Hello, and welcome to my 2019 A to Z Challenge! This year, I am giving you my personal list of Golden Age Mystery Tropes. Particularly clue-tropes, and also those tropes that an experienced mystery reader finds herself using to solve the mystery without reference to the actual clues. For example, this one…
“I cannot marry you, Cecil! Not–not when I know–” Mary broke off to sob and gulp for a bit. Finally, she smiled tearfully and continued. “Well, you know what I mean.”
Cecil gave a wild cry of total despair. “But Mary! I know–and I don’t care! D’you hear me? I don’t care!”
“How can you? Are you so depraved? Are you dead to all decency? Do not touch me–I cannot bear it!” And Mary ran from him, directly into some thorn-bushes, which she wallowed in briefly before making her way back to the house.
“Then do I understand that you refuse to state where you were at the time of the murder?” Inspector Crowner asked.
A small, brave smile flickered briefly across Cecil’s face. “You may understand what you like. I shall never tell what I know!”
Inspector Crowner stared. “You do know, sir, that Miss Mary Cavanaugh couldn’t have done it?”
“That’s imposs–I mean, of course not. Of course she couldn’t.”
“I did it.” Cecil’s voice was flat and strained. At once.
“Did what, sir?” Inspector Crowner looked up with some reluctance from his ploughman’s lunch to stare at the wild-eyed young man in front of him.
“The murder. I did the murder. Me.”
“Oh, that.” And Crowner waved his hand as if dismissing the matter.
“Yes. The murder. Me. I did it. Alone. All me.”
“It is a lie!” Came a new voice from the doorway of the inn. Both men looked up to see Mary Cavanaugh standing silhouetted against the strong afternoon sun outside. Her eyes blazed with a strange fire. “Cecil cannot have done it. For it was I, I alone, who did this horrible crime!”
“The murder?” Crowner asked tiredly.
“The murder! I! I confess!”
“Oh. Good. Good!” And Crowner turned his attention back to his lunch.
He thinks she did it. She thinks he did it. Neither of them has any good reason for thinking anything of the sort, but they do it anyway, to add an unnecessary layer of emotional unpleasantness to an otherwise charming mystery. As you can tell, I am slightly tired of this particular trope, though I always like to see it subverted. In an Agatha Christie novel, which I won’t name because it would ruin it, there is an excellent example of a subversion of this trope. In that story, one of the fat-headed lovers really has done it–and I shan’t say more, but loyal Christie fans will understand how deeply I admire the way she uses our expectations as readers to conceal the true criminal.
In one of Dorothy Sayers’ excellent mysteries, Lord Peter Wimsey criticizes Harriet Vane for employing approximately this trope in one of her detective novels.
In the examples above, I have tried to capture what I consider to be the most characteristic examples of this trope. There are other ways for this trope to manifest itself in a text. Want to try your hand at writing a Fat-Headed Lovers scene? It really is fun. Give it a shot, in the comments section! Feel free to borrow Mary, Cecil, and Crowner for the purpose, or to use your own characters! You can also leave a more conventional comment, or just say hi!
Inspector Crowner struggled with Cecil who was in the grips of a maddening apoplectic fit. Thornwood, the butler, was barely having an easier time restraining Mary. Both cried out their guilt in the murder of Sir Reginald Hogswatch, both vehemently denying the other as the guilty party, declaring their love for each other in panting tears.
After the two calmed, down, thrust into separate wing-backs, the Inspector sat opposite, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
“Fine. One of you did it,” he said, turning to Cecil. “How did you do in Sir Reginald?
“It…it was a rock. Yes, a rock. Smashed him in the head, I did.”
“Inspector, no! I did it.” Crowner arched an eyebrow in her direction. “I did it. I did him dirty with a scissor!”
The arguments between the two rose in fevered pitch again. Self accusations flew amidst the denials of the other. Crowner put his head in his hands.
The door to the drawing room burst open. Sgt. Pertwee rushed in.
“Sir. The doctor just sent this message. Sir!”
Crowner took the folded sheet, opened and read the statement.
“The two of you. Stop this, now. We now know how Sir Hogswatch died. Don’t we, Thornwood?” The inspector moved to block the butler from the room.
