Content Warning: This article discusses real and fictional violence against many minority groups. Please take care of yourself.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I have developed a hopefully abiding obsession with mystery, suspense, and thriller novels during the pandemic. Like romance novels, mysteries as a genre tend to follow a broad pattern: the antagonist has committed a crime, a sleuth of some kind — usually an amateur but not necessarily — does an investigation, and after a few bumps in the road that may or may not involve danger to said sleuth or their cohort, the sleuth solves it. Personally, I find romance novels to be triggering, so I’ve leaned into reading mysteries, and that got me thinking about the kinds of common tropes therein that need to be retired.
Before we get into what makes a mystery trope a bad one, let’s quickly differentiate between plot and trope. A plot is something like “locked room,” a “whodunit,” etc. A fellow Rioter wrote a piece earlier this year discussing eight kinds of mystery plots, if you’re interested. A trope is a figure of speech or literary device, like an unreliable narrator or a key character having an alibi. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; we are constantly identifying tropes in books/movies and then either delighting in being right (my favorite) or that we’ve been bamboozled. Tropes are, in general, just fine. HOWEVER.
People have been writing books for a long time, and we like to think we’ve come a long way in our understanding of the Human Condition. This can lead to some eyebrow-raising tropes that linger in publishing, despite them being, well, icky. Let’s talk about a few that make the skin crawl, and not in a good way.
The Dead Girl Trope
First and foremost, I am tired of murdered women being the driving action for a plot. While women make up roughly 22-23% of homicide victims both in the United States and worldwide, you would never know it based on who gets murdered in mystery novels.
The Dead Girlfriend Trope
A subset of the Dead Girl trope is women (and girls) killed by intimate partners. Crimes of passion sell papers, TV slots, and books. One of those things has little to do with the quote-real world-unquote, and it would be nice to be able to turn off the news and read a mystery novel that’s not delivering almost exactly the same ghastly plot as, well, life. According to the report linked above, 99% of violence against women and girls is perpetrated by an intimate partner, and 83% of those partners are male. Let’s see if we can find a different reason for our favorite detectives, amateur or not, to have something to do.
The Developmentally Disabled Murderer Trope
Again, I’m going to cite some real world crime statistics. People with disabilities are four times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime — whether fatal or not — than people without a disability. Additionally, one-third of robbery victims has at least one disability. Casting a murderer as a person with disabilities is not only tired, it does a disservice to a community that deserves much more respect and support than it currently receives.
The Mental Illness is the Culprit Trope
As Rioter Jamie Canavés explores in The Dangers of the Mental Illness Boogeyman Twist in Mysteries, “On a daily basis, we see mental illness used as a punchline and/or the unknown that must be feared. All that this fear-mongering accomplishes is harm, and it’s inaccurate. The actual reality is that the majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses. In fact, people with a mental illness are more likely to be the victims, rather than the perpetrators of violence.” We continue to see this trope in mysteries and thrillers, and it only furthers the harmful stigmas that exist around mental illness.
The “Confused About Their Gender” Murderer Trope
Speaking of communities that deserve more respect and support, non-cis people and transgender people in particular are also four times more likely than cisgender people to experience violent victimization. In the heading to this part, I deliberately refer to a specific kind of trope in which the murderer has been assigned an incorrect gender at birth, driving them to ultimately go insane and murder other people. The ur-example of our time is the killer in Silence of the Lambs. Authors do a deep disservice to people who are trans or nonbinary when they cast them as the villain in a novel. It perpetuates violence against trans people in the real world, where merely trying to live their daily lives opens non-cis people to staggering levels of danger.
The “Confused about their Sexuality” Murderer Trope
Directly related to the previous trope. Gross. Stop it.
There are more — many, many more — tropes that are problematic, and not just in the mystery genre (more on villain tropes here). While we aren’t likely to see any of them disappear any time soon, we can educate ourselves and speak critically about plots that put minorities in a bad light. There are plenty of ways to frame a mystery that don’t involve punching down into populations that are already targets of violence and hatred.