07 February 2017

A Good Mystery Writer is like a Magician

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.


  1. The movie Primal Fear. Although the book was better than the movie, the movie left more of an impression. (Maybe because I'm such a big Ed Norton fan? Who knows.) It's probably because I saw the movie first, and wasn't expecting the big reveal.

    A few others that stand out for whatever reason are The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty (revealed a big secret that I didn't see coming) and, more recently, Blue Moon by Wendy Corsi Staub (I got so caught up in the red herring that I missed the clues pointing to whodunit).

  2. Congratulations on being an Agatha finalist!

  3. Excellent post, Barb.

    I have to admit, while I write crime, only a few of my published stories are really "mysteries" with all the clues in place. Both the Black Orchid Novella Award winners fall into that category, but those are the only ones I think of immediately. I usually tell people it's because I'm more interested in the characters than in the plot, but the truth is that plotting is hard and I'm not very bright.

    For surprise twists with all the info in place, I still love Charade, the film from the sixties with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. A stellar cast of supporting characters, too, including Walther Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy. You have a mystery within a mystery, and the writers play fair with you, showing a major clue in the first few minutes of the film.

    My favorite "gotcha" book is still probably Don Winslow's California Fire & Life. Winslow sets it up slowly with lots of backstory that's both funny and--if you don't like his voice--annoying, but he's burying everything you need to know in the mix.

    Now I'm off to check out some of your suggestions...

  4. I enjoyed your post, Barb, and congratulations again on your Agatha nomination--thanks for mentioning all of us. I'll admit the ending of The Sixth Sense took me completely by surprise, even though there were more than enough clues. My all-time favorite example of a mystery novel that surprised me at the end is Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night, but I've used that as an example too many times already. Then there's Jane Austen's Emma--not a mystery in the usual sense, but, as P.D. James has said, Austen uses many of the same techniques detective writers do. One remarkable thing about Emma is that it tricks us twice, once in the middle of the novel and again at the end. After the first time, we should be on guard--but I didn't see the second trick coming, and I bet most other readers don't, either.

  5. I've said it before, but "The Good Soldier" by Ford Madox Ford, is a masterpiece of hidden clues, told by an unreliable narrator, and there are at least five different mysteries in it. And, B.K., I'm with you on "Emma".

  6. Becky, I'm a big fan of Primal Fear myself. But I've only seen the movie. Most books are better than their movie counterparts, though I can think of one exception offhand. (The Pelican Brief. Read the book, then saw the movie. Liked the movie better, I think because the book felt like it was written with the goal of selling it to Hollywood.)

    Thanks, Janice. Being an Agatha finalist is a real honor.

    Steve, thanks, I'm glad you liked the blog. A lot of the stories I write are more crime stories than mysteries. Indeed, the Best-Laid Plans falls in that category. But there are clues that foreshadow what happens. And thanks for the tip about Charade and Winslow. My to-read/watch list just gets bigger and bigger all the time.

    I have to admit, Bonnie, that I'm not well-read in the classics. I've never read Sayers or Emma, though I think I saw the movie once. Even more to put on my to-do list. I'm glad you enjoyed my post, and congratulations once again on being Agatha honored for your wonderful story.

    Eve, thank you for stopping by as well, and for your suggestion. Even more reading for my list.

  7. I can't think of a specific example but love it when I'm reading along and think I didn't see that coming. I've never seen Sixth Sense because I thought it looked to scary. When it was all the rage I got a taxi driver in Seattle to tell me what the twist was.

  8. The Usual Suspects and Fight Club! Agree about Primal Fear too (and Edward Norton being amazing).

  9. ps: BK, I think Gaudy Night is the answer to a lot of questions too. :)

  10. Sherry, I can't believe you ruined Sixth Sense for yourself. It's like reading the end before you get there. (And I don't like scary movies either, but I saw it. Worth seeing.)

    Thanks for stopping by, Cynthia. I've seen The Usual Suspects a couple of times, but I don't remember it well. I guess I'll have to add it to the list.

  11. Ed mcBain/Evan Hunter's Fuzz - the original novel, as opposed to the movie from a few years on.
    As it happens, I read the book before I even knew it was going to be a movie. (Spoilers upcoming for those who haven't read or seen either.)
    As is almost always the case with an 87th Precinct story, there are several plots going.
    In the main plotline, the Deaf Man is assassinating various local officials, always warning the 87th in advance of who's going to get it and when.
    In the book, the DM's eventual target is the Mayor of Isola, whose name I forget, but whom everybody in town refers to by his initials - JMV.
    Meanwhile, the 87th cops are on a series of stakeouts that are leading to a couple of stickup men who are hitting liquor stores all over town.
    The store in their own district is owned by a guy whose initials are also JMV; his name is repeated throughout the story, without calling attention to the initials.
    Because the DM has an obsession with the 87th going back to a previous book, he has to tie his killing of Mayor JMV to someone more connected to the Precinct -
    - and that sets up the slam-bang finish, in which the DM walks right into the 87th's stakeout of the stickup guys that the squad's been after all along.

    The movie eliminates the Mayor-killing angle, but many of the other coincidences are intact (unsurprising, given that Hunter/McBain did the screenplay).
    But in the novel, the JMV business is hidden in plain sight, so to speak.
    While I was reading, I never noticed anything; I was just going with the stories.
    And isn't that the whole idea?

  12. Thanks for commenting, Mike. And yes, that is exactly the whole idea.

  13. Great column, Barb!! My favorite twist endings: Presumed Innocent, Planet of the Apes, The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense, Body Heat, and the 1968 Steve McQueen version of The Thomas Crown Affair. And yes, the clues were in place, for pretty much all of these. Writers, and screenwriters, ARE magicians!

  14. Hi, John. I'm glad you stopped by. I thought you might like that link to Screenrant.com. And I'm a big fan of Presumed Innocent, especially because I figured it out halfway through the book, so when I was proved right at the end, it made me feel smart. It's nice when you can be happy if you're tricked and if you're not. I usually fall in the not category.

  15. Great column, Barb. At the start I thought you were talking about foreshadowing (I guess clues are a kind of foreshadowing, huh?) And when you mentioned A CHRISTMAS STORY (spoiler alert)I thought of the constant warning "You'll shoot your eye out!" followed by, well almost.

    One of my favorite examples of this sort of thing is an episode of the sitcom SCRUBS called "My Screw Up." (Season 3 Episode 14.) If you watch it the first thing you will do when it ends is watch it again.

    Then there is Rex Stout's A FAMILY AFFAIR. Some Stout fans hate it but I thought it was brilliant. I remember that when I read the Big Reveal I had to put down the book and go for a walk before finishing the novel. It was that kind of a punch.

    Ever see a short lived TV series called The Black Donnellys? It was, I think, a case where they wrote a brilliant pilot and forgot to figure out what would happen in episode 2, but what a pilot.

    By the way: watch the first episode of the new series THIS IS US. The rest of the series didn't hold my attention, but holy hats, that first pilot.

  16. I love a clever mystery (love writing them, too) and admit that they are tricky to write. You simply have to make clues available, and yet not too obvious. My favourite living mystery writer is Andrea Camilleri (who writes the Montalbano Sicilian series.) Brilliant police procedurals, and some of the funniest books around. He's the master I continually learn from.

  17. Hey, Rob. Thanks for commenting. Scrubs season three, episode 14. I'm on it! And I love This Is Us. I watch it every week. The pilot was amazing, but you can't keep up an ending like that with every episode.

    And Mel, thank you for the Camilleri info. I'm off to see if he's in my library's catalog.


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