Constructing Clues

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.

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6 Responses to Constructing Clues

  1. marilynm says:

    Great post. I love to leave all kinds of clues pointing to more than one possible bad guy or gal–works for me, because I’m not always sure who the killer is until I’m farther along in my writing.

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  2. marilynlevinson says:

    I enjoyed this! I have many suspects in my mysteries, all with possible motives. I’ve stopped reading one author after she inserted the killer into the plot near the end of the book. Not fair.

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  3. patyjag says:

    My favorite part of writing a mystery is coming up with red herrings that point to more than one suspect. But in the end, if the clues are added up, the real murderer makes sense.

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  4. I agree that the mystery writer needs to play fair. The solution can’t come out of thin air. Nor should the culprit be obvious from early on.

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  5. I too have thrown books against the wall. In one, the clue was painfully obvious in mid book but the amateur sleuth didn’t catch it. In another, the killers didn’t even appear in the story until near the end. And the books with no clues at all–the amateur sleuth just happens to stumble onto (or into) the murderer at the end. I like murderers who hide in plain sight. They’re in the story throughout, but the sleuth doesn’t makes the connection until the end.

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  6. That last line “if you’re going to commit a crime, do it honestly.” That made me grin.
    I’m not really a book thrower, but I’ve emphatically and very disappointedly put a book down…and let it just disappear into my book black hole.

    Steven James is an author who does all of this well in my opinion. He’s all about writing stories that make sense. Have you read him before?

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