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Old 02-12-2020, 03:51 PM   #1
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common mystery trope that bugs me

Am I the only one?

So many mysteries make the bad guy that's discovered at the end be one of the people the detective interacted with now and then during the story, but always a minor, insignificant character because we're not supposed to figure out who did it (e.g., the old "the butler did it" joke about mysteries). And at the end the author ends up doing all sorts of contortions and gymnastics to justify why that character did it.

I read one where it was a serial killer in London, nothing special about them or the victims so it could have been any of a million or so Londoners, but no, it had to be some guy the detective inspector chatted with once or twice.

I don't mind knowing up front who did it when it's a well written mystery and you get to watch the detective figure it out.
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Old 02-12-2020, 04:45 PM   #2
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Worse than this is the resolution which depends on something totally random which is introduced at the end. For example, two of the characters being twins, or the introduction of a character who hasn't appeared in the body of the book.
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Old 02-12-2020, 04:54 PM   #3
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Am I the only one?

So many mysteries make the bad guy that's discovered at the end be one of the people the detective interacted with now and then during the story, but always a minor, insignificant character because we're not supposed to figure out who did it (e.g., the old "the butler did it" joke about mysteries). And at the end the author ends up doing all sorts of contortions and gymnastics to justify why that character did it.

I read one where it was a serial killer in London, nothing special about them or the victims so it could have been any of a million or so Londoners, but no, it had to be some guy the detective inspector chatted with once or twice.

I don't mind knowing up front who did it when it's a well written mystery and you get to watch the detective figure it out.
Have you ever watched Columbo? Every episode started off showing us who did it and how. The show showed how Columbo solved the murder. It worked rather well.
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Old 02-12-2020, 05:09 PM   #4
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Mysteries are at heart puzzles for readers to ponder as the narrative unfolds.

In order for the author to play fair with the reader, the culprit needs to be among the cast of suspects from relatively early in the story. This can be done well or poorly but revealing it to be a previously unintroduced character is far worse. It is similar to Anton Chekov's rule of minimalism for plays: If the audience is presented with a gun in tbe course of a play, that gun must be fired before the end.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chekhov%27s_gun

Not including the antagonist is no different than presenting the protagonist with a task seemingly impossible for them to handle and then solving it with the miraculous intervention of a previously unrevealed agency; the classic Deus Ex Machina. Which comes from ancient greek plays that settled the issues of the story via divine intervention, literally lowering a platform holding the divinity of the day.

By current standards that is bad, bad form.

The classic genres (mystery, SF, Fantasy, thriller, western) and their subgenres have been around long enough to have evolved formalisms and rules of what constitutes a "proper" example of the genre. For mysteries, this includes giving the reader a chance to solve the mystery themselves. Preferably just a paragraph ahead of the protagonist.

What makes "the butler did it" a valid and classic genre solution is the butler is generally presented as an everpresent supporting character and traditionally subservient and passive. So, when the move first emerged it was truly shocking that a servant should be so active and self-directed. By now, it has been done to death which means resorting to that particular resolutionis either tured and hoary (if done poorly) or brilliant and witty (if done cleverly).

The key point is doing it right.
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Old 02-12-2020, 05:16 PM   #5
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I wonder is that an Ian Rankin I've not read yet? Don't say.

US TV tends to reveal the criminal at the start (Colombo).

The criminal shouldn't be obvious, but should be a reasonably early character.

There are really 5 versions:
1) The reader or viewer knows at the start and the fun isn't the mystery but the characters.
2) The criminal is one of the characters maybe first 1/4 or 1/3 of the book, but you'll maybe only guess. Dashiell Hammettt, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Josephine Tay etc. You are not meant to figure it out, though sometimes you can. Some Perry Mason stories are like this. These are often the best if properly done.
3) The criminal is one of the characters maybe first 1/4 or 1/3 of the book, and if you are clever you can solve it.
4) The nasty, stupid story. The criminal is the Detective, or someone totally incidental, or only introduced near the end. That's not a proper detective story, maybe an exception are well done "Police Procedural" stories, of which maybe Ed McBain was the origin?
5) The distraction. Everyone seems to forget the serious crime and be running after something else. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett is an example. The REAL issue is WHO KILLED Miles Archer! But we are totally distracted by the Maguffin, the black bird. These are usually also type 2 or 3.

The butler / maid / doorman almost never does it as that would be a cheat.

You don't need contemporary (don't forget Conal Doyle, Hammett, Chandler, Alliingham, Marsh, Christie all did contemporary), the Caves of Steel and many other Asimov classics with Robots are really detective stories, the whole point of the 3 laws is really a sort of locked room mystery. It's why I only like the Early Foundation novels, the later ones are retconning characters really invented for detective stories, they have other issues too.

Georgette Heyer's romances were mostly Georgian & Regency. I think all her detective stories are contemporaneous with when they were written.

Some of the LeCarré Spy stories are really detective stories. Really none of the Ian Fleming actual Bond books are spy stories at all. They are adventure romps with Spy background. Len Deighton has an interesting balance of detective and spy in many of his stories. Certainly many involve solving a mystery, Hook, Line and Sinker series?

