If you read romance as a book category, you are probably aware of the concept of a trope.
A trope is, in a way, a kind of cliché or a stereotype. Although those words have a negative connotation. It’s more a set idea or plot outline that is used many times over, hopefully with variations on the theme. There is the Cinderella trope, or we might call it a rags-to-riches story. There is the second-chance trope, or another is the Romeo-and-Juliet ‘doomed love’ trope.
And so it is with mysteries. We all know about country house or closed community mystery.
There are quite a few often-repeated ideas. Each time the story is told, we hope the author will bring their own new slant on a familiar trope. Agatha Christie was of course the Queen of the trope: want a closed community? How about a familiar one: the country house mystery? For example, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. that’s all very well, but there are a variations on the country house. think of Murder On The Orient Express. The country house is exchanged for a snowbound train. Or you might prefer Death On The Nile – a boat instead of a train instead of a manor house. Or what about Death In The Air – a plane instead of a boat instead of a train instead of a manor house. Or a hotel: At Bertram’s Hotel.
They all work brilliantly: a closed, finite circle of suspects the detective can investigate one by one, and eliminate until the only one left is the killer. Though of course, knowing Christie, the killer is usually someone we’ve investigated then eliminated, just to put the reader off the scent.
Or the romance genre’s trope, doomed love: this works well in mystery too. (Spoiler alert) I’m thinking of Death In The Clouds again, and this is also a second trope for Death On The Nile, and another book I love, Evil Under The Sun. These all have doomed lovers, doomed because they must suffer the consequences of their actions, or doomed because one of them is manipulated by the object of their affection, who is not what he or she seems.
I love the combination of two or more tropes in the same book. These can work well together to muddy the waters a bit for the armchair detective, making us focus on the wrong thing and miss finding the killer before Poirot or Miss Marple.
Other great tropes for the mystery genre include:
The Evil Victim: seemingly bringing their dreadful fate upon themselves and supplying us with a large cast of suspects and a large variety of motives. I love this one! These can be a spiteful domineering mother – Appointment With Death – or a tyrannical retired colonel living in a village – The Murder At The Vicarage.
Or you may prefer what I call the Not Quite Eden trope: A number of people nip off for a well-deserved holiday, sometimes in an exotic location (Death In Paradise, I’m looking at you) but – who knew – they take their problems or issues with them, and in the summer heat, things come quickly to a head. with disastrous consequences. Here we have our old friend Evil Under The Sun again, and Christie’s great Miss Marple book, A Caribbean Mystery.
There’s the Locked Room trope. This crops up in Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, in the short story, Dead Man’s Mirror and another of my favourites, the novella, Murder In The Mews. The novel And Then There Were None has also been likened to a locked room mystery but in my view this falls under the closed community trope rather than locked room as such.
There’s the Disappearing Weapon trope. I like this one too! (Look away now to avoid another spoiler!) Think of the removed trip-wire in Dumb Witness, for example, which led lesser mortals than Hercule Poirot to believe a ‘mere’ accident was the cause of death.
There is also the Missing Victim trope, one which is another favourite of mine, and is used a couple of times in Robert Thorogood’s Death In Paradise.
There are many more.
Here are a few other trope ideas that you might find interesting:
Revenge trope: Where the perpetrator is exacting revenge on parents, on siblings, on children, or any love or business rival who thwarts their ambition. This is probably as much a motive as it is a trope. This may include the Fake Reunion/Reconciliation. And often too, the Disguised Persona/Hidden Agenda. (Think Christie’s Pocket Full Of Rye)
Spiritual Assassin: This trope includes someone who feels they have a mission from God to punish wrong-doers. (Dan Brown uses this one a few times…)
The Unreliable Narrator: notoriously employed by Christie in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Also used more recently in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This is not always a popular trope with the reader who can feel a bit cheated – or maybe it’s more like embarrassment at being duped? When I read Roger Ackroyd for the first time, I was amazed and thrilled by being so brilliantly deceived.
I also enjoy the Double Trouble trope- where there are two different, often unrelated, independent killers. This makes it very much easier to misdirect the reader, fill the story with convincing alibis and make red herrings a doddle.
My absolute favourite mystery trope – and one that I use in my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy – is the Whydunit. This is the style made famous in the TV series Columbo. You know who did it, you see it right from the start, but the joyous thing about the story is watching the often-ridiculed, apparently shambling detective put together their case with meticulous attention to detail and finally confront the murderer with overwhelming evidence that they are unable to refute. It’s all about the discovery of motive and opportunity, and of course, the search for clues. I love, love love this trope. And it has the merit of being easier to write for the author!!! There is no concealment, only great attention to detail.
How many can you think of? What’s your favourite?
3 thoughts on “Tropelessly devoted to mystery books”
This was a really great writeup. Tropes are so challenging and I love the way the different tropes have been analysed. I also like “the deprived, enraged trope”: After the Funeral .
Oh I love After The Funeral – masterful misdirection!
I love the whydunit trope too (and think Columbo has stood the test of time really well – other 80s cop dramas can make you cringe, the Professionals especially).