The Thing Speaks for Whatever

On the Death of Character: What’s Wrong with Series Crime Procedurals?

In dammit, I read this entire post and all I got was this lousy T-shirt, In which we watch too much television, Rooks, Verbs are people too on November 28, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Unrealistic like that one Jimmy Smits vehicle where a reasonably young SCOTUS justice decides to step down and start a defense practice due to extreme bench conversion (and blackmail). Except for how nothing could be that unrealistic.

The TV show “Castle” – yes, I watch it, and I have no shame surrounding this fact – originally opened with a number of people lambasting the titular character, Richard Castle, a crime procedural author, because he killed off his cash cow, a character by the name of “Derek Storm.”  (Yes, really.)  Why on earth would Castle do such a thing, ask his literary pals, his family – why kill off such a successful franchise?  Castle repeatedly chalks this awfully unrealistic move up to a lack of inspiration, which I translate as, quite simply, boredom.  He was over Derek Storm (and who wouldn’t be, given that name?) and it was time to do something new.

Having read a fair few of these sorts of novels, the question really isn’t one of why.  It’s how on earth could you blame him?

Oftentimes the problem with these types of books isn’t that the character gets boring, it’s that the character gets flat like a can of beer on a coffee table the morning after the morning after a party.  Slowly and inexorably, these main characters trend more and more towards a state wholly lacking in dimension, and it’s often not like they had that far to go in the first place.  Case in point? Eve Dallas, of J.D. Robb (aka Nora Roberts) fame, who stars in yet another ­­______ in Death book coming out this winter.

In the “In Death” series, (and yes, one of the things I initially enjoyed about “Castle” was the continual sly references to the stereotypes and commonalities of procedural books, like the cheesy formulaic titles) Eve Dallas starts off as a troubled woman with a past – no shock there – who manages to regularly overcome her issues to heroically serve & protect the denizens of NYC, 40+ years into the future.  She’s very much a cop’s cop, but she’s also, you know, a complicated lady.  With baggage.  Deep-seated and pretty fucked up baggage.  She’ll kick your ass and cuts her own hair shoddily, but she doesn’t hate nice things – though it’s true she doesn’t care much about niceties per se – so much as she can’t afford them.  We know she likes certain fabrics/materials, colors.  She’s not a shopper, but she appreciates a nice bag, and her favorite laundry place is the one around the corner who can get blood stains out of her clothes.  Pretty standard, and dare I say realistic, even humdrum, stuff.  The sort of stuff that makes characters seem like people.  Similarly, her relationship with sex is complex for a host of reasons, ones that make sense and do in fact drive the character’s development and actions.  The sex itself, and of course the crimes, are (for the genre, I suppose) reasonably realistically explicit – few big kid, which is to say “dirty”[1] words, but we know what these folks are up to, and there’s some variety in position and acts, in motives and mayhem.

Fast forward 42 (if you count novellas, it’s the 43rd book that comes out next February) books, and Eve is basically a few syntactical choices away from a nigh on entirely generic tough lady cop.  Her character has slowly deflated like a tire with a tiny puncture, and sometimes I, as a reader, am forced to wonder when the author last read any of her initial books in this series, the inconsistencies that may at first seem minor becoming increasingly notable once one progresses in the series and then returns to the beginning (a process you can totally thank for this post).  To wit, by Book 3 Eve has gone from like bold colors to preferring neutrals – no, I could not have come up with a better metaphor for the external journey of these novels if you paid me – and by neutrals, I primarily mean bronze.  No seriously, bronze comes up a lot in descriptions of Eve’s wardrobe, and though I enjoy bronze and it’s been nothing but flattering to me in the past, it’s functionally the beige of metallics, which is saying something, as there’s a reason that metallics are generally categorized as neutral colors.  It’s like a dystopian future as decorated (at least for our heroine) by Sandra Lee.  If that’s not shudder inducing, what is?

But ok, you say, so three books into a forty+ book series, the main character decided she hated color – big deal.  Well, she also stopped caring about clothing period – like exhibiting next to no preference in what she put on her body, presumably because she is so darn “no-nonsense” and obviously clothing is complete and utter nonsense (actually, if you’ve ever wondered about what sort of lifestyle choice I could not possibly understand, I think I just managed to accurately describe one); tough ladies don’t give a crap about clothes!  (Oddly, Eve’s husband in the series is a total clotheshorse and, as a result, we rarely hear about what he’s wearing.  It . . . doesn’t make a ton of sense to insist on repeatedly and somewhat lovingly describing clothes we’re told the character doesn’t care about, much less ones that often tend to come in shades of brown, black, or bronze, but hey, it’s your book, Nora.)  At any rate, color doesn’t matter, and clothes don’t matter – what about cola?  For thirtysome books, Eve Dallas was a hardcore, multiple-a-day habit Pepsi drinker.  The woman drank Pepsi like the antidote was in it.  Suddenly, some day in some book (and I will totally update this post with which one as soon as I get back to it in my journey of rereading), she switches to Coke.

