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…
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!