Writing mysteries is hard. Like other writers, we try to create engaging and sympathetic characters caught up in a story that moves along, yet has depth (and loads of tension) set in an evocative location. Unlike the task of those other writers, we need to frame the story within a puzzle.
I love the puzzle. I love reading a good story that keeps me guessing. I love it when I find out who did it at the end of the book and I had actually considered that person but eliminated him from my list of suspects. If the culprit is someone I didn’t suspect, I’ll go back through the book to look for clues just to make sure the writer was playing fair. It’s rare when I correctly guess the murder early and when I do, I’m disappointed. But when I reach the end of good mystery and I’m surprised by whodunit, I get a little splash of pleasure – like when I was a kid and found an Easter egg.
So when I write a story for my fellow mystery fans, I try to build a puzzle the solution of which gives them that same little splash of pleasure.
The puzzle I build looks like a maze inside my head with lots of wrong turns, dead-ends, and circuitous routes. What I try to do is create that same maze inside the reader’s head. But the reader doesn’t have the omniscient view I have, she can only see as far as the next turn.
In guiding the reader through the maze, I try to use her human tendencies toward suspicion, sympathy, confirmation bias (looking for evidence to support an opinion), and anchoring (the tendency to rely on the first piece of information one acquires) as well as the sophisticated mystery reader’s familiarity with certain devices like the red herring and the double-blind solution. These tendencies can be exploited to guide, or misdirect, the readers as she wanders through the maze.
It’s not a contest of who is smarter: writer versus reader. Writing mystery is like hostessing an Easter egg hunt on a fine spring day. We’re all wearing lovely white Victorian gowns and frolicking through the rose hedges on a lush green lawn as we sleuth out the solution. I, as your hostess, have devised the entertainment. I hope you enjoy.
Keenan Powell is a practicing attorney in Anchorage, Alaska, and the author of the Maeve Malloy legal mysteries set in contemporary urban Alaska. Visit her at: