Showing posts with label clues. Show all posts
Showing posts with label clues. Show all posts

19 June 2017

Hiding the Ball

by Steve Liskow

If you read or write police procedurals, you probably know far too much about fingerprint patterns, blood spatter,




decay rates, DNA matching, ballistics and digital technology. Modern law enforcement relies on forensic evidence to solve crimes, and it works, which is all to our benefit. But it reduces the human (read, "character") factor in modern stories. I can't avoid them altogether, but I try to rely on them as little as possible.

Why, you ask. OK, I'm not a Luddite (although I do write my early notes with a fountain pen) but...

Readers want to participate in your mystery. The stories from the Golden Age--back before you and I were even born--required that the sleuth share his or her discoveries with the reader so we could figure out the solution (or, more typically, NOT) along with him. That's why so many of the classic stories of Agatha Christie, Nero Wolf and their peers had a sidekick as the narrator so he didn't have to give the sleuth's thoughts away. It also explains why those stories are so convoluted and complicated. The writers did what attorneys now call "hiding the ball," burying the real clues in mountains of red herrings, lying witnesses, contradictory information and complicated maps, not necessarily drawn to scale.

The Ellery Queen series featured the "Challenge to the Reader" near the end of the book, stating that at that point the reader had ALL the necessary information to arrive at the "One Logical Solution." It was a daunting challenge that I think I met only once or twice. Agatha Christie said she did her plotting while doing household chores. I'd like to see the banquets she prepared to come up with some of Poirot's herculean feats.

If you withhold the clues and pull them out at the end like a rabbit out of a top hat, readers accuse you of cheating. I still remember an Ellery Queen novel that solved the murder of a twin brother by revealing at the end that there were actually triplets. Tacky, tacky, tacky.

You need to put the information out there where readers can see it, but without making it too obvious.

Magicians accompany their sleight of hand with distractions: stage patter, light and smoke and mirrors, scantily clad assistants, and anything else that will make you look that way instead of at them while they palm the card or switch the glasses. And that's how you do it in mysteries, too.

There are a few standard tricks we all use over and over because they work.

The first is the "hiding the ball" trick I mentioned above. If you describe a parking lot with twelve red Toyotas, nobody will notice one with a dented fender or an out-of-state license plate. The B side of this is establishing a pattern, then breaking it. Often, the sleuth believes that oddball is a different culprit and not part of the same case, but he finally figures out that it's the only one that matters and the others were decoys.

You can also give people information in what retailers used to call a "bait and switch." Stores would advertise an item at a low price, then tell customers that item was already sold out and try to sell them a more expensive version. You can give readers information about a person or event, then tweak it later so it points somewhere else. The classic police procedural The Laughing Policeman hinges on a witness identifying an automobile parked at a scene...then years later realizing that a different car looks a lot like it. Oops.

You can give information and later show that the witness who mentioned it was lying. The trick here is to plant a reason for the witness to lie early in the story and leave the connection until later on. If the reader sees the reason with no context, he'll overlook it until you make it important again when you pull the bunny out of the derby. This is one of my favorites.

I also like to focus on a fact or circumstance that's irrelevant and keep coming back to it. Later in the story, your detective can figure out that it's meaningless...OR realize that he's look at it from the wrong angle. My recent story "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma" has PI Woody Guthrie and his musician companion Megan Traine trying to clean up a music file so they can identify the voice that's talking underneath the singer. It's not until late in the story that Guthrie realizes the voice doesn't matter--at least, not the way he thought it did, because the speaker isn't the person everyone assumed it was. That story appears in the July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, along with stories by known accomplices John Floyd and O'Neil De Noux.

The "how could he know that?" clue gets lots of use, too. Someone makes a comment, suggestion, or observation and the sleuth doesn't realize until later that he couldn't have known the murder weapon or condition of the body unless he was there. If you haven't used this one at least once, raise your hand.

