Created By: Tuomas on December 5, 2012 Last Edited By: Tuomas on April 8, 2016
Troped

Only One Plausible Suspect

Due to mystery fiction conventions, there's only one character who can turn out to be the culprit.

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The story involves a mystery where someone has committed a crime or misdemeanor of some sort, but neither the protagonist(s) nor the audience is supposed to know who the guilty party is. However, The Law of Conservation of Detail and the rules of Fair-Play Whodunnit state that the culprit must be a character who appears in the story before The Reveal. It can't be someone the audience has never seen before, and if the mystery is a big part of the plot, it can't really be a minor background character either. It has to be someone important.

In Fair Play Whodunnits and many other types of Mystery Fiction, the writers usually introduce several potential suspects to the crime, and in the end one of them is found to be guilty, while the others turn out to be mere red herrings. However, in some pieces of fiction (typically ones where the mystery isn't the main driving force of the plot), there are no red herrings, and the audience can rather easily deduce the culprit, since he's the only possible major character who could have done it. Either there are no other significant characters among the suspects, or all the other major characters can be ruled out because they're the protagonists, series regulars (in the case of serial media), or other types of characters that aren't typically used as a culprit, such as kids or animals.

Of course, even if the audience can guess who did it, it isn't as easy for the protagonists to solve the mystery, since for them the guilty party could be any minor character, or even someone who doesn't appear in the story at all. It's only the audience who can rule these people out.

If the writers don't care about the rules mentioned above, they can make the culprit turn out to be some completely unexpected minor character, or even someone we've never met before, but these kind of mysteries tend to be much rarer than the ones that follow the rules.

This trope can overlap with Chekhov's Gunman, if the guilty character doesn't seem to have any proper function in the story before The Reveal.

Warning: the examples below contain spoilers!


Examples

Film
  • In Die Another Day, we find out there's a mole inside the MI6 who has, among other things, informed the bad guys who James Bond is. Now, obviously the mole can't be Bond himself, nor M or Q or Moneypenny, as they are all mainstays of the franchise. Besides them, there is only one other major MI6 character in the movie, who − surprise, surprise! − does turn out to be the mole.
  • In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers sets out to discover who has ordered the attacks on both him and Nick Fury. Only one plausible suspect is shown, Alexander Pierce, especially after he makes several vaguely ominous statements like "to build a better world sometimes mean tearing the old one down". Perhaps in awareness of this, the film makes little attempt to disguise Pierce as the culprit and it only takes five minutes after he and Steve meet for him to become a visible antagonist.

Live-Action TV
  • In the Doctor Who story The Deadly Assassin, the President of the Time Lords is assassinated, and the Doctor framed for the crime. The only suspect who gets any significant amount of screen time is Chancellor Goth, one of the candidates-in-waiting for the Presidency, and he turns out to be the real assassin.
  • Towards the tail end of Torchwood: Miracle Day we're told there's another evil Mole in the CIA other than the Obviously Evil, Fat Bastard that was outed earlier. There are three CIA operatives that aren't part of the main cast. One is Da Chief and working pretty diligently with Torchwood and wants the case solved and the mole outed. The other is developing the software to find the mole. That leaves the last one, who was featured prominently in the first episode, who we had just been reminded exists the episode prior, and who just had her wardrobe change up to low cut cleavage showing dresses. To be fair though, the audience is let in on it before the heroes, who were busy juggling the Idiot Ball the entire season.

Theatre
  • Subverted in Sleuth (as well as its movie adaptations): the first half of the story features only two characters, and when one of them disappears under suspicious circumstances, it would seem the other one has killed him. But it turns out he never disappeared at all, and the policeman investigating the case is actually the "disappeared" character in disguise.

