|(Image from HERE)|
1. The least likely suspect is most likely to be guilty.
2. There are no random crimes.
Not to mention:
3. The inhabitants of small country villages spend so much time bashing each other on the head and having affairs with each others’ spouses, per capita, that it’s a wonder they get anything else done (or retain any population).
Unfortunately, most mystery authors fall into patterns of using their own outlines repeatedly, especially if they churn out entire series of books. This makes their work far too predictable (isn't it ironic that a desire to surprise the reader with an unexpected ending can lead to the opposite result?) and allows readers to use literary clues to predict “who done it” before the detective himself knows.
The discerning reading finds himself playing “spot the killer,” a game played in three easy steps. For example,
(Specialist in murders that take place in English country-houses, English villages, and English or Mediterranean hotels)
1. Make a list of all characters who have names.
2. Cross off the ones who are never guilty in an Agatha Christie novel (the young man who is suspected by the police but loyally defended by his beautiful fiancée is almost always in the clear—but so is everyone else to whose potential guilt great attention is drawn near the end of the novel).
3. Circle the name of the character who makes a memorable entrance, then fades into the background as a suspect whilst being periodically trotted forth so that we do not forget him/her.
(Specializes in murders that take place in Navajo territory)
1. Make a list of all the characters.
2. Cross off the names of all the Indian suspects.
3. Find the character who is a white male. If he is a businessman or an anthropologist with a revolutionary theory to prove, and especially if he is an employer who expects his subordinates to work hard, it is a dead cert that he is guilty.
Whenever one reads a mystery writer for the first time, one does not yet know how the author will employ or bend the tropes. This often makes the first novel that one reads by such authors the best. However, some authors really are able to write entire series of books without becoming as transparently repetitive as Agatha Christie or Tony Hillerman (both of whom have written some quite charming books-- the problem is just that they are all the same charming books).
One way in which a mystery author can avoid the trap is to refuse to go in for the surprise ending at all. This sort of story follows our detective as he or she gathers evidence against a suspect who is identified relatively soon in the novel. Another way is to change the type of mystery with each book. Dorothy Sayers does this. Even though she wrote eleven novels and numerous short stories about Lord Peter Wimsey’s detective work, she allowed her character and her style to evolve. Lord Peter becomes an entirely different type of protagonist as Sayers grows more literary and thematic throughout the series. The result is that her books are quite different from each other.
The three-step process doesn't work in her case:
(Specializes in English murders amongst the educated class)
1. Make a list of all the characters. Notice that it continues to expand as the story goes on.
2. Realize that each book is different in format and even style, and that “who done it” is not predictable
3. Acknowledge that Dorothy Sayers is the greatest mystery writer of them all