Years ago, I read a mystery with all the elements for a super satisfying tale: exotic locale and time period, great historic detail, multi-layered characterizations and complex plot. But the resolution involved a culprit who turned out to be the equivalent of a supernumerary, a walk-on role, someone who didn't even have a name or presence in the book, a real "face in the crowd." Grrrr....I thought. Cheap trick! Unfair! It's one of my mystery pet peeves--making the culprit someone the reader couldn't possibly guess.
I asked a bunch of mystery readers and writers what really irritates them when reading/watching mysteries, and below is a round-up of their answers. Enjoy their analyses and then share your own peeves.
The TSTL (too stupid to live) heroine:
"One of mine is the kind of mystery--you can usually tell after the first few pages--where you know the heroine is going to do something stupid and get herself into a sticky situation in the next to last chapter." Carola Dunn, author of the Daisy Dalrymple mysteries
"My pet peeve is when the heroine goes down to the basement in her nighdress when a storm has knocked out the electricity and the phone, knowing that there is a serial killer loose in the neighborhood! I try not to let my heroines be too dumb, although occasionally they are!" Rhys Bowen is a bestselling mystery novelist and an Agatha- and Anthony-award winner.
The TSTL (too skinny to live) heroine:
When the female detective (police or amateur) eats like a horse but she's skinny because she has such a white-hot metabolism And she eats lots of junk, too. Or she forgets to eat. When a woman (it's always a woman), real or fictional, says 'Oh, I forgot to eat,' I want to hurt her. Bad." Siobhan Kelly is the author of Through a Shot Glass Darkly: A Nebraska Mystery.
The tortured protag and the guest villain
"For me, it's the LEO (law enforcement officer) with 'demons' whether it's alcoholism or a murdered loved one. It was the one thing I didn't like about Castle. Becket's dead mother drove too many of the episodes and the conclusion really made me question watching the show anymore. But the alcoholic cop is beyond cliche. In any serial TV show, you can always tell who the villain is -- the well known guest star." Pat Brown is the author of series of L.A.-based mysteries
Coinkydinks, miraculous recoveries, and bad grammar
"Whopping coincidence to solve the crime. Coincidence does happen in real life. Okay, but let's not use it to solve the mystery. Unrealistic physical action such as the PI is seriously beat up and then within hours or minutes is back to full function. Bad grammar revealing the writer/editor merely used a computer program to check spelling and sentence construction. Over-use of current slang." Carl Brookins is the author of several mystery series.
Speaking of coincidence...
"When the detective protagonist, especially when he or she is a private investigator, happens to be in exactly the right place at the right time and thus is suddenly embroiled in a case instead of being sought and hired by a client. It happened to Mike Hammer in most of his cases, and has happened to, among other luminaries, Philip Marlowe (the opening of Farewell, My Lovely) and Lew Archer (Find a Victim)." Barry Ergang is a Derringer winner for best short flash fiction and a former mystery magazine editor.
Cast of thousands
"Too many characters mentioned briefly and sometimes randomly.... I just wish the author would add a character key. Good example of an excellent character key is in St. Zita Society by Ruth Rendell (2012). She uses the inside cover to show the characters in her book. This made reading the book a true pleasure. If I get the notion early on that there will be many characters, I create a running list--but it is a pain, especially if I catch on too far into the book. I am sure I am not the only one with this complaint or problem remembering names. I also agree 100% with you about the person briefly mentioned being the culprit!" Janis Rothermel
Speaking of culprits arriving late...
"My pet peeve is when the detective pulls the killer out of thin air. All of a sudden the killer shows up in the last chapter and he's the guilty party. They have been doing this a lot on TV lately because there are so many commercials that there is not enough time left to create sufficient clues for a good story." Richard Brawer is the author of numerous books, including the Silk Legacy series.
Too much rock 'em sock 'em
"I get sick of knowing that the hero/heroine has to get beaten up before the book can end. I don't really enjoy that part any more than I do violence in movies. I understand that the author wants to create suspense, etc., but wouldn't it be nice if they had sufficient talent to do it some other way?" Leslie S. Lebl
Experts who know experts...
"We read and scoffed at a series where the protagonist just happened to have not only all of the necessary skills, but just happened to know an expert who could help." Judi Maxwell
"Wait and I'll reveal all...."
