As a consumer and producer of adventure and mystery stories, there’s a certain trope that always gets on my nerves. When you’re doing case-based storytelling, when “working a case” provides the climactic structure, there needs to be some mechanism to bring the affair to the detective figure’s attention. There’s a certain way of handling that which really makes me roll my eyes– the one where too many of the mysteries arise because the detective just stumbles over them, usually because someone within their life sphere is the victim.
I know why so many writers use this. By making the victims of the crime at hand have some connection to the detective, the writer is able to crank the stakes up by means of the detective’s personal investment. It’s an easy way to create more interest in the case, by leveraging the interest the audience already has in the leads.
This annoys me for several reasons. First, I think it involves too much coincidence. How many investigation-worthy crimes can one person possibly have happen in their greater circle of acquaintance? It’s just not believable that intriguing mysteries just fall into their laps by happenstance all the time. And when the typical crime the detective tackles is murder, it becomes even more absurd. What is causing this ridiculously high murder rate? Is the detective just a death magnet, with every person even peripherally linked to them suddenly likely to meet a grisly premature end? Nobody would associate with that character or that character’s friends for fear for their life!
In my own work, I try to stay aware of this. The Mrs. Hawking stories work under a case system, but I mostly have clients come to her with their problems for her to solve. She may occasionally stumble over something, or go seeking it out, but it must be used sparingly. And I have to be extra careful if anything happens to people the leads know. That will properly utilize the impact of a case with personal connection to the heroes without wearing out the trope and pushing it past the bounds of believability.
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