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, like yesterday’s, 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 Unsympathetic Do-Gooder
Anne looked up. There was Miss Gush again, bringing soup to Mrs. Ailsworthy, who didn’t like soup. Anne sighed. Thinking of Miss Gush made her tired.
“Hullo, what’s bitten you?” Cecil asked, plopping himself down on the bench beside her.
“Miss Gush. She’s so good, and yet…” Anne trailed off guiltily.
“And yet, you don’t quite like her,” said Cecil, nodding. “I know.”
“She’s just not–sympathetic, somehow. I don’t know how it is, but…”
Cecil nodded again. “Not sympathetic,” he said. “That’s it, exactly. As in unlikable. It is impossible to like her.”
Anne nodded. “Impossible,” she said.
When I read a scene like this, my reaction is usually something like, “oh, gosh, so Miss Gush is the killer.” And I’m usually (though not always!) right.
I think this sort of scene is designed to turn the reader against Miss Gush at the last moment. The writer has been going along, happily writing a murder mystery in which the kindly, charitable Miss Gush turns out to be the killer–and then suddenly realizes that her readers are going to be frightfully upset when Miss Gush is arrested and hanged (or, more probably, since she is a lady, when she commits suicide before anything so unpleasant as a trial can happen to her. There are Golden Age mysteries in which ladies are hanged as murderers at the end, but they are rare).
Where was I? Oh yes. The readers. They are going to be annoyed when Miss Gush turns out to be the killer. At the last minute, the writer re-casts Miss Gush as a do-gooder whom it is impossible to really like. She implies, by having two nice characters talk about Miss Gush in this way, that there is something subtly unpleasant about Miss Gush. All will now be well when the writer reveals that Miss Gush eats orphans or whatever. We already knew there was something… something… well, it’s hard to put into words. The character reads sympathetic on the page, only… yeah. Anne and Cecil never liked her. And we all like Anne and Cecil.
Not, dear reader, that orphan-eating was a big part of Golden Age mysteries. Still, I typed it, and I am going with it. Miss Gush eats orphans, and she wasn’t really nice, after all. Just pretend-nice. In fact, she was totally unsympathetic.
Have you encountered an Unsympathetic Do-Gooder in any Golden Age mystery you’ve read? Do you think it is a trope? Bonus question: how about a Golden Age mystery in which a lady is actually tried and hanged at the end? I can think of only one of those at the moment (an Agatha Christie, I believe a Poirot one), but I know there are others. It isn’t unknown, it’s just unusual. Also? Feel free to simply say hello! Leave a comment!