Tropes and clichés are not the same. Tropes are often well-done and favored within fandoms. On the other hand, clichés are overused and overrated. There are many clichés or tropes in mystery novels.
But everyone has an opinion. Some tropes are loved or hated, while some clichés are loved or hated.
It can be easy for a trope to cross over to the cliché side, which is then classified as a “clichéd trope.” This article will discuss some typical clichés or tropes in mystery novels.
14 Tropes In Mystery Novels
There are probably way more than what I’ll list below. But here are some of the most common ones. Some of these tropes I love, hate, or love to hate.
The Broken Detective In A Relationship With Alcohol
In my opinion, these detectives are way overused. They bury their work in alcohol or struggle with depression because of something that happened in their past. Most often than not, it’s because a serial killer murdered their family or something along those lines.
We all have issues. We’ve all gone through hardships. I don’t understand why some authors believe this type of character is so relatable because, in many ways, they’re not. They stumble through the case and yet still come out on top and are the ones to solve it. How?
I believe this character arch can be done well if the depression, alcohol, or haunting past doesn’t define them as a character.
The Current Case Forces The Detective To Confront Their Past
In some ways, this trope can go along well with the abovementioned point. The detective has issues or a dark past and is drowning their sorrows in alcohol or lashing out at people.
The cases are connected or similar enough to give the detective flashbacks to something that happened before.
I think this trope is decent, as long as it’s done well. I do feel like it’s becoming slightly overused, though.
The Eye Candy Client (Or Detective)
This trope is a fine line between being a cliché if it’s not already. This is in almost every mystery book unless it’s hard-boiled (and even then, sometimes).
Either the detective is smitten with their client upon first sight and takes on their case, or the amateur sleuth falls head over heels for the detective. These are common cozy mystery tropes.
Adding a sprinkle of romance is fine, but I have a problem when the character’s purpose is to look pretty and be eye candy for the other characters or the reader. Looks are not a personality trait; there’s certainly no reason for a detective to take on a case simply because of that.
The Police Don’t Know How To Do Their Job
This is another hot trope from cozy mysteries. The amateur sleuth who happened to stumble across the murder takes it upon themselves to solve the crime.
Sometimes it’s because they knew the deceased, or maybe someone they know is the prime suspect, and they’d like to clear their friend’s name.
But nine times out of ten, this amateur solves the case without batting an eyelash while the police struggle. Sure, the police have rules and regulations to follow, but they also have access to way more resources than the amateur.
The Misjudged Death
Sometimes a killer can hide the actual cause of death well. Regardless, I’ve watched my fair share of mystery TV shows and read plenty of mystery books to see the grumpy detective spend five minutes at the crime scene and declare the “answer” immediately.
But don’t worry – the amateur or rookie detective will come to the rescue and prove the veteran detective wrong in front of everyone.
This trope also goes along with the point above, where the police don’t know how to do their job.
The Rookie Detective Gets Paired With The Veteran Detective
Okay, this is one of my favorite tropes because it often leads to a “found family.” The rookie tends to be optimistic about everything and is still learning the ropes while teaching the veteran (who seemingly knows everything) a few life lessons in return.
The Detective Has A Superpower
I don’t mind mixing genres. For example, I don’t mind throwing fantastical elements into a murder mystery book. But when the detective (or amateur sleuth) solves crimes reasonably quickly because they have power (such as reading minds), then it’s a cop-out.
Honestly, it’s less fun that way. Sometimes, having a mind-reader can confuse readers unless it’s written well.
On the other hand, I prefer to solve the crime with the detective and see if I can make connections myself. If everything is being spelled out for me because I can read the protagonist’s thoughts as they read someone else’s, it’s less fun.
Crime Follows The Protagonist Everywhere
I guess this is considered more of a cliché than a trope. In cozy mysteries, the setting is often within a library, bakery, coffee shop, etc. The various cases often have one thing in common: the coffee shop’s coffee was poisoned (or the pastry was laced with poison). The barista is now on the case!
I love these types of books, don’t get me wrong, but if multiple deaths happen across numerous books within the same setting around the protagonist, then… well, I’d think something was fishy with the owner, call the health department, and get that café shut down.
The Detective Has Special Knowledge On One Topic
So, the detective or amateur sleuth went to cosmetology school, and now someone was poisoned with nail polish? How convenient.
Listen, sometimes this happens. But something’s up when every case the detective is involved with involves hair spray or bubble bath.
You can’t top Legally Blonde. I’m sorry, but you can’t.
The Snitch Always Dies
There’s always one character type you know will end up in a ditch. Think “red shirt” characters. In murder mystery stories, it always seems to be the first witness or maybe someone who was in on the crime in the first place. They reveal a bit too much; before you know it, they’re the next body the detective stumbles upon.
The Serial Killer Knows The Detective
And they have a personal vendetta against the detective. Why? We won’t know under the killer is caught. This serial killer will often go after people the detective knows. Or they won’t, but leave the clues specifically for the particular detective.
The “Caught On Purpose” Red Herring
It’s a brilliant idea. The culprit purposefully allows themselves to get caught so that they look innocent. There’s not enough evidence yet, so they can’t possibly be held for long. This works because real killers don’t slip up at all, right?
Everyone Did It
If done well, this is a fun trope. Evidence can lead to multiple places, and so can red herrings. You don’t know what’s true or not. In a way, this is a great plot twist. However, it can sometimes be overused to the point that you can see it coming.
The “Eureka” Moment
First, there’s nothing wrong with having a “eureka” moment. We all get them from time to time. But I feel like this is often done towards the end of a murder mystery case as a quick way to wrap things up.
Sometimes it works, but sometimes it’s obvious the story got too long, and the author wanted it to end. The detective has all the clues sprawled out, something suddenly clicks with them, and then the next scene is the detective monologuing the outline of the whole case to the culprit in front of an audience of other detectives.
Are Tropes And Clichés Worth It?
Yes, they are. Out of all the books in the world, each story is unique. And yet, they all have something in common. I have no idea the probability of coming up with a 100% new idea, but there are so many books already on shelves that you could be writing a similar story to a book you’ve never heard of before.
Not to mention, people love (or love to hate) certain tropes and clichés. There’s an audience for all of them. All you need to do is use them in a new and unique way.
Rachel Poli is an indie author, podcaster, and content writer working on her debut cozy mystery novel.
Although she favors mystery, Rachel is a multi-genre author with too many ideas and characters in her head, often experimenting with short stories and flash fiction.
When she’s not writing, she’s reading, organizing something, or playing video games. She currently resides in New England with her zoo.