A Genre Trope (that very few people seem to want to talk about)

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We are, as SFF writers, warned incessantly about tropes.

It’s true that tropes are an easy out, a crutch, a kind of laziness, but they persist for a number of reasons beyond the obvious, and I want to point out that SFF is not alone in having these running rampant through the genre, because it seems as if the genre gets unnecessarily singled out on this stuff.

The trope I am most annoyed with this weekend is in the detective mystery genre. More specifically, British police detective mystery novels.

I don’t write mystery novels, but I do read them, a lot.

And the thing that the majority of detective mystery novels set in the UK have in common is the characterization of the police detective who not only is unconventional in his detecting approach, but is completely unlike any other policeman in the universe, being sensitive and bookish, and perennially at odds with his superiors and pretty much everyone else.

Think of Morse.

Think of Ruth Rendell’s Wexford, of P.D. James’ Dalgliesh, of Peter Robinson’s D.C.I. Banks.

They are well-read. They are musically sophisticated. They have taste and grace and wide experience of worlds outside the normal working class life. Dalgliesh, for example, is not just a copper, but a successful, published poet. Wexford, despite being sort of working/middle class in birth and education, can murmur quotes in English, Latin, and French, and apparently remembers every line of every Shakespeare play he has ever read.

None of this is accidental – these are the things that show how their unorthodox approach to thinking about crimes enables them to solve those puzzles that no other detective on their respective forces possibly could have, because no other officer on that force has the breadth of knowledge or the depth of spirit required.

(The fact that it is classist and snobbish as hell is understandable: one of the cultural fictions of the UK is that it managed to become a classless society – an enormous piece of collective self-deception that boggled the mind of this Canadian when she lived there. The extra-intelligent detective as outcast is just a cuter way to frame it. )

There is almost always the inevitable scene where the detective hero’s commanding officer calls him onto the carpet to complain of the approach or the cost of the approach taken – only to be subtly chagrined later on when the detective is proved to have been righteously correct in whatever they did.

And the other thing I notice is that they are all men.

It doesn’t stop me from reading these books (I do love especially D.C.I. Banks and I want Robinson to get his skates on and write more!) but it does give me some pause.

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Flash Fiction Friday!

When the east wind blows, and it shakes the rooftops, Marisol gets out her cloak and walks.

No one else does: they hunker down in their houses, barely managing to get out and see to the livestock and drag some water from the well.

But Marisol walks.

She goes into the forbidden places: the groves and the high rocks. It’s the only time she does this.

It’s the only time she can do this, because otherwise, the rest of the village would see her, and know what she has become.

Flash Fiction Friday!

See no evil.

That’s what her mother always said, and Karen tried very hard to do this, because it sounded like very good advice, as well as keeping the peace in her parents’ home.

Of course, her mother had not cautioned her on the other two parts of the rules.

“Hear no evil? I can hardly help hearing it, can I?” she had said once, when her father had remonstrated mildly and reminded her of the rest of the quotation.

Karen’s mother heard everything, and apparently, it was beyond her power to stay silent on any of it, seeing as how, as she constantly remarked, she had little else to talk about.

But one mustn’t see evil – blind yourself the bruises underneath the make-up applied so thickly to Mrs. Cameron’s face, avert your eyes from the inadequacies of the Mabrosky children’s winter clothing, shut out the sight of the homeless man living under the College Street Bridge.

And so, when Karen came home that night and realized that there was something large and bulky rolled up in the living room carpet, and that one of the carving knives was missing from the wooden block on the kitchen counter, she looked away. She looked instead into the refrigerator and found the ingredients for grilled cheese sandwiches, and made them for her father and herself, before retreating upstairs to do her homework.

Why We Don’t Read Updike Anymore

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The Kinsey Reports started coming out in the late 1940s (Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953).)

Rabbit Run by John Updike came out in 1960.

These things are not unconnected.

The Kinsey Reports told us a lot, and one of the things it told us was that women could have orgasms, but that most women weren’t having them.

Less than a decade later, books written by serious male authors started doing three things.

One was that they started talking a lot more about sex. Serious characters started having serious sex in serious books.

(And boy, was that sex serious. Rife with allusion and metaphor, layered with Significance, and chockfull of signposting to tell us just how seriously we needed to take these books.)

The second thing that they started doing was to make sure that everyone was aware of what a terrific guy that male main character was, by pointing out, countless times, what a considerate and skillful lover this man was, because he invariably made sure to distribute his manly weight on his knees and elbows during The Act, so as to be sure that he did not crush the fragile flower lying beneath him.

