The Top Ten Action Mystery Clichés

Peter Falk
Prototypical bumbling investigator who always manages to get his man.
As a huge fan of mysteries and thrillers, I am allowed to make fun of them. Just as as a blond Swede, it’s perfectly legal for me to tell blond or Swedish jokes. NO ONE WILL ARREST ME.

Mysteries always involve a murder and somebody trying to solve the case. Action mysteries pump up the thrills outside the drawing room. Now, even while considering the need for thrills, there’s a lot of flexibility in how you get from the beginning to the end. However: there are also 2.74 metric tons of clichés, like the typical stubbly detective who breaks the rules, struggles with the bottle and tends to tune up suspected killers with a copy of the Manhattan Yellow Pages.

So: let’s pick a victim, find ourselves a killer and get this party started.

Act I: A Pretty Young Thing, A Sinister Killer and A Haunted Hero

Pretty Young Thing with puppy
Pretty Young Thing (girl or puppy, your choice)
1. We see the innocent victim, a Pretty Young Thing, through the eyes of the Sinister Killer as he stalks her. She’s doing something nice like picking up groceries for her grandmother. You don’t see Ugly Old Things doing something mean. No. THAT WOULD NOT FLY.

You know the killer is going to get her, but the scene stops right before the dirty deed.

2. The Haunted Hero arrives at the crime scene. It’s usually midnight and raining in some gritty alley, though it might be a field of pure white snow stained with blood or a parched desert with a blinding sun and vultures circling. It is NEVER sunny and cloudless at noon.

The hero is haunted by some bad thing that happened in the past. He is either tough or smart. Tough detectives are wounded, stubbly and allergic to following the rules (Dirty Harry, Mike Hammer, you name it).

Smart detectives are always quirky, solving cases with genius math / deduction / CSI skills (Sherlock Holmes), bumbling charm (Columbo) or getting suspects to confess in British drawing rooms or interrogation rooms (Hercule Poirot, The Closer, NYPD Blue).

3. The innocent victim is half-naked or fully naked, giving the audience a reason to look at the Pretty Young Thing and mourn her. She was killed is some unique way with clues left behind by the killer, because THIS IS A GAME, PEOPLE.

Back at the coroner’s office, we get to see the victim fully naked again, this time on a slab where every wound and clue gets cataloged. The haunted hero sees something weird and says one of two things: “I’ve seen this before” or “I’ve NEVER seen this before.”

Act II: The Usual Suspects

Monk and Sharona
Quirky detective Monk and straightwoman sidekick Sharona
4. The detective and his sidekick interview witnesses. Sidenote: if the hero is tough, he gets a quirky sidekick. If the detective is smart and quirky, he gets a tough, straight-man sidekick (Dr. Watson, Hawk). The first people to get interviewed are witnesses who witnessed nothing useful. Then it’s the parents of our Pretty Young Thing, who explain that she was a perfect virginal college student who volunteered at the homeless shelter and never even got a speeding ticket.

Her boyfriend seems sketchy at first, but he’s a red herring. It’s the roommate, a med student / aspiring model, who admits she and the victim secretly paid their tuition by dancing at the local speakeasy / go-go bar / Deja Vu.

5. The detective’s boss tells him he’s off the case, because he broke the rules / the FBI is taking over / some rich bigshot is upset and he writes the police chief giant campaign checks. Of course the detective and his sidekick secretly continue. They dive into the seedy side of town and watch girls gyrate on stage while they sip whiskey and “look for leads.”

The detective gets a girl to open up and reveal that the victim’s roommate wasn’t telling everything, and that they were both seeing the same boyfriend, who is a local gangster / football star / rich kid.

6. There’s rot on the inside, because the killer is always two steps ahead. Who’s the mole? The detective goes to pick up the roommate while the sidekick tries to track down the boyfriend. The roommate turns up dead, killed the same way as our victim.

The boyfriend isn’t our man either, because he’s in custody when the killer delivers a letter / telegram / text message to the detective saying, “You’ll never figure it out before the next ones die.”

7. We get a glimpse of the killer’s secret lair, a dingy basement / apartment / attic where the walls are covered with newspaper clippings, maps and photos of Pretty Young Things, along with pages and pages of scribbled notes, plans, trophies from his victims and secret things about the detective. The killer is motivated by some perverted sex thing or greed. But we don’t get to see the killer’s face. Not yet, people.

Act III: A terrible betrayal, a fast car and a final showdown

Captain Renard of Grimm
Grimm’s Captain Renard – friend or foe?
8. The boss or sidekick calls the detective hero and says, “Tell me where you are and I’ll come get you,” revealing that yes, the boss or sidekick is either the mole or THE KILLER HIMSELF. This is tragic, because if it’s the boss, he’s the detective’s mentor / father figure. If it’s the sidekick, he or she is the detective’s blood brother / best friend / love interest.

9. Using his toughness or brains, depending on what kind of hero he is, the detective gets one last clue that leads him to the killer’s next victim. He drives INSANELY FAST through the dark, rainy streets to get there. It’s illegal to have this scene happen at noon on a sunny day, or for the hero to obey traffic laws or take the subway.

However, the killer is expecting him. He’s got the latest victim tied up and will cut her throat unless the detective puts down his .44 magnum and takes her place.

10. If the detective is tough, he pretends to put his gun down, then does a quick shot that wounds the killer before they fist-fight on a rooftop, where the killer falls off and gets impaled on a spike.

If the detective is smart and quirky, he uses his brains to trick the killer into spending a lot of time confessing while the hero unties himself and signals for backup, then they have a fist-fight on the rooftop, where the killer falls off and gets impaled on a spike.

Guy Bergstrom is a speechwriter and reformed journalist. He wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award. He can be found on Twitter @speechwriterguy or at his blog,


  1. Terrie Farley Moran

    Wonderful post and sooooo true.

  2. Clare 2e

    YES! Re #7, I love that there’s always the confirmatory shrine to the victims, because whoa, no sane person would have all that stuff and certainly not X’d with red crayon, red lipstick, red Sharpie, blooooooood, etc.

  3. Christopher Morgan

    I don’t know, I particularly like 4. Espically after watching a great deal of procedurals and Mel Gibson’s Edge of Darkness over Christmas.

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