When my husband and I plop on the couch at the end of another eventful day, I love cozying up to a steaming cuppa tea and listening to Jason read a chapter from our current mystery novel (or watching the next installment of our current mystery series). It’s encouraging to know that at the end of guessing and second-guessing through two hundred and fifty pages (or a forty-five minute episode), there’s always a satisfactory conclusion to the classic whodunnit -- the bad guy’s caught; the good guys win; I can sleep happy. But although I enjoy the entertaining challenge of sorting through suspects, I’ve developed a few mystery pet peeves and think the genre could be stronger without the following literary tendencies:
Pet Peeve #1: Authors portray police as incompetent. Who doesn’t love the amateur detective? Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew, Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple all solved crimes using creative angles which may have not occurred to those going by the book. I’m all for the observant old woman, the scientific genius, and the dogged journalist deciphering clues. But there’s a big difference between a sleuth working with the authorities and a vigilante who treats the entire police force as stupid.
I’m not saying that every single literary character in uniform needs to be 100% brilliant and upstanding, or that real life police procedures cannot be improved, but it’s not fair to write off an entire government institution intended for public safety as inherently corrupt or incompetent. Every officer of the law I’ve met has been helpful, courteous, and reasonable — even in the face of an often-thankless public. It’s not popular to be a police officer these days. But in real life, more often than not, the police are the true heroes fighting for peace and order in our towns and cities across the nation.
The mystery genre would do better to honor those who daily pursue justice instead of perpetuating the myth that every officer is an idiot.
Pet Peeve #2: Detective ignores his/her own personal flaws. It’s difficult for me to accept someone who publicly pursues justice but privately indulges in bad behavior. I do not expect perfection from mystery detectives any more than I expect it from real people, but hypocrisy always reeks whether found in fiction or nonfiction. Don't get me wrong -- foibles, quirks, and personal demons do make characters more relate-able and compelling. Who can sympathize with a person who's never had any issues ever?
Character flaws are not the problem, but refusing to acknowledge them as actual flaws is.
It’s hard for me to respect a detective who spends an entire novel exposing a drug ring only to smoke something illegal once she gets home from the office. Or there’s the guy who puts a pimp behind bars but sleeps with multiple women over the course of a series. (I know there’s some technical differences of legality there, but you can still spot the contradiction.) Since the foundational plot of any mystery involves distinguishing between clue and red herring, truth and lie, right and wrong, it would be more consistent for detectives to apply their powers of deduction to their own lives as well as to their cases.
Without the acknowledgment of wrongdoing, there can be no real justice.
Pet Peeve #3: Detective plays God. It is a serious contradiction of role when a sleuth rationalizes breaking the law in order to uphold it. But this happens all the time! If a police detective feels he can’t wait for a warrant, he’ll often burst through a door without a second thought to due process of law. Or what about the P.I. who catches a thief in the act but sympathizes with her life story and lets her go without having to take responsibility for her actions? I know Lady Justice is supposed to be blind and all, but if she ignores crime, she ain’t doin’ her job. And when detectives excuse favorites or ignore proper procedure, they aren’t doing theirs either. Detectives are supposed to investigate the facts and promote justice. If they twist the truth, undermine authority, or become the judge, jury, and jailer all in one, they trespass outside their role and are in danger of becoming criminals themselves.
There are several examples I could use, but let me illustrate with one from the most recent BBC version of Sherlock Holmes. As a literary character, Sherlock never had much love for the police. But in the latest take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s protagonist, Sherlock crosses a line onscreen which he never did in the books; he takes justice into his own hands and murders a blackmailer. Had he shot a child or beautiful woman, this might not have flown, but it’s always easier to justify the murder of an unlikable character.
The problem is, murder is still murder regardless of the victim. Yet instead of subjecting Sherlock to a trial like every other citizen, the authorities cover up the incident and retain Sherlock for future intelligence missions. Sherlock’s smarts grant him one heck of a “Get Out of Jail Free” card as his utility trumps the law of the land.
Now, I know there can be military or self-defense situations in which someone can kill another without committing murder and that governments have authority to grant pardons from time to time.
But when sleuths make judgment calls that violate the legal rights and responsibilities of the accused, or worse — become private executioners v. private investigators — it gets harder to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.
And in a mystery, the dividing line between those groups should be painted in bold colors — at least by the end of the story.
All that said, I still love getting swept up in a good mystery, and I’m not alone. This second most popular fiction category continues to intrigue and entertain millions each year. I just think the genre would be stronger and more consistent without the unfortunate literary tendencies I've critiqued above. As I pen my own mystery series, I realize it can be tricky for a sleuth without a badge to navigate her role in relation to police authority and the pursuit of justice. But I hope to write in such a way that upholds the mystery genre’s foundational premise — evil cannot hide forever — without perpetuating my own pet peeves.
I’ve already started my second novel.
Thanks for reading!