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, the experienced mystery reader ought always to pay particular attention to…
The Sketchy Suicide
“And who is that?” Asked Geoffrey, pointing with interest to a raven-haired beauty in an old photograph. She was standing between Madge and Stephen Forthright, and they all looked rather touchingly young, and terribly happy. Terribly happy was, in fact, exactly what they all did look like. It was terrible to see anyone look so happy as that. Fey, that’s what it was. Fey in the old Scottish sense. Being that happy was just asking to be crushed by Fate.
“Who is–oh.” Madge had taken the picture in her hands with but a tepid interest–and then her body seemed to go rigid all at once. She stared at the photograph with wide unhappy eyes. “That is my sister Angela.”
“I didn’t know you had a sister.” Geoffrey went on with his social chit-chat while the whole of the room seemed to wince away from him. Not just the several people in the room, now breathlessly waiting as if for a bomb to go off. The very furniture seemed to wish to have nothing to do with him.
“She is dead.” Madge spoke curtly. “She drowned ten years ago. The very summer that this photograph was taken, indeed.” And she left the room abruptly.
“You infernal ass!” Cried Cecil as soon as the door had shut behind her. “You must have heard the story. Everyone knows that poor old Angela killed herself.”
“And no-one,” said Geoffrey, coolly, “knows why. And I think it is time we did know.”
“You unspeakable cad!” Said Stephen. “You mean you actually did that on purpose.” And he rose from his armchair and stood nose to nose with Geoffrey. “I could have forgiven ignorance, but malice…” And he clenched his fists.
“I think you’d like to punch me,” said Geoffrey, with his unflappable calm. “I wonder if you will.” He waited. No-one punched anyone. He laughed. “As for the charge of malice, I must plead innocent. I think we need to talk about Angela’s death. I think that if we’d talked about it before, poor old Roger would not have died. He’s dead too, in case you’d forgotten. And not of suicide. Someone stabbed him in the back.”
Ten years ago. A suicide no-one wants to talk about. A mysterious murder. Hmmm…
Of course, talk as frank as it is above probably comes in towards the middle of the book, at the earliest. Before that, there are just odd strains and awkward silences. Why won’t Madge, who once won prizes for her swimming, go near the water now? Why won’t she talk about the past with Gertie, her hearty old school friend? Why does she say things like “That reminds me of…” and then go pale and change the subject? The reader knows that something is up, and probably knows before the above scene that Angela is Madge’s sister and is also conspicuously absent from the text. The reader may even know that Angela is dead. But that Angela committed suicide–if she did–is kept back for a bit. This is probably because it is very, very important, and may even contain the key to the mystery.
Questions that the reader might ask herself about Angela’s death include: was it suicide? Was it murder? Was it an accident?
If it was suicide, was there a note? Are you sure there wasn’t one? Does someone have a suicide note they’ve never shown to anyone? Could this person be the killer, getting revenge on Angela’s behalf upon those named in the note? If not, could the person in possession of the note be blackmailing someone with it?
If it was murder, then how might Angela’s murder link up to Roger’s death?
If it was an accident, was it an accident that could have been avoided if things had been different? For example, was Madge canoodling with Stephen or Roger or someone that fateful day, instead of swimming with her sister as she’d promised?
In any case, assume that the death of Angela is vital to the situation in the story’s present day. It is probably the direct cause of the murder. And, since the death was ten years before our story opens, perhaps the biggest question of all is: why has the murder been delayed until now?
Of course, as with all tropes, this one might be a bluff. You might be meant to think that Angela’s death is significant, when really it isn’t.
Have you, dear readers, encountered this trope in a mystery novel? How about variants of it? Do you think it is a trope? Would you simply like to say hello? Leave a comment!