A Guest Post by Alex Fairweather
Common Tropes of Mystery Fiction
The mystery Fiction genre involves strange or mysterious happenings driving the story forward. These events often occur while the protagonist attempts to solve a mystery, find a murderer or resolve a supernatural puzzle. The mystery genre has been thriving since the Golden Age of Agatha Christie and her peers, leaving Detective Mystery firmly cemented into the world of fiction writing. Mystery books were soon rife with repeatedly used tropes, some to impressive effect and others to the point of ridicule, promoting some excellent parodies of mystery tales. This article looks at common tropes from the mystery genre, discussing their use and whether writers should avoid them.
The Basic Classes of Mystery
Three basic classes of mystery novel include the Fair-Play Whodunnit, the Clueless Mystery, and the Reverse Whodunnit. In the Fair-Play Whodunnit, the reader, knows what the detective knows, gaining clues as the detective finds them. A sharp mind will find a moment in the plot where there is enough information to solve the mystery before the detective does. The opposite is true with the Clueless Mystery where the reader has insufficient information to solve the problem. Finally, the Reverse Whodunnit is possibly the most exciting form of mystery. The reader knows the who, what and why from the beginning of the story, potentially having more information than the detective ever finds out. The plot becomes a nail-biting tale focused on figuring out how the detective solves a perfect crime. Isaac Asimov’s The Singing Bell and The Dust of Death short stories follow this class, with the reader watching the murder happen first before being introduced to the detective as the investigation begins.
Some familiar mystery subgenres include Amateur Sleuth, Cozy Mystery, Great Detective, and Historical Detective Fiction. Cosy mysteries tend to downplay violence with the crime occurring in a small, intimate community. Agatha Christie’s famous Miss Marple is a classic example of this subgenre, with a little old lady in a small village turning detective. And continuing in the theme of Christie is the Great Detective, a classic character relying on their powers of deduction, insight, or education to solve cases. Who better to exemplify this stereotype than the great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, possibly the most well-known character of Christie’s repertoire? His ability to solve crimes quickly using intellect makes him a stand-out detective who Christie further sets apart by characterizing him with a signature moustache and a peculiar gait. The Amateur Sleuth is an untrained detective with no legal background who ends up crime-solving by accident. These budding investigators can inhabit any genre, sometimes venturing into the paranormal like the astral travelling Constance Maxwell. And let’s not forget the Historical Detective Fiction subgenre concerning mystery stories set in the past, like the indefatigable Sherlock Holmes with his ever-reliable sidekick, Dr Watson.
So those are the genres, but what are the tropes? Listing every trope would take too much time, as they are ever-growing and move with the times. Which are the most common, and will they last in the future?
Eagle-Eye Detection: This trope intrinsically links to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Both detectives rely on observing otherwise-unnoticed clues to solve their mysteries, often confounding the police. Hidden weapons, shards of glass and other less obvious clues can lead to the Eagle-Eyed Detective solving the case with very little else to go on. Eagle-Eyed Detection is often confused with Awesomeness by Analysis, of which Sherlock Holmes is the patron saint. This trope relies on the protagonist running calculations and theories in their head to come to an instant result, surpassing most human capability. Both tropes make the protagonist seem intellectually superior but can give the feeling of a contrived solution. For that reason, it is wise to use Eagle-Eye Detection reservedly, especially in modern media.
Everyone Is a Suspect: One of Poirot’s most famous stories, Death on the Nile, places the victim on a boat surrounded by enemies, making every character a possible suspect. The Everyone Is a Suspect trope turns a mystery into an edge-of-the-seat thriller if used correctly. Nobody knows who the murderer is or if they will strike again. Some authors include the detective as a suspect to make this trope even more effective.
Never Suicide: A common trope in mystery novels is where a death first ruled as suicide becomes an act of murder. Unfortunately, overuse of this trope can render it dull, but given a slow, sinister pace, it can transform from a standard story beat into an unexpected twist.
Thriller on the Express: An easily guessable trope, the Thriller on the Express involves a mystery occurring on a train, notably featured in Murder on the Orient Express. Equally famous is From Russia with Love, in which international superspy James Bond survives a deadly assassination attempt by Red Grant. Modern stories often subvert the Thriller on the Express trope, perhaps by finding a body on a train with the murder committed elsewhere.
Should authors avoid tropes?
Unlike a cliché which is an overused idea that has become stale, a trope is a story building device. Though frequently found, effective use of tropes creates compelling stories, and it is perfectly acceptable to recycle them. Readers like to know what they are getting and often search for a particular trope to satisfy their needs. But like anything, tropes can go in and out of fashion. Regardless, they are here to stay.