On Trial (Therefore Innocent) #AtoZChallenge Mystery Tropes

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.

Today, I am going to reveal the safest possible place for a character in a Golden Age murder mystery. That place is…

On Trial!

The defendant looked on palely during the trial, his eyes dull and without hope. Occasionally, he would moan, quite audibly, “Doomed! I am doomed!” Eventually, defending counsel got the judge to agree to the extreme step of gagging the fellow, to prevent him from further prejudicing his own case. By that time, of course, it was too late. Everyone in the court now felt certain that poor old Bohnehed was guilty as sin. It almost seemed a wanton cruelty to continue the trial, to torture the man further through suspense. Really, felt many, staring at Bohnehed’s stricken, guilty face, it would be kinder just to hang him at once.

Sir Neville, leading for the Crown, removed, over the days of the trial, any little particle of doubt that might remain in any heart. Bohnehed was guilty. It seemed relentlessly obvious. And yet the thing went on and on. For several chapters.

Finally, there was a stir in court. Defending council had received a telegram! He read it twice, smiled inscrutably, and rose to his feet. “Your Honour,” he said…

I have a confession to make. Whenever, in a Golden Age mystery, a trial scene begins, I riffle through the pages, trying to ascertain how long the thing is likely to take. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a good trial scene–there is an especially fine one in R. Austin Freeman’s The Red Thumb Mark–but it does mean that I generally find them slightly wearying. Because, for most of the trial, everything will seem so hopeless for the defendant. Everyone is so upset, so worried. This is well and fine–a murder mystery probably shouldn’t be all smiles and sunshine. Still, it is tension that I know will be dispelled near the end of the trial scene, so I do have a little bit of trouble entering into the spirit of the thing.

Because, of course, that pathetic wreck of a defendant will be found innocent. Some piece of evidence will come to light at the last possible moment, and that evidence will clear him so utterly that the jury will declare him innocent without bothering to retire. They may even cheer.

Is “on trial, for murder” really the safest place for any character in a Golden Age mystery? I would argue that it is, as long as his trial makes a sufficiently damning case against him. If the case doesn’t look so bad, maybe the twist will be conclusive proof of the defendant’s guilt. But otherwise, I’d say he’s really quite safe. No-one can get at him and murder him, and he won’t be hanged.


Have you encountered, in any Golden Age detective story, a trial for murder, extended over several pages or chapters, in which the defendant, after having a grim time as described above, is found guilty and ultimately hanged? What do you think of this trope generally? Is it a trope? Leave a comment!


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  1. ESG’s Perry Mason always pulled that rabbit out of the hat. I don’t recall a defendent ever being found guilty. Really enjoying your posts!

  2. Any examples of this are few in my reading. Normally, the accused is set free, but sometimes it’s last minute.

    Your commentary (Part of the post) made me think of Camus’ The Stranger. I know it doesn’t really fit the trope. Just what came of this and made me want to read it again.

    • Yeah, very last minute sometimes–which must be really scary for the accused, but, I mean, if he only knew he was in a mystery novel, he’d feel lots better about it.
      I haven’t read The Stranger in a looooong time, and remember very little about it, but I’m glad to put you in mind of it. I mean, if it is a book you like. 🙂 Always good to re-read old favourites.

  3. I can’t think of a defendant being found guilty in a novel either 😉 Definitely then should be a trope. For long trials in terms of pages in a novel, I think Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers went on a bit. Long time since I read it.

    Visiting from A to Z

    • Yeah, and that was agonizing for everyone, if I remember correctly, because of course it mattered a lot to Lord Peter that Harriet Vane not be hanged. It is a long time since I’ve read that one, too–I think because of the very point you raised.

  4. On the other hand, there is always the twist where the defendant is coward, but is actually guilty after all. I can think of two in Agatha Christie alone.

    • Hey Sue! I can only think of one! Now, I’m trying to remember which other Christie does that. The one I am thinking of is a short story. Is the other one also a short story, or is it a novel? Does it have any of her usual detectives in it, or is it a stand-alone? Don’t tell me–but give me a couple of hints. 🙂

  5. One was in her first book – Poirot guessed but thought it important to have him convicted for the right thing, so as not to escape altogether. The other was a play. I can tell you no more, lest there be spoilers.

  6. Not that it’s a novel, but it’s the thing I like about Law and Order. Sometimes they don’t get the culprit, or sometimes they do and he/she gets away with it anyway. It keeps the suspense because you don’t know how it will end. More novelists should take the hint. 😉

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