Its second cousin is the condition or event that didn't happen, the old case of the dog that didn't bark in the night, first used in "Silver Blaze," an early Sherlock Holmes story. Its fraternal twin, which makes a handy red herring in the age of technology, is a missing computer file. Since it's missing, we don't know what's on it...or if it's even important. The sleuth can spend pages or even entire chapters worrying about that missing file folder or computer. In The Kids Are All Right, I had two murder victims whose computers were found with the respective hard drives removed. The implication was that missing files would implicate the killer. But can we really be sure?

Now, what's your favorite way to deal off the bottom?

07 February 2017

A Good Mystery Writer is like a Magician

by Barb Goffman

Kids have long known that if you want a specific toy for your birthday or Christmas, you need to start dropping hints early. Picture Ralphie, the star of the movie A Christmas Story, telling everyone who'll listen that he wants a Red Ryder carbine-action two-hundred-shot range-model air rifle. (He needed to start dropping hints early just to get the whole name out.)
You'll shoot your eye out, kid.

Kids who grow up and become writers still love dropping hints. They're just more subtle about it. Think about the movie The Sixth Sense. (Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen this movie, dear Lord, stop reading and go watch it right now before returning here. You're welcome.) Haley Joel Osment gave the film's big secret away when he looked right at Bruce Willis and told the audience, "I see dead people." But the film was written so well that the viewer likely (hopefully) didn't get the hint until the big reveal at the end.

As a writer, it can be a lot of fun to drop in hints designed to fly right past the reader, knowing that when the story's secret is revealed at the end, the reader will say, "Ohhh, I should have known," because the clues were all there if only the poor reader had noticed them.

And that's really such an important part of writing mysteries--acting like a good magician, distracting readers from the clues that are right there on the page so the readers can be surprised at the end.

I was reminded of this point last week while watching a rerun of Modern Family. The TV show isn't about crime or mystery, but the writers must read them. In the episode titled "The Alliance" (season eight, episode eight), the story starts with members of the large extended family casually talking about where they all could go on a big family vacation. The vacation discussion is portrayed as background music. Something mentioned and then forgotten as the real meat of the episode begins. But when you get to the end, you realize there's been a long con going on, and the clues were buried right before the viewers eyes in multiple scenes. It was so much fun to realize I'd been tricked. And then the writers took it a step further and showed how they fooled you with each clue. Excellent writing!

Of course there are a lot of good examples of writers who hide clues right before your eyes. If you're a movie fan, you might want to check out Screenrant.com. They have a page where they discuss The Ten Best Movie Clues You Totally Missed.

And, last but not least, are books and stories with well-hidden clues. One story in which I successfully hid the clues (at least I think I did) is called "Ulterior Motives," which came out a few years ago in an anthology named Ride 2. All the stories involved cycling. Mine was the only mystery--and actually the story had two mysteries. The central plot revolved around a teenage girl who volunteers for a political campaign and is threatened. Who's behind the
threats is the main mystery (as well as whether the campaign is successful), and I hid some clues along the way addressing those questions. But there's a second mystery in the tale, one buried so well--again, I hope--that the reader doesn't even realize the mystery is at work until the end. Early in the story it's mentioned that a quirky burglar is at work in town, going into people's homes and taking small items, then leaving them in the homeowners' mailboxes. Who is the burglar, and why does he/she act so oddly? I had fun burying those clues. Although it was a bit disconcerting when I read one review that showed the reviewer hadn't recognized some of the clues, even at the end. I'm not sure if that's good or bad. Can you hide a clue too well? Maybe.

In a more recent story, "The Best-Laid Plans," I drop some details along the way foreshadowing what's to come. The main character, Eloise, writes cozies. Her antagonist, Kim, writes edgier mysteries. The characters' personalities match the mysteries they write. So when Kim insults Eloise publicly just weeks before they are both to appear as honored guests at a mystery convention, it makes sense that Eloise responds with a plan of revenge--a cozy plan. How does it turn out? I don't want to ruin it for you. But bear in mind that the characters' personalities affect their habits and how they deal with stress, so if you read carefully enough, you might be able to see where the story is going. But the ending should still take you by surprise. The story was published in Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional. You can read it at my website. I'm honored that this story is currently a finalist for the Agatha Award, up against tough competition, including from two of my fellow SleuthSayers, B.K. Stevens and Art Taylor, as well as from writers Gretchen Archer and Edith Maxwell. You can read all the stories online. Head on over to the Malice Domestic website, where the story titles are links either to the stories themselves or a way to buy them.

