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]

5 Super Snappy Speed Reviews – TV Edition

Spoiler Alert

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not seen Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Treasure Island (2012), Doctor Who, Sherlock or Supergirl is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Well, I know it’s not been all that long since the last edition of Super Snappy Speed Reviews but I’ve spent the last few hours banging my head against the desk trying to think of something to write for today and I’m drawing a blank so I’m afraid you’re getting more speed reviews today- this time focusing on the realm of televised fiction. I’ve picked 5 TV shows entirely at random from my DVD rack Now TV/Lovefilm/etc. accounts and have prepared for your information reviews of up to no more than three or four sentences each.

As ever, these reviews reflect nothing but my own personal opinion. They are not necessarily TV shows of the same genre, nor are they necessarily TV shows that I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order.

What I have written about them are my entirely own impressions and opinions, crushed, blended and flattened into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

Agatha Christie’s Poirot 

This adaptation of the adventures of Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective aired on ITV from 1989-2013. While some episodes are more loosely based on the original works of Christie than others, they nevertheless bring the jolly charming and, dash it all old bean, sometimes dark world of Poirot to life in a way which is mostly lighthearted and easy to watch. While I prefer to focus on the story-telling rather than acting when reviewing TV shows, I also cannot help but point out how singularly superb a job David Suchet does portraying Hercule Poirot.

My rating: 4 stars

Treasure Island (2012 mini-series)

This adaptation of Robert Lois Stevenson’s novel, Treasure Island, boasts an all-star cast including Eddie Izzard, Elijah Wood and Donald Sutherland to name but a few. I’m not a particular fan of Eddie Izzard, but I must say I thought he gave a stellar performance as the dastardly (yet somehow likeable) Long John Silver, capturing the complexity of the story’s villain in a way which seemed natural and believable. They have been somewhat liberal with the plot for such a famous novel (some might say too liberal) but if you can live with that, it’s still an enjoyable enough watch. The ending felt a bit abrupt, but not inappropriately so. There are only two episodes, both about an hour and a half long.

My rating: 3.5 stars

Doctor Who

It is difficult to compress a review of this, since it’s been running (on and off) for more than fifty years now. It started in 1963 but didn’t really find its feet until the 70s when Jon Pertwee and later Tom Baker portrayed the Doctor. If you like light-hearted, imaginative (but not too scientific) sci-fi fantasy TV shows with lots of monsters and a colourful protagonist travelling through time and space in a police box then you’ll probably enjoy at least one incarnation of this show. If you’re the sort of sci-fi fan who enjoys hard sci-fi, you might want to give this a miss. Incidentally, series 10 of its current incarnation started just yesterday.

My rating by era:

Hartnell era: 3 stars
Troughton era: 4 stars
Pertwee era: 3.5 stars
T. Baker era: 4.5 stars
Davison era: 3 stars
C. Baker era: 1.5 stars
McCoy era: ?
McGann era (movie): 1.5 stars
Eccleston era: 4 stars
Tennant era: 5 stars
Smith era: 3.5 stars
Capaldi era: 3.5 stars

Sherlock

Many have undertaken to create a modern spin on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Most have made an absolute pig’s ear of it. BBC’s Sherlock is an exception to this rule. It is, understandably, quite liberal with the original story (mobile phones, blogging and other modern technological and cultural phenomenon play a fairly significant role in this series) but it thankfully avoided falling into some of the traps other adaptations have fallen into of making fundamental changes to who the characters and are (though they pushed their luck a bit with Irene Adler and Moriarty). Regardless, it’s thoroughly entertaining (though the last series got a bit silly I thought).

My rating: 4 stars

Supergirl

We’re just now nearing the end of series 2 of this adaptation of DC’s super-heroine, Kara Zor-El, cousin of Superman. I must like something about this show because I’ve watched it pretty religiously since it’s been on, though I find some of the acting a bit naff at points and frankly, I’m starting to wonder if there aren’t more aliens living on planet earth in this show than there are humans. Basically, everyone’s an alien or a cyborg. Oh and Jimmy Olson has decided to become a superhero too now… (?!). Socio-political themes are present and very thinly veiled, if that’s your bag. Also if you enjoy playing ‘spot the actors from previous Superman/Supergirl adaptations’, you’ll love this show too.

My rating: 2.8 stars


And that’s a wrap for today!

Until next time!

8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews

Spoiler Alert

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read: The Count of Monte Cristo by A. Dumas, The Afrika Reich by G. Saville, The Final Act of Mr. Shakespeare by R. Winder, The House of Silk by A. Horowitz, The Gospel of Loki by J.M. Harris, I, Robot by I. Asimov, Deception by R. Dahl or Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Well this might be a great idea or it might not be, but I thought it might be fun to knock together a couple of two or three sentence book reviews based on a selection from my bookshelf. Who knows, if it’s a hit, I’ll maybe do it again… maybe with movies or TV shows. But for today, it’s books.

