Mystery Clichés and How to Avoid Them

Well it’s part two in my series of genre clichés and how to avoid them, and this week we’re focusing on the broad spectrum of the murder/mystery genre.

I had no difficulty thinking up tired old clichés in this genre. In fact, the main problem I had putting this post together was deciding which tropes not to include, since I know you guys have got better things to do than to sit around listening to me rhyming off hundreds of thousands of mystery tropes I’m getting bored of reading about. So, I won’t waste any more of your time with the introductory spiel. Let’s just cut straight to the clichés!

The Butler, The Narrator and everybody dunnit

This was originally going to be three separate tropes, but as they’re all quite similar I’ve grouped them into one. As you know, every good mystery story involves finding out who committed the crime or ‘who dunnit?’, as they say. Naturally the author will want to try to preserve the mystery surrounding the true killer until the last moment so that the audiences’ minds will be suitably blown when the killer is finally revealed.

Unfortunately, there are a few ‘mind blowing’ revelations which have been used so often that they are no longer mind-blowing. These include (though are not necessarily limited to):

  • Butler Dunnit: the humble, genteel old butler whom nobody suspects is the killer. Because he is so meek and mild, and because everyone has known him for years, no one suspects him, especially since he is so surrounded by such a bombastic group of loud-mouthed posh people all with dark secrets. There’s nothing really wrong with this trope, except that it’s been so overused that butlers are now the number one suspect in most audiences’ eyes, thus robbing it of its effectiveness.
  • Narrator Dunnit: Aah, yes, the one character we never suspected was the character who is actually narrating the story! After all, he is confiding in us! Surely we can trust him! But remembers boys and girls, narrators can be unreliable. The trouble with this guy being the killer is that it relies more heavily on the audiences’ blind faith to preserve the mystery than it does on a good complex puzzle. Reasonably smart audiences will not be fooled.
  • Everybody Dunnit: Under most circumstances, this trope is just plain ridiculous. I’ll maybe let you away with it if it’s a group conspiracy, rather than a bunch of different people all separately conspiring against the same person, but even then it stretches suspense of disbelief to its absolute limit. It’s also been overused.

In all three cases, the easiest way to avoid this cliché is simply this: make somebody else the killer. I don’t care who, just as long as it’s somebody we don’t expect.

Butler’s Actually the Rightful Heir. That’s Why He Dunnit.

This one is usually a natural extension of ‘butler dunnit’. The butler, or some other seemingly innocuous character, is actually the rightful heir (or imagines himself the rightful heir) of some fancy title or a vast sum of money.

They’re not necessarily the killer themselves. It could be the butler’s well meaning but sorely misguided parent or lover who did the actual deed, either for personal gain or out of a misguided sense of loyalty. Either way the author has tried to come up with a good motive for the killer’s actions; one the audience will not immediately suspect but will believe when it is revealed. Unfortunately, the tried and tested ‘unknown heir to the victim’s millions’ motif was the best they could come up with.

If you’re writing a mystery, try and spend a bit more time focusing on the killer’s goals and motives. What does he get up for in the morning? What matters to him? And how does this drive him to do the unthinkable? There’s no denying it: doing this and still maintaining the mystery is a tough ask, but it’s worth the effort.

Everyone thinks the protagonist is an idiot but he’s actually the only smart one

If you’re writing a story about a private or amateur detective investigating any serious crime, you’re already pushing the boundaries of the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. After all, the real life police tend to be very protective of their evidence and crime scenes. If the local baker starts asking to poke around the crime scene because he fancies himself as a detective, he’ll probably just be asked to leave.

So if you then make that baker-detective stupid (or worse, dangerously insane) in the eyes of other characters, it’s going to be almost impossible to imagine that character being permitted access to the crime scene. And don’t think you can get away with it by making your protagonist a police detective. The police will not generally put an officer they believe to be stupid in charge of a murder investigation, even if he does get promoted because he foolishly got himself shot once (yes, I’m looking at you DI Jack Frost!). If you want to play the ‘protagonist playing stupid’ card, this should be reflected in how the other characters treat him. Why not have your protagonist being denied access to the vital evidence? Alternatively, your protagonist could investigate the crime despite police warnings, forcing the police to take a more aggressive stance against him. A night in the cells might even give your amateur sleuth just enough thinking time to finally crack the case.

The sidekick never ceases to be amazed by the protagonist’s brilliance

Dr. Watson (Sherlock Holmes) or Captain Hastings (Poirot) are good examples of this. Despite the fact they’ve been the closest friend and most trusted assistant of your protagonist for years, they continue to be baffled by the protagonist’s genius. Not only that, but they will consistently challenge the protagonist’s deductions, as if they, too, believe the protagonist to be an idiot.

He’s a genius. You know he’s a genius. No need to act amazed the zillionth time he solves the case or shake your head and say ‘Oh dear, I think old Poirot’s getting senile in his old age!’.

The sidekick can be so much more than a cheap foil who makes your protagonist look clever. Why not give him goals and motives of his own? Why not even give him a brilliance of his own, something that the protagonist perhaps lacks? Remember, no character exists just for the benefit of another. Make us care about your Watson for his own sake.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what cracks your case.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

You can check out our previous interviews here:
Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

If You Don’t Like Mysteries, You’ll Love Mr. Holmes

SPOILER ALERT

Although every effort has been made to prevent spoilers, anyone who has not yet seen the film Mr. Holmes (2015) or read the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Last year, I was standing waiting for a bus when one passed by (not the one I was waiting for) with a poster on the side, advertising a new film that was about to be released. The poster was plain white apart from a very well dressed and sour faced Ian McKellen. The title of the film was Mr. Holmes.