So, what's your favorite movie, TV show, or book with hidden clues and why? Let's all add to each others' to-be-read/watched list.

12 November 2016

Camouflaging Clues

by B.K. Stevens

"The grandest game in the world"--that's how Edward D. Hoch describes the duel between mystery writer and mystery reader. In an essay called "The Pleasure of the Short Story," Hoch explains why he prefers mysteries "in which the reader is given a clue or hint well in advance of the ending. As a reader myself I find the greatest satisfaction in spotting the clue and anticipating the author. If I overlook it, I don't feel cheated--I admire the author's skill!"*

And it takes a lot of skill. In any mystery where this "grandest game" is played, the delightful challenge offered to readers poses daunting challenges for writers. We have to provide readers with clues "well in advance of the ending," as Hoch says. In my opinion (and I bet Hoch would agree), we should provide plenty of clues, and they should start as soon as possible. As a reader, I feel a tad frustrated by mysteries that hinge on a single clue--if we don't pick up on a quick reference indicating the killer was wearing gloves on a warm day, we have no chance of figuring things out. I also don't much enjoy mysteries that look like whodunits but are really just histories of investigations.
The detective questions A, who provides a scrap of information pointing to B, who suggests talking to C. Finally, somewhere around F, the detective happens upon the only truly relevant clue, which leads straight to a solution that's obvious now but would have been impossible to guess even three minutes sooner. That's not much fun.


But working in lots of clues throughout the mystery isn't easy. Hoch identifies "the great clue bugaboo" that plagues many detective stories: "Clues are inserted with such a heavy hand that they almost scream their presence at the reader." Especially in short stories, Hoch says, avoiding that bugaboo requires "a great deal of finesse." I think that's true not only in whodunits but also in mysteries that build suspense by hinting at endings alert readers have a fair chance of predicting before they reach the last page. Luckily, there are ways of camouflaging clues, of hiding them in plain sight so most readers will overlook them.

Here are five camouflage techniques--you've probably used some or all of them yourself. Since it wouldn't be polite to reveal other writers' clues, I'll illustrate the descriptions with examples from my own stories.That way, if I give away too much and spoil the stories, the only person who can get mad at me is me. (By some strange coincidence, all the stories I'll mention happen to be in my recent collection from Wildside Press, Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime.)


Sneak clues in before readers expect them: Readers expect the beginning of a mystery to intrigue them and provide crucial back story--or, perhaps, to plunge them into the middle of action. They don't necessarily expect to be slapped in the face with clues right away. So if we slide a clue into our opening sentences, it might go unnoticed. That's what I tried to do in "Aunt Jessica's Party," which first appeared in Woman's World in 1993. It's not a whodunit, but the protagonist's carrying out a scheme, and readers can spot it if they pay attention. Here's how the story begins:
     Carefully, Jessica polished her favorite sherry glass and placed it on the silver tray. Soon, her nephew would arrive. He was to be the only guest at her little party, and everything had to be perfect.
     Five minutes until six--time to call Grace. She went to the phone near the kitchen window, kept her eyes on the driveway, and dialed.
     "Hello, Grace?" she said. "Jessica. How are you? Oh, I'm fine--never better. Did I tell you William's coming today? Yes, it is an accomplishment to get him here. But it's his birthday, and I promised him a special present. He even agreed to pick up some sherry for me. Oh, there he is, pulling into the driveway." She paused. "Goodbye, Grace. You're a dear."
I count at least six facts relevant to the story's solution in these paragraphs; even Jessica's pause is significant. And there's one solid clue, an oddity that should make readers wonder. Jessica's planned the timing of this call ("time to call Grace"), but why call only five minutes before her nephew's scheduled to arrive? She can't be calling to chat--what other purpose might the call serve? I'm hoping that readers won't notice the strange timing, that they'll focus instead on hints about Jessica's relationship with her nephew and the "special present" she's giving him. I've played fair by providing a major clue. If readers aren't ready for it, it's not my fault.