I selected the books for review entirely at random. They are not necessarily of the same genre, nor are they necessarily books I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order.

What I have written about them are my entirely own impressions and opinions, compressed, squeezed and crammed into a few short sentences. So, without further ado…

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Justifiably a classic of the genre; a good wholesome historical adventure story and love story rolled into one. It helps to know a thing or two about the period of the Bourbon Restoration to fully appreciate everything that’s going on but don’t let it put you off if you don’t have any knowledge of that period. Oh, and make sure you read the unabridged version translated by Robin Buss. It is the best.

My rating: 5 stars

The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville

If alternative histories and non-stop heart-pounding thrill-rides are your thing, you’ll probably enjoy this. Personally, I can’t help feeling the protagonist should have died from his injuries- or at least been slowed down enough to be caught and executed by the Nazis but I suppose that’s what we have suspension of disbelief for.

 My rating: 3 stars

The Final Act of Mr. Shakespeare by Robert  Winder

Historical fiction featuring William Shakespeare as the protagonist. This novel is set shortly after the Gunpowder Plot and tells the fictional story of the last play Shakespeare (never actually) wrote: Henry VII. In some respects, the story is quite exciting; filled with personal danger for Shakespeare and his troupe. While the narrative does drag at some points, it is beautifully written in a way which brings many of the real historical characters to life and is kept afloat by its interesting premise and a goodly dash of humour. It also includes the full script for the fictional play this novel focuses on.

My rating: 4 stars

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

Many have tried to capture the magic of Sherlock Holmes in books and films throughout the years. Few have done it as well as Anthony Horowitz does it in The House of Silk, balancing fidelity to the original creation of Arthur Conan Doyle with a fresh and exciting new plot for modern readers. It has everything in it you ever wanted from a Sherlock Holmes story; mystery, excitement, a dark secret to uncover and a quality of narrative which draws you right into the heart of Holmes’ London. Parental advisory: the ending is a lot darker and more disturbing than anything A.C.D. might have written.

My rating: 5 stars

The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris

This novel is an imaginative reexamination of Norse mythology, given from the unique perspective of one of its central villains: Loki, the god of mischief. This novel is full of sharp and occasionally dark humour and a very compelling antihero. Downsides? The first few chapters felt more like a list of cosmic anecdotes forming a backstory, which made it a slow read at first but it does pick up. I also found the narrative voice of Loki a little irksome, but then again, the Loki character is probably supposed to be irksome so I suppose that’s a good thing.

My rating: 3 stars

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

What can I say about I, Robot that hasn’t already been said? Almost every robot character that has ever appeared in sci-fi since owes something to this collection of short stories which are set at different points in the lifetime of robopsychologist, Dr. Calvin (though she is not a character in every story, the stories are largely told from her perspective). Each story is generally centred around the Three Laws of Robotics (Google it) and the problems caused by human and robot interpretations of these laws. I found the pacing a bit slow occasionally, but all in all it’s a good read and an essential addition to any sci-fi buff’s bookshelf. This book sets the standard for everything modern sci-fi readers expect from a robot story.

My rating: 4.5 stars

Deception by Roald Dahl

As a child, I loved almost everything Roald Dahl ever wrote. Deception is certainly not for children but it is an excellent collection of short stories all dealing with theme of lies and deceit. Some of the stories are quite dark (for instance, ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ deals with a woman who murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb then feeds it to the police) while others are a little more lighthearted. I loved it. I think you will, too.

My rating: 4 stars

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

Lewis is probably more famous for the The Chronicles of Narnia and his assorted theological texts but this book (the first in ‘The Cosmic Trilogy’) is well worth a look anyway. Hard sci-fi fans, don’t waste your time. This is a story about a man who travels to Mars, but Lewis’ idea of space is clearly grounded in his interest in mythology rather than modern cosmology. Treat it as a fairy-tale rather than a sci-fi, though, and it’s a darn good read.

My rating: 4 stars


Phew! Well, that was different!

Until next time!

6 More Six-Word Stories

If you’ve been following Penstricken since it started in 2015, you may recall that on one occasion I set myself the challenge of writing 6 six-word stories using Thinkamingo’s Story Dice as stimuli. Since I am in an unoriginal sort of mood today, I’ve decided to do it again. The only difference is that this time, in addition to taking my cue from the story dice, I also intend to make each story a different genre, i.e. sci-fi, historical fiction, etc.

As before, I am using one die per story.

Alea iacta est (again!).

