Monday, July 8, 2019

Writing While Sober

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.

As one of the only transgender authors in crime fiction, Dharma Kelleher brings a unique voice to the genre, specializing in gritty thrillers with a feminist kick. She rides a motorcycle, picks locks, and has a dark past she’d rather forget.

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

1 comment:

Alex Segura said...

Thanks for writing this. The drunk PI trope is frustrating to me when it's used unrealistically - when the detective knocks back 12 drinks, hops in his car and solves the case. It's sad - and a bit more believable - when they stumble and fail because they're drunks, but that road is far less traveled, unfortunately. For my money, the most honest depiction of alcoholism (and a successful, if daily, battle to beat it) can be found in Larry Block's Scudder novels. It's genuine honest and rings true.

With my Pete Fernandez books, I was definitely not interested in the tainted knight taking a few shots and saving the day. I wanted to give readers a dirty, grimy look at the realities of hard drinking. It also meant trying to showcase a realistic recovery. Another one of my big pet peeves is when a clearly alcoholic protagonist just...gets better. That's not how it works. It's a journey, a daily reprieve. So the challenge is, how does that help my fiction? For my money, it's more interesting to see someone struggle and fail, try to be better and maybe not always succeed, than have them do these self-destructive things at no physical or mental cost.

Thanks for the thought-provoking read!