Gumshoe Cliches


On the run up to the Golden Globule Awards and Oscars, and all the razzamatazz – in reality variety shows with prizes – it may be pleasant to take a diversion from the usual predictions of who will win Best Gay Still in the Closet, Best Chin Tuck, or Best Action Man Who’s Never Done a Stunt.

The Oscars are best value for money, especially the bad ones. Clichéd speeches pour forth from tearful actors praising their hairdresser while forgetting the screenwriter.

And on clichés: I’m in the throes of writing another detective thriller. Can’t decide whether it’s set in Glasgow, London, or Los Angeles. Ultimately that demands a shrewd commercial decision. Where lies investment lies sits the plot.

A Chandleresque thriller signifies the appearance of the lone gumshoe, the private eye, the anti-hero, a man with a lot of hurdles to negotiate before he can solve a case. As a writer I have to avoid the clichés and ship-worn conventions than can bedevil a story. Avoiding them isn’t easy. So I made a list of the fifty classic as a personal warning.

  1. A detective must make at least two visits to a strip club in every investigation.
  2. A villain always makes a long speech to allow the hero time to escape or kill him.
  3. Any beautiful sports car seen at the film’s start is sure to be wrecked by the end.
  4. A detective falls in love with the femme fatale though he knows the affair is doomed.
  5. If a character coughs a lot at the start of the story it’s a terminal illness by the end.
  6. Truly nasty, viscous, psychopathic villains must always be absolute misogynists.
  7. A down-at-heel gumshoe always has enough money to feed his booze problem.
  8. On any heist the chief crook must employ a crazed accomplice to wreck the robbery.
  9. All detectives are given 48 hours to solve a case by their stupid, unsympathetic boss.
  10. Police detectives who like to work alone are assigned a complete novice as partner.
  11. Experienced police somehow manage to leave a door unlocked in their apartment.
  12. Gumshoes must be monosyllabic, and speak only in short, one-line zingers.
  13. Only the hero is allowed to give up smoking by the end of the movie.
  14. Villains and heroes can hide in the rear seat of a car, where it’s impossible to hide.
  15. Most plots contain mysteries swiftly solved except by the movie protagonist.
  16. In fights and accidents heroes should sustain no more than a single cut or jacket rip.
  17. A blow to the back of the head from a heavy gun butt never results in brain damage.
  18. The black character fifth in the group is first to be killed in any story.
  19. A smouldering moment one inch from lips to lips is always interrupted.
  20. Detectives must leap bold upright, sweating, after nightmares involving the plot.
  21. Most bullets from the hero’s gun hit the target, a villain’s machine gun hits none.
  22. A fleeing female character must fall flat on her face within fifty feet of the chase.
  23. A macho detective is allowed to keep a pet dog, never a cat, budgie or gerbils.
  24. All detectives have the concentration and reaction skills of an F1 racing driver.
  25. In chases a large stack of cardboard boxes must be placed in the way of the lead car.
  26. Tough guy heroes must speak in a whisper, only the jokey ones can speak normally.
  27. In sex scenes moments of climax are the man’s POV, so we see the woman in rapture.
  28. For at least half the movie’s length the detective’s hunch must never be believed.
  29. The most helpful friend to the detective is invariably the chief villain.
  30. A good cop mortally wounded has to have enough life left to wish the hero luck.
  31. Any detective can start any car by pulling two wires out from under the dash.
  32. Elderly native Indians or Asians can only talk in aphorisms.
  33. A serial killer must have an apartment room full of newspaper cuttings.
  34. All telephone numbers spoken out loud begin with 555.
  35. A broken marriage, lost daughter, or estranged father, is de rigueur for gumshoes.
  36. The one escape route from a locked room is a loose screwed, very wide, air vent.
  37. In every prison shower scene there is as uncontrollable brute of a sodomite.
  38. Every car has flattering footwell lights pointing up at faces, but no windscreen glass.
  39. The driver of a getaway car at a bank robbery always finds the perfect parking space.
  40. In every gang at least one member has a problem with people looking at him.
  41. All police stations have one honest, upright detective, the others scared or corrupt.
  42. The veteran, world-weary cop, gets shot a few days from retirement and pension.
  43. Your most trusted favourite henchman, well paid, is sure to be the one to betray you.
  44. A private eye’s office is sparse but for a desk, chair, filing cabinet, and a telephone.
  45. Even the most successful private eye is a terrible cook, barely able to boil an egg.
  46. The heaviest, best multi-locked door, can be opened easily by a kick or a bank card.
  47. A private dick can always accept a drink when on the job because he’s an alcoholic.
  48. A renegade, rebellious detective has a scene in which he hands in his gun and badge.
  49. The villain’s moll always thinks she can alter his psychopathic habits for the better.
  50. Action hero detectives never wear glasses, or need them to read small print.
  51. and one for the road: The gumshoe is the only character with a sense of humour.

I could go on, but I invite readers to add their own.

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3 Responses to Gumshoe Cliches

  1. Ian Brotherhood says:

    I have copied, saved, pasted and attempted to memorise this entire article…
    …be warned GB, you have competition…my day will come…


  2. Grouse Beater says:

    We will see about that, Brother Hood.

  3. Flying Scotsman says:

    I was thinking the same thing.
    A movie with every single cliché = box office smash.

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