Mystery Quirks that I Give the Side-eye
The Deep Mystery Problems
I know I just complained about a type of villain, and that feels like an introduction to tropes.
I am not particularly good at spotting them, however. I tend not to worry about them. I wouldn’t even say that I am complaining about the Femme Fatale. (Or the Herbs TM that I talked about earlier.) Tropes are merely patterns we pattern-happy humans can find in books, and they are fine most of the time. They bring some people joy, and they give writers more to play with. I’ll read just about any trope if it is done right.
There are, however, writing issues that will cause me to side-eye a book. These are deep and have jack-all to do with surface tropes. These are:
1. Writer knows the solution, so detective doesn’t do due diligence
This is when the detective doesn’t follow up leads or start with obvious witnesses that even I could think of. If I am asking the book, “Why don’t you interview the servants?” or similar questions, something is wrong.
The wrong thing is the designated investigator is fails to investigate and leaps to the writer’s chosen conclusion instead.
The reader had no way of coming to that conclusion and doesn’t even get to see the process of elimination in action. I wind up feeling cheated and annoyed.
Anne Perry specializes in paragraphs of emoting about whether we all feel passionate and want to fight for causes.
A particular cause is never part of the story. Everyone just dumps vague impressions on the supposed investigator, and this causes enlightenment, somehow.
I don’t know why I have stuck with her for as long as I have. There is a point where this emoting is just a waste of everyone’s time. It’s cheap and it’s lazy, and I eventually wonder if the writer has put any thought at all into the crime.
Writers that rely on magic or mysticism also love vague ‘and then he had a feeling’ type clues. It’s annoying.
3. Crime is distant fourth subplot
If it is categorized under mystery, there should be a mystery. It needs to be the A plot.
Lillian Jackson Braun, for instance, had an annoying habit of barely even putting a murder in the case.
She always ended in a series of questions about the strange behavior of KoKo the cat. “Could it be that his chattering at a bird was a sign that Quilleran should have taken seriously as a clue to crime he apparently was looking into?”
But that was just to make up for the fact that he had just spent the last 200 or so pages reveling in the antics of Pickaxe residents and puffing up his ability to live in an octagonal house.
He should have been investigating the crime instead of relying on his own author-given specialness and the antics of a cat.
Random magic stuff and mysterious forces don’t really fit in a murder mystery. Mysteries should have hard magic systems if they have any at all. Otherwise, readers can’t follow along. It’s also just a blatant statement of writer favoritism.
Now I love the always-right, always-perfect, powerful writer avatar as much as anyone else. But don’t rub it in my face. Adding some mystical mumbo-jumbo at the end about the protagonist’s specialness shouldn’t be necessary, and its presence suggests a loose end that you couldn’t be bothered to clean up.
In short, these are bone-deep problems. Ok, I will give a bonus gripe that is a sign of a bone-deep problem (self-indulgent writing,) but is a bit easier to erase.
5. Detective Is Here To Tell You The Writer’s Opinions
And the detective is just too perfect to let you miss it.
Over-powered perfect main characters are rampant in mystery fiction, but normally I’m willing to ignore this. The plot-centric story keeps the writer’s more indulgent tendencies in check and even gives a purpose to the character’s perfection.
All of that forgiveness goes out the window if the writer stops the story to explain their stance on something.
Even if I agree with you, I will skip a paragraph of pontificating. I picked the book up to read a mystery, and if your theme or political point needs a paragraph of people emoting, instead of being baked into the plot or characters, you have failed as a writer.
Also, no one says, “I know we must fight for equality, and you, oh wise investigator, must do it for us.” It makes painfully obvious what I had been trying to ignore: your detective is an excuse for you to fantasize about people fawning on you.
I don’t want to skip dialogue, Writer. Don’t make me skip dialogue because you are shoving a character on a soap box.
It puts everything in a certain framework, as well. I’m now on the look-out for a lack of political conviction instead of red herrings. That wasn’t what I came for.
So, dear writers, if you ever get the feeling something is wrong with your story, check for these problems. They call for a re-write.