Hide a clue in a series of insignificant details: If a detective searches a crime scene and finds an important clue--an oil-stained rag, say--we're obliged to tell readers. But if we don't want to call too much attention to the clue, we can hide it in a list of other things the detective finds, making sure some sound as intriguing as an oil-stained rag. I used this technique in "Death in Rehab," a whodunit published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in 2011. When temporary secretary Leah Abrams accepts a job at a rehab center, her husband, Sam, doesn't like the idea that she'll be "surrounded by addicts." Leah counters that being around recovering addicts will be inspirational, not dangerous, but Sam's not convinced:
"They're still addicts, and addicts do dangerous things. Did you read the local news this morning?" He found the right page and pointed to a headline. "'Gambling Addict Embezzles Millions, Disappears'--probably in Vegas by now, the paper says. Or this story--`Small-time Drug Dealer Killed Execution Style'--probably because he stole from his bosses, the paper says. Or this one--`Shooter Flies into Drunken Rage, Wounds Two'--the police haven't caught that one, either."
Savvy mystery readers may suspect one of these news stories will be relevant to the mystery, but they can't yet know which one (this is another early-in-the-story clue). In fact, I've tried to make the two irrelevant headlines sound more promising than the one that actually matters--and if you decide to read the story, that's a big extra hint for you. About halfway through the story, Sam mentions the three news stories again. By now, readers who have paid attention to all the clues provided during Leah's first day at work should have a good sense of which story is relevant. But I don't think most readers will figure out murderer and motive yet--and if they do, I don't much care. I've packed this story so full of clues that I doubt many readers will spot all of them. Even readers who realize whodunit should find some surprises at the end.

Separate clues from context: We're obliged to provide the reader with clues and also, I think, to provide the context needed to interpret them. But I don't think we're obliged to provide both at the same time. By putting a careful distance between clue and context, we can play fair and still keep the reader guessing. In "The Shopper," a whodunit first published in a 2014 convention anthology, a young librarian's house is burglarized while she's at home, asleep. That's unsettling enough, but her real worries begin when the burglar--a pro the police have nicknamed The Shopper--starts sending her notes and returning some things he stole. He seems obsessed with her. Also, two men she's never seen before--one blond, one dark--start showing up at the library every day. She suspects one of them might be The Shopper, but which one? (And who says you can't have a puzzling whodunit with only two suspects?) Then things get worse:
    
She didn't really feel like going out that night, but she and Lori had a long-standing date for dinner and a movie. It'd be embarrassing to admit she was scared to go out, and the company would do her good. But when she got to the restaurant, she spotted the blond man sitting in a booth, eating a slab of pie. He has a right to eat wherever he wants, she thought; but the minute Lori arrived, Diane grabbed her hand, pulled her to a table at the other end of the restaurant, and sighed with relief when the blond man left after a second cup of coffee.
     The relief didn't last long. As she and Lori walked out, she saw the dark man sitting at the counter, picking at a salad. He must have come in after she had--had he followed her? She couldn't stand it any more.
I'd say there are five major clues in this story. Two are contained--or, in one case, reinforced--in these paragraphs. A reader keeping careful track of all the evidence could identify The Shopper right now, without reading the remaining seven pages. But since these clues are revealing only in the context of information provided five pages earlier, I'm betting most readers won't make the connection. The Shopper's secrets are still safe with me.