The fuck?

Pepsi vs. Coke can divide families people, and I, as a reader, am supposed to believe Eve just made the switch one day for no reason whatsoever?  I promise you, nothing disrupts one’s puzzling out a gritty crime from the minimal clues like contemplating how much a product placement deal goes for in a bestselling, longstanding book series.  You want more evidence, I know – we are talking about crime procedurals here – but honestly, as much as I can lament the increasingly repetitive syntactical choice slowly but inevitably rendering these characters increasingly two dimensional, short of actually counting the number of times the exact same phrases are used over and over and over and over again, you might, for the sake of your own personal battle with ennui, want to just take my word for it, especially given that the vagaries of repetition (and yes, I realize all writers have favorite standby words or phrases – just look at me and “vagaries”) are about to become a dishearteningly pervasive theme for much of the rest of this post.

While the crimes vary nicely and the characters do continue to evolve in plotting, the writing lacks the, let’s say, verve of the initial books in the series.  Eve and her team have simply become foils for the narrative, it seems, not people in their own right – I’m not so much reading a book as watching an episode of CSI: Pick-a-City or Law & Order: Pick-a-Division.[2]  Eve will bring in her sidekicks (though calling Roarke, who’s frankly not characterized as anything so diminutive as a sidekick, and ranks right up there with Eve herself in the realm of initially interesting characters gradually painted with a broader and broader brush, despite clearly being a massive trope), she will react in a predictable manner at their involvement (they will generally react predictably in kind), and eventually solve the case, more likely than not using herself as some sort of bait at the end.  Rinse.  Repeat.

I’m not saying that Roberts’ only recourse is to kill off Eve Dallas or even another major character; it isn’t.  But it feels to me as a reader that Roberts writes as if she has fully plumbed the intricacies of these characters as individuals, and there’s simply nothing else to know about them – though she continues to develop and mine the potentiality of relationships, the people in them are (or have) quickly becoming as stock as their sex lives, and these are characters who once had the potential of being as deeply complex, as nuanced, perhaps, as actual people generally are.  And lordamercy, the sex.  I know I keep returning to it – really, no surprise there – but I think, while rather a bit cheesy, the sheer vastness of its ever-encroaching generic-ness is easily the most succinctly emblematic example of the change I’m trying to capture, and certainly not for the better.  To wit, and please stretch your eyeballs beforehand so you don’t sprain anything when you inevitably roll them (especially you, Bez):

“Yes.” It was building so quickly. The need like teeth grinding inside her. Free, her hands raced over him, and her body arched fluidly back so that his lips could taste where and how they liked.

Her next climax ripped through him like claws. With something like a snarl, he shoved her onto her back, levered her hips high, and drove himself inside her. She closed around him, a hot, greedy fist.

Her nails scraped at his back, her hips pistoned as he plunged. When her hands slid weakly from his sweat-slicked shoulders, he emptied himself into her.

-Naked in Death (Book 1)

And later, when inevitably dishing with her bestie (who has a cold):

“You – Roarke.” Eyes watering, she reached for more tissue. “Jesus, Eve. Jesus Christ, you never sleep with anybody. And you’re telling me you slept with Roarke?”

“That’s not precisely accurate. We didn’t sleep.”

Mavis let out a moan. “You didn’t sleep. How long?”

Eve jerked a shoulder. “I don’t know. I stayed the night. Eight, nine hours, I guess.”

“Hours.” Mavis shuddered delicately. “And you just kept going.”

“Pretty much.”

“Is he good? Stupid question,” she said quickly. “You wouldn’t have stayed otherwise. Wow, Eve, what got into you? Besides his incredibly energetic cock?”

-Naked in Death (Book 1)

Now, contrast that with:

Dazzled, dazed, she reached for him, found his lips again with hers. Struggling to take her time, as he had, she touched, and bared. She sampled and savored.

Undid him, he thought. She undid him. She always could. She could make him feel weak as water, strong as a god all at once, and more a man than he’d ever hoped to be. With her, it was more than the thrill of flesh against flesh, more than the heat and beat in the blood.

