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!
I have, but at present I can’t put my finger on any of them. Cringe worthy at best.
Yep, I know the feeling! 🙂
There are certainly ones in which the lady is taken away, but then commits suicide. The thing about Christie is that the killer can be anyone – anyone! Including the sweet young thing, the one who is a potential murder victim herself. Not that they ever fool Poirot for long. But yes, their friends do say things about them which suggest that they are not as nice as they seem.
I know! I really do admire Christie for that. And yeah, suicide in the prison cell is a pretty common ending for a murderess.
And I think I know the sweet young thing you mean–or at least I can think of someone who fits your description exactly, in a Christie mystery. 🙂
In a novel, I probably would have been in on that conversation about poor Miss Gush and have her marked as a suspect for something even if there was no investigation. In real life, do-gooders whether sympathetic or un-, tend to be rather un-murderlike in their actions. Although, your post has now put me on notice.
Ha! Yeah, reality and fiction are interestingly at odds, often, aren’t they? Especially, perhaps, in many Golden Age mysteries, where there is a puzzle aspect that frequently overwhelms the narrative.
I can think of several of these in the murder mysteries I’ve read, but what I find interesting is when the unsympathetic do-gooders are the murder victims. Everyone starts out by saying how good and kind they were, until the truth slowly reveals itself…
YES! You know, I was going to make something very like that into a trope this month, only I couldn’t get it to fit anywhere on my list. Everyone’s Friend was the closest I could come to expressing it, or Friendly Local Murder Victim–but I already had an E and an F that I liked! Usually, I was going to point out, the victim that seems to have been universally beloved turns out to be a blackmailer–at least!
I can think of lots of unsympathetic do-gooders, but they are so *very* unsympathetic that I don’t think they even need Anne and Cecil to announce it to the reader. (Though I am, naturally, delighted to hear that everyone likes Anne and Cecil!) These do-gooders are usually older spinsters of a prudish nature, self-righteously self-martyring, and making sure everyone notices it and gives them the seat of honor at the parish tea, because really, they’re only trying to help. I am myself a woman who wishes to do good and has already passed a certain age and is rapidly closing in on another certain age (it’s when you become uncertain about your age that you need to worry, in my opinion), and I feel that Miss Gush deserves to be the victim for giving all of us do-gooders a bad name! It may be possible that I have gone off on a tangential rant, here. In which case Cecil may be nodding sadly and wondering when this Anne became so much more difficult to like! Apparently the only question that remains is whether I shall murder Cecil, or Cecil will murder me. But either way the reader is now forewarned.
HA! I guffawed several times reading this, Anne. I liked “rapidly closing in on another certain age” (and the parenthetical statement following it) quite a lot. Also, I like the way you identify with the Anne in the text and inserted yourself into her place. Poor Cecil, however, now seems to be doomed. 🙂
Anyway, you are right, that the do-gooders in these stories are often loathsome already. But occasionally, the writer gives us readers a little help, to make sure we dislike ’em sufficiently.