ANDREINA CORDANI on A Game of Tropes

Written by Andreina Cordani

ANDREINA CORDANI asks: "Why do we love familiar patterns in detective fiction?"

When The Bookseller magazine ran a piece about my novel, THE TWELVE DAYS OF MURDER, they called it ‘the jackpot.’ Not that in the sense that it’s a glittering prize (although the cover is quite shiny) but because it contains so many popular whodunnit tropes in one handy package. And here they are on a checklist:

1: Locked room – an ‘impossible’ crime is committed in a sealed room. TICK!

2: Closed circle (aka Type 2 locked room) when a small cast of characters is trapped in a situation. TICK!

3: Friends reunited – a group of old friends with festering secrets are forced together. TICK!

4: Outlandish serial killer sending a message with their murders. Lady Partridge is found hanging from a pear tree so TICK!

5: Christmas – said Ladyship is found on Christmas morning. BIG TINSELLY TICK!

Should I be embarrassed by this surfeit of tropes? After all I’ve always been taught to avoid cliches, and what are tropes but cliches by another name, right? Wrong. I’ve come to realise that tropes are an engaging and fun storytelling tool beloved by both readers and writers. Look on the crime fiction forums, on Bookstagram, BookTok or anywhere else book-lovers like to gather and you’ll see readers sharing their favourite tropes and talking about who does them best. But why, when most of us read crime hoping for shocking revelations, do we hanker for the familiar?

They’re made to be reinvented

I’ve read dozens of closed circle mysteries over the years. I’ve seen every possible scenario – people snowed in, on a long haul flight, stranded on an island, trapped on a workplace bonding weekend – and I still can’t get enough of it. It’s because I love seeing characters under pressure, pushing each other’s buttons and trying to keep secrets hidden. And I love seeing how a writer can keep the killer in plain sight all along while misdirecting us towards a limited pool of suspects. It’s so clever, so tense and each time it’s different because only that particular writer can create those particular characters. So for me, it never gets old. Tropes are like the mannequin that you can hang a whole new outfit on every time.

The comfort factor

People often say they turn to detective fiction in troubled times as a comfort, a way of reassuring ourselves that the bad guys will be caught, that justice will be done, and I’ve always felt that the familiar patterns of storytelling have a similar effect. But author Melissa Welliver, co-presenter of The Chosen One and Other Tropes podcast, says it goes deeper than that. “Dark plots filled with death and sadness can get heavy for the reader to absorb – which is where tropes can come to the rescue. By they’re nature they’re entertaining and familiar, meaning a reader can latch onto these story-telling elements to help them better absorb otherwise new and complex, often dark ideas.” So the trope anaesthetises us, helping us accept the message the writer wants to convey.

It’s an in-joke

In the post-modern world we writers know that our readers are smart, switched-on and have read a LOT of crime fiction. Some tropes act as a fourth-wall breaking moment where we can nod to the reader and say: You where I’m going with this. Now let me surprise you. For example when a character has information that might help the detective but says, “Can’t talk now, I’ll tell you tonight,” you know they’re going to be dead by 6pm. It even adds to the tension as the reader starts wondering why and how and whether their death will reveal new clues.

We all have our favourites

We’re busy people, we don’t have time to read the blurb on every single book in Waterstones, so tropes are a fast track decision-making tool. Some readers only have to see the phrase: murder in a cosy village or troubled detective or snowed in with ghastly people to know this is the book for them. All that’s left to do is buy it, run all the way home and stay up all night reading it.


Author and Christie aficionado Victoria Dowd is hooked on locked rooms. “It’s one of the most satisfying things in crime fiction. Every part has to work in sequence with one another like a finely tuned conjuring trick that results in the ultimately perfect denouement. Even though you know it’s an illusion, it’s as mesmerising as magic.”

Melissa has a fondness for a trope called The Dog Was The Mastermind, “which is when the villain turns out to be a seemingly harmless character. It's a great way to explore what makes someone do dark things while also grounding that idea in a fun and familiar way.”

Of course, not all tropes are good tropes – I wouldn’t mind seeing the ‘dead naked girl’ device buried in an unmarked grave and lost forever. But even that old chestnut was inverted and used to drive the story in Prime Video’s DEADLOCH earlier this year.

After writing THE TWELVE DAYS OF MURDER I’ve come to realise that tropes are a bit like Christmas itself: Familiar, traditional, part of our culture whether we like it or not, and weirdly comforting. So I’m more than happy to crank up the Mariah Carey, don my Santa hat and join the party. I hope you’ll join me.

The Twelve Days of Murder by Andreina Cordani published by Zaffre on 26th October, £14.99

Tell me your favourite crime tropes on Instagram or X/Twitter @andreinacordani

Victoria Dowd link if needed

Podcast link if needed

Andreina Cordani links if needed





Andreina Cordani

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