the truly lousy book is so prevalent, that when you read something mediocre it becomes good in your review, and something good becomes outstanding.

Elaine Flinn

The majority of the 'hot young writers' coming out today have a bigger problem than poor execution. Swollen ego, immediate persona of a seasoned writer by attempting to be profund. One book out and they're qualified now to 'teach writing' to wannabes. Oh, I could go on. Wait...take that back-seasoned writers don't pretend to be profund. They know what humility means.

Elaine Flinn

Damn! I meant 'profound'. I either have to stop relying on spell check or get new glasses.

David J. Montgomery

Unfortunately, I think Guyot is right. There is a lot of "grade inflation" in book reviews. And I think the reason he cites is one of the main culprits -- there is so much crap published that anything with merit at all gets an automatic boost, just because it doesn't suck. Critics try to adhere to standards -- at least, I do -- but it can be tough to hold the line.


So, that's why you called "My Life in Publishing" by Stacey Cochran your Book of the Year.

Elaine Flinn

Okay-now it can be told. :) After reading 526+ books as an Edgar judge this past year - David & Guyot are both on the money. Crap?? Oh, please.

And same-old, same-old plot lines, characters? Oh, double please.

Elaine Flinn

And did I mention kick-ass female cops/P.I./FBI/accidental sleuths/forensic specialist who were tough as nails, had hearts of gold/were single mom/suffering from that man who done them wrong/having an affair with cops on their team and/or local fuzz?

Oh, triple please.

I'm sure I left something out.

Cameron Hughes

You did this! You said you weren't going to, but you did! Awesome!

I don't hate jazz itself. I'm just sick of seeing it, when I was talking to Sean Chercover(NAME CHECK!) about this, he told me a lot of reviewers took him to task for Dudgeon listening to jazz even though he mentioned a lot more music than that. My thoughts to him was that jazz in the P.I. novel is such a trope that when its used, it stands out and makes the reader/reviewer forget that other music was used.

I also hate the P.I. characters who won't go near a computer or cell phone.

Cameron Hughes

Also, I like the sidekick, when done well. Most just use it just to have one, and miss the point of Parker creating Hawk. I love Mouse, Pike, Bubba, a couple others. Most just aren't done well though. I liked the lack of one in Chercover's debut(Gravedigger was more of a sad and disturbed loner to me, and wasn't really violent. Dudgeon was scarier than him)

Philip Amos

The jazz, or rock, music cliche is not limited to crime fiction featuring PIs. We find it also in Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson and John Harvey, among others. I put up with it if the novels are out of the top drawer, but I find it extremely irritating and intrusive. One major problem I have is that most of the albums/musicians/groups referred to I have never even heard of, let alone listened to, so the references cannot possibly add anything to the narrative. I'm a classical music man myself, but a lot of the stuff mentioned in Rankin,e.g, I suspect is pretty recondite even for rock fans. The same goes for Harvey and jazz, some forms of which I do like. They can also become utterly gratuitous, something I notice particularly in Harvey and Robinson -- they are stuck in because that is what the authors do and it is expected. All in all, it's a cliche and usually too abstruse to have meaning. I doubt if a crime fiction writer would get away with doing the same thing with classical music.


Hmm. I posted about my irritation with penniless, down-at-heel PIs in ramshackle offices when the stacked blonde walks in, throwing money on the desk and herself in his lap.
My post didn't take. Must be discrimination.
Since we have included police procedurals: I have no objection to drinking and broken marriages. These are simply too true and too common in real life. I do dislike the constant obscure references to jazz or rock bands. But Elaine is absolutely right about the overabundance of female "kickass" PIs or detectives in rumpled sweats (what is it about cheap and dirty clothing that is thought to help characterization?) and with a nasty attitude toward men.

David J. Montgomery

I.J. brings up a good point -- when you're talking about the world of law enforcement, excess drinking and relationship problems are, unfortunately, a very real part of the scene.

But that leads me to another thought: Is verisimilitude a defense against cliché? (Like the truth is a defense against libel?)

My instinct would be to say no. Just because something is true, doesn't mean it can't become hackneyed or trite.


Music... I love it, love reading how it relates to characters, but, yes, the jazz thing is simply played out. Again, not the idea, but the execution - if you MUST have your character listen to jazz, make it unique, make the way he/she listens to it unique.