Now let’s see what I can come up with based on that starting from the top left and working my way down to the bottom right. As ever, the following are all my own work and have not been published anywhere else before:

  1. KING FELIX DEAD: Nine assassins executed (fantasy).
  2. ‘I shall avenge thee!’ Bambi vowed. (fan fiction)
  3. Rose wrote to Henry: ‘Dear John…’ (romance).
  4. ‘Butler dunnit’, written in Butler’s blood. (murder/mystery)
  5. MARTIANS: No spacesuits on the beach! (sci/fi)
  6. Sword drawn, Julius crossed the Rubicon (historical)

That was even harder than last time! Without a shadow of a doubt, the most difficult one was the cat (though I will admit, I was scraping the bottom of the barrel a bit including a Bambi fan fiction as well). I didn’t have the foggiest idea what to do with it and I’m not even all that sure that I pulled it off terribly well but never mind. It was always meant to be a challenge.

Why not grab some story dice (or use the images I’ve posted here; I am certain you can come up with much better stories than I have) and give it a bash yourself? And remember to share your efforts with the rest of us by posting them in the comments section below!

 

To Catch a Killer (A Little Too Easily)

SPOILER ALERT

Although every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not seen the ITV television-movie Maigret or read the Georges Simenon novel Maigret Sets a Trap is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

I’m normally quite fussy about reading the original of any story before I watch the film/TV adaptation. It’s not that I favour one over the other; I just like to get a feel for the original author’s unique angle on his/her story before sampling other people’s homages to it. That being said, when I heard that Rowan Atkinson was going to be starring as the main character in ITV’s television adaptation of Georges Simenon’s detective novel Maigret Sets a Trap, my curiosity got the better of me.

There are a couple of reasons I was so keen to see it but what really piqued my curiosity and what caused me to break with my usual tradition of reading the book first was the fact that the main character (a fairly sour-faced French detective called Jules Maigret), was being portrayed by Rowan Atkinson; a British actor best known for playing fairly silly comedy roles such as Mr Bean, Johnny English and Edmund Blackadder.

I will admit that it took a couple of minutes to get used to Atkinson’s face being so serious. His features are very striking and he has made a career out of comical facial expressions, not least of all in Mr Bean, where he has made an art of telling jokes without uttering a word. My disorientation only lasted a minute however. Atkinson’s acting and the general mood of the film were more than adequate to create the serious and mysterious ambiance needed for a good, solid detective story.

I do love a good detective story. I think secretly we all do. Mystery is very compelling. It’s what makes a detective story so captivating; something puzzling has happened and we simply can’t go to bed until we’ve had all our questions answered! That means, of course, that it is important that the reader/viewer of a detective story never knows for certain who committed the crime until the last moment (that was always my biggest objection to Columbo!). Those unanswered questions are what keep us on the edge of our seat. Without them, there’s no mystery and no story worth telling. Those detailed conversations you have with your family during the ad-breaks about who you think the killer might be and why are half the fun of watching a detective drama in my book.

And that, dear reader, is the main thing that ruined this first episode of Maigret for me.

The episode opens midway through an investigation conducted by Jules Maigret into four similarly styled murders. The victims have nothing in common except the colour of their hair and Maigret is, frankly, utterly failing to catch the perpetrator. And so he sets a trap, using female police officers as bait. At first, this seems to have all the makings of a good TV detective story; a compelling hard-nosed detective; pressure being applied to remove the detective from the case because of his failure to solve it; a series of mysterious murders that cause my wife and I to exchange numerous increasingly wild theories about ‘who dunnit’; the looming threat of more deaths; a dangerous plan to force the killer to reveal himself…

But then the plan goes ahead fairly early in the story, nobody gets killed as a result of Maigret’s risky move and someone is arrested against whom a truck-load of evidence is immediately forthcoming.

‘It can’t be him.’ I say to my wife. ‘It definitely, definitely, definitely can’t be him. It’s too obvious. It’s never the first guy they arrest, especially not when they find so much evidence against him so easily.’

So we carry on watching it for another half hour or so, quietly confident in our individual theories about who the real killer is while Maigret continues to hold and interrogate someone who we assume is an innocent man…

Only it turns out it was him after all and the person who I thought maybe was the killer is actually never actually seen again. Oh sure, they try to throw us off the scent by having another murder committed while the killer is in jail but by that point it’s painfully obvious that it was the killer’s wife who committed this last murder just to protect her husband and so we are not fooled and neither is Maigret.

I was prepared for the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to take Rowan Atkinson seriously as a serious detective and was pleasantly surprised to find that I thoroughly enjoyed his performance. If I was giving out prizes for acting or creating the right ambiance, I would have nothing but praise for Maigret but when it comes to that all important story, I must admit to feeling like I had been robbed of a good mystery and I am not nearly as enthusiastic about the second episode (due to be aired later in the UK later this year) as I was about the first.

My most sincere congratulations to Rowan Atkinson (and indeed, all the cast!) on a very good and very non-comical performance. Hopefully the plot for the next episode, Maigret’s Dead Man, will do greater justice to the acting and ambiance of the first episode.