Use the protagonist's point of view to mislead readers: This technique isn't reserved for mystery writers. In "Emma Considered as Detective Fiction," P.D. James comments on Jane Austen's skillful manipulation of point of view to conceal the mysteries at the heart of her novel. Emma constantly misinterprets what people do and say, and because we readers see things from Emma's perspective, we're equally oblivious to what's really going on. In our own mysteries, unless our protagonist is a genius who instantly understands everything, we can use the same technique: If our protagonist overlooks clues, chances are readers will overlook them, too. In "A Joy Forever" (AHMM, 2015), photographer Chris is visiting Uncle Mike and his second wife, Gwen. Uncle Mike is a tyrant who's reduced Gwen to the status of domestic slave--he orders her around, never helps her, casually insults her. Gwen takes it all without a murmur. After a dinner during which Uncle Mike behaves even more boorishly than usual, Chris follows Gwen to the kitchen to help with the dishes:
     As I watched her standing at the sink, sympathy overpowered me again. She was barely fifty but looked like an old woman--bent, scrawny, exhausted, her graying hair pulled back in a tight bun. And her drab, shapeless dress had to be at least a decade old.
     "You spend so much on Uncle Mike," I chided. "The golf cart, all that food and liquor. Spend something on yourself. Go to a beauty parlor and have your hair cut and styled. Buy yourself some new clothes."
     She laughed softly. "Oh, Mike really needs what I buy for him--he really, really does. And I don't care how my hair looks, and I don't need new clothes." Her smile hardened. "Not yet."
     I felt so moved, and so sorry, that I leaned over and kissed the top of her head. "You're too good to him."
Chris sees Gwen as a victim, as a woman whose spirit has been utterly crushed by an oppressor. Readers who don't see beyond Chris's perspective have some surprises coming. But in this story, by this point, I think most readers will see more than Chris does. They'll pick up on clues such as Gwen's hard smile, her quiet "not yet." I had fun playing with point of view in this story, with giving alert readers plenty of opportunities to stay one step ahead of the narrator. It's another variation on Hoch's "grandest game."


Distract readers with action or humor: If readers get caught up in an action scene, they may forget they're supposed to be watching for clues; if they're chuckling at a character's dilemma, they may not notice puzzle pieces slipping by. In "Table for None" (AHMM, 2008), apprentice private detective Harriet Russo is having a rough night. She's on a dark, isolated street, staking out a suspect. But he spots her, threatens her, and stalks off. Moments later, her client, Little Dave, pops up unexpectedly and proposes searching the suspect's car. Harriet says it's too dangerous, but Little Dave won't listen:
 
He raced off. For a moment, I stood frozen. Call Miss Woodhouse and tell her how I'd botched things--let Little Dave get himself killed and feel guilty for the rest of my life--follow him into the parking lot and risk getting killed myself. On the whole, the last option seemed most attractive. I raced after Little Dave.
     He stood next to the dirty white car, hissing into his cell phone. "Damn it, Terry," he whispered harshly, "I told you not to call me. No, I won't tell you where I am. Just go home. I'll see ya when I see ya." He snapped his phone shut and yanked on a back door of the car. It didn't budge. He looked straight at me, grinning sheepishly.
     That's pretty much the last thing I remember. I have some vague impression of something crashing down against me, of sharp pain and sudden darkness. But my next definite memory is of fading slowly back into consciousness--of hearing sirens blare, of feeling the cement against my back, of seeing Little Dave sprawled a few feet away from me, of spotting a small iron figurine next to him, of falling into darkness again.
I hope readers will focus on the conflict and confusion in this scene, and on the unseen attack that leaves Harriet in bad shape and Little Dave in worse shape. I hope they won't pause to take careful note of exactly what Little Dave says in his phone conversation, to test it against the way he's behaved earlier and the things people say later. If readers are too focused on the action to pick up on inconsistencies, they'll miss evidence that could help them identify the murderer.

We can also distract readers with clever dialogue, with fascinating characters, with penetrating social satire, with absorbing themes, with keen insights into human nature. In the end, excellent writing is the best way to keep readers from focusing only on the clues we parade past them. Of course, that's not our main reason for trying to make our writing excellent. To use Hoch's phrase again, mysteries invite writers and readers to participate in "the grandest game," but that doesn't mean mysteries are no more than a game. I think mysteries can be as compelling and significant as other kinds of fiction. The grandest game doesn't impose limits on what our stories and novels can achieve. It simply adds another element that I and millions of other readers happen to enjoy.

Do you have favorite ways of camouflaging clues? I'd love to see some examples from your own mysteries. (*Hoch's essay, by the way, is in the Mystery Writers of America Mystery Writer's Handbook, edited by Lawrence Treat, published in 1976, revised and reprinted several times since then. Used copies are available through Amazon.)