"I hate it when the characters say, 'I can't tell you until I ---' and then, of course, they go off on their own and bad stuff happens. I like to be in the character's head, and if the author can't figure out a way to stick to the character's POV while withholding information, that irritates me. And, in reference to your pet peeve -- Lee Lofland reviews Castle for police procedure every week on his blog, and he says he can always guess the killer because it's the character they bring in early, ask a few questions, and dismiss." Terry Odell is the author of romance, romantic suspense and mystery
The killer next door
"The heroine's new boyfriend turns out to be the one killing people (and trying to kill her). Some well-known writers have committed this sin. Please. How lazy can you get?? I also hate thrillers in which one of the cops or FBI agents chasing a serial killer turns out to be the serial killer. Again, some well-known writers have done this. And again, it's just plain lazy and unimaginative." Sandra Parshall is author of the Rachel Goddard mysteries
"One of my biggest pet peeves is the twisted, sick cop as killer. I'm sure there are twisted, sick cops out there who have killed.... I don't think the percentage is greater within law enforcement, but too many novels would have you believe otherwise. My other huge pet peeve is the stupid law enforcement professional, like the FBI agents who don't check the house next door to their safe house because it's a vacation home and not occupied off-season. Well, guess where the serial killer was hiding all along?" Lois Winston is the author of The Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries
The recapitulation sermon
"One thing that drives me nuts...We get to the solution of the mystery, the bad guy is caught (or dead), and then we get 10-15 pages of the hero explaining how he/she figured it all out. What I say is that the reader, at the end, should be able to get that without a huge amount of recapitulation..." Don Coffin
The evil twin
"Call it bad luck or whatever, but two recent reads from two favorite British authors (who shall be nameless) where in each story a villain at the end was a twin of the suspect! I couldn't believe the coincidence. I think that having one villain turning out to be a twin is asking a lot of patience from a reader, but one after the other put me off both writers for a while!" Kit Sloane, author of The Margot & Max series.
Super cyber buddies
"The super hacker cop buddy bugs me. When a PI or cop is at a dead end in the investigation, or there's critical but unobtainable information out there, they go to their super hacker buddy who can break into anything. Sure enough, he gets the key data. It's a crutch. In pre-computer days it was informants lurking everywhere. 'Word on the street is....' The computer-related pet peeve that's really annoying, though, is guessing a person's password in one or two attempts." Michael Allan Mallory (along with Marilyn Victor) is the author of the Snake Jones Zoo mysteries
The perp prologue, the closeted killer
"I have two (pet peeves). The first is the prologue told from the unnamed adversary, be it a serial killer or lunatic, who reveals a small amount of the plot as he/she plans to make the first move. The second is the gay killer who kills to stay in the closet.. Oy, what a tired old chestnut that is...." Jeffrey Marks is the author of both fiction and nonfiction. He is working on a biography of Ellery Queen
What's in a name?
"This one was in a mystery but doesn't involve the mystery itself. The writing otherwise was fairly well done, but in conversations, the characters mentioned each other by first name in nearly every sentence. It was quite distracting and totally unnecessary. It was obvious from the conversation who was speaking, and people just don't address each other that way." Chester Campbell writes a series of post-Cold War political thrillers.
Yes, what is in a name?
--giving someone who turns out to be bad an angelic name to divert suspicion from that character.
--giving someone who turns out to be the killer a name that's clearly a pseudonym . Michael Connelly did that and I stopped reading him.
--throwing in a gratuitous sex scene that doesn't advance the story or deepen insight into the characters . Lev Raphael is the author of mystery and historical novels
Gotta .... confess!
"My pet peeve is when the detective provokes a confession on the slimmest of evidence. I find it hard to believe that a clever murderer who knows that there is not sufficient physical evidence to charge him would confess when presented with what amounts to a 'guess' on the part of the detective. " Mary Ann Myer
That suspect is too obvious to talk to
"One of mine (pet peeves) is when the investigation is prolonged because no one questioned the right, very obvious person. (This happened) in a well-reviewed series, smart and witty, but the book was about a girl from a strict, religious family who disappeared. If such a person had a near-in-age sister, who would you talk to first? And keep talking to. Yes, me, too. (I had two daughters) I never read another book by the author." Triss Stein is the author of Brooklyn Bones, an Erica Donato mystery
Dreams, loose ends, random action
1. An unexpected letter or phone call that arrives or turns up at the end and reveals a vital clue.
2. A dream that reveals that vital clue. (Note: I have no problem with dreams revealing the detective's mind at work while asleep, but an out-of-nowhere dream revelation not based on facts already presented will make me close the book.)
3. No logic or thought to lay a foundation for action so the sleuth's moves appear random and we readers wonder why he or she is doing something.
4. Too many loose ends or confusion at the end. Carolyn J. Rose, author (Who has been guilty of doing all of this in early works and may do it again because I'm not getting any younger)
Libby Sternberg is editor-in-chief of Istoria Books. She is also an Edgar-nominated novelist.
Istoria Books's "Mysterious Monday" program features posts about mystery writing, reading, bookselling and more by writers from beyond the Istoria stable. Stop back on Mondays for insightful posts on the mystery genre. Check out Istoria Books's mystery offerings here.
Mysterious Monday posts from the past:
- Carola Dunn writes about her experiences with a mysterious bookstore display: Downton Abbey, Barnes & Noble, and Carola Dunn
- Jenny Milchman writes about "Putting the MIST in mystery: obscuring facts"
Coming up: Authors Gary Alexander and Joyce Yarrow talk about favorite characters and favorite character types in mystery.
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