‘Oh, a new Sherlock Holmes film.’ I thought, my interest piqued. ‘I must remember to make time to go and see that.’

Suffice it to say I did not remember and, whether it was because of my own poor fortune or because the film was inadequately publicised, I did not see hide nor hair of that film again until this very year when I was perusing Amazon for something to watch and it recommended this little gem to me. The reviews on Amazon were generally good but there were also enough negative reviews to give me doubts. However, being a big fan of Sherlock Holmes and knowing that Ian McKellen’s acting is always a joy to watch (no matter how bad the rest of the film is) I decided to give it a chance.

In this film, Sherlock Holmes is now in his nineties and is struggling with his failing memory. He has long since retired to a farmhouse in Sussex where he lives in relative solitude apart from his housekeeper, her son and the bees he now keeps. Because of his failing memory, he cannot precisely remember how his last case as a private detective ended; however, he is certain that the now deceased Watson’s novelisation of it cannot be correct because it portrays Sherlock as having solved the case triumphantly, as he always does. Sherlock cannot accept that he would have retired except after a terrible failure, and so, with the encouragement of his housekeeper’s son and consumed with guilt over something he cannot fully recall, he tries to write the story of the case as it truly happened. Meanwhile, his housekeeper is growing increasingly restless with her role as Sherlock’s housekeeper-come-nurse and resolves to move to Portsmouth with her son, who has grown very attached to Sherlock. There is also a sub-plot concerning a Japanese man who lures Sherlock to Japan in order to confront him about the disappearance of his father, for which he blames Sherlock.

If you’re looking for a ‘who dunnit’ or another exciting instalment of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, you’ve come to the wrong place. Sherlock goes on no adventure in this story, nor is there a particularly mystery to be solved (unless you count his attempt to remember what he has forgotten). Unlike more traditional Sherlock Holmes stories, Mr. Holmes is gently paced and driven by its key themes: regret, ageing, death and senility. I know that probably makes it sound like quite a miserable film, but in reality I found this film to be surprisingly light-hearted and sweetened with a light dusting of humour and sentimentality.

This film is particularly concerned with giving us a glimpse at the real Sherlock Holmes, as opposed to the ‘character out of a pantomime’ he feels he has become through the novelisations and dramatisations of his various cases. Indeed, Sherlock himself appears keen to distance himself from that character. For example, there is a reference at one point to the fact he does not have his deerstalker or pipe. The reason for this, he claims, is that the deerstalker was a mere embellishment and that he prefers a cigar to a pipe; especially now that the pipe has become nothing more than a ‘prop’. It is also revealed to us that 221B Baker Street was, in fact, not his actual address but a deliberate attempt to mislead fans and tourists who were intent on visiting him.

As well as his obvious trademarks, his own personality is also very different from the character we are used to. The writers (and, I should add, McKellen himself) have done a fantastic job here of showing us the other side of Sherlock, without making him a different person altogether. His paternal feelings towards his housekeeper’s son, for example, seem to be a far cry from the cold hearted mystery solving machine that we are all so familiar with. In spite of this, he still retains his uncanny ability to tell everything a person has done simply by looking at them and his philosophy that the truth will always be uncovered by careful analysis of the facts. While he does retain a certain bluntness and an apparent cold heartedness, this seems to be little more than veneer (a thin one at that) which he uses to distance himself from difficult feelings. His warmth towards his housekeeper’s son, the empathy he shows towards his client’s wife and his regret over her death and the deaths of his friends make him seem altogether more human.

His attitudes towards death strikes me as particularly important. He approaches his own looming demise with an apparent nonchalance and claims never to have mourned the dead – bearing in mind that this is set after the death of John Watson, Mycroft Holmes and Mrs Hudson, all of whom were key figures in Sherlock’s life.

I can’t say that I’ve ever mourned the dead, bees or otherwise. I concentrate on circumstances. How did it die? Who was responsible? Death, grieving, mourning; they’re all commonplace. Logic is rare (Mr. Holmes 2015).

This air of indifference is typical of the traditional Sherlock; in Mr. Holmes, however, it sounds quite hollow. The fact that he was powerless to prevent his client’s wife from killing herself, despite recognising all the facts, has affected him deeply – to such an extent that it drove him to retirement. He also regrets that, after breaking off contact with Watson, he never had a chance to say goodbye to him before he died. When his housekeeper’s son is nearly killed by a swarm of wasps, he sees all the evidence of what has happened and, uncharacteristically, assumes it must have been his bees that were to blame (at least at first) rather than notice that the evidence clearly implicates a nearby nest of wasps. While most of us might consider this a normal reaction to finding a boy lying bruised and unconscious next to a hive of bees, it is rather atypical of Sherlock Holmes. The film also ends with him setting up memorial stones for everyone he has lost (or at least, everyone we have heard of anyway)

All in all, this is a enjoyable and easy to watch film but I would certainly caution any lifelong Sherlock Holmes fan that Mr. Holmes is best enjoyed if you approach it with absolutely no preconceptions about what a Sherlock Holmes film should be. It is a very good piece of cinema but it is not a typical Sherlock Holmes film by any stretch of the imagination, nor does it try to be. It’s not a mystery. It’s not an adventure. It’s a drama and a pretty decent one at that. Approach it as such and you will probably come away satisfied.