And then there's the "I'm cooler than you" tip. I LOVE Pelecanos, but every time he goes into the whole deep, unknown-to-the-outside-world DC music scene and has all his characters listening to nothing else, well, it just stops the story for me.

It's like George feels compelled to either show his expertise, or give props to these local music people he knows, or something. Whatever the reason he has used it so much that it now stops the story for me. And it's too bad, because I think he is one of the finest writers working today.

David J. Montgomery

I think of music in this context the same way that I think of research. The author knows stuff, then uses it as a flavor-enhancer to make the story more interesting. But we don't want to see the research itself. We don't want an info-dump. We just want the flavor. And that's how music should be used. It should accent the flavor of the story. But it shouldn't become the story -- unless that's the point of the book.

I also think it's a risk when the author goes too obscure or too hip. For a musical reference to make sense to the reader, they have to be able to relate to it at least a little. Otherwise it's just words with no meaning. The author has to set the proper context in order for the references to make sense. Otherwise, it's just showing off.


I think you're exactly right, you big gooey tub of love.

Hey, it is V-Day.

Karen Olson

It's only cliche if it sucks. A good writer can take a cliche and turn it upside down on its ass and it becomes fresh and original.

And why are the women dissing the "kick ass" women protags? I point to Gillian Flynn's SHARP OBJECTS, which could have been so cliched but was one of the best books I've read in a long time.

Philip Amos

Verisimilitude is the quality of only seeming to be true, but whether a cliche is grounded in that or in actual verity it adds up to the same thing: the ghastly platitude. I recently read for the first time Peter James, the second in his Roy Grace series, and I shan't be reading another for a number of reasons. One is that among his revelations about police officers were that they like to be part of a good team; tend to have rocky domestic lives; get very upset with defence lawyers; even more upset with soft judges, and on and on. None of these traits had anything to do with the story -- just solemn asides from an author who had either just discovered these things or thought they must be revelatory for the reader. They are all in some measure true, but for even the mildly seasoned crime fiction reader, hackneyed and trite indeed. Oh, and for good measure, James just had to tell us what sort of music Grace likes to listen to on his car radio.


In the case of music, I think it can be as simple as a writer not realizing that the thing that sparks all these associations in her own head sparks no associations for other people. It's an electromagnet with no current to activate it.

As for cliches, I think that's kind of like asking whether McDonald's sucks. Well, yeah... but sometimes you want fries.

David J. Montgomery

"but sometimes you want fries."

Like right now for instance.

Karen Olson

I don't mind music references. I think they help define characters. Wallace Stroby uses Springsteen, as does Chris Grabenstein, and it's not out of place since their books are set in New Jersey. I like Harry Bosch's jazz, even though I'm not familiar with much of it. And Rebus' music shows that he's a bit of an odd duck.

Elaine Flinn

Karen asked: 'why are the women dissing kick-ass...'

Not really 'dissing', Karen-it's just that that type of female protag is being way over done in my opinion. Like I said before-after 526+ books last year - it's been run into the ground, much like 'jazz'! :)

And, by the way - I love jazz - so how come Dave Brubeck isn't someones favorite? :)

Just asking...

Elaine Flinn


Pardon me if it sounded as if all I'd read as an Edgar judge was crap. I didn't mean it quite that way. Obviously, there were many, many fine books submitted and coming up with the short-list was incredibly difficult. For a writer-I didn't communicate very well-and I should define 'crap' as referencing many similiar plots and protags with the same baggage being written today. And I include myself in this group. :)

Mea Culpa to any writer out there whose book was submitted.


Well, you know I don't think of myself as a woman dissing female characters. I'm just a writer.
Maybe that's the problem: too many female authors writing for women. To be perfectly frank, that gets old. And I like my messages to be fair and even-handed.
David, fries are bad for you. And please defend yourself against Paul's charge. My reputation as an author hangs in the balance here. :)

Brian Lindenmuth

Regardless of quality of story and writing a cliché is still a cliché. A lot of readers can sense how a cliché is being used. For example if its being used lazily, or with a wink, or on purpose.

But a lot CAN be said for the execution of a cliché. because knowledge of clichés and how they are implemented CAN lead to good things. The Western genre gives us two great examples. Silverado and The Unforgiven. In my mind they stand out as the best examples of late genre development cliché usage. Silverado knew every cliché in the book and played each and every single one of them pitch perfectly to create in some ways the ultimate western. Unforgiven used its knowledge of western clichés to completely subvert the genre and create something new. Both movies, using the same tools, created their own masterpieces.