Seriously – that was all it took, apparently. Who knew?

And the third thing that happened was that the women in the books were instantly categorized by this one thing: how generous or un-generous they were as lovers.

Either by physical characteristics (a mouth or smile, usually) or in a kind of memory about a female character conveniently offstage, she was noted/remembered/assumed to be a “generous lover” (if she was a “good woman character”) or an “ungenerous lover” (if she was The Whiny Bitch or required alimony paid to her).

I have revisited some of these novels recently, and tried to figure out what the authors meant by all of this, and I’m afraid that my conclusions are not happy ones.

A man (according to these men) is a good lover if he is even peripherally aware that the woman he is in bed with is a living being of some kind and might need to breathe occasionally.

A woman is a good lover if her only goal is to make sure the man is pleased, and she never by word, deed, or glance, so much as hints that his pleasure is not the only thing she needs from a sexual encounter.

And you know what’s depressing as hell about all this?

Not a fuck of a lot seems to have changed.

Flash Fiction Friday!

The old women had no part in village life.

Huddled up in shawls, stirring pots and quieting babies, spinning a little thread, nagging the older children to do their chores  – you wouldn’t have thought those were important things to do, would you?

Ordinary things. Necessary things, some of them, too, but not skillful things. Nothing that seemed to need any intelligence. Nothing that any other person couldn’t do for themselves.

And when all of them met, on that cool autumn afternoon, in the centre of the market green, and announced that they were done – they were leaving, leaving forever – most people laughed.

“Go on, then,” said the smith to his mother-in-law. “I’ll rent your room out when the merchants come through next spring.”

“Don’t come back,” said the innkeeper’s old Da to his wife’s hunched-over back. “One less mouth to feed.”

All over town, it was mostly like that. A few of the wives looked tearful, and said they’d miss their mams, but like the innkeeper’s father, it occurred to them that there’d be a bit more food and a bit more money, if they didn’t have the old bat there to look after.

And it wasn’t, in the first few days, much different.

The cobbler began to complain, five days on, that he was terribly behindhand, because his youngest had to be watched every minute, which meant that his wife couldn’t help out in the shop at all, and his dinners were late or burnt, nearly every day.

Farmer Marik’s hired hand got sick a few days later. It didn’t seem to be serious, and there was the hay to get scythed and baled, so they left him in the house to sleep.

They found him lying out in the yard, dead, in the evening. The fever had made him thirsty, they guessed, and he’d been trying to crawl out to the well.

The third week, two customers looked at the smith’s filthy, unmended smock and rusty tools, and took their horses to be shod in the next village over.

The innkeeper saw his custom dropping off by the end of the month. No one had time, these days, to stop in for a mug of ale of an evening, and anyway, the tavern room was looking very dusty and unkempt, because no one had the time or energy to sweep up or wash the tankards out.

They sent out a hunting party after that, but it did no good. There wasn’t even a trace of the old women. Not then, and not ever.

And that’s why no one lives at Six Roads’ Crossing anymore.

Flash Fiction Friday!

“Really, Devlin, you can’t expect me to –,”

He cut her off with a wave of his hand. “I need this, Gran. It’s not a choice. Either I pay them, or I die. It’s that simple.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. This isn’t the Middle Ages. Call the cops, and get some help.”

He stared at her, exasperated. How could she be so dense? It wasn’t as if he were some politician or celebrity, where the police would agree to round-the-clock protection. He was just a small-time journalist with a gambling debt, and his “creditors” were not the forgiving kind.

“Please,” he muttered, desperately.

“I’ve told you time and again. I don’t do curses.” She turned away, picking up the tv remote, and added, “Damn you.”

Devlin fell, lifeless, to the floor.

Flash Fiction Friday!

It was a particular time and place she always loved: that perfect pre-dawn sky, with its deep and chilly blue, ornamented with a streak of brilliant orange lying just along the horizon in the east. In the little glade, there were white, new-born flowers peeking up from the pale green grasses underfoot, like tiny stars, and the air was crisp and clean. The trees, silhouetted in the distance, swayed and danced, black and graceful.

Somewhere below her hiding place, she could hear the sound of water, trickling over the rocks, and the faint notes of a flute were drifting on the breeze. She almost sighed aloud in contentment.

She eased her sword from the scabbard.