There are some tropes that are reasonable to expect. The more time I spend reading crime fiction, the clearer it gets.
- Cops/detectives have really bad work/life balance
- Despite the fact that they are struggling to make ends meet, they have an expensive and iconic car (which is manifestly inappropriate for tailing people with, yet that is never a problem)
- The protagonist makes the inexplicable decision to share their findings with no one, ensuring that the success of the mission continues to reply 100% on them.
- It doesn’t matter how many laws they break as they continue with their maverick actions, if they get a result, they’ll be forgiven everything.
- The mistakes they have made in the past provide fuel and unique insights into their current circumstances
- Alcohol, whether the drinks in the bar, or the whisky in the draw, is an essential ingredient in shaping their character.
Many of these themes are the very things that make crime dramas what they are, but there are two tropes I’ve been noticing that have been driving me a little nuts recently.
The hypocritical pastor
To be honest, this pops up more in modern Australian books than crime dramas, but it does feel like it appears in almost everything I read.
In its first manifestation, it’s a matter of the protagonist encountering a church minister who is supposed to be a moral and upright person, but is actually caught up in a whole bunch of inappropriate behaviours, usually revolving around affairs with women. Now I understand the temptation of this kind of character. You want some tension in your novel and the absolute low hanging fruit is to pick a character who is supposed to represent morality, then portray them as profoundly immoral. I guess I get annoyed because it feels too much like the easy way out. Rather than develop a character with a little more grit, or depth, they just pick the easy way to make a “baddie”.
What makes the hypocritical pastor even more frustrating as a trope is that they so rarely have any characteristics that actually resonate with me, or “the average Christian”. It often feels like authors who have clearly spent hundreds of hours researching geography, ballistics, animal characteristics & dozens of other subjects to flesh out their stories, have been more than happy to jump straight onto a cultural caricature of a “religious” person so they can have a straw man for their story. Christianity is reduced to simple moralism, and a faith system that is founded in every person realising that we are marred by sin & in need of a saviour, is instead the home for the judgemental and unpleasant.
The “enlightened protagonist”
This one has come to me more recently, particularly as I find myself reading more noir detective stories. Despite being set in the 40s & 50s, the authors go to great lengths to ensure the reader that the protagonist has a set of morals that would fit perfectly in the 21st Century. Whether it’s matters of sexuality, politics, or misogyny, we need to understand that the protagonist is “on the right side of history”, even if it means we have to abandon the story for a page or two to make the point!
I think the reason why this trope rubs me up the wrong way is that it threatens to speak untruth back into history. What makes many behaviours from the past so disturbing today is that our culture as a whole was responsible for perpetuating problems. We see it in the big stuff… for years there was the joke about women getting a job via “the casting couch”, with the clear implication that sleeping with a director was the easy way to get what you want. Of course now, that kind of behaviour is rightfully swept up into the “Me too” culture. It’s good that we call this kind of stuff out, but we should also own, corporately, that our culture didn’t treat it seriously enough back in the day.
Part and parcel of writing and writers is that authors will have the opportunity to take subtle swipes at things and people that they don’t like and to advocate for the things that they love. I suspect for a number of these authors that this means they’ll have a crack at Christianity, and inevitably it will mean that the element that rankles the most will be targeted. As a writer, sovereign over the books universe, it’s reasonable that they might react to the suggestion of a God who has ultimate authority. That said, it’s a shame when the characters that they write are almost unrecognisable to actual Christians!
And yes, it’s confronting to look back into history and see some behaviours that we’d now find abhorrent. But maybe the answer to that is to actually sit with the discomfort. To explain it away as an “other people problem” is to refuse to acknowledge that culture as a whole was part of the problem.
Like so many of the detectives we read, maybe we need to face more of our own demons if we’re going to make the world around us a better place.