Western Animation
Community Feedback Replies: 53
  • December 5, 2012
    Duncan
  • December 5, 2012
    Omeganian
  • December 5, 2012
    PaulA
  • December 6, 2012
    Tuomas
    Yeah, if The Naked Sun is an example, can you elaborate why?
  • December 7, 2012
    Omeganian
    People on Solaria live in giant estates, alone, sometimes with their wives, served by hordes of Three Laws Compliant robots. Personal contact is obscene, and anyone but the man's wife (and the occasional doctor) being within a mile of him is unthinkable. A married man is found with his skull caved in.
  • December 8, 2012
    DracMonster
    The Culprit Must Be A Suspect (or "Major Character") might be a more accurate title if I understand the description. Honestly, though, this is such an Omnipresent Trope that it might be better to make a page for subversions and inversions instead.
  • December 8, 2012
    StarSword
  • December 13, 2012
    PaulA
    Omeganian,

    In murder mysteries, it's almost never the case that "there's apparently only one person who could have done it" really means "there's only one possible culprit". If what's apparently true was really what was actually true, there'd be no mystery and nothing for the detective to do.

    Also, I have read The Naked Sun, so I know the wife isn't the only suspect. She might be the one with the best means and opportunity, but there are others with the motive.
  • December 13, 2012
    PaulA
    DracMonster,

    I don't think this is an omnipresent trope; if anything, I think it might be too rare to be notable. (I'm still having trouble thinking of a second example.)

    As I understand it, it's not just "the culprit must be a significant character"; it's the special case where the pool of suspects only has one significant character in it. (If something is stolen in a stately home in real life, all the servants are suspects. In fiction, the audience can safely ignore any servant who doesn't have a speaking role. And if only one of the servants has a speaking role...)
  • December 14, 2012
    SKJAM
    What's the trope name for "it will be the suspect with the best alibi"?
  • December 14, 2012
    StarSword
    TV:
    • The Firefly pilot has a meta-example where the identity of The Mole is spoiled by the titles. Everyone on board except Dobson is listed as main cast.
  • January 2, 2013
    Tuomas
    ^ I believe that example falls under Spoiler Opening.

    it's the special case where the pool of suspects only has one significant character in it. (If something is stolen in a stately home in real life, all the servants are suspects. In fiction, the audience can safely ignore any servant who doesn't have a speaking role. And if only one of the servants has a speaking role...)

    Yes, this is a good way of summarizing what I'm talking about here. I guess it's possible this is true rare to be tropable, which is why I was asking if anyone knows any more examples. If The Naked Sun has more than one significant character that could possibly be the guilty party, then it's not an example of this.
  • January 4, 2013
    PaulA
    From memory, the Doctor Who story "The Deadly Assassin" might be an example. In theory, there's a whole bunch of people who could be the assassin, but only one of them has any significant screen time, and of course it turns out to be him. (Dramatic tension is kept up by framing the Doctor for the assassination, so that it's more of a Clear My Name thriller than a Whodunnit and the small pool of suspects is less of an issue.)
  • January 10, 2013
    Tuomas
    That definitely sounds like an example of this. Keep 'em coming!
  • January 14, 2013
    DracMonster
    Hmm... Only One Possible Suspect might be better. "Culprit" implies the case is solved already. This is kind of an important distinction, because when there seems to be only one possible murderer, they are 90% likely to be innocent.
  • January 15, 2013
    Tuomas
    Good point, though Only One Possible Suspect may be misleading... This trope can cover cases where there are several possible suspects, but according to the rules of mystery fiction only one of them is likely to be the culprit. I changed the title to Only One Likely Suspect, maybe that is more informative?
  • January 15, 2013
    Larkmarn
    How about Only One Plausible Suspect.