“Poison, delivered by an insidious paper cut. You, Thornwood, were the only one in the manor at the time, and the only known handler of Sir Reginald’s Origami equipment. Pertwee, take him into custody.”
Yesssss! This is fabulous! I especially relish the ending. Origami equipment, indeed! Perfect! Thank you for participating, I am grinning all over my face.
HOLY ROCK PAPER SCISSORS BATMAN!
Glad you got it. And I’m happy to be party to your grinning.
Very, very clever!
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Stuart, you are a genius!
I haven’t read all of Agatha Christie yet, but I do recall another of her novels where neither of them did it. The one who did do it was so bizarrely unlikely that I really do agree with someone who said that literally anyone in a Christie novel might be the murderer.
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That is very true; though sometimes she pulls off that miraculous thing, which most mystery novels try for in vain: where the solution is at once surprising and obvious. Like, you didn’t see it coming at all, but, once you know, it makes total sense.
Yes. I remember reading she belonged to a group of crime writers who made a set of rules and basically, you shouldn’t make the killer someone who wasn’t already there and it had to make sense – you weren’t allowed to cheat with, say, an undiscovered poison from South America. Mind you, there were a number of times when Poirot annoyed me by announcing the answer to a telegram we didn’t know he had sent.
Yep, that would be the Detection Club. Really interesting group of writers of Golden Age detective fiction. And there totally were rules, written by Ronald Knox (who wrote only a few detective novels, but all of them were absolutely brilliant). You are correct: undiscovered poisons were a complete no-no.
Poirot can be deeply annoying. I think Christie was supposed to be pretty annoyed with him, too.
Ha ha, I hate fat-headed lovers! They show up all the time in sitcoms, too, where a simple, calm explanation would solve everything and… oh wait, no more episode. Good thing they’re all so fat-headed, then.
Stuart, loved your version, too!
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Hm… I see what you mean, but I find myself literally screaming at books and TV screens when fat-headed lovers do their stuff. I’m sure it isn’t healthy for me, and it is quite aggravating sometimes.
And yeah, Stuart’s version was fabulous.
Thank you, Melanie. Coming from you, that’s a real compliment.
Mostly I can’t even watch sitcoms because I get so irritated. When I do, I scream at the screen, too, much to my children’s annoyance. At least if I’m screaming at the pages of a mystery book it doesn’t interfere with other people’s enjoyment. =P
Yep, me too.
Thank you, Anne.
Excellent post! This is a trope that comes to hilarious life in the Jeeves and Wooster stories by P.G. Wodehouse. The Code of the Woosters is a stellar example with Augustus Fink-Nottle making Bertie look like a Rhodes scholar.
Ha! That’s the one with the cow-creamer, isn’t it?
Really fun snippets 😀 And I do find this trope annoying.
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Yeah, me too!
Fabulous name for this decidedly annoying trope 🙂
I haven’t come across the Christie one where she plays us with it & look forward to falling over it. Also the Wimsey, who I’ve just started to read.
Thanks Debs! And yeah, it is pretty irritating–though, as another commenter has pointed out, it does drive lots of P.G. Wodehouse stories, or a variant of it does anyway (the quarrel that could be put right in an instant, if either lover had any sense, but instead it takes a whole book and a lot of wacky shenanigans to resolve), and I do like Wodehouse.
Goodness, this is so obviously a trope, that I would have probably never thought of it!
I mean, what is there to think about? Of course there will be a couple of lovers, of course they will be innocent, of course they will lie to protect each other because of course each will think the other did it.
And of course for this very reasons it may be such a good idea if an author knows how to subvert it.
That is very true! I like it, myself, when the fat-headed lovers begin to act in their usual fat-headed style, and then, after about a page of nonsense, they stop abruptly. Either one of them displays an ounce of sense, and says something like “wait a moment. Do you actually think I killed Sir Godawful? Because I’ve been sitting here entertaining similar suspicions about you. Let’s talk this thing out” OR someone else manages to drive it home to both of them that they are both actually innocent. It is always a relief, when the lovers stop being fat-heads.