There’s never been a better time to read fiction that completely allows you to escape reality. In fact, according to Sky News, mystery/crime fiction has been the genre enjoyed most during the COVID-19 pandemic. I can’t say I’m surprised — I’m a big fan of classic mystery books, and I’ve certainly read my fair share during this past year’s lockdowns.
Which leads me to today’s post: I’m going to take a closer look at five great mystery tropes, applying the spirit of forensic inquiry to the genre itself to understand how these books propel their way to the thrills and chills we all love so much. I’ve also included examples to show how each trope applies specific mysteries to help you visualize their functions — may they make you shiver with anticipation.
Mysteries often conjure intrigue through a tense and unnerving atmosphere. The setting of a story plays a huge part in this — which is why an isolated setting, cut off from the rest of the world, is a favorite among mystery writers. Murder mysteries taking place in remote locations, far from external help or interference, comprise some of the best Agatha Christie books:
And Then There Were None – set on a small tidal island off the coast of Devon, inaccessible by boat unless the tide is low;
Murder on the Orient Express – set on the Orient Express train, which is stopped mid-route by heavy snowfall;
Murder on the Nile – set on a cruise boat on the river Nile.
Why do isolated settings work so well? In all three examples above, innocent people and suspects alike are closed off in the same location, creating suspense and dismay as the reader and characters both wonder whether the murderer will strike again — and indeed if they could be lurking in plain sight. Help isn’t on the way, and with this touch of delightful claustrophobia, it becomes clear that the present characters will be forced to have it out among themselves.
Another winning setting that often crops up in mystery novels is the eerie country house, many of which are isolated as well. However, unlike our first trope, the eerie country house doesn’t derive its creepiness merely from isolation. Rather, unease is embedded in every detail of its existence — think creaking floorboards and looming shadows. Some examples include:
One of the first detective novels ever written, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone;
Modern classics like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs;
Contemporary cinema like Knives Out.
Maybe it’s the staring eyes of the stately portraits on the walls, the hidden rooms, or the winding staircases. Maybe it’s the unending darkness of the garden at night, filled with spooky sounds and a hidden villain. I can’t pin it down (and maybe that is the point, that all-pervading element of horror), but this majestic, Gothic-inspired setting never fails to send shivers down my spine.
Spoilers ahead for this one! A sneaky, twisty trope that’s hard to pull off but rewarding nonetheless: having the culprit not be one of the suspects. For those trying to balance character building with plot progression, it’s sometimes helpful to situate the culprit beyond the suspects.
If not in the suspect pool, you may ask, where are they? Here come the spoilers:
Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap reveals that the murderer was the man pretending to be the policeman/sleuth all along;
J.K. Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling exposes the culprit as the man who hired the detective in the first place;
Woody Allen’s movie The Curse of the Jade Scorpion sees an investigator discover that he himself has been committing robberies while unwittingly hypnotized.
These works catch their audiences by surprise by seemingly involving them in the investigation, only to reveal that something they’ve taken for granted is not actually true — namely, that the sleuth himself, or the person who hired them, will themselves be implicated in the crime. Yes, it’s a little “done” now, but will you see it coming? Unlikely.
This is a popular thriller trope whereby the story begins with the discovery of a corpse. The oddness of this first situation then morphs into the driving force of the story.
This trope is often encountered in TV shows like CSI that have to jump straight into the action due to time constraints.
Dan Brown famously begins each of his Robert Langdon novels with a corpse, always murdered in a peculiar way and found in a unique location. The Da Vinci Code, for example, opens abruptly with the discovery of the body of a Louvre curator, shot dead and laid out in the pose of the Vitruvian Man.
Starting your mystery by dropping the reader in the middle of a crisis is typical of the genre’s punchy pacing, where sleuth and reader alike have no time to lose. And since the structure of a story has a huge impact on reader perception, this fast-paced beginning creates the sense of urgency that’s essential for page-turning suspense.
Red herrings are intentionally misleading clues that draw suspicion away from the real answer to the mystery. These often take the form of revelations about possible motives or discoveries of lies told to the sleuth in suspect interviews — though the parties involved are not actually guilty, these elements make them seem that way.
Both of the examples above can be found in P.D. James’s A Mind to Murder, in which several suspects have motives and are discovered to have withheld information from the Superintendent, muddling the reader’s suspicions.
Red herrings also abound in the most celebrated of Sherlock Holmes books, The Hound of the Baskervilles (spoiler incoming!). Mr. Barrymore, the butler, is seen to behave very strangely at night, prompting suspicion. But this is not a classic Clue-like “the butler did it!” situation — Mr. Barrymore is simply a red herring, meant to distract the reader from the truth.
Red herrings can be incredibly powerful in the hands of a skilled mystery author, because they prevent the reader from figuring out the mystery before you want them to. Usually, the sleuth will see through a red herring but a reader will not, at least not right away. If they do, that’s a sign that the author needed some stronger editing.
Mystery is such an expansive genre, filled with twists and turns, that it’s easy to forget that most of its plots are actually quite structured. Writing a mystery involves juggling a great number of elements, doing it all backstage, and not allowing the reader to realize what’s going on. So for me at least, breaking down mystery tropes has really made me respect the hard work of mystery writers — and I hope it has for you too.