Nicholas Goodchild

Historic and Pared Down

Mystery Structure

16 April 2012 by Nicholas in Books

I watch a lot of thrillers and mystery films. In addition I also watch a murder mystery tv show. Unfortunately, combined with my general predisposition to pick things apart and a lack of innovation within the genre, it tends to lead to me knowing how the plot will work.

When I was younger, I bought a comic called “Gotham by Gaslight.” It’s a Batman Elseworlds (basically, where familiar characters and concepts are dropped in different milieus than the one they are normally published in to see how they work) where Batman is operating in Victorian London and comes across the work of Jack the Ripper. It’s a beautifully drawn book featuring artwork by Mike Mignola and P Craig Russell.

I lent it to my mother to read and she told me she knew who the killer had to be and that it was disappointing to her. This surprised me, as a ten year old (or so) I had no idea who the killer had to be. She told me it had to be the one extraneous character. That, combined with the Death of Jean De Wolffe (a Spider-Man comic written by Peter David about the death of a supporting character) led me to start looking at extraneous characters more suspiciously.

When you have a story containing a murder or act of betrayal, often the killer is a supporting character who is emotionally close to the leading character, especially when he or she acts as a mentor and has an emotional link to their past. It’s become a crutch for the writers in the age of lean stories without distracting characters, especially in films and tv. As we identify with the main character we’re meant to feel their sense of disappointment and betrayal.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work like that. Often the mentor figure or old family friend may as well be hanging round at the back with a long black cloak on laughing maniacally. Any time you watch a murder show and someone is being entirely too helpful in the face of insurmountable barriers that the investigators are facing they may as well have daubed their fingers all over the crime scene. It’s unfortunate, but there it is: the necessity of creating a lean story has led to a dramatic shorthand which makes the eventual reveal unsurprising.

So what is the alternative? Multiple mentors and a cast full of helpful suspects? More deus ex machina reveals coming from nowhere? I have no idea, I just wish that writers weren’t so frequently lazy. I want to be entertained and surprised, to admire the solution and twist rather than just the mastery of form.