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and at the end the author ends up doing all sorts of contortions and gymnastics to justify why that character did it.
Unless the main point of the story is human drama, romance or what ever, then that's just a rubbish mystery/detective story.

Also a good mystery/detective story doesn't need to start with a mutilated woman's corpse. TV seems especially guilty of that. You don't even have to have a murder. See Baroness Orczy, Conan Doyle, Maurice Leblanc. Not always murders, though it's very traditional.
There are thousands of brilliant stories on Gutenberg. I find many current or recent authors too "gritty". I'm not into horror disguised as a detective story.
Decent modern mysteries & detective stories may be currently "hidden" in so called "YA" fantasy.
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Old 02-12-2020, 05:16 PM   #6
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Worse than this is the resolution which depends on something totally random which is introduced at the end. For example, two of the characters being twins, or the introduction of a character who hasn't appeared in the body of the book.
Terrible
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Old 02-12-2020, 05:18 PM   #7
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Have you ever watched Columbo? Every episode started off showing us who did it and how. The show showed how Columbo solved the murder. It worked rather well.
That is the conceit that makes the Columbo mysteries true classics: the puzzle isn't whonnit but rather what is the clue that unravels the plan or solves the case. The rumpled slob is also a affectation that makes him engaging. (Anybody who saw Mrs Columbo knows it's an act. )

Other mysteries focus on how the crime was committed, how the culprit's alobi might be cracked, etc. There's the locked room mysteries, the two-places-at once alibi, the ice bullet, the missing body, etc.
Every once in a while a writer comes up with an entirely new puzzle type but those are rare and hard. Most mysteries are perforce variations on the classics. Doesn't diminish the fun.

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Old 02-12-2020, 05:27 PM   #8
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Have you ever watched Columbo? Every episode started off showing us who did it and how. The show showed how Columbo solved the murder. It worked rather well.
Because Hollywood and US TV networks think viewers are stupid.
Raymond Chandler has an essay that covers this. As does a chapter of "Plotting For Every Kind of Writing" by Jack Woodford.

However Columbo was one of my favourite US import shows. Better than the bad copy of Agatha Christie's "Miss Marple" for the US Market, Jessica Fletcher of Cabot Cove, "Murder She Wrote" (ironically played by Angela Lansbury a British-Irish woman that moved to USA in 1940 and would make a good Miss Marple). Though I enjoyed many "Murder She Wrote" episodes.

Generally I prefer books to TV and Cinema anyway and agree with Jack Woodford about his 1939 comments on Hollywood, which even more apply today.
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Old 02-12-2020, 05:28 PM   #9
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Generally the mysteries I have read would fall into Frustrated's categories 2 or 3.
Once in my early e-reading days and before I discovered Goodreads I downloaded a library book that was tagged as a mystery. Turned out to be a bodice ripper (clothes were actually ripped) so I skimmed past the romance stuff to follow the mystery. Unfortunately, the mystery was really boring and in the end the culprit was someone barely seen previously. I felt cheated all around!
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Old 02-12-2020, 06:17 PM   #10
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Another one to add to Frustrated's list is where they start out saying that person A is the obvious one to have done it but then all sorts of facile reasons are presented as to why they didn't do it. And the investigator keeps coming back to that; "A must have done it! But no, they couldn't have." And then in the end we find out that A did do it. In one book that did that the murder method was so contorted and unrealistic that I swore off that author forever.
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Old 02-12-2020, 06:39 PM   #11
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"A must have done it! But no, they couldn't have." And then in the end we find out that A did do it. In one book that did that the murder method was so contorted and unrealistic that I swore off that author forever.
Yes. Horrible. That author doesn't get a 2nd chance from me either.
I forgot that horror.
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Old 02-12-2020, 06:44 PM   #12
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Because Hollywood and US TV networks think viewers are stupid.
Nonetheless, COLUMBO is still watchable after 50 years.
Ditto for MURDER SHE WROTE.
If nothing else, Hollywood back then knew what buttons to push to satisfy the masses.
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Old 02-12-2020, 06:49 PM   #13
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Nonetheless, COLUMBO is still watchable after 50 years.
Ditto for MURDER SHE WROTE.
If nothing else, Hollywood back then knew what buttons to push to satisfy the masses.
Nothing on TV or movies or whatever is there because they're trying to brainwash us; it's all about money and what sells.
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Old 02-12-2020, 08:38 PM   #14
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Nothing on TV or movies or whatever is there because they're trying to brainwash us; it's all about money and what sells.



Where did I say *anything* about brainwashing?
The old shows were watchable and fun and people responded to them, which is what mass entertainment was and still is about. High concept more often than not.

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Old 02-12-2020, 11:28 PM   #15
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Where did I say *anything* about brainwashing?
The old shows were watchable and fun and people responded to them, which is what mass entertainment was and still is about. High concept more often than not.
No, you didn't; I didn't mean to imply that you did. I was just ranting because I have friends who insist it's all a big plot (the media) to brainwash us.
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