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Mystery Tropes I Wish Would Die April 4, 2013

I've always loved reading mysteries. Not only to they offer fun puzzles and a bit of mental exercise, but they're very reassuring. The detective/crime/mystery genre offers a dependable catharsis—no matter what injustices the universe throws at us, the truth will always come out. The police will always arrest the right guy and the villains will always get their comeuppance. It's a bald-faced lie, but if I wanted to face reality, I'd read the newspaper instead.

But if you take in enough of any genre, you're going to tire of its tropes eventually. Why the heck can't male and female colleagues on television work together without going at each other like rabbits? Why is every football player or cheerleader on Disney the mortal enemy of any kid with glasses? And why, for goodness' sake, are shoujo manga characters obligated to fall in love with their relatives if they aren't technically blood related?

There are tropes in mysteries that I hope to never see again, but I expect to see employed by every author or screenwriter at some point. Here are a few.

Brother-Sister Incest

Mystery authors seem to believe they must put a shocking twist into every story. Unfortunately, there are only so many shocks to choose from, and one of the most popular is to reveal that a husband-wife pair is actually brother and sister. Incest—or often, "twincest"—is very useful for explaining away suspicious behavior in red herrings or providing murky motives for murder. For example:

  • The Midsommer Murders series kicks off with a pair of young brother-sister lovers with a bad habit of coming up with elaborate schemes to kill people who find out about them.
  • In the fifth season finale of Inspector Lewis, a man and woman find out after they marry that they're twins who were separated at birth, so they set out to murder their mother and all of her friends.
  • A Private Practice episode centers around the salacious discovery that a young couple trying to conceive are half-siblings because their mothers used the same sperm donor.

Even in Agatha Christie's first published novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the murderers turn out to be a pair of "kissing cousins" who grew up together, which is pretty darned close.

Father-Daughter, Mother-Son, or Uncle-Niece Rape/Incest

If a teenage girl slits her wrists, it's probably because her uncle raped her. If a middle-aged woman hangs herself, it's most likely because her son got her pregnant (and she didn't realize at the time, of course, that he was her son, because she gave him up for adoption after an affair with her predatory principal/coach/tutor). And if the crazed murderer of the story turns out to be a woman, she was likely driven to it because her father abused her. That explains her psychosis and excuses her crimes—one-two punch!

Priests with Wandering Hands

It's practically guaranteed that a clergyman in a mystery series, at some point, will feel up an alter boy or dip his wick into an influential parishioner's wife. The trope started with Nathaniel Hawthorne's honest attempt to portray human weakness to animal urges in The Scarlet Letter, but in modern times it's made the fictional ministry something of a farce. All priests and pastors are pedophiles, adulterers, or both.

Gangsters, Gangsters Everywhere

Turning on the television during prime time would give anyone the impression that crack-dealing, hooker-pimping mobsters are hanging out on every street corner of America. A slick gangster appears in at least 1 out of 3 episodes of any show set in NYC or Chicago...and every single one of them follows the Universal Gangster Dress Code. White gangsters wear t-shirts and beanies, black gangsters wear saggy jeans and gold chains, Latino gangsters wear tight tank tops and cargo pants, and Irishmen and Italians wear Armani suits. It's like the mob bosses conduct regular checks to make sure their underlings are wearing standard issue crime-committing uniforms.

The Communists Did It

This trope isn't as widespread as it used to be, but too many mysteries still get explained away with foreigners. Americans seem to believe that anyone who immigrates from Russia or China is a spy and/or assassin, and anyone with relatives in the Middle East is a jihadist. "Foreigners" can also be westerners outside of mainstream culture—anyone who advocates a political structure other than traditional capitalism must lack both morals and basic humanity.

In 1929, Richard Knox laid down the fifth commandment of good detective fiction: No Chinaman must figure into the story. From a modern perspective Knox was obviously racist, but also the rule shows too many authors were racist. "The Chinaman" was the default villain of the day. Someone with black hair, almond eyes, and a broken accent strolled onto the scene, and you had your guy. You'd think we'd have advanced a bit from 1929, but no—we simply switched out people in conical straw hats for people in kurtas.


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