One of the best examples in crime fiction of parading all of the tropes and clichés in one outing is Donna Moore's Go To Helena Handbasket. Absolutely brilliant.

Another example of a recent genre novel just reveling in the clichés was Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis.

Here is an interesting quote from Umberto Ecco's essay 'from Casablanca, or, The Cliché's are having a Ball

"When the choice of the tried and true is limited, the result is a trite or mass-produced film, or simply kitsch. But when the tried and true repertoire is used wholesale, the result is an architecture like Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. There is a sense of dizziness, a stroke of brilliance."

David J. Montgomery

Opinions differ on this, obviously, but I'm not convinced that Warren Ellis wasn't using clichés because he didn't know any better.

And I can assure everyone that I.J.'s book deserved the praise I gave it. It's when I start raving about James Patterson that you know I'm suffering from "the critic's disease" again.

David J. Montgomery

Brian... Quotes from Ecco, Foucault and Derrida are not allowed on this blog. Hubbard, on the other hand, is encouraged.



I hear you're mad about Brubeck. I like your eyes, I like him, too!

I enjoy the familiar cliches based on the mood I'm in, but I also believe the more unusual takes on protagonists can often get weeded out as being unmarketable. Then, a good writer with a risk-friendly publisher somehow proves appealing, and their character's quirk becomes a fad and then a cliche copied by people who aren't blazing trails and aren't usually as good.

I don't believe many people buy a book first because the guy has a pot-bellied pig instead of a faithful labrador, or that they come back if the storytelling stinks, but I could be wrong. I so often am.

What's got me sick to death is the premature en-corpse-lation in so many books where the pace and tone don't fit that wham-bam approach. If the characters or premise don't hook me, a miscellaneous body on page 1 isn't inherently gripping either.

Stephen D. Rogers

What scares me about review inflation are the casual or non-genre readers who take a chance based on a glowing review, and then walk away thinking they were right before.

Yes, they already plunked down their money, but they won't be making that mistake again any time soon.

Sean Chercover

I've just about had it with all the crime in crime fiction. What a cliche!

And all those cops in police procedurals? Overdone.

And cars and music and guns and violence and telephones and depression and rain and nighttime. Have you ever noticed how many authors rely on that old "nighttime" cliche in crime fiction? How stale is that?

David Montgomery

And don't forget that tired old trope of "hot monkey love" that so many authors keep trotting out. I read those passages over and over again, looking for some spark of originality, but I never find it.

(For those of you who might be unfamiliar with Sean Chercover's work, I recommend you educate yourselves promptly. The man knows from PI fiction.)

Cameron Hughes

Sean! I need to know what you think of P.I.'s wearing a coat! This is important stuff!

(And listen to David, guys. Sean's book is great.)

Sean Chercover

Aw, shucks. You guys are great. Thanks for the pimping.

One thing that bugs the hell out of me is the PI who gets the crap kicked out of him, but after a shot of bourbon and a hot shower, he's instantly ready to rock & roll again. Ugh.

barbara fiser

The energizer bunny - yup. A classic.

What I find interesting and common enough lately to be a cliche (though perhaps not an overused cliche just yet...:o) is the male writer who has a kick-ass female protagonist. Not just kick-ass, but "seven in one blow" killer kick ass. They are often lonely, terrifically strong, trained in various martial arts, and basically a boob-enhanced superhero with a soul.

Not that there's anything wrong with women kicking ass, but it's just interesting that so many men are writing these characters right now.

PJ Parrish

"Hot monkey love"???

What the hell is that?
Give, David.


Did PJ Parrish just ask David J. Montgomery to give her (them) some hot monkey love?


All those private eye clichés are important parts of why I like the genre. I like metal... Because of the frantic guitars, the pounding drums, the loud vocals. Take away those and what is there left of what I like about it? So yeah, they're clichés but also what makes the genre enjoyable. The trick is to have a good story to go with them, fine writing and characters to care for. Add special twists to the clichés. Start with what makes the genre cool and expand on it. Sean's stuff is good example of that.

David J. Montgomery

You know... when it's so good, it's primal.

R.J. Mangahas

"Not that there's anything wrong with women kicking ass, but it's just interesting that so many men are writing these characters right now."

this is only my opinion, but I think one reason male authors (a lot of genre writers anyway) are writing women this way because, in general, more men read crime fiction than women do. It's seen as a way as broadening their readership.
And to be honest, whether male or female, it can sometimes be hard writing for the opposite sex.