    Likely isn't strong enough.
  • January 17, 2013
    Tuomas
    Yeah, that's better, I'll change the name.
  • January 17, 2013
    PaulA
    ^ I agree that "Plausible" is better than "Likely".
  • September 17, 2013
    Tuomas
    Bump. Still interested to hear if there are other examples of this.
  • September 19, 2013
    Arivne
    Edit: Deleted.
  • February 24, 2014
    Tuomas
    I don't think it's an example if the script explicitly points out there's only one plausible suspect. This trope is about when there could theoretically be more suspects, so the script maintains the identity of the culprit is a mystery, but the way the story is constructed means the audience knows only one suspect, even if the characters try to solve mystery know more of them.
  • June 10, 2014
    Tuomas
    Bump. Any more examples?
  • June 10, 2014
    crazysamaritan
    ^^ By that rule, The Naked Sun is an example. She's the only one that gets screen time comparable to R. Daneel or Elijah.
  • June 10, 2014
    paycheckgurl
    Towards the tail end of TorchwoodMiracleDay we're told there's another evil Mole in the CIA other than the Obviously Evil, Fat Bastard that was outed earlier. There are three CIA operatives that aren't part of the main cast. One is Da Chief and working pretty diligently with Torchwood and wants the case solved and the mole outed. The other is developing the software to find the mole. That leaves the last one who was featured prominently in the first episode, who we had just been reminded exists the episode prior, and who just had her wardrobe change up to low cut cleavage showing dresses. To be fair though, the audience is let in on it before the heroes, who were busy juggling the Idiot Ball the entire season.
  • June 16, 2014
    Statzkeen
    The description doesn't really make it clear to me what this trope (if it is a trope) actually is or isn't.
  • June 24, 2014
    Tuomas
    Can you elaborate on that? I can change the description if you tell what parts of it you found confusing.
  • January 9, 2015
    Tuomas
    Bump.
  • January 9, 2015
    Arivne
  • January 9, 2015
    Tuckerscreator
    • In Captain America The Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers sets out to discover who has ordered the attacks on both him and Nick Fury. Only one plausible suspect is shown, Alexander Pierce, especially after he makes several vaguely ominous statements like "to build a better world sometimes mean tearing the old one down". Perhaps in awareness of this, the film makes little attempt to disguise Pierce as the culprit and it only takes five minutes after he and Steve meet for Pierce to become a visible antagonist.
    • Used frequently in Scooby Doo, but subverted in one episode of Whats New Scooby Doo The crook in "It's All Greek to Scooby" turns out to be some random person the gang has never met beforehand. Velma naturally is rather displeased and keeps insisting her theory about who was the monster was at least plausible.
  • January 9, 2015
    DAN004
    Title should be Recognizable Culprit since it's about how culprits in fiction must be introduced as a character first.
  • January 9, 2015
    Tuomas
    No, that's a supertrope to this trope. For example, in Fair Play Who Dunnit type of mysteries there are usually a bunch of characters introduced as a potential culprit, and the The Reveal shows which one of them did it. This trope results when "culprit in fiction must be introduced as a character first" is combined with "only of the characters introduced can be the culprit".
  • January 9, 2015
    sigh824
    I think this would make a great trivia or Just For Fun trope.
  • July 27, 2015
    Tuomas
    I think so too, but I'd still like to get a couple more examples before launching it. In 3 years we've gotten only four straight examples and one subversion, so it seems this isn't as common as I thought when starting this entry.
  • July 27, 2015
    oneuglybunny
    Live Action TV
    • Assistant District Attorney Sam Belden from the 1974 made-for-TV movie Indict And Convict is charged with murder in the slaying of his wife and her lover in his home. Almost averted when Belden's defense fields witnesses that give Belden an alibi at the time of the killing. Rerailed when detectives begin to unravel Belden's alibi.
  • November 2, 2015
    Tuomas
    That example needs a bit more elaboration... Is it so that the movie has no other suspects for the crime?
  • November 2, 2015
    BKelly95
    Live Action Television
    • Monk frequently investigates cases with a suspect who is obviously the culprit...except said culprit has a seemingly airtight alibi. Monk then has to figure out how the suspect committed the crime with the alibi in place.
  • November 2, 2015
    Omeganian
    • Happens in-story in Isaac Asimov's "The Singing Bell". There is no mystery for the reader - it's a story where what is required is proving the guilt, and we get all the details of the crime. However, Inspector Davenport claims that Peyton is the only one on the entire Earth with the impudence and contacts to attempt selling smuggled Singing Bells. Alas, he's also a criminal against whom no one had ever managed to get enough evidence.
  • November 9, 2015
    Tuomas
    I'm not sure if the Monk and The Singing Bell examples count here? I'm trying to list works where the inspector/detectice/etc who's solving mystery doesn't know for sure who the culprit is (until he solves the case, of course), but the audience does know it, because there's only one major character who could be the culprit. But based on your descriptions, in Monk and The Singing Bell the detective knows right from the start who the culprit is, he just doesn't know how to to prove this person is guilty... Am I correct? In that case these examples would fall under Reverse Whodunnit.
  • November 9, 2015
    KaiYves
    There are actually several Scooby Doo episodes where the culprit turns out to be someone they've never met, whose identity has to be explained to Mystery Inc by police or people from the neighborhood— the culprit in "Spooky Space Kook" is the previously-unseen neighbor of the local they did meet, while in "A Clue for Scooby-Doo", the actual culprit is a man they thought was dead, although they had seen a photo of him and one of the suspects was his accomplice.
  • November 10, 2015
    Tuomas
    If the character is never seen before he's revealed to be the culprit, it's not this trope. The point here is that there is only one major character appearing in the work who could be the culprit, so when the truth is revealed, the viewer is not surprised. But if the audience has never seen the culprit before his identity is revealed, it's a case of Stranger Behind The Mask, not this trope.
  • November 10, 2015
    DAN004
    And if it's a minor character behind the mask, that's Chekhovs Gunman, right?
  • November 10, 2015
    Chabal2
    Famously averted in Murder On The Orient Express: The titular train is snowed in, and a man is murdered, limiting the suspects to everyone aboard including the staff. As details emerge, it becomes apparent that the murdered man was an Asshole Victim of exceptional moral bankruptcy, being directly or indirectly responsible for the murders or deaths of multiple people (including the murder of a little girl), and because Everybody Did It, Poirot offers the following explanation: while the train was snowed in, a thief broke in and was surprised by the victim, killing him before escaping. The railway director (one of the few not in on it, along with Poirot) accepts it, as does everyone else.

