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!
Hmmm…I have a tingling suspicion that Gladys IS Lady Forthright. Makeup, or lack thereof, can do wonders. The ‘sir” she was speaking may never have seen her without makeup, hair done a certain way, and never not dressed to the nines. She is on the run.
I hope it is not the real Gladys but the bounder who tried to do her in. Either tied up (which would be better for questioning) or no longer among the living.
Hello to you too! 🙂 That is a brilliant suggestion–having a “look-alike” who is really yourself! Love it.
I also hope that it is not the real Gladys. Oh! What if Lady Forthright tries to kill Gladys, fails, and Gladys kills her in self-defense, then bundles the body into the closet and pretends to be Lady Forthright???
Stuart is right! The lookalike who actually IS the person they supposedly look like is another trope, and usually the murderer.
Ah, Melanie, I was hoping you would get to the long lost husband who was thought to be dead, but is really alive and has taken another identity. I can even think of one where LLH remarried his wife who was terrified that he might be coming back…
Yeah, Stuart nailed it, as usual!
Ah, the long-lost husband! That would’ve made a fine L! And, of course, they are always bobbing up in these stories.
Which story is that? Or, if it is a spoiler, just give a hint. Who wrote it? I can’t think of any stories like that myself.
Wonderful post! Yes indeed, “lookalike” is synonymous with our modern “redshirt.” You just know they have a target on their backs. One of the most clever apects of Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library was how the descriptions of the dead girl conflicted from one witness to the next. There was a superficial likeness, which caused a few problems.
Hello Lillian! And you’re right: redshirt=lookalike! Also, yes! I haven’t read The Body in the Library for a long time, but now that you mention it, I remember that happening.
The really interesting question is *why* two people look alike — is it because they are in fact twins separated at birth? Because they’re at least half-siblings or cousins? Has the look-alike been put in the spot they’re in with malice aforethought to take advantage of the resemblance, or is it a crime of opportunity? After reading enough Golden Age mysteries I begin to assume that all strangers are really related, and everyone who should be related is not. Are those children at my dinner table really mine? Could I possibly have adopted them by mistake without remembering? Is one of them actually a look-alike servant? (At least I know that my daughter couldn’t possibly actually be a maid. She never picks up anything.)
Hello Anne! This comment made me laugh aloud! And you ask some excellent questions here. Why indeed? And yeah, that seems like a legitimate assumption, in Golden Age mysteries. Or, perhaps, an illegitimate one ;).
It is a cliche indeed, and I’m still waiting for a good story where it’s turned around 🙂
Hello Andrea! And yes, it is always nice when cliches are turned around. 🙂 Effectively, that is.
I mistake people for other people all the time, but then again, I’m not trying to kill them 😀 I’m just saying sometimes a look alike is plausible. Not good for Gladys, though.
The Multicolored Diary
Yeah, me too, sometimes. And look alikes do happen. Think, by the way, of how much it would suck to be a murderer who, having murdered someone, takes a closer look and discovers that, no, this is not the right victim. All that weary work to do again! 🙂
Oh, that would be a dark humor story to be sure: “Damnit! Wrong One Again!”
I know! It could go on for several murders, with the murderer growing more and more desperate as the story goes on, until finally he just whips out a gun and shoots the victim in front of everyone–and, of course, misses!
Fascinating theme and post. I admit I haven’t broken down the tropes much in mystery novels. I’m that person that’s still usually surprised by ending. I NEVER guess the killer correctly. I think that’s why in my own fiction I tend to reveal the bad guy early in the story. I’ll be back for more things to avoid or things to include.
Hello! Welcome! I will return your visit! Also? I used to be that person. I am really bad at figuring out, through the clues themselves, who is guilty. That is one reason I use tropes to figure stuff out. I get to feel smart then, too! 🙂
Sherlock Holmes and the Copper Beaches springs to mind… though no one ends up dead in that one! Great post!
I agree with Anne Nydam’s point – the minute I hear two people share an ‘uncanny resemblance’ I always have the possible twin trope in the back of my head.
Ooh! Good call! 🙂
And yeah, Anne’s point is excellent, as well as hilariously phrased. Why do these people look so alike?
Definitely! Especially the twin-we-didn’t-know-existed!
Erotic Fiction Blog
Yes, that is an interesting special case of look alike trope. 🙂