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Unravelling the Mystery: The Top 5 Detective Fiction Tropes

Detective fiction, a genre as intricate as the mysteries it unfolds, captivates readers with its cunning plots and compelling characters. Central to its charm are the tropes—those recurring elements that shape a reader's expectations and, hopefully, enhances their enjoyment of the story. Let's dissect some of these classic tropes, their applications, and how they appear in notable works.


1. The Brilliant Detective


Sherlock Holmes type detective with magnifying glass

There is no detective story without a detective, and it is the detective that really keeps a reader coming back for more.


In the early days of detective fiction, the sleuth at the heart of the story was often a brilliant character - they had an intellect that far surpassed the other detectives who were 'supposed' to solve the case. Think Sherlock Holmes, who read meaning into clues overlooked by others, or Hercule Poirot, who used his 'little grey cells' to work out the psychology of the killer. This superb intellect was often matched with personal peculiarities - idiosyncrasies such as Poirot's fastidiousness and his need for perfect symmetry. These kinds of traits marked them out as 'special' in a world of mediocrity.


These days, I feel that sleuths, whether amateur or professional, tend to be more human - they make mistakes, their judgement isn't always sound - and for me, this makes them far more interesting. My detective, DI Matthew Stannard, makes mistakes - he will pursue a likely suspect, certain he's on the right track, until a piece of evidence or testimony shows him he's wrong. He also has personal flaws - a disinclination to be a team player, his high standards and distaste for people who don't work as hard as he, to name but two. These personal flaws mean that there isn't as much need to mark the sleuth out as being 'special'; instead, their characters can be more subtly drawn and still show their brilliance.


2. The Loyal Sidekick


A detective and his sidekick

Frequently, the brilliant detective is complemented by a loyal sidekick, who often serves as the story's narrator. This character not only provides a counterbalance to the detective’s eccentricities, but also acts as a surrogate for the reader. They are typically less astute, asking questions that prompt explanatory responses, thereby allowing the audience to follow the detective's mental gymnastics. Dr John Watson in Sherlock Holmes's adventures is a prime example, offering a more grounded, often amazed perspective on Holmes’s deductions.


Matthew doesn't have a sidekick - rather, he has a team of officers and civilian characters, who 'help' him with the investigation, but ultimately, it's Matthew who solves the case.


3. The Locked Room Mystery


a locked room mystery

A classic setup in detective fiction is the locked room mystery, where a crime—usually murder—is committed under seemingly impossible circumstances. The room is sealed from the inside, there are no other exits, and yet the deed is done. This trope challenges the detective’s and readers’ intellect, pushing the boundaries of creative problem-solving. An iconic example is Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," where the solution to the mystery is as surprising as it is unconventional.


With modern crime fiction, the Locked Room Mystery is much harder to pull off. If an author does want to write this kind of mystery fiction, then they invariably set them in the past, mostly in the Golden Age of Crime Fiction, the 1920s and 1930s, and the sleuth is an amateur.


4. Red Herrings


a clue pinboard with information

Red herrings are false clues that mislead readers and detectives alike, heightening suspense and adding complexity to the plot. They are essential in creating a captivating story where the audience is constantly second-guessing what they know. Agatha Christie mastered this trope, often leading her readers down one path only to reveal in a dramatic twist that the truth lay elsewhere. Red herrings are essential in every crime fiction novel, regardless of setting.


5. The Final Twist

detective announcing the killer


Perhaps one of the most satisfying aspects of detective fiction is the final twist, often delivered in the denouement, where all is revealed. This trope subverts the audience’s expectations, revealing overlooked details or underestimated characters. It’s a hallmark of Agatha Christie’s novels, where the least likely person often turns out to be the culprit, reshaping the entire narrative in a few final pages. Of course, this 'big reveal' in Christie's novels is famously (or notoriously) performed by the sleuth addressing a crowd of eager listeners, usually the characters who have all been suspects at one point or other. This, again, would be hard to pull off in a modern detective novel; it works in Christie because it's expected, but I believe it would appear far too contrived for modern crime fiction readers.


Some or all of these tropes are still are relevant today as they were when Christie, Marsh, Sayers or any other Golden Age crime novelist were writing. Modern crime writers just have to deploy them a little differently to keep the reader guessing and willing to turn to the next page.

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