The Violent Altercator (Is 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’s trope is, I’d say, half and half. Excellent in coffee, it is also useful both to the investigators in the story and to us the readers. It is, in fact, that familiar figure…

The Violent Altercator

“My dear chap,” drawled Philip, “it’s no earthly use. You simply must face facts. We all saw Alfred horsewhip Sir Gawdawful; he did it quite in public. Of course, he took care that no-one saw what he did later, but…” Philip shrugged. “One makes inferences.”

“Then you really think,” said Cecil, “that Alfred came back later and shot Sir Gawdawful?”

Philip laughed. “What else can one think? I’m sorry for the fellow, of course. Sir Gawdawful was a cad, and no doubt asked for what he got. Still, you know…shooting a man in the back…” Philip’s lips tightened. “No, Alfred had better take what’s coming to him.”


Alfred didn’t do it. Probably. I can think of but one semi-counterexample (it is by Gladys Mitchell), and even that does not quite fit. Anyway, Alfred is probably innocent. Usually, in Golden Age mysteries, the man who has a violent altercation with the victim hours before said victim is murdered does not come back and shoot the victim in the back. Hm. That was, looking at the thing squarely, a doozy of a sentence, with lots of victims in it. Ahem.

Anyway, there will be lots of people in the book who will assume that Alfred is guilty of the murder, but he isn’t. He got out all his aggression in that horse-whipping or fist-fight. Some investigating genius will probably point out that there is a fundamental psychological difference between punching someone and shooting that someone in the back. Especially, the genius will emphasize, in the back. That, says the genius, is the act of a physical coward. And the genius is, no doubt, correct. Anyway, s/he is probably correct for the purposes of the book.

For our purposes, Alfred is innocent (almost always) because he is the obvious suspect. He is probably the first person to be suspected, which means (again, almost always) that he’s innocent.


Can you, dear readers, think of a Golden Age mystery novel in which the violent altercator is guilty after all? Do you think this is a trope? Do you think “altercator” is a word (my spell-check says it isn’t; I say it perfectly well could be, and darned well ought to be; Google only returns about 20,000 hits for “Altercator,” most of which seem to treat it as a Latin word requiring translation)? Would you just like to say hello? Leave a comment!


Bookmark the permalink.


  1. If Shakespeare could create 422 words to fit his plays (or whosoever wrote them. ahem), you have every cornswaggle right to add to the lexicon.

    It could mean the alternate actor in the scene, meant to draw most to his/her attention, for being a bit of a brute and a ruffian.

    • Huzzah! Thank you! Also? Are you a Baconian? 🙂

      • Mel, I do happen to think that just about everything is enhanced by adding bacon to it. A Maple-Bacon Donut? Why, thank you very much.

        As to a straight answer (or ish) about Bacon the man: I’m not sure which way I really lean. In the end, for me, is that if you enjoy the piece of art (writing, fine art, music, etc) it is the most important part. Knowing who created it is a major plus: helps us follow their body of work. But, just as Rodin put his name on a number of works of his apprentices, if we like it we like it. Yes, the apprentice gets short shrift, but in this case the product is what draws us in.

        And I just went against how I feel when teaching: to me, the process is more important than the final product.

        So, what was the question again?

  2. You can have altercator if I can have altercatrix as the feminine.

  3. I think we’ve quite gone past whether the first person accused in a mystery is the killer, whether or not there was a violent altercation. I can think of at least one and, yes, it was Christie. But the violent altercation was not with the one accused.

    I’m quite happy to accept “alternator” as a word. Wh6 not? 🙂

    • Why not indeed? 🙂
      I am trying to think of which Christie you might mean, but at the moment I’m drawing a blank. Hints, please! And may I say that your knowledge of Dame Agatha’s work is darned impressive? Do you read any other Golden Age mystery writers?
      Thanks Sue!

      • Mysterious Affair At Styles, in which the suspect everyone hates actually did do it. I have read a little Dorothy L Sayers and nowhere near all of Christie – my mother and sister are the true fans – but you will keep bringing up tropes I’ve read in Christie. What do you expect? 😂

        • You know, Sue, I think I may need to re-read that one. I think this is at least the second time you’ve brought it up, and I’ve had to ask for hints both times. So… yeah, I bet I’ve forgotten enough about it to read it again and enjoy it! I don’t even remember who the killer is… of course, the annoying thing about re-reading mysteries is that you always do remember who did it, about half-way through. Still, with lots of them, they are so fun it doesn’t matter!

  4. This is a trope which I think is overdone. The fact is, in real life Alfred most definitely is the murderer. Most crimes are simple. But we know, if we’re in the first thirty pages of the book, he won’t be. So the fact that writers still throw it in as a way of ‘misdirecting’ us a little cliche. Still, angry characters are often useful – they say far more than they should!

    • Yeah, that is all very true. Misdirecting no longer works if the reader has seen that particular sleight of hand too often before. But you are right about the utility of angry characters; they are very handy for letting cats out of bags!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *