Recently, a friend posted on social media about how the trope of the alcoholic cop or PI is overused and tired. In many ways it is. It's a cliché to an extent. But so are a lot of things in crime fiction.
We have the discovery of the body near the beginning of a murder mystery. Cozies have their crime-solving cats (or dogs) and their amateur PI pastry chefs. The Cabot Cove syndrome where every week someone is killed in a small town. There is the trope of the serial killer, including the serial killer protagonist with a code. There is the quirky mentalist (ala Sherlock Holmes) who can know all about a person with a single glance.
As it happens, I'm working on the third draft of A BROKEN WOMAN, my latest Jinx Ballou bounty hunter novel. And this one starts with Jinx Ballou in a deep, alcohol-fueled, suicidal depression as she struggles with the trauma of having lost a loved one at the end of the previous book.
I found myself wondering if I should scrap that part of the story. Ultimately, I decided to keep it in. And here is why.
For starters, this is not an ongoing thing for Jinx Ballou. She didn't have a substance abuse problem in the first two books, nor do I plan to have it be a part of the plot of future stories. This is simply her character arc in this story--a woman struggling through trauma and grief.
Secondly, I am intimately familiar with using alcohol as a way of trying to cope with trauma and grief. Just yesterday, I celebrated my 23rd sobriety birthday. I'm a survivor of multiple suicide attempts, PTSD, borderline personality disorder, and a whole host of other mental issues. So I'd like to think I bring a level of authenticity to this story arc that perhaps other stories relying on this trope do not. (BTW, I live a very peaceful, rewarding life now, so yay for my sobriety.)
Finally, tropes in genre fiction exist for a reason. In short, we love them.
I enjoy watching The Mentalist, Monk, Psych, Elementary, and Sherlock, even though they are reinventions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Why? Because they're fun.
Romance readers insist on a happily-ever-after (HEA) ending to romance novels. Sure it's a trope. The stories are recycled over and over in infinite retellings. And some of the sub-genre tropes (e.g. the reverse harem and the secret baby) almost seem ripped from the tabloids. But fans of romance love these. And that is totally cool.
So what makes a popular trope entertaining instead of cliché? In part when a writer can find a way to take that trope in a new direction.
Going back to the Sherlock Holmes trope, we have Patrick Jane from the Mentalist who is funny and often unexpected in how he manipulates people, while driving his coworkers insane. Adrian Monk's quirks and phobias also add freshness to the trope, while showing how a disabled person can use his uniqueness to his advantage.
Will I be able to pull off the alcoholic investigator trope in this latest Jinx Ballou story? I hope so. By recognizing it as a trope, I am conscious of the risks and motivated to push it in new and entertaining ways. I can draw on my personal experience to bring a deep authenticity to the character's journey through her trauma.
Ultimately, you will be the judge when A BROKEN WOMAN: A JINX BALLOU NOVEL launches in December. So stay tuned.
She is the author of the Jinx Ballou bounty hunter series and the Shea Stevens outlaw biker series. You can learn more about Dharma and her work at https://dharmakelleher.com.