From the clues to the murders in the building, murder mysteries are full of tropes that match the audience's expectations - here are the most common ones!
Murder mysteries strike a delicate balance between formulaic and unpredictable. The genre is often not defined by its setting or imagery like science fiction or westerns. Instead, following a familiar plot beat can be the most satisfying part of any given murder mystery.
Some of these tropes are so familiar that they've been twisted and parodied to death, with films like Knives Out, Clues, and the recent Disney Plus series Murder at the Mansion deconstructing them for comic effect. Still, the tropes can be fun in dramatic situations, so here are a few examples that are fascinating to play both for laughs and for breath.
Updated by Colin McCormick on December 27, 2022: "Glass Onion: Wilderness Action Mystery" hits Netflix as fans welcome a welcome return to the murder mystery series. What's interesting about Rian Johnson's detective films is how they use timeless genre tropes to great effect and keep the audience guessing. With such a long history of the genre, fans are sure to recognize more of the usual tropes from murder mysteries.
A Mysterious Injury
This trope is not unique to murder mysteries and covers Characters of all types interpret mysterious injuries as unfortunate accidents. The mysterious injury may raise questions about some of the suspects in the murder, which may have been an accident during the murder.
For example, in the first season of Fargo, Lester Nygaard was wounded in connection with a murder, and as the episode progressed, the wounds festered, becoming his moral symbol of corruption. Wounds can be metaphorical, but are also often misleading diversions, even though they may not always be immediately tied to the murder mystery genre.
The Keen Detective
Although Knives Out and The Glass Onion have massive all-star casts, Daniel Crag's Benoit Blanc is the show's real star. He's a brilliant detective, prone to messy analogies, but hardly anything is missing in his discoveries. He seems to enjoy solving crimes.
There are other talented detectives who rival Benoit Blanc, and many who share his passion for solving crimes. There are iconic detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, as well as more modern examples like Zodiac's Robert Graysmith.
The Absent Murderer
keep The lack of an eventual murderer in the main action of the plot is a useful metaphor to keep viewers from guessing prematurely. This is used notably in Operation Wilderness, in which eventual perpetrator Ransom spends most of the film off-screen while his family is questioned by Detective Benoit Blanc. It's a careful balance, however, as this plot twist can leave viewers feeling cheated, with no real chance to guess who committed the crime until later in the narrative.
While the lights don't necessarily need to be actually turned off, the trope usually involves a reversal of fortune for the detective. A lights-out murder in a crowded room is often used to shock audiences, and it can also impede the progress detectives are making so far.
This trope is often parodied in slapstick movies and cartoons, but also has significant dramatic effect. Sometimes, the lights go out before a key piece of information is about to be revealed, leaving the detectives in the first place. Clue exploited the trope in an exaggerated way during Mr. Bodie's death, and the lights went out as an opportunity for him to pretend his own death.
While most murder mysteries inevitably unfold as the killer is revealed, there is always an initial charge that never fails. A suspect who seems like the most obvious choice will only be charged with some new evidence to exonerate them.
Scream featured this trope, then used it to trick the audience. Billy Loomis is the thoughtful boyfriend who soon hopes to be at the top of the suspect list and arrested. But after Sidney gets a call from the killer, Billy is let go, leading to a surprising horror movie villain reveal.
A typical conclusion of a murder mystery is to name more than one, if not all, of the suspects as the murderer. Such tropes can be effective in undercutting audiences who might expect a single perpetrator, but if a narrative starts to be flooded with multiple victims, killers, and motives, the stalk can become overwhelming.
This can be used for teasing, as in the thread's ridiculous third ending where everyone but one of the main actors is revealed to have murdered at least one person. This kind of revelation can also work in serious situations Murder mysteries like Gosford Park, in which a character is acquitted of murder for stabbing a victim who had died of poison.
The Unsympathetic Victim
Often used to complicate matters, in a murder cold case an unsympathetic victim is used to create several suspects with plausible motives. While it doesn't appear in many murder mysteries, it was famously used in The Simpsons' parody of "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" which in turn repeated Dallas' famous "Who Did It?" "Episode.
