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Mystery Tropes I Wish Would Die #2

My winter vacation starts today! For the next two weeks, I get to spend my days like a lady of leisure: sleeping in, eating bread pudding for breakfast, and lounging around all day in my pajamas reading and writing books.

Over the past couple of weeks I've raced through great stacks of cozy mysteries from the public library. Some of the books I finished and liked, or even loved—Rhys Bowen and Rae Davies are now on my list of "Writers I Wish I Could Meet for Tea." Other books I put down after the first couple of chapters. The prose was hard to follow, or the protagonists rubbed me the wrong way, or the plots never took off.

Many of the books, even the ones I liked, tragically fell victim to some of my least favorite cozy mystery tropes. When I see one of these tropes pop up in an otherwise lovely book, it puts me in a stormy mood for the rest of the day.

1. The Domineering Love Interest

Trope Description

The smart, independent heroine butts heads with an arrogant, smirking detective. The detective insults her intelligence and orders her around. The heroine bristles, but she can't help noticing the piercing blue of his eyes or the manly strength of his arm muscles. In the middle of an angry confrontation, the detective pins the heroine against the wall and smothers her with kisses. The smart, independent heroine melts into the jerk's embrace.

Common Variations
  • The smirking love interest is instead a sheriff, an investigative journalist, and/or an old flame.
  • The smirking love interest is a shameless playboy who flirts with every woman in sight, and when the heroine gets upset, he teases her for being jealous.
  • The smirking love interest takes on the role of "protector" a la Edward Cullen. He bosses the heroine around in the name of keeping her safe, and he drops suave lines like, "If I leave you alone for one second, you get yourself in trouble."
Why This Trope Exists

Prior to very recent history, arrogant SOBs were the archetypal heroes of Western fiction. Who do we think of as the great romantic heroes? The judgmental aristocrat Mr. Darcy, the cynical bully Mr. Rochester, and the puppy-strangling sociopath Heathcliff. Though readers and writers surely don't find disrespectful behavior a turn-on in real life, we're trained from childhood to think it's super-duper romantic in fiction.

In addition, anger and fear are easily confused with romantic arousal. When we read scenes that make us angry or afraid—like scenes of powerful men shouting at petite heroines and pinning them against walls—our hearts start thumping and adrenaline starts rushing through our bloodstreams. We falsely interpret the scene to be "exciting" and "romantic." Scenes of men treating women with respect, in contrast, are "boring."

Why I Hate This Trope

I can't respect a heroine who pines for a jerk who treats her like a dog he can pet, abuse, or ignore at his whim. Worse, I can't understand her. When men push me around—and some do try, on occasion—I am the exact opposite of attracted to them. My heart flutters for selfless gentlemen, not for insensitive boors.

My enjoyment of many a great book has been ruined, or nearly ruined, by an atrocious love interest. I'll be reading along, loving the spunky heroine, and then she suddenly starts acting like a spineless fairy-tale princess because a haughty prince has pretty blue eyes. Even in The Black Hour, a book I admire in every other respect, the whip-smart heroine falls for a cocky reporter who needles her every chance he gets. I skimmed over those parts and prefer to pretend they don't exist.

It's perfectly possible to create an exciting romance line without resorting to Slap-Slap-Kiss tactics. A loud clash of personalities is only one type of conflict. There are many other internal and external conflicts you can use to force two lovebirds apart and add tension to their relationship.

2. The Conveniently Oblivious Heroine

Trope Description

Near the end of the book, it becomes glaringly obvious to the reader which of the suspects is the real killer, but the heroine hasn't yet cottoned on. The real killer knocks on the door, and the heroine cheerfully invites him in. She answers a phone call from her friend, and the friend says something that makes the heroine realize, "Oh my gosh! Real Killer is the real killer!" She spins around to find a gun pointed at her face.

Common Variations
  • The heroine rushes to meet Real Killer's girlfriend/sister/mother and tell her breathlessly that she knows who did it. Real Killer steps out of the kitchen with the gun.
  • Real Killer helpfully offers the heroine a ride to the police station, and she accepts. The heroine chatters about her latest discoveries, which will surely help the detectives solve the case. Real Killer compliments her on her brains and pulls out the gun.
  • The heroine has a flash of insight at midnight and must go to a dangerous location right that minute, alone, to make sure she's right. She decides she shouldn't call the police or tell anyone where she's going, because what if she's wrong? She steps out of her car, and Real Killer steps out of the bushes with the gun.
Why This Trope Exists

Modern mystery readers expect a life-threatening confrontation at the climax of every novel, so somehow writers have to wrangle the heroine into one. The easiest way to do it is to make her waltz right into the line of fire.

Why I Hate This Trope

It's highly frustrating when main characters grab the Idiot Ball because the plot won't work any other way. For the author's convenience, the previously intelligent heroine suddenly becomes dumber than a scantily clad co-ed in a horror flick. Frustrated readers will be left screaming, "Don't go into the dark woods alone, you numbskull!"

Instead of handing the protagonist the Idiot Ball, a writer could do any of the following, or more.

  • The heroine figures out who the villain is and tries to protect herself, but the wily villain breaks through her careful defenses.
  • The heroine aids the authorities in approaching the villain in a safe way, but something goes wrong.
  • The heroine willfully dives headlong into danger to protect someone else.

3. The Wise-Cracking Psychopath

Trope Description

As soon as he points a gun at the heroine's face, the real killer instantly becomes a witty mustache-twirling villain. He discards any semblance of his previous personality and inexplicably morphs into a 1940s Hollywood gangster, tossing off flippant one-liners and all but laughing "Mwahaha!" as he locks the heroine in the bakery freezer to die.

Why This Trope Exists

I have a couple of theories about why cookie-cutter psychos are so common in cozy mysteries.

First, cozy mystery novels are often installments in long-running series. It's a tall order for one person to come up with twenty unique murderers with believable motivations.

Second, writing about unique murderers with believable motivations is emotionally draining. Writing about two-dimensional cartoon villains is easy because they feel nothing. They just rant a bit in a superior tone and then get shot. Writing about three-dimensional human villains is exhausting because they're drowning in tempests of emotions. To write in their voices, you have to brave the storms of rage and panic and despair yourself.

Why I Hate This Trope

Cozy writers might think psychos waving guns around makes the climax more exciting, but in my experience, it's just the opposite. As soon as the villain starts twirling his mustache, I lose any emotional investment I had in the story. I know the rest of the book is just going to follow a clichéd pattern. I think, "Well, now the villain is going to brag about how he pulled off the murder—yup, he did—and now he's going to march the heroine into that freezer—there they go—and now the smirking love interest is going to charge in and save her—yay, there he is."

My favorite mystery endings of all time didn't put the amateur detective in physical danger at all. The strength and excitement of the denouements came from the villains' confessions, and the way my heart wrenched for them even as I despised them for what they'd done. The ending of Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night is nothing more than a maid throwing a tantrum, but I felt for her a lot more keenly than I ever did for any nosy caterer fleeing for her life from a crazed killer.


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