Sunday, May 4, 2008

Revealing too much

I'm reading a first-person sort-of detective novel (that is, the detective is an amateur), and I'm about in chapter 10, and I figured out who the murderer is. How? Not by assembling the clues or anything. But a secondary character (who seems benevolent) is mentioned twice in the same paragraph by another character. He's a forensic tech, and they're discussing who goes to a crime scene, and the ex-cop says, "Then the forensic tech does this. blah blah blah Then of course there's the forensic tech's work."

And I said to myself, "The forensic tech did it."

I yield to no one in my admiration for crime writers who have to somehow make it clear-in-retrospect that this man did the murder, and yet not let the reader guess that till the end. And it's just getting harder with readers like me, who guess not based on the meticulously planned clues, but on trivial little meta things in the narrative. ("If Grandma's pearls are mentioned three times, then that means Grandma must have killed him!" "Oops. The only person being nice to the detective is that banker, so he must be the murderer! The murderer is always the nice person.")

So... first, have you ever guessed the murderer in a mystery? And how did you do it? What triggered the realization?

And if you've written a mystery of some sort, how did you conceal and yet reveal?

And if you don't write a mystery, let's have some sympathy for those who do. :)


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I guess the murderer (or bad guy) all the time. I can't say I've got any method, but I just finished a John MacDonald and figured it out pretty early on. That time, it had to be the good guy cop. The other cop was too much of a jerk, the sheriff was too clean, and there wasn't anyone else, really.

It didn't mean it wasn't a good read, though.

Laura (Kramarsky) Curtis said...

I try to avoid guessing the killer, though sometimes I can't help it. I like the ride and I read so many mysteries that if I allow myself to think too hard I usually *can* figure out what happened. When I can't help guessing, it's usually something totally innocuous that gives it away, like the pearls. I've written mysteries and I think achieving a good balance--enough info so an astute reader *can* determine the killer but not so much that it's *easy*--is a really tough job.

Ian Thomas Healy said...

I've never really been a reader of mysteries, so I can't say. But if I ever decide to write one, I'll make sure my mom is the first reader, because she can pick out whodunit at the beginning of any book, tv show, or movie. And she's usually right.

It's infuriating to admit your mom is right, innit? Good thing we get along so famously...


jwhit said...

I think mysteries are fun and even though we guess the outcome, still we watch law and order shows on TV. They are terribly formulaic. But it's still a game, involving the viewer/reader. A friend was in a class that analyzed them by the minute to show when the 'killer' is shown and when the mini-climaxes are done along the way.

Books are a bit less predictable in terms of time because people read at different rates. As a mystery writer, I'm a bit deflated when I can't keep the reader totally guessing until the reveal in the climax, but that's unrealistic on my part. There just aren't that many gotchas. Sixth Sense is the last one I remember as that unique and really well produced in the film. Don't know if there is a book.

But I love dreaming up red herrings. One thing we did in forming The Lost Anchor was to brainstorm a list of possibles and then use them along with a few more that emerged as the story developed. I don't know that we've been terribly creative in the list and still may have too many clues, but we'll only find out once it's out there for a wider readership.

Dave Shaw said...

I read mysteries as a kid (I guess they'd be called YA nowadays, but I had never heard the term back then) and got fairly good at figuring them out early on. Then I discovered Sherlock Holmes, read everything Doyle had published about him, and afterward found that modern mysteries just didn't work for me anymore. After all these years, I don't have a clue how I used to figure them out, or whether I still could if I tried. Odd, eh?

Edittorrent said...

Susan, that's what clues me in too-- when there's someone who is TOO nice. So I guess that means we should write those character with a bit of an edge?

jwhit, I am addicted to Law and Order (just the reruns! Is that sick?), and I think it's because, unlike the real world, everything is usually wrapped up right in 1 hour. I can almost always tell on L&O when they first arrest the wrong guy.
I should be a cop. :)

Anonymous said...

Great question -- I love mysteries and I have a number of ways of figuring things out.

When it comes to somewhat old-fashioned, cosy mysteries, I often find that the murderer is the least likable on some subtle level. The husband who treats his wife badly, for example. This seems quite common in Agatha Christie novels.

In popular thrillers with a mystery element, it always seems to be a minority or a woman. I was reading one of those huge bestsellers (New York Time List, etc) the other day and about halfway through it turned out one of the characters was gay. "That's it," I sighed. "He did it." I was right, of course. Another one, the female love interest jumped into bed with the protagonist very quickly and my thoughts were the same as above. I don't know why I keep reading those kind of mystery-thrillers.

In things like Sherlock Holmes, I don't care as the method and deduction is what matters. But they are among my favourites. I have a soft spot for Poirot too.

I'm trying to write a mystery right now (err... sci-fi mystery) and my murderer seems too obvious. He's my favourite character and I treat him accordingly, although I've gone for 'sarcastic and likable' rather than 'nice'. I just hope that the method is sufficiently interesting.

Edittorrent said...

Anon, that's interesting-- it's like they're counting on some lingering prejudice against sex-outside-the-lines.

Adrian said...

My WIP is a mystery (my first try). I'm doing first person and trying to encourage the reader to figure it out based on what the amateur protagonist knows.

I realize the risk of the reader figuring it out too soon--I figured out Sixth Sense in the opening scenes and was horribly frustrated with the rest of the movie.

There are a few things I'm doing to mitigate the risk of the premature guess. I'm putting the sleuth in peril so that knowing the killer isn't enough. Even when she figures it out, she has to find concrete evidence to prove it.

There are three murders in the story, which all appear related. But one was committed by a different killer for different reasons, so I've still got a big twist even after the preliminary reveal.

writtenwyrdd said...

I am lousy at figuring out who done it in a book format, but excellent when it's a film or tv show. In a book, the meta details such as who's introduced early on, who's too nice/nasty are all tells.

But interpreting the tells is the trick. If an item is introduced relatively early and repeated, that's a clue that the item is significant to me the reader. I make a mental note for future reference. If a character is introduced and rounded out so that the pov character makes particular note of them, that's a tell.

What I think makes for a hard-to-predict villian is that the environment is developed fairly evenly so that the significant items and the people of interest are developed yet still mostly merge with the background until later on.

Then the red herrings and misleading events and dialog can stir up the confusion.

Anyhow, that's how I think it's done best for me as a reader.