I'm currently reading a mystery by a fairly new writer (alas, not one of mine!). I'm halfway through the book and I am very impressed. She is pulling off the conventions of the genre with skill and panache, and breathing new life onto every page.
This has started me thinking about those stock situations in the genre that might be considered "tired" or overdone--but that I love nonetheless. I admit that I am a sucker for the following:
1. THE LAST-PAGE TWIST. I adore something unexpected on the last page of the book. Some writers (for example, Margaret Millar) have even made it a practice to throw in a surprise on the last line of the book. Not only do I not consider such twists unfair, I often consider them to be the mark of a particularly devious writer who has thoroughly succeeded in fooling me or leading me down the wrong path.
2. THE SECRET PASSAGEWAY. So there is a hidden room somewhere in the house, basement, or attic? Or even a hidden drawer in a desk or escritoire? I love those mysterious places, where bodies can be stored and family secrets preserved but hidden. This device brings me back to my boyhood, where I was forever exploring and hoping to find such hidden treasure.
3. THE SHORT CHAPTER. Even before James Patterson made such an art of the short chapter, Mary Higgins Clark was using this technique effectively. I remember a one-paragraph chapter in her book The Cradle Will Fall. At the time I was a bit horrified, as it seemed so un-writerly or lazy. But as I've gotten older, I've come to see short chapters as the work of master plotters. I also think the device is very reader-friendly, given how many things are warring for our attention at any given time. Now, this doesn't mean that every book is well served by short chapters, but I think many mysteries are.
4. THE DEATH OF A BELOVED CHARACTER. Sounds cold-blooded, doesn't it? One of our conventions is that our heroes/heroines/protagonists must reap the rewards of solving the mystery by living to see another day. But every so often a writer has the guts to kill somebody off. This can be totally heart-wrenching and memorable. I am thinking of one specific example, but I'm afraid I now can't cite it because it would end up being a major spoiler.
5. THE CURIOUS OBJECT. Perhaps it's a misshapen piece of metal found near the crime scene, or a small chunk of lace discovered near the body. I like when there's some sort of unique physical component to the crime--for me, it can ground the mystery in reality and give the sleuth good evidence with which to begin the investigation. BUT: I loathe serial killers who leave bizarre calling cards (an orchid, a coin from ancient Rome, a Simplicity pattern) on each corpse. This has been done to death!
6. THE HINT OF THE SUPERNATURAL. I love a good ghost story, and I get quite a thrill from a mystery that makes use of the hint of a ghost, or a ghostly figure, or something of the sort. McBain did a really nice job with this in Ghosts.
7. THE ANCIENT DIARY. It's always fun to read/eavesdrop on someone's private life by reading their private diary. It's been done a lot, but I love this technique; as it's a very good way to gain some insight into a character (or, frequently, the victim). Caveat: I don't like when the sleuth stumbles on the murderer by finding his or her diary of depravity. That seems like a cheap plot resolution to me.
8. THE FAMILY SECRET. Very little is shocking these days, but there was a time when families closely guarded their secrets. Perhaps the secret was an out-of-wedlock birth, an insane relative, a history of embezzlement.... In the right hands, the search for this secret can be a very effective way of building character and context. I know that my parents kept secrets from me and my siblings as I was growing up; and I will probably go to my grave not knowing what they were. This is probably why I enjoy the unraveling of such secrets in fiction.
9. THE AMBIGUOUS ENDING. OK, what exactly happened in that last chapter? What did that mean? While a mystery often answers all of our questions, sometimes the last chapter will raise more questions. Rosamund Smith (aka Joyce Carol Oates) has pulled this off very effectively in some of her books, including Lives of the Twins, Snake Eyes, and Nemesis. I love when an author takes charge and makes it clear to me that I am not to know all the answers, whether I like it or not.
10. THE HAPPY ENDING. So--the heroine has found true love, the killer is in jail (or at least brought to justice), the best friend has found happiness, and money flows to all the worthy characters. "God's in his glory, and all's right with the world." Maybe it's not realistic, but it sure does feel good to see the worthy prosper in the end. And there's nothing quite like closing a book with a satisfied smile of contentment on one's face.