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What’s your pet story peeve?

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?

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( 72 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jul. 10th, 2011 10:27 am (UTC)
I definitely share your peeve (if that isn't impertinent of me :oP), but I'm also developing a severe twitch for the old romance chestnut where She loathes him on sight; He's an all-round Git, and yet, you just know, pretty much from their first run-in, that they're going to end up together. Yawn!
Jul. 10th, 2011 05:58 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think romance works better when there's a perfectly understandable misunderstanding (if that makes sense), or some obstacle other than one character's odious personality in the path of true love.
Jul. 12th, 2011 10:04 am (UTC)
Perfectly understandable misunderstanding are the way to go! Now try saying that 6 times, fast, after a pint or two!
Jul. 10th, 2011 03:04 pm (UTC)
So... this guys name was Michael McGillicuddy? I find that very unbelievable. I want to trust you... and then you pull something like this! I just don't know what to think anymore...
Jul. 10th, 2011 05:56 pm (UTC)
Lol :)
Jul. 10th, 2011 10:36 pm (UTC)
Heroes who want to save everyone just for the sake of... saving everyone. Heroes (or heroines) that everyone just falls in love with from the get-go. Give me personality, not looks! Characters/allies who bicker and squabble in every scene.

Oh, I thought we were talking character development.

In this case, I really dislike it when the author goes about to explain every piece of food on the table, and how succulent and juicy everything is. And when this happens in every other chapter. Once, I can tolerate it. More than three times in a single one-hour reading session? Way over the top. I like food, but not in a novel. Or on it.
Jul. 11th, 2011 09:06 am (UTC)
[Give me]Characters/allies who bicker and squabble in every scene.

Me too, please. When it's written well, arguments and bickering between characters can be great fun to read :)

Jul. 11th, 2011 10:20 am (UTC)
What I think people forget is that bickering seems to increase with the development of relationships rather than decrease, unless one of them surrenders to the other.
Jul. 11th, 2011 10:23 am (UTC)
You just summed up why I rarely read mysteries myself.

I don't like it when characters in books act like the people in life I'm trying to forget about by reading books.
Jul. 11th, 2011 08:39 pm (UTC)
Lol, me neither :)
Jul. 13th, 2011 04:03 am (UTC)
Plot Points, License, and Moving Violations...
Remember that "Story Engineering" book I mentioned at the last chinwag? Remember about the boxes/scenes, and how these boxes are clearly labeled as to their contents? I'm trying to remember exactly which box is which, but I do know this: that once you've reached the Resolution box, NO NEW INFORMATION IS TO BE PRESENTED, AND NEW INFORMATION INCLUDES NEW CHARACTERS. The dramatic question is to be RESOLVED WITH CURRENT INFORMATION ONLY. And that is why those stories tick me off, too. Nowadays even the Post Office is wary about what we put into boxes; the same can be said about packing Fiction Boxes, I guess. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Christie, but, uh, I'm afraid we can't allow you to cram that NEW INFORMATION in this tiny box. We'd be more than happy to unpack an earlier box, and have you fit this in there..." :)
Jul. 13th, 2011 03:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Plot Points, License, and Moving Violations...
Who wrote Story Engineering?
Jul. 13th, 2011 05:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Plot Points, License, and Moving Violations...
Larry Brooks.
Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies...
Jul. 14th, 2011 09:38 pm (UTC)
Re: Plot Points, License, and Moving Violations...
Thanks, Andrew :)
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