Mystery tropes: It was a dark and stormy night…

When if comes to mysteries, there are certain elements that get repeated a lot: The alcoholic detective who’s running from his past. The amateur sleuth who has to investigate to clear her name. The suspect who confesses everything at the end of the book for no particular reason other than tying up loose ends. This week, we’ve rounded up some of the usual suspects.

 Kellye Garrett


I’ve been a die-hard mystery lover since I was introduced to Encyclopedia Brown as a child so there is nothing I find more comforting than a good mystery trope. I love them all but one of my favorites is the “Girl running away from her past.” I’ve been reading a lot of thrillers lately so I’ve been seeing so many different and clever takes on it. The idea is extremely popular, but for a good reason—it just lends itself to such good drama. Who doesn’t love a good secret? We are desperate to first know what her secret is. Then we’re desperate to find out if it’s going to catch up to her. She’s been through so much, we just want her to finally have that happily ever after. And we keep flipping the pages until she does!

Cynthia Kuhn

cynthiaIn a mystery, when people are gathered together for some event and the lights suddenly go out, something is definitely afoot. After those lights come back on, chances are high that at least one of the attendees has been attacked, robbed, or worse. It’s a useful technique—a bit shocking, a bit thrilling, and, of course, a very handy way to widen your suspect pool. Now everyone in that room is part of the crime scene; let the sleuthing begin!

(Cynthia: Marla, here. This actually happened to me at a destination wedding! The lights went out, and I was sure someone would be missing when they came back on!)

Vickie Fee


The Butler Did It is a famous mystery trope, which oddly enough was never used that much. Mary Roberts Rinehart, sometimes called the American Agatha Christie, is generally credited with inaugurating the “butler did it” concept in a 1930 novel. The phrase “the butler did it” became equated with lazy writing by an author, who pins the murder on the ever-present butler to wrap up a messy plot. It became a common punch line for comedians. So much so that most authors avoid making the butler the killer for fear of ridicule. So the butler didn’t kill nearly as many people as most folks believe. I’d like to make use of this device in one of my books, but since butlers are few in Tennessee where my series is set I’ll have to find a work-around. At some point, I may throw in a few suspects whose last name is Butler just for fun. (Side note: Mary Roberts Rinehart’s chef tried to kill her. According to some reports, he was upset that she had hired a new butler and didn’t promote him to that position.)

Marla Cooper

CotC Marla Cooper

Most mystery tropes have been around for ages, but thanks to technology, a new one has sprung up in the last decade or so: the nonoperational cell phone. About 78% of all mysteries could be solved and 47% of disasters could be averted if only people had a good, working communications device. (By the way, did you know that 53% of all statistics are made up?) So now, when we put our heroines in danger, we must also make sure that her phone is dead or in her purse (which she’s left in the car), or that she’s traveled out of range of a cell tower. If you’re reading a book and someone wishes she’d brought along her phone charger, watch out because something bad is about to happen!

Lisa Q. Mathews

CotC Word balloons

My absolute favorite is the one where the intrepid detective (not always an amateur) gathers all the suspects together in the parlor or wherever and makes the Big Reveal. She takes us back through the story, winding in every detail (including those that weren’t ever presented to the reader or TV viewer—Murder She Wrote was famous for that). Then she dramatically points to the guilty party. Everyone gasps. How could they not have realized? The reader or viewer groans and tosses the book across the room, or microwave popcorn at the TV set. That wasn’t fair. The writer completely cheated by not sharing that key piece of info with us, or we would have solved the crime ourselves, two minutes into the story. Boo, Jessica Fletcher! We might as well have spent all that time taking our chances with a rousing boardgame of Clue. Meet you in the drawing room at midnight. Bring an extra candlestick or handy noose, because in real life that kind of reveal might not go down too well with the murderer who ALMOST got away with it.

Readers, drop us a note in the comments below!

Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe to Chicks on the Case and never miss a post. Just click the button on the top right side of this page and let the fun begin!

18 thoughts on “Mystery tropes: It was a dark and stormy night…

  1. I love it when a house party is snowed in or stranded on an island. My sister and I got snowed in at my apartment over Valentine’s and did some serious serial mystery watching, starting with Oliver’s Travels. Which is a Quest-type mystery and great fun. Enjoy!

