by Janis Patterson
I think we all agree that when creating a mystery we should play fair with our readers. Mixed in amongst our red herrings there should be some genuine clues that – with an astute reader and a little bit of luck – can be used to solve the case.
Playing fair, however, does not always involve playing nice. For example, what if it is determined that the killer is left handed, and there are two left-handed people in the suspect pool. Pretty much makes it a slam-dunk, doesn’t it? Or does it? What if our sleuth finds that one of the suspect pool is ambidextrous? Ah, now that complicates things.
I believe that until pretty much the end of the book there should be at least two rational, provable solutions to the case. Nothing is more boring than knowing by the third chapter who the criminal is and wondering why the sleuth cannot see it. Once that almost-the-end-of-the-book point is reached, however, there should be a clue or event that makes it clear to the fictional sleuth and the mystery is solved. Whether the author cares to make it obvious to the reader or not before the sleuth reveals all depends on the story and the voice of the author. In a truly great mystery, the reader will go ‘Ah! Of course!’ and suddenly the entire action of the crime is painfully obvious to the reader, step by step. All the clues are there, in plain sight, but the reader has not put them together.
I never said it would be easy.
As for realistic villains… First, there can only be one villain… or not. One of the best mysteries I ever read had two villains, working in concert while seemingly disconnected on the surface. Each had an alibi for at least half the incidents so neither could be considered suspects and the two had no obvious connection to each other. Only two small clues linked them together, and one was a red herring, but the real one was out there in the open and available to all. I had to read the book twice, making a special effort to note the clues the sleuth had pointed out before I could admit that it really was so simple… and so obvious.
Another thing about clues is that they should be reasonably accessible to the modern reader. I remember an early Ellery Queen (whom I adore) where the clue that solved the mystery was tied to a knowledge of the Phoenician alphabet. I mean – really? The Phoenician alphabet?? Who knows the Phoenician alphabet? If one did, the clue was fairly obvious, but really…
One thing that makes me wild – and which makes me throw a book against the wall and never buy anything from that author again is the clue (or solution) that appears suddenly without warning or reason from far left field. A character never seen or heard of before wanders in and announces the one fact that solves the mystery. That ranks right up there in the list of unacceptable endings with the convenient never-before-heard-of wandering homicidal maniac. Both ‘solutions’ are cheats that deny the reader the chance of solving the mystery himself. Even if the reader doesn’t want to work at solving the mystery, only to read a good story, it isn’t fair to pull the old ‘deus ex machina’ card. It’s cheating, and authors – good authors – should be above such shenanigans.
If you’re going to commit a crime, do it honestly.