David J. Montgomery


I think you're on to something, but I also think you're just missing it. The vast majority of the audience for crime fiction (and all fiction) is FEMALE. Something like 2/3 of all mystery novels are bought by women. So I think that writing about female characters like this is a way for male crime writers to attract that female audience, without which they can't succeed.

David J. Montgomery

I love a good woman who kicks lots of ass...but it does have serious potential to quickly stray into the absurd.

Jack Reacher is 6'5" and weighs 250 pounds. When he beats up 5 guys in a bar at the same time, it not might be strictly realistic, but I can accept it.

When a woman who's 5'5" and weighs 125 pounds kicks similar ass in her Manolo Blahniks... Well, that strains credibility a bit too far.

It's fine if the book isn't meant to be taken seriously. But if we're supposed to believe it, I have a little trouble.

Doug Riddle

As a kid I loved reading S.F., but eventually I got tired of all that space and future crap.....lol

The point being, aren't the "cliches" part of what define a genre? Whether it is S.F., crime/mystery, thriller or even Lit. Fiction we know we are going to find certain cliches.

Isn't part of the reason we read in a certain genre, is to see how each writer handles the cliches and makes them their own?

I personally am way over the "badass sidekick". I understand the need for a sidekick as vehicle to explain the story and plot points, but shouldn't the way your character deals with violence give us insight into them?

As for all the "crap" being published, could someone please forward the names of the agents and publishers who are accepting this crap to me.....I have a big pile of pages and lots of stamps and I would really like to quite my day job.


Sean Chercover

Over at Sarah's place, Keith said, "a cliché is just an archetype somebody doesn't like." Which is both funny and brilliant.

I think a lot of folks are using the word far too liberally. According to Oxford, a cliche is "a phrase or opinion that is overused AND betrays a lack of original thought."

So, to declare something (rain, jazz, alcoholism, fast cars, etc.) a cliche is, I think, missing the point. It only rises to the level of cliche if it is BOTH "overused" AND "betrays a lack of original thought." Many familiar tropes can still be used to convey original thought.

I think Keith is right. "Cliche" should not be synonymous with, "I personally don't like it."

Marcus Sakey

However, that Chercover is a hackneyed, cliche-ridden son of a bitch. We can all agree on that, right?

Sean Chercover

No question.

David J. Montgomery

Interesting point, Sean. However, I DO think that many of the elements mentioned are used by writers due to a lack of original thought. They do it that way because that's the way it was done in the books they read. (I'll grant you, this is speculation, but I believe it to be true.)

I should point out that I'm not saying that I dislike all of the things I suggested as cliches. So following on your last point, I'm not saying they're cliches because I don't like them. There are many things that bug me far more than cliches in books. I would, however, suggest that many of these elements ARE both overused and unoriginal.

I also think that Keith is overstating the point about cliches merely being archetypes that someone doesn't like. A private detective being hired to search for a missing child is an archetype. A private detective being hired by a leggy blonde to search for a missing child while drinking heavily and driving a fast car... Well, that's probably a cliche. (Yes, I'm exaggerating.)

As I indicated in the original post, I think execution is everything. Many genre stories use archetypes as their foundation. How that archetype is used determines whether or not the work devolves into cliche.

David J. Montgomery


I disagree that cliches are the foundation of genre fiction. Archetypes, yes... But as I indicated above, I don't think they're the same thing.

Here's a thought to throw out there -- and it's a work in progress, so maybe it's wrong -- but perhaps the cliche is not in the idea, but in the expression of the idea.

In which case anything would be fair game in the hands of a great writer.

Sean Chercover

David - I agree with you. Some writers do use the familiar elements in such a way (i.e. without an original thought behind the use) that makes them cliches. Most definitely.

I just don't think you can name a thing (fast car, jazz, guns, rain, missing child, alcoholism, etc.) and call it a cliche, as such.

As you said, execution is everything.

Brian Lindenmuth

Opinions differ on this, obviously, but I'm not convinced that Warren Ellis wasn't using clichés because he didn't know any better.

I think that Ellis's larger body of work suggests that he's aware of genre cliches. Whether he was successful in finding ways to use, exploit and invert them is of course debateable but he certainly has knowledge of them.

