10 Cliches in Mystery Novels

Have you ever had that feeling of deja vu? You know, when you feel as though something has already happened, but it’s happening again?

Sometimes that happens in books, but when that happens it’s called a cliche.

A cliche is something that is overused and has no original thought put into it.

Cliches are everywhere. In books, TV shows, blog posts (like this one), and in real life conversations and actions. Some cliches we can put up with, some we can’t. The bottom line is, they’re never going to go away.

Then again, there are so many ideas out there that there are bound to be some repeats.

I mean, have you ever had that feeling of deja vu? You know, when you feel as though something has already happened, but it’s happening again?


10 Cliches in Mystery Novels Rachel Poli

Some cliches are easy to avoid, but as stated earlier, some aren’t. There are only so many original ideas out there and the bare bones of most mysteries are similar. So it’s hard to not have a cliche here or there.

There are a lot of cliches to list, especially in any kind of writing, but here are just a few.

1. The hard-core/alcoholic/depressed detective.

Being a police officer or detective is hard work and stressful. We get it, we understand. But not everyone hates their job and there’s a reason they became a detective in the first place. They don’t need to wallow in self-pity or be drunk late in the night in order to have that “a-ha!” moment.

2. The police don’t know how to do their job.

You see this in a lot of superhero-type stories. A bad guy comes along causing chaos. The police try to stop him, they fail miserably at a loss of what to do. Then the good guy comes along and saves the day. The police work a lot harder than we give them credit for. Even if it’s fiction, they know how to do their job.

3. A death is misjudged (example, a homicide ruled as a suicide), but only the protagonist figures out the truth.

As I just stated, police do know how to do their job. Even if a death looks like a suicide, no matter how well the culprit covered it up, there is always evidence. There is always forensics. There are always autopsies and science and common sense.

4. The current case forces the protagonist to confront the past.

The detective has a dark past (that’s probably why he’s depressed and an alcoholic from point number one). He’s been avoiding it his whole life, but this specific case has something or someone come along that makes him go back in time.

5. The detective has some sort of “power” (example, photographic memory, psychic, etc.) that they depend on to solve cases.

Having supernatural-type elements added into the mystery isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you can make it unique enough. But if it seems as though the detective is the only one who can solve the case because he has that photographic memory… there’s a problem somewhere.

6. A female detective who is torn between two hot men whether it’s another cop or a suspect or victim or whatever.

Women fall in love, yes. But men fall in love as well. And just because there’s a sexy female detective does not mean there has to be a romantic love-triangle. You don’t see a hot male detective torn between two women that often, do you? Nope. They’re just staying up way too late drinking the case away.

7. A female character who is eye-candy to the detective, but also a crucial aspect of the crime (plot twist: she’s the culprit!)

Stop making women eye-candy. Just stop.

8. Detectives who have exceptional knowledge of one specific thing and always happen to have cases related to what they know.

The detective minored in cosmetology in school? Oh, cool. There was a murder in a nail salon? Oh, that’s ironic.

9. A rookie partner assigned to a veteran detective after their partner dies.

This happens in real life, this happens in fiction. But every single time, the rookie is way too eager and optimistic to start while the experienced officer is bitter. In the end, the rookie changes his partner’s view on life. How touching.

10. The detective has relationship issues.

They’re separated, divorced, a single parent… Yes, they work long hours and have a stressful job, but don’t they deserve a significant other who wholeheartedly supports them no matter what? It’s not as rare as you would think.

While researching some cliches I realized that I’m guilty of some of these. But you know what? If you can turn it around and make it unique, you should be in the clear.

What are some cliches that bother you or some that you like?

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52 thoughts on “10 Cliches in Mystery Novels

  1. What a super post. I spent seven years in the police force and the cliches always make me smile. I especially appreciate points 2 & 3 – whilst mistakes do get made (the police are human, shock horror) the investigation process is so stringent that the kinds of silly errors made by literary police officers are pretty rare. And the rookie assigned to the veteran – they are initially far too enthusiastic, but it doesn’t take long before they become just as grouchy as their mentor!

  2. I do see these a lot and wanted to comment on # 2. I think that in order for most stories to flow, we can’t always have the police “interfering” or else our heroes wouldn’t be heroes. I agree that the police do good work but they don’t solve every crime. I think that we need to come up with clever and original ideas of why the police can’t help. Good article. Thanks.

