I came across an old post of mine that reminded me of three pet peeves about mysteries that I completely forgot about when I drew up the original list. That was quite a feat, since I actually react more strongly to them than I do to suicide endings, but I forgot about them because I haven’t come across any of them recently, so my ruffled feathers had settled sufficiently for me to have forgotten about them.
Here is the original list, and below is the new one, with new items in blue:
- Suicide endings, especially when it is out of character or not necessary to avoid the death sentence. Can be found in a number of Robert Barnard novels and the works of many other authors.
- Sub-intelligent or useless sidekicks. I much prefer teams that make up for each other’s faults to a star detective and a side-kick who is useless except as a dumb stand-in for the reader. I feel that the side-kick must be a developed character of at least normal intelligence and able to contribute to the investigation on other ways than just being a sounding-board for the detective. She could, for example, be the brawn to the detective’s brains or he could be the one with common sense even if lacking in detection abilities. This is why I like Watson - he might be rubbish as a detective, but Holmes would have been killed many times over if not for his side-kick's bravery.
- Technobabble and psychobabble. Don’t go into long, involved explanations of how something technical works or why someone is so screwed up – just give a brief explanation and let that suffice. If you show the reader that it is so and explain why in broad terms it is not necessary to go into tiny details of how or why.
- The following as the murderer: neurotic spinster, repressed lesbian, slimy homosexual, grossly and unattractively fat character, and especially the froth-at-the-mouth insane person whom the villain uses as an instrument of murder. Come on, authors: when someone is that insane they are generally unpredictable and incapable of avoiding detection as well and just as likely to turn against the person who is using them as they are to do exactly what they are expected to do.
- Overly complicated solutions/murder plots. John Dickson Carr is a big offender, and one or two books by Dorothy L. Sayers also fall into this category.
- There is no closure or no justice, in a book where the detective is the hero. There can be justice even if the killer escapes the clutches of the detective, but it leaves a sour taste in my mouth when the killer gets clean away with it and pays not the smallest price, doesn’t have to escape or make any sacrifices. I can name exactly one book where this didn’t make me scream, and that was entirely due to the author’s brilliant writing and handling of the device and not because the character was in any way sympathetic. The item I listed in the original # 6 actually ties in with this: I hate it when detectives, especially when they are not police officers doing their jobs, are able to kill people left and right in cold blood with seemingly no consequences. In books where the criminal is the hero their eventual escape is of course to be expected and doesn’t annoy me nearly as much.
- Far-fetched murder methods combined with far-fetched motives. If you have to have the murderer use a hitherto unknown poison or a remote-controlled gun, the motive had better be a simple and straightforward one, and if the motive is far-fetched, the method had better be straight-forward.
- Murder victims who were so evil and so hated by so many that the murderer was doing humankind a favour by eliminating them. Victims who are sympathetic on some level make for a much more thrilling plot.
- Secret societies as the villain. To quote what I wrote in a particular review: “I don’t mind having a member of a secret society doing their thing independently of the society or a leader of such a society being taken on with the understanding that their capture will destroy the whole organisation, but several members acting on orders from mysterious untouchable higher-ups takes away the one-on-one struggle between the detective and the villain and reduces the story to one about a hopeless struggle against an unbeatable enemy, which is not what I want to read about in a mystery.” Authors, save this device for the literary fiction.
- Dysfunctional detectives whose troubled private life invades the story with monotonous regularity. I don’t mind reading about detectives’ private lives, but do they all have to be divorced or almost divorced alcoholics with children and/or exes who hate them? (This is why I really like Steve Carella - he has a happy family life).