The Triangle #AtoZChallenge Mystery Tropes

Hello, and welcome to my 2019 A to Z Challenge! This year, I am giving you my personal list ofย  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’s trope is, I think, a pure trope-clue. I mean, no-one in the story could use it to solve the mystery. However, we the readers may be able to do so. It is…

The Triangle

Carol sighed as she looked at her wedding photograph. She and John had been so happy then. And now, five years later, and with a small baby in the house, they were practically strangers. It wasn’t really anyone’s fault, reflected Carol, who was fair-minded and a basically nice person. John was a basically nice person, too. It was just one of those things. They’d drifted apart, that was all. And then John had met Alice. And it wasn’t Alice’s fault that John had fallen for her. She hadn’t–she really hadn’t–tried to attract him. The drifting had happened first. Then had come Alice. No-one’s fault. Just a thing that happened. Carol sighed again.

And now, there was talk of a divorce–and Carol supposed she’d go along with it. What else was there to do? Life at the moment was fairly impossible. After this weekend in the country with horrid old Sir Gawdawful, she’d do as John wanted, and begin divorce proceedings. If the idea made her feel sick and dead inside–what of it? Things could not go on like this.

Ah, murder. In the Golden Age of mystery, I’d say it is about the most effective marriage counselor available. A couple of notes before I begin on this one: 1) these remarks only apply to Golden Age mystery novels, and not to newer, more modern mysteries (nor, obviously, to anything remotely hard-boiled), and 2) we are assuming here that the married couple in this scenario are both basically nice people; if either one is a Wedded Blister (which you’ll be hearing about in my entry for “W”), nothing I am about to say applies.

Right. Now we’ve got that covered, let us begin. There will be no divorce. Everyone in the book may believe that John and Carol will split up, but we the readers should start with the assumption that this will not, in fact, happen. Most Golden Age mystery novels are a bit too traditional to split up a nice married couple in that way, especially if they have a child.

Note again that word “nice.” I cannot emphasize enough how vital that is to my claim here. John and Carol may not be being very nice at the moment, because we the readers have to see the strain they are under–otherwise, we’ll never believe that the divorce will actually happen. They may be quarreling, or sulking, or sniping, when the story opens. But there will be little suggestions that both John and Carol are nice people fundamentally. And if that is the case, I repeat, there will be no divorce. Instead, there will be a reconciliation by the end of the book.

This near-certain knowledge gives us readers access to information that the characters in the book do not have. First of all, neither John nor Carol committed the murder. This is handy to know, because it is likely that at least one of them will be quite seriously suspected during the course of the book. In fact, probably there will be at least a moment when it seems certain that one of them did it. The only person who won’t believe it is the estranged spouse. Awwww s/he still cares! And that will be the first step on the road to reconciliation.

But my fundamental point is: cross John and Carol off of your list of suspects, reader. Nothing ruins a marriage quite like one of the partners being hanged, and that is the usual consequence for murder in Golden Age stories.

One person you cannot cross off your list of suspects is Alice. Alice is, in fact, a pretty good candidate for murderer. Alice is extraneous; she is, in fact, in the way. She has to be gotten rid of somehow, if domestic harmony is to be restored.

In fact, Alice is an extra. Always watch those extras. Anyone who is not really part of the real core group in a Golden Age mystery novel (and figuring out what the real core group is is an interesting challenge in itself, sometimes) is a likely villain or victim. If Alice isn’t the murderer, she may well be the second victim. Or, I suppose, even the first.

In fact, perhaps the only way for Alice to get out of this situation alive is to show by her behavior that she doesn’t really love John. If John sees that Alice is only interested in him for his money, for example, she may live through the events of the book. But she is in a very dangerous position, because she is, as I have said, not only an extra, but an extra who is in the way of the basic dramatic action of the story. That is kind of like wandering into traffic. Events are rushing towards a conclusion, and she may quite easily get squashed. Poor Alice!

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Well, I’ve made a pretty definite claim in this one. I am hoping for a few counterexamples. Is there, dear readers, a Golden Age mystery novel in which a nice couple with a small child actually get divorced? Or one in which one of them is actually the killer? Also? Help me come up with a better name for this one! The Triangle is waaaay too general for this trope. The Tangled Nice-Couple Triangle? Blah. Also bah.

By the way, I think my views on spoilers in the comment section require a bit of modifying. I have asked a question, and you ought to be able to answer it! If you have a book to name, dear reader, you name it. Just put SPOILERS somewhere near the top of your comment.

Of course, you may also comment just sort of generally. In fact, I encourage you to do so. ๐Ÿ™‚

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4 Comments

  1. This is a very fun topic!
    I giggled at all your qualifiers but they’re also so true. There’s a sort of rule of thumb for expectations in these Golden Agers, isn’t there?

    “The Third Party”?

    Happy A-Z’ing!

    • Thanks Jz! I like my topic, too! ๐Ÿ™‚ I am also glad you giggled, and that you agree with my qualifiers. And yeah, definitely!
      The Third Party has potential–though I think that, too, might be a touch too vague. Naming these tropes, and making each one fit into a particular place in the alphabet, is a fun little challenge in itself. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Honestly, I’m with the Golden Age writers on this one – I hope John and Carol do get back together, since they seem so nice and all. But I love your characterization of Alice that she is wandering into traffic. Getting involved with an already-married person is probably always a traffic-wandering sort of thing to do, but in real life, as opposed to that Golden Age, we don’t expect actual murder to actually ensue. As for this Tangled Nice-Couple Triangle, I’m guessing that Alice will realize that John really still loves Carol, commit suicide, and try to frame Carol for it.
    Black and White: U is for Umbrellaphant

    • Thank you! I liked the traffic thing, too. And yeah, it is a high-risk thing to do, in real life and in fiction. You’ll almost certainly get hurt and/or hurt someone else pretty badly–and who wants to do that?!
      Ooh, the suicide-disguised-as-murder! Always nasty.
      Or, of course, Alice could commit the murder herself, frame Carol, and then be there to comfort John… not that that will work, in one of these stories, but it is a popular strategy.

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