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Ooh, Kate, I love mysteries where they are stranded because of snow or no boat until morning! Of course, that that probably works better in a big country house or inn. If we were stranded with a few people in my very modest apartment, I don’t think you could kill someone without anybody else knowing whodunit — even if the lights went out. 🙂

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” is a perfect example of the stranded/trapped characters..who needs a locked room when everyone is stuck on an island with no way off for the entire weekend? 😛 And then there’s “Murder on the Orient Express” for the Big Reveal… not sure if anyone had ever done the “everyone did it” method before that, but it sure was effective, and is one of my favorite Christie mysteries (while “And Then There Were None” is actually one of my *least* favorites).

        And then of course there’s the classic kids’ version, Scooby Doo. Every single time they either get stranded because of a flat tire/out of gas, or they get lost, or they get invited by a relative to some spooky, out of the way location. Then of course they stumble upon the mystery, then Fred comes up with a plan (that almost never works like it was intended), Shaggy and/or Scooby inadvertently screw it up, somehow the bad guy(s) manages to get caught anyway, and every episode ends with the line “I’d have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for you meddling kids!” Don’t get me wrong, I love Scooby Doo, and the classic episodes are the best, but watching it as an adult (yes I still do :P) it’s so easy to sit there and go “Really? Come on, you know that’s not going to work!” or
        “Oh great, Shaggy’s driving, that means they’re about to run out of gas/get a flat tire”, or if Fred’s driving “they’re about to get lost and there’s just going to happen to be a spooky old farmhouse or some other such place for them to have to stop and ask for directions because of course it’s the only building within a hundred miles of the place”…. the situations are so cliche it’s ridiculous, but of course as kids none of us cared (and let’s be honest, we still don’t :P).

        I think Laura Childs has pulled the “lights go out” one a few times in her Tea Shop Mysteries, and when the lights come back on either the person is missing and then they have to go find them (and of course they’re laying dead in the middle of the hallway/back room/in a closet), or they’re laying slumped across a table with a knife stuck in their back or with no obvious signs of violence so of course they were poisoned… this is also one of my favorite mystery series, so I’m not knocking any f these methods, just pointing out how often they seem to get used, albeit in some pretty original ways sometimes.


  2. There are some I enjoy and some I roll my eyes at. It seems in most of the books I read, the climatic trope is for the killer to attempt to kill the main character is some way and she must figure out how to get out of it to save her life. I’ve actually read a couple of books this year that had the everyone gathered in a room at the end trope, and I enjoyed it because it was something different.

    The one that makes me roll my eyes is usually not found in cozies. It’s the silent killer with the abuse in his past. Come on! Can’t you give me a better solution than that?

    It’s funny you’d rag on Murder, She Wrote. I remember the show going out of its way to show up the clues, somethings being way too obvious about it. Mind you, I still never connected the dots, but at least they were all there. Maybe I need to rewatch the show. (And since I have the complete series sitting on my shelf, that is an option.)

    Finally, Marla, I have to correct you. 71.2% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Marla, cop to it. You’re the one who turned out the lights at that wedding! And when the lights came back on, you were taking notes about everyone’s reactions and where they were standing. The obvious suspect in this case is the mystery author. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. So, it was funny…. everyone was quiet for a second, then there was a nervous giggle, followed by someone saying, “Marla, did you do this?” I love that everyone assumed the mystery writer did it!

      Liked by 4 people

  4. Mark, when my mom reached her late 90s we watched Murder, She Wrote every single night–and often more than one episode (we have the full set, too). It’s very possible I dozed off during key points and missed some of those clues. But I still love Jessica–just a little jealous of her old-school famous author life and her cozy setup in Cabot Cove!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Vickie, now I really, really want to know what happened with the American Agatha Christie. Did the killer succeed? A future blog post, perhaps?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. These were great ones, everybody.

    And Kellye, never thought about it but you’re so right re: we not only want to know about her past but also whether it will catch up with her! Two mysteries in one!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Has there ever been one with a mystery author as a character (not the victim), and were they ever a viable suspect, and did they actually do it? There were at least a couple Murder, She Wrote episodes where Jessica herself was accused of the crime (and of course she didn’t do it, although there was an issue of Mad Magazine, I believe, that parodied the show and the Big Reveal at the end was that Jessica was really the one who’d killed all those people over the years, very cleverly framing all those suspects of the crimes) but I don’t know if it’s ever been done in a book before? And if not, would someone actually be able to use that as a plot and make it believable? I’d read it, just to see how it was done!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s