It is a convention of the mystery genre that in the climactic scene, the hero must directly confront the villain, one on one, toe to toe, with no outside aid of any kind and preferably with no weapon. The hero must then defeat the villain single-handed.
The lengths to which authors go to bring about this confrontation are considerable, varied, and often quite silly. The cop’s radio might malfunction, for instance, forcing him to go in to rescue the kidnap victim without calling for backup.
Last night I was up until 1 A.M. reading Under Orders by Dick Francis. It’s a typical Francis yarn — not profound in any way, but he keeps you turning the pages. At the end, predictably, private eye Sid Halley opens the door of his apartment expecting that a friend has arrived, only to be confronted by the pistol-waving murderer.
While holding Halley at gunpoint, the murderer proceeds to explain, at some length, how his crime spree was motivated by his father’s brutal mistreatment of him. This is a cliche within a cliche, one that many authors resort to from time to time. It serves a dual purpose — it allows the author to explain the crimes to the reader, while giving the hapless hero time to work out how he will outwit the villain and escape certain death.
Francis takes the cliche one step further, however, and not in a good way. After handcuffing Sid Halley to a towel rack in the bathroom (for no reason whatever except to make Halley more helpless, thereby allowing Francis to make the climax more dramatic) and then ranting about his father for five full pages, the villain says this:
“‘I think I’ve talked enough,’ he said suddenly, standing up. ‘I get fed up with all those silly films where the gunman spends so long telling his victim why he’s going to kill him that someone finally arrives to stop it. That’s not going to happen here because I’m going to kill you now.'”
And of course he fails, because that’s when Halley hits him, knocking him over backwards into the bathtub so that he hits his head on the rim of the tub and is out like a light. Exactly how Halley gets one arm free to hit the bad guy is modestly clever; if you’re curious, you can read the book. What I thought was interesting about this moment was that Dick Francis plainly understood that he was resorting to an embarrassing genre cliche. So he projected his embarrassment into the mind and mouth of the killer.
In a way, this makes it worse. Francis is not clever enough to do anything postmodern or literary with this moment. (Michael Dibdin might have managed it.) All he does is notify the reader that the reader has been wallowing through a long and not even faintly believable cliche.
Kids, don’t try this at home.