I love a good mystery/thriller novel, but I have to admit that my relationship to the genre trends toward a love/hate situation. They can be fun or entertaining or just plain easy to read, but I have a lot of pet peeves within the genre that get tripped off far too often. Here are the tropes I just can’t stand, which will make me either DNF a book or even want to take a sustained break from the mystery genre as a whole.
Teasing the Reader
I recently saw a promotional video for those Master Classes, where an expert in a given field talks about how to follow in their footsteps, which featured John Grisham. His advice in that promo was that if you want to write an engaging mystery, give your protagonist something secret in their past that you can tease the reader with to get them to keep going. I wanted to scream at my computer screen because I absolutely hate it when books do this to me. It’s the cheapest trick in the book, it’s a totally lazy way to try to build suspense, and most of the time the reveal isn’t worth the energy it takes to get to it. Here are some examples.
In The Last Time I Lied, our protagonist, Emma, is haunted by the night her roommates at summer camp disappeared without a trace. And since no one really disappears completely, author Riley Sager has Emma tease the reader that she might know more about the disappearance than she’s revealing. How is this done? By having Emma constantly say things like “I’ll always hate myself for that thing I don’t want to talk about right now. I’m going to change the subject–but are you curious?” Or, when she meets up with someone else who was at the camp that summer and reflects “If she only knew what really happened that night, she’d never forgive me. I don’t know that I can forgive myself. [End of chapter]”
It is so cheap and lazy. Riley Sager isn’t building suspense or even earning the right to my attention. He’s just teasing me, and I don’t like it when authors try to manipulate me like that. The worst part is that all this teasing is complete misdirection. Sager wants you to wonder about what Emma may or may not have done so he can come at you from a completely different direction later. It’s so awful.
I’ve been listening to the audio of Tangerine, by Christine Mangan, and I honestly don’t know that I can continue with it because for over two hours now it has been relentlessly having it’s two female narrators remind me that they haven’t seen each other since something awful happened one night at college? What happened? Who’s responsible? No idea. But I’m meant to keep listening to find out.
Irresistible Male Leads
This is a convention I can’t stand that almost completely comes from male mystery writers. Basically, their protagonist becomes a sort of vehicle for porn fantasy wish fulfillment. He can get any girl he wants and break whatever hearts he chooses to. No matter what romantic entanglement he gets into, he’ll be single again by the next installment. Call it the James Bond effect, if you will. Every woman he meets is just a disposable sex toy.
Last year, I called out All the Beautiful Lies for this. The protagonist is a dope. He’s not particularly smart, he’s not interesting, and yet every single female character wants to sleep with him. Even his stepmother. All the female characters in this book are either mother figures, sex objects, or victims–and they frequently tick more than one of those boxes. It’s gross.
Now, I tend to like Michael Connelly’s books, and I’m going to talk about his book The Poet later, but for this particular cliche, I want to focus on that book’s sequel, The Narrows. The Poet had been a standalone novel for Connelly when it was written, but the sequel has Connelly’s most common protagonist, Harry Bosch, show up to team up with Rachel Walling, an FBI agent from The Poet. As soon as Bosch shows up, Walling loses all of her dignity by jumping into bed with him. And since she had already had a sexual relationship with the male lead from The Poet, the end result is that you can’t take her seriously. The male characters in these books get so much more respect and character development than she does.
Unreliable Female Leads
This is a relatively recent trend that has cropped up a lot since Gone Girl, which is funny because Gone Girl‘s use of an unreliable female narrator is so much more complex than any of its imitators. You don’t even know that the female half of the narration is unreliable until halfway through the book. Anyway, the success of Gone Girl was quickly capitalized on by The Girl on the Train, which took the idea much more literally but still, I think, managed to succeed. It’s after The Girl on the Train that the unreliable female narrator idea became a trope and the quality quickly disintegrated because now it’s not a tool that is used organically by authors, now it’s a quick plot device a lazy author can use to trick or manipulate their reader.
Ruth Ware has gone to this well a bit, most prevalently in The Woman in Cabin 10. Lo, the protagonist in that book, basically spends all her time getting shit-hammered drunk, so she’s frequently confused about what’s happening around her, which, of course, means that when she thinks she witnesses a murder on a cruise, no one believes her and even she isn’t sure of what she saw.
But the biggest offender is a book that I called one of my worst reads of 2018: The Woman in the Window, by A.J. Finn. This is where it really felt manipulative and lazy to me and made me think that we need to move away from this trend really quickly. I felt really vindicated for believing that Woman in the Window was relying on popular plot points when a New Yorker article about its author, who in reality is a chronic liar and narcissist named Dan Mallory, and how he cobbled together the plot of this novel by stealing elements from other bestselling books to Frankenstein himself the ultimate bestselling mystery novel.
This one goes for movies, too: the idea that there has to be a personal connection between the person doing the investigating and the killer. This usually leads to a fiery showdown game of cat and mouse where the stakes are ridiculously elevated. It’s not enough for the good guy to want to stop a killer. That’s for, like, real-life police and detectives to worry about.
Meg Gardiner’s Unsub starts out great. Its protagonist, Caitlin Hendrix, is a narcotics detective with dreams of being a profiler like her father, who was driven mad by a twisted killer who got away. Now, twenty years later, that killer has emerged again, and Hendrix gets to partner with the FBI to do what her father failed to do all those years ago: catch the sucker. Now, if that’s where the personal connection stopped, things would have been fine. But as the novel progresses, the killer begins deliberately toying with Hendrix and her father–forging a personal connection between them that the novel really didn’t need. It was already there. And then, not only does the book end in a high stakes personal showdown, it ends with Hendrix racing against time to save herself, her boyfriend, and her father. It’s so overblown. Unsub also suffers from…
Too Many Twists
This is the big one! Mystery authors frequently feel like they need to do nothing less than slap you in the face, rip your wig off, throw water in your eyes, and pull the rug out from under you in order to earn your respect. And they don’t need to try so hard! I’ve read mystery novels where the reader knows the identity of the bad guy from the first chapter, and it works great! We don’t need The Sixth Sense every time we pick up a book–if the book is good, we’ll go along for the ride regardless of whether or not there are surprises.
Like I said, Unsub suffers from this–it feels like it has three endings! But the example I most frequently use goes back to Michael Connelly: The Poet. Now, I recommended The Poet A LOT when I worked at Borders, and it was always a hit. But the truth is, I always felt like it completely went off the rails in the last third. I remember when I was reading it, I felt satisfied with the conclusion, then realized that there were over a hundred pages left. I continued and the book just got so weird and unnecessarily convoluted that it almost completely soured the book for me. I said that Unsub feels like it has three endings, but The Poet felt like it had more than double that. It just tries so hard, which is all the more disappointing because for me, until that happened it was easily the best mystery novel since The Silence of the Lambs or Red Dragon. It’s so disappointing.