What scares me about review inflation are the casual or non-genre readers who take a chance based on a glowing review, and then walk away thinking they were right before.

Yes, they already plunked down their money, but they won't be making that mistake again any time soon.

Which has actually happened to me. Someone bought and read The Night Gardener based on my recomendation. They were underwhelmed by it and now are hesitant to read other books whithin the genre.

As for how to differentiate between what's a cliche, what's a trope and what's an arcetypes? Couldn't tell you.

I once wrote the following, "the PI novel is the haiku of the mystery genre; there may be only 17 syllables but in the right hands those syllables will sing. There is the potential for a lot of power in that framework." , and maybe thats how we should view cliches, as a frame work.

Doug Riddle

David, I agree with both you and Sean. We keep saying cliche, when what we really mean is archetypes. And it does boil down to how the material is handled.

But I also agree with Keith, in that we tend to call archetypes that we don't like cliches.

Great topic.


David J. Montgomery

"I just don't think you can name a thing (fast car, jazz, guns, rain, missing child, alcoholism, etc.) and call it a cliche, as such."

I'm with you on that to a certain extent... But I'd also add that certain ideas are far more likely to lend themselves to becoming cliches than others. (Including many of the elements listed above.)

If it takes fine writing to redeem certain story elements, and if we acknowledge that most of us aren't fine writers... Well, it may not automatically qualify as cliche, but it's definitely something to be wary of.


I completely agree that PI novels are full of cliches. The beautiful mysterious woman entering the seedy office to look for her husband/ brother/ sister/ dog etc. Then the long complex almost uncomprehensible plot follows with the parade of stock characters. If i have to read one a year of these, it is too much! I burnt out on them sometimes in the late 1990s when every other book was a wisecracking PI novel.
Elaine, don't apologize for the crap you had to read this past year. I am reading the Edgar nominated books and it is truly a painful experience this year. If the final list is any indication of what you had to wade through then you have my complete sympathy. (Even though you guys blew it by overlooking Laura Lippman's book.)
Are there alot of books being published that are crappy? I think so. I will say that I am not reading as many as I used to and it is probably because I struggle to get through so many of them.
Good job on this, David. It's nice to know I am not alone!
Larry Gandle

Elaine Flinn

"One thing that bugs me is the PI who gets the crap kicked out of him, but after a shot of bourbon and a hot shower, he's instantly ready to rock & roll again. Ugh."

I dunno, Sean - I kinda liked that about your guy. Showed he had balls. :)

And Larry? I felt awful after I'd read what I'd said - and realized I did need to apologize to the writers whose books had been submitted. My comments came off as callous and I certainly didn't mean them to be.

And-as I mentioned on my blog (Evil E - pardon the BSP) - all the judges had personal favorites that just didn't make the final cut.


Am I the only one who gets a little pop! when coming across his own name in a discussion?

Anyway--I just had an email exchange with Guyot about this, so rather than try to think of a new way to say here what I already said there (while on the clock at the day gig), here's some of it:

I think if we disagree, it's mostly semantic. We're using these words differently, but I think we're both getting at something true. It reminds me of conversations in which people argue about what's meant by "plot" vs. "story," when ejecting labels entirely would force them to articulate and exchange actual thoughts in plain English.

You seem to be saying something done well isn't a cliche. I'm saying the primary difference between these terms:


is whether the intended implication is negative, positive or neutral.

That's in this context: fiction--and specifically character. In a conversation about psychiatry (or even in a conversation about prose style), I wouldn't use the term "archetype" and expect it to be understood the same way.

Sean Chercover

Uh, thanks, Elaine. But after getting beat up, my guy lay in bed with an ice-pack on his head, wearing a pink robe and feeling sorry for himself.

Elaine Flinn

Uh, well, yes - there was that. :)

But then-I could be disremembering. In any event, I liked your Ray. And here's your laugh for the day - whilst reading BC/BB - I somehow pictured Tony Bourdain as Ray. :)

PJ Parrish

This would make a good panel at Thrillerfest or Bcon. How do you honor the form of the P.I. novel without stooping to the banal? How do you make something feel fresh without abandoning what makes it unique? My sister Kelly was a Shamus judge a few years back and she said this very thing came up alot -- the push and pull between originality and tradition. There were great books but they didn't really work as true P.I. novels, wandering into legal thrillers or amateur sleuths. But there was, she said, a decidedly lack of freshness among the books that did cleave to the stricter P.I. role.