Due to Burns' increasing hostility towards the people of Springfield, the first part introduces several motives, which serve to confuse the public when determining who the perpetrators are. The trope can also be used with multiple potential murder motives, allowing the audience to piece together the most plausible one.
The Faked Death
When the clues don't quite line up and the body can't be found, sometimes a murder can be a trap all along. Since no murders take place, the trope might technically disqualify the film from being a murder mystery, but it's still a common enough twist in the genre.
Feigned death is often seen in film noir, such as Vanish Both the Girl and the Third Man utilize sinister twists in their narratives to lift the rug from under the audience's feet.
In Plain Sight
Part of what audiences love about murder mysteries is trying to solve crimes with the detective. Some of the best films of the genre help audiences do this by hiding clues and revelations that seem so obvious on rewatching.
Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island is a movie that feels like a puzzle, about a detective searching for a missing prisoner in a mental institution. When it turns out that the detective is actually a prisoner, viewers can keep seeing Answers staring at them.
A Second Murder
While many films in this genre begin by introducing the characters and setting the stage, the story requires a murder to really kick off. However, when the first murder is investigated, it is likely that the second murder will happen soon.
Agatha Christie's adaptation of Death on the Nile follows this trend. The plot revolves around the murder of a wealthy heiress. But as Hercule Poirot investigates, the heiress' maid is then killed as the murderer Continue to cover their tracks.
Ultimately, in a murder mystery, it's time to weed out the suspects and verify the alibi they provided on the night of the murder. Some of these may be physically impossible; the suspect was not far from the victim at the time of death, or the murder required some kind of feat of strength that could not have come from some suspects.
The Simpsons made fun of this metaphor in "Who Shot Mr. Burns", where it was revealed that the groundskeeper, Willie, couldn't have been shot because he developed arthritis from playing Space Invaders. While alibi are often crucial to the internal logic of a murder mystery, they are not required, and sometimes dramatic tension can come from an innocent suspect without a convincing alibi.
The Stately Home
The trope originated in Agatha Christie's early novels of the 1920s and 1930s, set in mansions, often English country estates. These grand and timely buildings are often used to explore the genre's themes of class conflict, although murder mysteries are by no means limited to them, with film noir and modern detective stories often opting for urban settings.
Knife out Twisting the tropes in its own way, the film also shifts the tropes by emphasizing the contemporary political divide in late contemporary America. It's also important in Gosford Park, where the gulf between the nobles upstairs of the titular house and the servants downstairs provides the film's main thematic conflict.
The Big Reveal
When the jig is over and the mystery detective finally puts all the pieces together, one of the most satisfying tropes in a murder mystery is laying out all the facts and drawing the final deduction. They may feel cheesy or over-explanatory, but when executed well, the reveal can be the most exciting part of a murder mystery.
This is an opportunity for detectives and story writers to present mysterious plots, enabling characters such as Philip Marlowe, Hercule Poirot, or Sherlock Holmes to demonstrate their deductive and reasoning abilities.
The Unsuspecting Suspect
While there is always a slew of suspects to keep fans suspicious, there is usually one suspect who seems too humble to even consider. The idea that the least obvious suspect might be the killer is often true, but some The movie still manages to create a seemingly impossible suspect.
The Usual Suspects introduces the character of Verbal Kint, a weak criminal who finds himself among a bunch of professional bad guys. Verbal looked like a scapegoat, dragged around by others, not understanding the danger he was in. However, he is the mastermind behind the scenes and one of the protagonists in the movie's villains.
The Red Herring
This is a fairly broad metaphor, but one that appears in nearly every unsolved murder case. Especially in narratives that try to keep the audience guessing for as long as possible, distraction is an important means of maintaining ambiguity.
They can take many forms, which is widely parodied in the thread, with the repeated line "Communism is just a red herring" appearing in all three endings. The movie pokes fun at how the genre often features more personal crimes than political ones, and ditches the backdrop of McCarthyism at the last minute.