I recently reviewed Dope Thief by Dennis Tafoya, which I regard as a prime example of a classic setup played off right. As such, it’s an illustration of what I like about genre fiction in general.
Note the term “classic setup.”
The plot of Dope Thief revolves around a small-time thief who pulls what’s supposed to be a routine job, and unexpectedly finds himself in possession of a huge wad of cash. He realizes too late that he’s stolen organized crime money, and that some very dangerous characters will be coming after him to collect.
Variations on that setup have been done plenty of different times. But Tafoya throws in plenty of overt and covert references to classic crime fiction, communicating he’s well aware of this.
Sometimes, I hear people complain about genre fiction, saying that it’s essentially the same thing being done over and over.
To me, this is tantamount to complaining that the the classic song structure of verse-chorus-verse is inherently hackneyed. And yeah, there’s plenty of derivative crap on the radio. But plenty of vital, innovative music follows the verse-chorus-verse structure is still getting released, which means that isn’t the quality that makes a song derivative crap.
The classic song structure remains viable because:
1) It works, and
2) Part of the appeal is seeing what new variations songwriters get out of that configuration.
So let’s look at, say, the classic hard-boiled detective story.
You could say the streetwise gumshoe navigating a maze of institutional corruption to get at the truth has been done to death, and nobody can wring anything new out of it. Yet that’s demonstrably untrue.
When the hardboiled detective setup can continue to generate works as diverse and vital as Blade Runner, The Big Lebowski, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Hellblazer and Veronica Mars, I’d say that path is still worth taking, well-worn as it may be.
What separates “classic” from “cliche” in these cases are the answers to two questions. Is the author aware that he or she is doing a variation on a story that’s been told before? And does he or she manage to do something distinctive with it.
In the case of Dope Thief, the answer is an emphatic yes.
Let’s compare it to a couple of other examples of stories featuring someone unwittingly making off with organized crime money.
In the 1973 movie Charley Varrick, organized crime served as a metaphor for encroaching corporate homogeneity and its intention of swallowing any last vestige of individuality, with Walter Matthau’s resourceful thief one of the dwindling number of people prepared to fight that trend.
In the book and movie No Country For Old Men, the remorseless assassin tracking down a fugitive who ends up with the money almost by accident is a representative of a crueler, more violent world that’s on its way, with traditional heroes powerless to stop it — in large part because they’re hobbled by their very moral decency.
Dope Thief also has that sense of inevitability about it. But it’s a more personal story than either of the two aforementioned examples. The protagonist, Ray, rips off drug dealers as part of a career path he’s drifted into almost accidentally. For him, it was the path of least resistance, because rising above his troubled past just seemed like too much effort.
When the predators get on his trail, they serve as a kind of metaphorical manifestation of all the things in his life he’s avoided dealing with until then. His troubled relationship with his father. The fact that he’s not getting any younger.
Just shows that any setup is still viable, if handled right.
You CAN teach an old dog new tricks. (That’s a lame cliche, isn’t it? Or is it a classic? Nah, it’s a lame cliche. Sorry.)