And if anyone has some good examples of "hot monkey love" in recent crime fiction, email me. I am compiling them for an upcoming panel. Honest.

David J. Montgomery

Keith -- We always talk about you when you're not around. I thought you knew.

You may be right... but if that's the case, then we need some new words to better define what we're talking about.

Them fancy literary types probably have a few... maybe they'd let us borrow 'em.

David J. Montgomery

"I somehow pictured Tony Bourdain as Ray."

That's because Sean looks like him. Only with a 'fro.


Them fancy literary types would tell us to stick with "cliche" on all counts.

David J. Montgomery

Condescending bastards.

Doug Riddle

Them fancy literary types wouldn't talk to us.

They are all too busy writing their next novel about a tormented university professor seeking the meaning of life while trying to get tenure as his marriage crumbles and he sleeps with his most promising student, who he know is really a much better writer then he will ever be........(sorry, my cliche button stuck on my computer)


Clea Simon

well, if we're going to talk fancy literary types, what do you think of "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" as police procedural? I enjoyed it (not as much as Kavalier & Clay) but thought it really fell down as crime fiction.

And, yes, I'm with Elaine on the man-hating/wounded female PIs. Except that if you're going to do a series, can you have a woman in a good relationship and not have it be cozy? (I don't write PIs so an academic question for me.) Does the PI have to be a loner for the plot conventions to work?

(may be the cold medicines talking here)

Cameron Hughes

Them fancy literary types are too busy writing about Pretty White People Gazing at their Bellybutton thoughtfully After a Bad Shag. (I am referring to an awful but critically acclaimed book by a long time writer from last year)

Clea, Chabon was always cheerfully a player on the both genre and "literary" teams. I know a couple people who were agonizing over the fact that it was Chabon writing a police procedural.

But I'd put Connelly's portrait of police, society, and L.A. up against any "literary" writer


Why do I feel like this entire thread will be resolved or rehashed (or both) once Dennis Lehane's THE GIVEN DAY comes out in the fall?


Dear Sean,
My issue with Keith's pov is that - why is something a cliche just because a person doesn't like it?

His "fries" analogy for me doesn't work because (for me) the fries represent bad writing.

And I don't ever want bad writing.

People who truly don't like the archetype of the trench coat, or rogue cop, or PI with a bad office and drinking problem - well, they aren't going to like that whether it's written by Connelly or Lehane or Joe Schmoe awful writer.

And if we go with that theory, then all those greats (Connelly, Lehane, Block, etc.) are writing cliches.

I don't believe that.

Cliche is in the execution, not the idea. Has anyone called Megan Abbott's work cliched? I don't think so. Because she did it well. She executed the archetype idea.

This whole discussion get silly to me because, as stated, no one accuses the great writers - who write within these archetypes - of writing cliches. But everyone will sure as hell scream about it when it's done badly. And when it's done badly, it's not the idea that is cliched, it's the execution.

People who didn't like BCBB (if they were any) might say it was cliched, but I would argue what they're really saying is that they felt you didn't execute it well enough.

As stated - anyone who truly doesn't like the PI archetype isn't reading PI fiction, so that can't be the definition of cliche.

Okay, I'm going to go read some Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

David J. Montgomery

Okay, I think I agree with Paul on this for the most part.

But I'm still wondering... Is it possible for an idea to become so overused that it becomes irredeemably cliche, not matter who writes it or how it's written?

Paul mentions Bulwer-Lytton... Can one start a story, "It was a dark and stormy night" and not have that be a cliche? Is there any way to rehabilitate that?

(I'll grant you, that's a phrase, not an idea, and maybe there's a difference there...)


How about this - what's the difference between pastiche and cliche?

Is it the execution that makes the difference or what?

Dave White

I think Quentin Tarantino talked about taking a cliche and then taking it one step further where it hasn't gone before. It was something I think is interesting. Does the guy come into the PI's office offering him money to stop investigating the case? Yes, but what if the PI takes the money? Does that add something to the characters?

There was always one scene in Crais' (as much as I LOVE Crais) Free Fall that always bothered me. Cole's parked in a bad neighborhood and he sees some thugs trying to break into a car that's not his. Cole chases the thugs down the street until they stop. It had nothing to do with the plot and it always seemed too goodie goodie to me. That to me was worse than a cliche... it seemed out of character.

