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.