06 February 2012

Clues and Conclusions



By Fran Rizer


A few weeks ago, when Joe Paterno died three months after leaving his job, several news commentators remarked how often people who work into old age die fairly soon after quitting work. Clearly, the inference was that stopping work led to their deaths. I propose that many times, the cause and effect are reversed. Some people won’t stop until working is totally beyond their health and strength. Rather than retirement causing the decline, the person’s decline forces them to finally quit work.

Paterno doesn't exactly fit this scenario because he was fired and forced to leave his job. One announcer drew the conclusion that being fired from his position CAUSED his cancer. I don't believe that! Had Paterno not been involved in the Penn State scandal, he would have eventually grown too old, too tired, too ill and his physical condition would have forced retirement. I think that he would have held out until his demise was near. Regardless, my sympathies are with the Paterno family.

As readers, we don’t always accept the cause and effect situations in stories and books. As writers, we must remain aware that for cause and effect to work in plots, it must be genuinely a cause and effect situation.

A hundred years ago, when I was a college undergraduate, I learned a classic example of misinterpretation of cause and effect. Statistics showed that crime rates in New York City rocketed during summer months. The sale of ice cream rose significantly there during the hot months also. Therefore, can we conclude that eating ice cream makes people commit crimes?

Of course not! More probable is that hot weather (especially back before air conditioning became common) led to more people being out and about to commit crimes or that tempers flared more often when one is hot and uncomfortable. People who are miserably hot are shorter-tempered. People also ate more ice cream when the weather was hot. Increased crime and eating ice cream weren’t an example of cause and effect. They were both effects of the cause—in this case, hotter weather.

A similar lesson in logic is that if A is true and B is true, then C is true. Classic example is A – All dogs are mammals and B – All mammals are vertebrates, therefore C – All dogs are vertebrates. This is true.

Faulty reasoning example is A – All dogs are mammals and B – All mammals are vertebrates, then C – all vertebrates are dogs. Unfortunately, this kind of faulty reasoning sometimes shows up in mysteries, where we’re more familiar with calling cause and effect, as well as logic, clues and conclusions.

Here are three short mystery/brain teasers. No, I didn't create them. They remind me of those amazing flash fiction mysteries that John Floyd has in Women's World. I always try to solve John's before tipping the mag upside down to read the solution. These were emailed to me by my fantasy writer friend Nynaeve.


Study Carefully...the clues are so blatant you will be kicking
yourself if you miss them!

The answers are at the bottom but don't look until you are sure you have all three right
(
I missed one, but I won't tell you which it is because I'm embarrassed.)


Mystery one

A man was found murdered Sunday morning.
His wife immediately called the police.
The police questioned the wife and staff and got these answers:

The wife said she was sleeping.
The cook was preparing breakfast.
The gardener was gathering vegetables.
The maid was getting the mail.
The butler was polishing shoes in the pantry.

The police instantly arrested the murderer.
Who did it and how did they know?
------------------------------------------------------

Mystery two

A man walks into his bathroom and shoots himself right between the
eyes using a real gun with real bullets.

He walks out alive, with no blood anywhere and no, he didn't miss and
he wasn't Superman or any other crusader wearing a cape.

How did he do this?
---------------------------------------------------------

Mystery three

Old Mr. Teddy was found dead in his study by Mr. Fiend.
Mr. Fiend recounted his dismal discovery to the police:

"I was walking by Mr. Teddy's house when I thought I would just pop in
for a visit. I noticed his study light was on and I decided to peek in
from the outside to see if he was in there.

There was frost on the window, so I had to wipe it away to see inside.
That is when I saw his body. So I kicked in the front door to confirm my
suspicions of foul play.

I called the police immediately afterward."

The officer immediately arrested Mr. Fiend for the murder of Mr.Teddy.

How did he know Mr. Fiend was lying?
-------------------------------------------------------------------



ANSWERS:



1. It was the Maid. She said she was getting the mail but there is no
mail delivery on Sunday.

2. He shot his reflection in the bathroom mirror.

3. Frost forms inside of the window, not the outside. So Mr. Fiend
could not have wiped it off to discover Mr. Teddy's body.

How did you do? Did you get them all correct
?

Until we meet again. . . take care of YOU!