I’ve been collecting mystery genre clichés to use in a whimsical mystery story. Some of the suggestions people have given me are true clichés — clues, characters, or plot devises that have been so overused they hold no surprise anymore. For example, “the butler did it.” The butler was such a ubiquitous character in older mysteries, and such an unobtrusive character, that the choice of the butler for villain was innovative the first time or two, but it quickly became clichéd. After the butler as villain became prevalent, there came a series of mysteries where the butler was the first suspect, but he was so obvious because everyone knew the butler usually did it, that he was quickly dismissed as a suspect, but the wily detective eventually discovered that it was, in truth, the butler. Then there were the mysteries where the butler became the detective. Now, of course, any use of a butler is clichéd, but it doesn’t matter because no one has a butler anyway. I suppose it would work if a character was named Butler. Hmmm. Might be a possibility for my mystery. Could be a fun gag if nothing else.
A convention is the way something is done. For example, in a mystery there must be a mystery, otherwise it wouldn’t be a mystery. There must be someone trying to unravel the mystery, and there must be clues, false trails, and various other common conventions that make up a mystery novel. And especially there must be a satisfying ending to tie up all the story threads. Just because these elements are in all mysteries, it doesn’t make them clichés. A cliché is something that has become so overused that it no longer holds any meaning or surprise, and the whole point of the mystery genre is meaningful and surprising revelations.
The mystery itself, or a specific type of ending could be clichéd, though. For example, the ending where a detective gathers all the suspects together has become a cliché, mostly because everyone today has at least a modicum of an idea of how the police really work, and the cops simply do not gather all the suspects together to unravel their case in public. Even amateur sleuths, such as the clichéd old lady who noses around because she thinks the police are bumbling idiots, don’t do such clichéd gatherings because they should be smart enough to know that’s how people get killed. And anyway, even if she does do a group unveiling, what difference does it make? Any unveiling of the killer or any confession wouldn’t hold up in court. (We did such a gathering for the end of Rubicon Ranch: Riley’s Story, a collaborative novel I wrote with several other authors, but what made it tolerable was my character’s derision of the whole idea.)
The only ending worse than the clichéd gathering is when the villain has the hero cornered, but spends so much time bragging about how he (or she) did it that the hero gets the upper hand. (Or vice versa — the hero has the villain cornered, but spends so much time congratulation himself that the villain gets away.)
Some clichés aren’t really clichés, but are more of a classic story element. For example, a locked room. Locked room mysteries are a subgenre of murder mysteries, and in fact, I will be using a locked room in my story. Locked rooms add a separate element to the mystery, because not only do you have to figure out who killed the victim and why, you also have to figure out how the heck they got into the locked room. And, of course, the locked room has to be an integral part of the story, otherwise it becomes a cheat with no other reason for being than to add cheap suspense. In my case, I can’t do anything but the locked room mystery. The mystery will revolve around a dance studio, and the only time the studio is unlocked is when people are there. It’s hard to commit a murder unseen in a crowd, though it has been done.
Occasionally clichés are cheats. Someone gets a letter from the victim or killer at the beginning of the story, the person puts the note in a pocket or desk drawer unread, but finds it at the end in time to keep the killer from killing again. It’s a cheat because if the fool had read the letter at the beginning, there would be no story.
In a mystery, the main characters have to act to the best of their ability at all times. A woman who is told not to go some place where danger lurks, and she goes simply because she was told not to, is someone who is not acting to the best of her ability. Stupidity is not a plot ploy. It is a cheat.
So, there you have it, a brief primer on the differences between clichés, classics, cheats, and conventions.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.