On Netflix yesterday, I watched an episode of Midsomer Murders, a crime show set in the England. Like most crime shows, the real fun’s in the interaction of the main characters and trying to solve the case yourself.
The mystery part of the story was enjoyable enough, but then, 95 minutes into the 100-minute episode, the writer(s) pulled what I consider to be the most irritating plot cheat used in fiction. I call it ‘The Mystery Telegram Trick,’ because I first saw it used by detectives in old murder mysteries – I’m looking at you, Mrs. Christie.
It's when a surprise plot twist at the very end of the story turns a hitherto unsuspected character into the ideal suspect, if only we'd known.
Here’s an example of how it works:
The detective character sets out to solve a murder of a rich (and much-disliked) old man called Michael McGillicuddy. Throughout the course of the story our sleuth meets various suspects, many of whom turn out to have both motive and opportunity. As the plot thickens, our enterprising detective uncovers more clues and narrows down the list of likely killers.
Of course, while all this is going on, we readers (or viewers) form our own opinions. Based on the clues offered, we try to figure out for ourselves who ‘done the deed’.
So far so normal, right? But then comes the time to unmask the murderer. Is it the rascally son of the deceased, who was heard promising to kill the old curmudgeon if he carried out his threat to write him out of the will? Is it the jilted femme-fatalle? Is it the old war-buddy who turned up, out of the blue, just days before the deceased was drowned in the dog’s water bowl?
Our heroic detective solves the case. “The murderer is…none of the above.”
Much to everyone’s astonishment (especially those in the audience), the killer turns out to be none other than shy village postman, Ned Wilkins. You know the character. He’s turned up in several scenes, possibly to add comic relief (or deliver a letter).
Wait a minute. Why would Ned want to kill old Michael McGillicuddy? What possible motive could he have?
That’s when the detective pulls out the telegram he received 'just hours ago' which confirms what he’d suspected for some time (but never mentioned). Ned Wilkins is really Charles McGillicuddy, the son and (until now, unheard of) heir of the dearly departed. Turns out dead Michael had a dalliance with a one-legged nun during the last world war. A woman he later married, then abandoned, two weeks before Ned (or Charles as we must now call him) was born.
The police cart Ned/Charles off to prison. Everyone goes home happy, except people like me. It bugs me no end when a last minute plot twist cheats me out of my chance to solve the case. I’m not sure why, though I suspect it’s got something to do with the unspoken contract I believe we get at the start of a murder mystery ie: There’s been a murder. You’ll accompany the detective as he solves the case. If you pay attention as he searches for clues, you’ll be able to figure out who dunnit too.
On the other hand, maybe I’m just old and crochety.
How about you?
What’s your pet story peeve?