But what Crais always did with cliches that I loved was he originally always took the deals that Parker's Spenser tried to offer the bad guys, that the bad guys always took and then had them go wrong. That was a fun way to handle those cliches.

John Dishon

A cliche, by definition, cannot be executed well. A cliche is a phrase, expression, idea, whatever, that has lost its originality, impact, novelty due to its overuse. "Hard as a rock" is a cliche. You can't make this phrase have more impact without changing it, and if you change it, it is no longer a cliche; it is a new phrase (unless you changed it into another cliche). Therefore, the "cliche is in the execution, not the idea" theory is incorrect because if you are using something that works, then it is not a cliche. The very definition of cliche is something that does not work as intended.

I feel you guys are selectively defining your terms in order to provide justification for its use. So instead of following the universally-accepted advice to "avoid cliches", you're trying to find a way to say that cliches are okay sometimes.

But then again, is a PI with a drinking problem a cliche? Can no one ever have a character who is a PI and also an alcoholic and make it feel real? I believe you can, but it comes from focusing on the character as human and stop focusing on the story being a "PI novel". Just write a story with a protagonist who feels like a real person, and make his job be a PI, and make his drinking problem come through naturally. If his drinking affects his life, then it might feel real, but if drinking is just used as a character quirk, then it can more easily devolve into cliche.

I will admit my bias in these matters, as I do come from a "literary" background, and it is these cliches and tropes which keep me away from most genre fiction.

Gar Haywood

- The detective who drives a flashy car. (Would you really try to tail someone in a Ferrari or Shelby Cobra?)

Ha ha, a Shelby Cobra. Man, that really would be stupid! The detective would have to borrow his cousin's crappy Hyundai sedan every time he needed to tail someone to make a scenario like that believeable. And what clown of an author would want to go to all that trouble?

(Jeez. Thank God I don't have Gunner coming to the rescue of his beautiful ex-girlfriend, now the wife of a homicidal gangster/thug/corrupt cop, every other book, or I'd be the only topic of discussion around here. Oh, the shame...)


We writers tend to think in metaphors, but sometimes suffer from metaphoritus, the disease that comfuses the thing with the thing it's being compared to.

The problem is not semantics, which should never be the problem among wordsmiths. Our job is to make our meaning clear, and if we fall back on claiming that the problem is that we don't have our definitions clear, we're just being lazy.

John Dishon is right. A cliché is not the same thing as a convention, archetype, trope, or icon. A cliché is not relative to how it is used. A cliché is as exactly as Oxford defines it, "a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought."

An archetype is an image from the collective unconscious. A convention is an agreed-upon standard of artistic treatment. An icon is an image of something sacred which is considered sacred in itself. A trope, in literary usage, is a means of referring to something by means of some rhetorical device -- metaphor, simile, synecdoche, etc. (In music, a trope is a free variation.)

Verisimilitude is not the same thing as credibility. Neither is the same thing as interesting.

The question is, when does a convention outlive its usefulness and become a cliché?


Who farted?

Sean Chercover

He who smelt it, dealt it.

Gar Haywood

On a serious note, I do think it all comes down to originality first, execution second. One can usually tell ten pages into a book how much thought the author gave to working outside the box of all the usual PI conventions. If he/she opens with a beautiful dame walking into the office of a penniless, hungover PI who's just slipped a bottle of Jim Beam back into his desk drawer, even if it's done tongue-in-cheek, breaking the mold was clearly not the object of the exercise. Spin is good, but it can only go so far to take the odor off something that should have been pulled from the fridge a long time ago. For this reason, I give an author bonus points just for staying away from some of the "archetypes" we've seen a gazillion times before, specifically functional alcoholism, good cop bad cop, and the doomed love interest from the past.

Gar Haywood

I love Guyot. He'd emails me about this discussion, then when I enter it, he starts in with the fart jokes.

American Pie 4, anyone?

David J. Montgomery

I pulled that Shelby Cobra example out of my hat and wasn't referring to the Aaron Gunner series. One of the things that made that series so damn good is that it didn't rely on the many overused devices of the PI genre. The Gunner series was different -- which is probably one of the reasons why it didn't catch on as big with readers as it should have.

This just reinforces the idea that the execution is what really matters.


I loved the Gunner series because they were so well written. I never even stopped to think overused device or not... hmm, execution, anyone?

Gunner for me was like the Peter Gunn series - which I think had an influence on Gar, didn't it?

I remember us at the Blake Edwards thing.