Love was a gift shared.

When he eased into her, the gift was sweet, and tender. Again, her hand rested on his cheek. Again he watched her heart fill her eyes. Watched until his own flew into them.

-Treachery in Death (Book 41)

See what I mean?  Even if you hate this sort of book/writing/whathaveyou and think it’s crap, the difference in, shall we say, active verbs and concrete nouns is perceptible and not particularly positive.  Hell, these days half the time the reader could be forgiven for being unsure as to whether the characters actually had sex at all or just . . . let their feelings squish into each other.  (That’s also not the most ridiculous version of such a scene she’s had, unbelievably, but to be fair I wanted to pick something from the almost most recent book to contrast with the first one.)  I understand that there’s sex in every book because a) this is “romantic suspense” and b) it’s established that our intrepid couple bang a lot and c) people expect that sort of thing, dammit, but I have to wonder if maybe Roberts and others like her have lived with these folks too long, knows these people too well, so well she could dash one of these books off in her sleep, once the central crime(s) has been established.  (The woman is inhumanly prolific, at the very least, though I wouldn’t accuse her of entirely forgetting what these characters have said and done in the past on a deeper level, even if she clearly sometimes fails to track their preferences; I’ll leave those sorts of incongruities to the writers of “Glee.”)

Conversely, some particularly cynical souls might argue that such a devolution might reflect the natural decline of exciting sex in marriage – the first passage is from the first time our main couple visits the proverbial Netherlands, ever, and by the time we reach that last passage they’ve been married for a few years – but I seriously don’t buy it.  Even if we accept the premise that married sex is requisitely less hot (which I don’t), you think it’d be in the author’s interest to idealize the, well, sexiness of the sex as much as the OMGSOMANYFEELINGS bits, since that’s clearly part of the draw for any number of readers.  In writing this post I’ve even come up with blog book reviews that explicitly state that they find reading crime procedurals burdensome, that the bits where Eve does her job and solves the crime are as epically boring as watching paint dry, but man if that Roarke isn’t one hot number (huminahumina).  You get the distinct feeling that there’s a segment of Roberts’ readership that’s unambiguously after for a suspenseful romance rather than a romantic suspense.

(Don’t believe me?  Try doing a Google Image search of “Roarke.” There’s plenty of random shit, obviously – necklaces, Ricardo Montalban, a german shepherd, the usual – but it shouldn’t take long to note a bit of a trend, and sure enough every dark haired, blue-eyed man you see is some fan posting pictures of their ideal imagined Roarke [David Gandy in various states of undress, not infrequently].  Hell, dude isn’t real, but even on a regular Google search his character constitutes four of the top ten hits; the descriptor paragraph for hit #6 begins, “Irish-born Roarke is the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome,” while 5/7 of the proffered images are, you totally guessed it because you’re a brilliant RIEtc. reader, dark-haired, blue-eyed men.  [The other two are one each Mr. Roarke of “Fantasy Island” fame and Mickey Rourke, whose last name is spelled with a “U”, as one intrepid reader pointed out to me when I made to compare and contrast the latter’s reality with Roarke’s fictiveness.  Also, if you’ll pardon my objectification, no matter what Mickey Rourke looks like now, he was pretty hot in 9 1/2 Weeks – perhaps problematically so, but still.])

That being said then, and in all seriousness, how euphemistic can a description be before it functionally ceases to be representative?[3] How generically can one describe sexual congress and still ensure your reader knows it happened, rather than merely inferring it?[4]  But no, these crazy kids don’t “climax” or “orgasm” anymore, they are undone, or they “go over,” or they “shudder,” or hearts fly into their eyes, for fuck’s sake.  And that’s that.  Every. Single. Time.

Obviously I read these books for giggles ‘n’ fluff, and frankly, because I enjoy the sort of formulaic mindlessness at the heart of a series crime procedural (written or scripted) – there’s always incontrovertible evidence the bad person did it!  Those with authority are always out for justice!  The system totally works! See footnote [2]! – but reading the most recently available book (at the time) and then deciding to follow that up by starting at the beginning again, due to lack of generally brainless reading material, was a revelation in both why I ever kept up with this series in the first place and how far the books have, dare I say, fallen – slacked – in characterization (and clearly in sexytimes).  Eve and her crew are almost as simple as x and y and the like at this point, pasteurized beyond all seeming recognition.  And being no respecter of prestige in literature choice, which is to say I’ll read pretty much anything so long as it’s even moderately engaging (note that I didn’t even bother with “good,” so the barriers for entry into my brain are clearly low), I find that lack sad and troubling as a consumer.

He just seems like a decent sort.

Back to “Castle” then.  I’ll allow that I don’t appreciate it when procedurals that feature romantic tension try to hold onto that tension for an excess of time.[5] Yes, I happen to just like things resolved, and I’ll admit that, but what I actually don’t care for is the sneaking suspicion that the writers feel that, without that tension, there’s nothing more to be said.  Relationships can be as deeply complex as the process of getting into them, rife with ongoing struggles of a non-cataclysmic variety, a fact TV writers seem often hesitant to exploit, or incapable of same.  Certainly the fact that a character is in a relationship doesn’t render their personal growth moot or their life inescapably rote, especially if that person is not like, a friend of yours who used to be a lot more fun before they met their criminally boring significant other, and is instead being written by a team of writers with salaries and some degree of ostensible skill and a freakin’ union.

To be clear, I’m not saying that’s what’s happening on “Castle” – they’ve got time yet, and it hasn’t begun to completely strain the bounds of credulity (any more so than the premise of such shows dictate) that the main characters aren’t dating and/or boffing like bonobos by now – simply that it seems like oft-repeated common wisdom that once the “payoff” occurs in those sexy-buddy cop shows, which is to say the two main characters hooking up for realsies, there’s simply nowhere left to go but down into the depths of the pathologically uninteresting relationship of people who are together and have no particular intention of leaving each other.  (Hence, one could easily argue, the ongoing cornucopia of fucked-up-ery that is any stable relationship on “Grey’s Anatomy,” which will of a surety not be stable for long.  But that’s basically a nighttime soap, not a procedural, and thus distinguishable.)

One could argue that the Grissom/Sidle relationship in “CSI” – original flavor, not extra crispy (Miami) or grilled (New York) – is a bit of an exception, but that was for the most part very much a background story arc, not a thematic premise, and half the ongoing tension was based on one or both actors no longer being series regulars, thus rendering the relationship long distance and easily relegated to the Island of Misfit Plot Developments.  They’re also – admirably, I would argue – trying to buck this trend on “Bones,” by essentially painting the hook-up fans have been with as broad a brush as possible, then skipping straight to the part where Brennan’s knocked up and she and Booth live together, thereby creating a whole different level of character driven tensions and conflicts to explore, but it’s too early to know how successful the makers of “Bones” will be with this gambit.

By the combined wisdom of TV and books, then, it appears that, if the writers are to be believed, even the briefest indication of any sort of Happily Ever After is the real death in procedurals, pretty much any way you slice ‘em.  In series procedural books, characters become rote once they get settled; in series procedural television, relationships become rote once they get settled, and in both we end up with a slow decline of initial promise into a pedestrian plot-by-numbers product that keeps the money alive, but is murder on the excitement – an entertainment that provides little in the way of fresh enjoyment to the reader or viewer.  As much as I think this betrays a lack of creativity and depth in the writing rather than a necessary outcome of the nature of the genre (the Booth/Brennan baby in “Bones”, supra), perhaps Richard Castle ending his hit series in death was an improbable bang, yes, but it surely may well beat the eventual disservice of an oh-too-realistic (and often bestselling) whimper.

[1] I don’t believe in dirty words, but it’s recognizable shorthand.

[2] The fact that these sorts of books and TV shows always seem to either denigrate or minimize the role of criminal defense – and often the public defender system itself – is a rant for another day.  Yes, I get that these sorts of shows are predicated on the pursuit of justice, on the existence of an inexorable truth in which someone is clearly and unambiguously Guilty-with-a-capital-G, every week and every book, a world of magical realism in which our main characters are heroes in search of nothing but what’s right, and will not be stopped in their course to that inevitable end, for which there will be plenty of unambiguous evidence and in which The Right Thing will be done, but give me a fucking break already.  The criminal justice system has two parts my ass, Dick Wolf.

[3] I would seriously like to do a study of language in sex scenes in romance novels someday.  And not just because those are, in theory, the good bits, or because it would give me an excuse to read epic amounts of sex scenes.  Honest.  I’d have an excel chart and everything; I’ve put some academic thought into it, I swear.  C’mon, mapping and deconstructing sex scenes sounds pretty awesome, admit it.  Imagine: bar graphs of members, dicks, cocks and “himself”s, pie charts of mounds and delicate folds and pussies, data points plotting tops, bottoms, oral, and ostensible kink . . . epic.  Just delightfully epic.  I swear, the thought of all that well organized information sets this ol’ heart to racing, even if most of the to-be-catalogued scenes do not.

