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. And then there are those little things in a text that tell you, far in advance, what is going to happen later on. For example…
I saw a golden head turn a corner in the dim hall in front of me. “I say, Lady Forthright!”
But the face that turned to look at me was not that of Lady Forthright, though here, too, there was a haunting similarity.
“Who–who are you?” I stammered out, barely able to believe my eyes.
“Oh, sir! I’m Gladys–Lady Forthright’s maid.” She looked at me imploringly. “Don’t tell her Ladyship I was up here, sir!”
“Of course not,” I said. “But–“
She turned those eyes that were so almost like those of her mistress upon me. “Yes, sir?”
“Oh. Nothing. Nothing.”
Gladys. Gladys, listen to me. I strongly advise you to seek other employment. Preferably somewhere far, far away from Lady Forthright. I know that sounds odd–she is probably a decent mistress, as mistresses go, and the pay is good. However, I seriously think that the sooner you get out of this house, and into a ship bound for Australia, the better you’ll like it. Gladys?
Hello? Where has that woman got to? Let me just check to make sure she isn’t in this closet…
Gladys looks like Lady Forthright. That is not, in a mystery novel, a good position for Gladys to be in. Lady Forthright is likely to be an actual character in the book; Gladys the maid is probably just cannon-fodder. This is unfair, but it is just a fact that classic mystery novels don’t tend to focus on servants as their protagonists. I was going to call this trope the Lower-Class Look-Alike, but then I remembered that old school friends, distant cousins, and so on, are equally likely to qualify for the role of substitute-victim. Anyone, really, who is less important to the plot than Lady Forthright.
Of course, in plenty of novels, Lady Forthright herself is the victim. A substitute victim is created only when, for some reason, that won’t work. Why mightn’t it be a good idea to kill Lady Forthright? Well, there are lots of reasons. For example, let us suppose that Lady Forthright has a brute of a husband, but also a faithful swain, with whom she is actually in love (without, however, doing anything about it–no matter what vile accusations her brutish husband might fling at her; see Wedded Blisters later on this month!). Let us further suppose that the brutish husband is scheduled either to be killed himself or to hang later on in the book. Wouldn’t it be nice, thinks the author, if both Lady Forthright and her faithful swain are alive at the end of the story, so that they can get married?
There are lots of other possible reasons for not killing off Lady Forthright. She might just be too fun and charming to kill off–killing her off might simultaneously drain all the life out of the book. She might herself be the detective. She also might be the killer, and the look-alike is her intended victim… but I’ve already covered that possibility in The Doom of The Borrowed Signature Garment, which is itself a variant of the Look-Alike trope.
Sometimes, by the way, the look-alike actually borrows the signature garment, and then she is extra-doomed.
Do you, dear readers, groan aloud when there is a look-alike in a mystery novel? I do. And then I watch that look-alike like a hawk–or perhaps more like a vulture. Anyway, I do expect that the look-alike will be killed. Of course, that expectation itself is something that some writers will use as part of the complicated sleight of hand that is a mystery novel.
Anyway, what do you think of this trope? Is it something you’ve encountered recently? Can you think of reasons other than the ones I have suggested above for the creation of a look-alike in a murder mystery? Would you just like to say hello? Leave a comment, please!