Mystery pet peeves

I’ve had some interesting conversations over the last couple weeks with various writer/reader friends. Essentially, what is it that really puts your (my) back up with regards to mysteries?

To a certain extent, mysteries are the same. There will be a crime. There will be a sleuth. Sometimes, this sleuth will be a professional (a police officer or PI), and sometimes it will be an amateur. In the end, there will be resolution and order will be restored (unless you’re reading noir, but that’s a topic for another day).

For me, it’s the characters that really make these stories come alive. How to they relate, how do they grow, how do they change. This is important, because when you invest 8-10 hours (or more, depending on how fast you read) in spending time with people, fictional or otherwise, they better make it worth your while, right?

That said, every reader has her pet peeves – things that no matter how great the characters or the plot just make it impossible to get into a story. I’m not talking about flat dialog, or a predictable plot, or even one-dimensional characters. Those are mechanics problems and any good writer, or decent writer with a good editor, can fix things. No, these are the things that make me roll my eyes and say, “really?”.

The list, in no particular order:

  1. Police non-procedural. Writing about cops is tricky. But I’ve had feedback on projects that have boiled down to basically, “It’s a police investigation and things are happening exactly as I’d expect them to happen.” Except, what if they didn’t? Everybody loves a rebel, right? Not really. Procedure matters when it comes to public officials. If your police officer protagonist allows random people to trample his scene, or bullies his way into an apartment under false pretences, some readers might like it. But for a lot, it’s going to backfire. A topic of lively conversation recently was the infamous “don’t leave town” instruction, made popular by TV. The police can’t make you stay put. They can ask, but really, if you want to leave to visit Aunt Martha for the weekend, they can’t stop you. It’s sloppy writing.
  2. Brilliant amateurs, bumbling cops. How often do you really think an amateur detective can show up the police? And how often are law enforcement officials really that clueless? I’ve talked to a lot of police officers. They’re pretty smart guys and gals. Sure, they probably miss things occasionally. Who doesn’t? But when I pick up a novel where the police are the Keystone Kops, and the amateur has to come in to “save the day,” I stop reading. Again, lazy. There are better ways to do civilian-cop conflict.
  3. “What was that noise? I guess I’ll go look.” I call this the “bad horror flick” trope. You know, power goes out in a creepy, isolated house with a serial killer on the loose and what’s the first thing everybody does? They split up. A young woman lives alone in a house, and hears a noise in the basement. So she goes to investigate, in her nightgown, without calling anyone or taking so much as a flashlight along. Unless she’s got mad ninja skills, no. Again, people are not this stupid. Such writing, unless you’ve crafted a character to deliberately have these traits (and done it for a very good reason) is lazy. There are better ways of crafting suspense.
  4. “Hi, my name is James, and..aagghhh!” It is certainly possible to write a mystery that doesn’t have anything to do with murder. But fiction is all about high stakes, and what higher stakes are there than death? However, as a reader, I need to understand why the death of this character is so important to the rest of the cast. In essence, why should I give a damn? So while some people insist that you have to have a dead body in the first three chapters, I’m not so sure. Make me care first, let me get to know this guy and hate him – or love him, so I feel badly that he’s dead.
  5. The unlikable protagonist. Now this one is tricky. I don’t necessarily believe your protagonist has to be someone I want to have over for dinner. However, I do have to be interested. I have to care. I have to be invested in her journey. Again, why spend time with her? Sure, maybe you’re writing noir. Maybe this isn’t supposed to be a noble person. The Jackal, in Frederick Forsyth’s classic The Day of the Jackal, was not a good person. But by golly I was invested in his journey. So if an author writes an “unlikable” protagonist, there better be something there to keep me reading.

I could go on. But I’ll stop at there. The five hot-button issues that will make me put down a book – or at least make me wish I had those 8-10 hours back.

So readers, what about you? What are your mystery pet peeves?


Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She survived growing up through reading, cutting her mystery teeth on Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark and, of course, Nancy Drew. As an adult, she finds escape from the world of software documentation through creating her own fictional murder and mayhem. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two teenage children, and fantasizes about owning a dog again - one of these days.

14 thoughts on “Mystery pet peeves”

  1. I’m pretty forgiving about the elements of the mystery itself if the writing is wonderful and engaging, ditto the setting and the sleuth. I want the storytelling to take me someplace new, even though, as you point out, there’s a lot that’ll be familiar. That being said, I do have trouble when villains gloat at the end for page after page after page. I get it: they’re proud of what they’ve done, but if feels a bit too Snidely Whiplash-y, I’m impatient.


  2. Two pet peeves: A villain who’s purely evil and detectives/protagonists who are stunningly beautiful/handsome. For the former, I like a charming villain–one who has character and understandable motives. Not a single-minded killing machine. For the latter, why must so many main characters be so good-looking? It’s a book–I can’t see them. You mention Day of the Jackal–the detective was a harried husband with a bad cold. Now that’s a believable protagonist.


  3. JJ, true. That French detective was good at his job – but harried and, if I remember, rather dumpy. I agree. You don’t have to write ugly people just for the heck of it, but not everyone needs to look like he/she stepped off of a magazine spread! I recently heard another saying about the villain – “The villain is the hero of his own story,” which opens the door for a world of humanity.

    Thanks for commenting!


  4. Pet peeve for me is, “Let’s play Charlie’s Angels!”–as in, the female sidekicks who see nothing wrong with the fact that they’re all charging into a dangerous situation with little to no formal training or experience. Don’t get me wrong, I love a humorous mystery and I’m clearly down with the Chicklit vibe too, but I think there has to be a balance.


  5. Diane, I hear you. I walk this line with my female sidekick/love interest all the time. She’s very independent, passionate, and headstrong – which means she makes some bad decisions that put her in trouble. But yes, there has to be a limit.


  6. I hattttte when I can see a bad decision coming from a mile away. Like when a character thinks it’s a great idea to go into an abandon building or cemetery or some other place where they’ll be alone and not have a working cell phone or whatever. Give your characters and the reader some credit and have your character get in difficult situations when NO ONE sees it coming.


  7. My pet peeve is when it takes more than 50 pp to engage me with either the story or the characters. This annoys me for any book, but especially true for mysteries. Which reminds me of yet another… Unnecessary padding!


  8. Sarah, for me, it depends on the type of bad decision. What you describe, yeah, TSTL big time and I wish writers would just STOP! But sometimes, you see the bad decision coming, and you know it – and there’s just no other way the story can reasonably proceed. It’s a fine line.

    Sue, absolutely. Get me hooked on something and please spare me your beautiful, fluffy, empty prose that had no other purpose than to show off or meet a word count.


  9. I’ve found I’m a very forgiving reader if the story has engaged me, which is quite a subjective thing, but the importance of a likeable protagonist cannot be stressed enough! I used to always finish a book, but lately I’ve set several aside because I just couldn’t stand the protag. Great post!


  10. Pamela, it’s interesting you say that as the topic has come up a lot for me recently. I don’t necessarily need a “likable” protag in that I want to invite her over for lattes and cookies, but there has to be something there that makes the protag compelling. Maybe she’s not such a good person, but there’s a glimmer there that makes me hope for redemption. But yeah, when there is absolutely nothing to make your protag someone the reader wants to spend time with, that’s a turn off.


  11. Great post, Mary! A few weeks ago, I did hear a weird noise upstairs. And as I happened to be home alone, I DID go look. And as I was creeping, petrified, up the stairs, I thought, “this is just like in every horror movie,” but I wasn’t sure what else to do. (Turned out to be a squirrel on the roof.)


  12. Cynthia, that is too funny. Yeah, there have been times when I had to go look – for example when my kids were little (5 and 3) and the hubby was in Iraq. Nobody else to investigate that weird noise in the basement, might as well be me (I did take a heavy flashlight with me, though).


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