  • January 4, 2016
    Tuomas
    That could only be called an aversion from an in-universe point of view (the people who weren't in on it think the murderer was a random thief, not any of the passengers), not from the point of view of the viewer (since the viewer knows this thief wasn't the killer).
  • January 4, 2016
    Tuomas
    Anyway, I think this article now has enough decent examples that it could be launched as such. Any suggestions for a page image? I can't imagine summing this trope up in a single pic, so it might be better to leave it imageless?
  • January 11, 2016
    PaulA
    I agree with leaving it imageless.

    If you're going to launch, you'll need a better description of "The Deadly Assassin":

    • In the Doctor Who story The Deadly Assassin, the President of the Time Lords is assassinated, and the Doctor framed for the crime. The only suspect who gets any significant amount of screen time is Chancellor Goth, one of the candidates-in-waiting for the Presidency, and he turns out to be the real assassin.
  • January 21, 2016
    Tuomas
    Thanks!
  • January 21, 2016
    Tuomas
    Sorry, I copied the Doctor Who example from the post above in edit space, and for some reason this made it look like the post is mine, but it's by Paul A.
  • January 21, 2016
    randomsurfer
    If you click the pencil icon to copy the formatting, click it again to close without saving so you won't overwrite the original poster's name. And Now You Know.
  • January 22, 2016
    Tuomas
    Thanks!
  • February 19, 2016
    eroock
    The opposite of Everyone Is A Suspect?
  • March 1, 2016
    Tuomas
    Not really. Everyone Is A Suspect is from the point of view of the character trying to solve the case, whereas this trope is more of a meta/storytelling choice. Everyone Is A Suspect and Only One Plausible Suspect can even exist in the same work, if there's a whole bunch of suspects, but only one of them is given significant screentime.
  • April 8, 2016
    Tuomas
    Seems like this is finally good enough to be launched, so I'll be doing that this weekend. Since the trope is pretty hard to illustrate, I'll leave the page imageless, unless someone comes up with something really good.
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