[4] So that’s what the LSAT Reading Comp. section was all about.

[5] This can be even more annoying in books, though some authors manage to pull it off with aplomb.  The Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews, which is some pretty damn good urban fantasy if you like that sort of thing, leaps to mind here as having successfully negotiated the balancing act of allowing a fictional relationship to escalate and eventually ripen in a reasonably due course.  (Fair Warning:  I really, really enjoy the Kate Daniels books, but you have to stick it out past the first one – that was the writing team’s debut, and it’s noticeably rougher, especially with regards to some choppy plotting, than their subsequent output in this series.  If you do though, Kate’s an interesting honest-to-goodness badass who isn’t a Mary Sue and doesn’t wait to be rescued, and she’s funny. Unfortunately, that’s a seriously rare combination.  The world the authors create is an incredibly interesting take on an exceedingly common urban fantasy problem – whence the monsters? – and for once vampires are more creepy Nosferatu puppets than sparkly Teen Beat moppets or devastatingly sensual sex buffets.  Check it out.  Fellow RIE blogger Katie will back me up on this.)

  1. I really, REALLY want you to do #3. I would read that paper and look at the charts. It WOULD be epic.

    • Right?! I really really want to do it too. I think I’m just going to start a spreadsheet the next time I’m reading a romance novel and see how far it grows.

  2. You are totally awesome and this is an interesting post as usual, so my response will be… nitpicky on unsubstantive details!

    1. Brennan may be knocked up, but she is also “Bones” and therefore cannot be shacked up with herself. (See second to last paragraph of main body of post.) The hopefully-not-shark-jumping relationship-guy is named “Booth”. “Seeley Booth”. (Seeley? wth?)

    2. Mickey Roarke may be a real person somewhere, but the unfortunate-plastic-surgery-choices dude/movie actor’s name is spelled with a “u”.

    Come to think of it, the second point here is vaguely substantive, because it does kinda undermine your comparison…


    • 1. That was a typo – my bad. Honest, it’s clear I knew that because I later said the Booth/Brennan baby! So thank you for pointing it out, because now it’s totally fixed.

      2. That’s just a good point. I should probably edit that bit accordingly. The Fantasy Island juxtaposition is *totally* solid though. :D

      • Ok fixt – read it now!

        • Ricardo Montalban is pretty much always appropriate to the situation. Any situation.

          And yes, Mickey Rourke was nice-looking in 9 1/2 Weeks. He’s still a kind of interesting, in all the various loaded senses of the word, guy.

  3. More nitpicky unsubstantive: why aren’t your footnotes linked?? Why are you disregarding the most basic of HTML functions and thus undermining the whole value of web-based communications??? Do you hate the internet????

    • Because I don’t know how – you don’t even know how long it took me to figure out how to have the scroll over text appear when the footnote was highlighted. I took that as a win and moved on with my life. If there’s a way to do it that doesn’t take ridiculous programming acumen, I’m obviously more than open to the notion.

      • Does getting the scrollover text to appear include typing anything that starts with “<a" ?

        • Nope – I type the post in Word with footnotes and c&p, after which dummylinks to the footnotes appear in the text on WordPress. At that point I go into the link for the dummynotes, paste the text of the footnote into the “title” box, et viola, hoverover footnotes!

          And yes, the real programmer types affiliated with RIEtc. do despair of me, but it gets the job done as well as I can do with my limited knowledge; no one’s come up with anything better that works. :D :::shrugs:::

          • Editing HTML code is ackchewolly not even really programming, but the thing you’re doing with the title box looks cool, so I forgive you.

            But, um, the thing you’re doing with the title stuff is mildly breaking standards for web accessibility. I don’t think in any way that makes screenreaders unusable, but you might want to ask someone who uses a screenreader about that, though.

            • I would do it better if I only could, but shouldn’t a screen reader still read the footnotes, albeit as endnotes?

              • The true footnotes are fine for a screenreader – it’s the popup text thingie – what wordpress is doing to make the popups is using a piece of code that is supposed to describe the link, not supplement the text. So screenreader users are prolly getting the footnote text read aloud to them as a description of the link – or they may be able to skip it entirely. I really don’t know if it would even be a real problem for such a user. As I said, it’s only mildly breaking standards. Perhaps only even bending….

  4. […]  You know who this guy makes me miss? Roarke from In Death.  Now there’s a hot bastard in a middling book who knows when to control shit and when to […]

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