Lists, Mystery/Thriller

Kayla’s Tuesday Talk #3: Favorite Mystery Tropes

Okay, gang, I might be preaching to the choir here, but I’m going to assume that not everyone knows what a “trope” is. Let me explain.

According to, a trope “is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize. Tropes are the means by which a story is told by anyone who has a story to tell.”

Some people get tropes confused with cliches. Tropes are not cliches; they are not inherently good or bad (except for the “stuffed into the fridge” trope, which is all bad). Tropes can be a total train wreck when written by one author and absolutely brilliant in the hands of another. That does not mean that I don’t have a personal bias! 

If you can’t tell, I absolutely love the mystery/thriller genre. It’s the genre I hope to publish in one day. So, today I’ll be talking about some mystery tropes that I LOVE. Warning, there might be some spoilers coming up, but I’ll make sure to focus on older novels.

Consulting a Convicted Killer

The most famous example of this is Silence of the Lambs. However, it’s also something that Alex Cross occasionally does in his novels. The criminals he consults are not always killers, but I think it still fits.

I like this trope because it creates a sense of suspense and sets up a story in which things are not always so black and white. When a criminal tries to save the day, the reader has to examine his or her own morals once the cheering begins.

Driving question

A “Driving Question” is when a core element of the plot is a mystery, but it appears in multiple genres (such as the Harry Potter books). I feel that the book that really made this trope a big deal is The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which is already a hugely underrated mystery because everyone mis-identifies its genre.

The driving question here is: who is Mr. Hyde and why is a good guy like Dr. Jekyll covering for him? It’s a double question, sure, but you can’t answer one without answering the other. That’s what is so brilliant about it. Plus, it really drives the narrative, as the title suggests.

Hidden in Plain Sight

Anytime something (or someone) is searched for in secret hiding places then turns out to be plainly visible all the time, we call it being “hidden in plain sight.” Popular examples of this trope can be found in a stack of Agatha Christie novels as well as any comic book in which the superhero wishes to keep his or her identity a secret.

For the sake of not spoiling anything, I’m going to talk about the original user of this trope, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” In the story they search a blackmailer’s home for a letter that would prove his guilt, and they tear that home apart, looking under the rugs, in drawers, everywhere. They even search for some hidden compartments. The whole time, the letter is clearly visible on a card rack on the mantle.

Intrepid Reporter

We’ve all heard of this trope, right? It’s the character who goes out to find the story rather than waiting for the story to come to him/her. There are really too many of these to name, but the most recent “intrepid reporter” character I’ve read was Nate Holiday in Thin Air. If you read the book, you’ll find out that he is so much more than this trope, but I’m not spoiling that

Ripped from the Headlines

We all know this trope, too. It’s when the story is loosely based on real-life events. The characters aren’t named for their real-life counterparts, but there are similarities.

I’m actually going to step away from the mystery genre for a second here because my favorite example of this trope is George Orwell’s Animal Farm. My American History teacher actually taught the rise of Russian communism with this novel because it was so much like the actual historical events. Sure, it uses pigs instead of communists, but doesn’t that imagery say much more than your typical fact-by-fact history book?

Let off by the Detective

This happens whenever the ‘detective’ character decides to let the criminal go–usually because he or she feels that punishment has already been dealt or some other reason.

Hands-down, the best example of this is Murder on the Orient Express, and the new movie by Kenneth Branagh makes this trope all the more dramatic. If you haven’t seen that film version, you’d better check it out.

Obfuscating Disability

This is when a suspect “can’t have done it” because he or she “is injured/has a disability.” Then it turns out that the disability was either faked or was not as debilitating as originally believed.

It was going to talk about how this is used in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, but the movie is about to come out and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. Besides, my favorite example of this is actually from the Daredevil comic book. Matt Murdock can’t be the vigilante hopping around town kicking bad guy butt in a red devil costume because Matt Murdock is blind! Honestly, this guy shouldn’t have any issue keeping his identity secret.

This is my talk for today. What do you think? Do you have any tropes you love?


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