Sometimes I miss LA.

Elaine Flinn

Okay, you guys - you really wanna know what a 'cliche' is (aside from the academic rendering JLW so generously gave us)?

What I write is a cliche. The typical professional female who left the big city (usually under a cloud of dust)for a small homey location where she finds herself in the middle of a homicide - becomes an accidental sleuth to clear her name and goes head to head with the local fuzz who will, sooner or later, become a romantic interest.

While I'm certainly not the originator of this theme (my first book in the series came out in 2003) - the plot device has been run into the ground - and in my opinion - it's a damn cliche that has outlived it's purpose more than the P.I. scenarious. And frankly? I'm pau wit it.

Bob Levinson

Hey, Gar...

Guyot also signaled me via email to join the conversation, possibly knowing I'd agree with a lot of what he's been saying.

(Happy now, Paul?)

David M. notes somewhere above that execution is everything. Dare I suggest that execution without originality doesn't matter as much?

Elaine Flinn

Originality. The Magic Word.

Thanks, Bob - we needed that!

p.s. Beside writing cliche plots - I also make up words. For instance - scenarious and profund. And not because I can't spell - it's just a quirk I have. Hmmm...maybe I should come up with a character who can't spell - any ideas out there? :)

Maybe two of my other favorite guys can give me a clue here. Gar? Bob?


Another cliché:

The villain turns out to be an extremely twisted sexual perv.


By the way, my OED defines a cliché as "a stereotyped expression, a commonplace phrase; also, a stereotyped character, style, etc."

Are there times when stereotypes are actually called for in good writing?


Elaine, quit using this forum to promote yourself and your damn books!

Do it the way others do - by shamelessly pimping themselves at conferences.

And how does one make an archetype original??? What's that "E" word again?

JLW: just because EVERYTHING you write ends up being about an extremely twisted sexual perv (as opposed to the mildly twisted sex pervs of Toni Morrison) doesn't mean it's a cliche.

Well, I guess in your case it does.

We need Sarah to come back in and name drop again. Where are you?

Elaine Flinn

My damn books???? Ha! See if you remain a secret love. I'm gonna out you just for that.

And I do pimp myself at conferences - hell, I'm in the bar all the damn time. Where better to pick up a few tricks...er, readers.


Hey, Guyot, be fair: not everything I write is about extremely twisted sexual pervs (or as they're known in the trade, ETSPs)--only the stuff I write to please you.

Elaine Flinn

Aha, so that's what Guyot has been reading instead of Batman,huh?

David J. Montgomery

"Are there times when stereotypes are actually called for in good writing?"

I think stereotypes can be useful in certain types of writing, especially for a minor character who only serves to perform a specific plot function. (For example, a thriller in which plot momentum is of the essence, and a minor character of a police detective.)

But if the protagonist or antagonist is only a stereotype (unless that type is being turned on its ear), that's likely going to make for dull reading.

Gerald So

I'm coming in late, but I don't think we can take anything out of context and call it cliche.

The dilemma in any genre is that a new book has to seem new and yet be familiar enough to be recognized as part of the genre. To me, a convention becomes a cliche when the author lets convention dictate character. Writers may want to pay homage to their favorites, but characters have to distinguish themselves pretty quickly or die. Spenser was much like Marlowe in his debut, but began to distinguish himself by the second book.

The simplest way a character stands out is by approaching conventional situations in new ways that indicate his/her unique personality. For example, Jim Rockford differed from PIs before him in that he always tried to steer clear of trouble, not invite it.

I think if a writer is really committed to showing a P.I.'s personality, it's easy to avoid cliche. After all, does any person really want to be or act just like another?

David J. Montgomery

"not everything I write is about extremely twisted sexual perv"

You just lost me as a reader.


You extremely twisted sexual perv, you.

David J. Montgomery

Smile when you say that.

And then say it again, only slower...


I'm betting the 100th comment will be made by John Updike.

Either him, or someone who stumbled across this by accident - looking for Lee Goldberg's nipples.


My dear boy, please end this insidious discussion. The private eye genre is what it is, to use a layman's phrase.

Now, please return to your typical posts featuring your ridiculously simplistic "reviews."

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David J. Montgomery is a writer and critic specializing in books and publishing. He is an emeritus columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and The Daily Beast, and has also written for USA Today, the Washington Post, and other fine publications. A former professor of History, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and two daughters.

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