    • I agree. The police can’t solve the crime if our main character is an outside detective, but some novels don’t give them so much credit. It’s interesting.
      Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. πŸ™‚

      • What if you combined cliches in a way that makes both seem reasonable? The police can’t solve the crime in a nail salon because they don’t have cosmetology background, so they call in the private detective that does. It would spice up the necessity for the knowledge while explaining the police’s inability to solve the crime without making them incompetent.

        • That’d be interesting. I would love to read a book where everything that happens is a cliche. That’d be funny I bet.

    • I never said I didn’t enjoy these cliches. πŸ˜‰ To be honest, some of these cliches are in my own mystery novel, lol.

  3. I think you have ruined every TV show I have watched and am currently watching. They all have these cliches… gah Rache!
    Haha great post as usual and yes it’s time to move away from some of these cliches or at least use them in a clever way. Also, eye candy = new relationship for main character = unrequited love with casual flirting turns to relationship = damsel in distress for main character to save = plot pushing

  4. Love this post! Think I’ll try to find the clichΓ©s in another genre…and turn them upside down! Thanks for being awesome! And thanks to all the police out there that keep us safe and know how to do their jobs!

  5. Reblogged this on Just Can't Help Writing and commented:
    As a mystery writer, I love the analysis in this list! My favorites: No. 2) Isn’t it great when the police are conveniently so stupid that the detective can look smart with very little effort? That dates at least to Arthur Conan Doyle (remember Lestrade?), but it’s a long way from the truth. Rachel is absolutely right that police work can be a difficult and thankless task. No. 3) Follows from No. 2, as Rachel points out. The detective is the only one with the basic common sense to detect foul play.
    What am I guilty of? Well, My Failed Novel had a depressed detective hero. Never again. I plead guilty to inserting some attractive female characters. I hope they’re just a little bit nuanced so that they’re not total cliches.
    What would I add? The info dump at the end where the hero lines all t he characters up and exhibits his or her brilliance by explaining the whole case, which he or she was the only one smart enough to unravel.
    That, and books where people just tell the detective what he or she needs to know rather than allowing the detective to work for his or her discoveries.
    And finally, detectives who don’t share things theyve learned. Of course they’re smarter than everybody else if they’re keeping secrets!
    What would you add?

  6. Every genre has it’s own set of cliches, and I admit I like cliches (that’s part of the reason they became cliches after all), and there are some that cross over between genres. I haven’t read a lot of mysteries yet, but I’ve seen some of these cliches in urban fantasy and paranormal romance too. I think the one that annoys me the most is the two men fighting for the same woman. And the guys are always too hot to resist. Ugh!

    • I agree. Cliches are cliches for a reason.
      Ah, yes. The unnecessary love triangle. That’s always an interesting one.

  7. Many of these cliches became cliches because they drive the story line of classic novel plots and continue to work well. Unfortunately they don’t work well in the hands of writers too lazy to step up their games. In the case of incompetent cops, we must always remember every occupation is like the bell curve in class. You have exceptional students, really bad ones and mediocre ones. The same with police and any other occupation. Some police precincts recruit employees with a narrow vision of life, others try for a wider pool of talent. Writers should work with an awareness of real situations and not stereotypes.

    • Yes, I get what you’re saying. I do love a good cliche now and then. Though there are some that I could do without. Even so, it’s funny to see them pop up from now and again in a new way.

  8. Super good post! And I plead guilty to two of these, but with a twist in each case. Maybe there are some things you just can’t avoid because they are so integral to human nature?

    • I don’t think you can avoid certain cliches. And some cliches are fun. But it definitely helps to add your own twist. πŸ™‚

  9. I read a lot of mystery novels, so I found this list very accurate. And even checked off a couple of them that have been slightly irritating me about a series I’m re-reading through right now. Female detective (eye-candy), with 2 love interests at one point. I don’t much like my female detectives to be portrayed as eye-candy, because I’ve grown to like them to be the tough women I know they must be on the real police force. I’m sure real female cops also have a softer side when off work, but when in the books this is brought into the fictional work-place too much, it’s somewhat detracting.

  10. (From Blazing Saddles)
    TAGGART: We’ll head them off at the pass!
    HEADLEY LAMAR: Head them off at the pass? I hate that cliche!

    Okay, I know this from a comedic Western, but it’s the first thing I think of when I think of cliches. πŸ™‚

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