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.
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!
In 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!)
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.)
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!
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.
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