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?


  1. A good catalogue of reader deception.
    I'm looking forward to reading your AHMM story, and John's and O'Neill's too.

  2. I devour new forensic developments like they were chocolate, but I don't use them in my books or stories. Your column brought to my attention the fact that I've been leaning on one device almost exclusively and need to use the other tactics you describe. It also reminded me that when my agent accepted my first book (A Tisket, a Tasket, a Fancy Stolen Casket), he wanted me to add 10,000 words. I knew enough not to just tack on more chapters, but what should I do? The solution was to add a red herring character and work him throughout the manuscript. Thank heaven for computers, which made this easy. Like Janice, I look forward to your, John's, and O'Neill's stories in AHMM.

  3. A fun piece, Steve. And I look forward to all your stories in AHMM -- congratulations all!

  4. Wonderful column!--I love this kind of thing. Yes, I've used many of those "tricks," and I'm always looking for others. Well done!

    I look forward to reading your story in AHMM, Steve, and R.T.'s and O'Neil's also. This was my first look at the new cover--thanks for posting it.

  5. Great column here! I love the many tricks of the trade here. And congrats to you, John, and O'Neil for stories in the new AHMM!

  6. Fran,

    I had the exact opposite problem in my first published book, but I dealt with it the same way. My publisher wanted the book cut to 70K words (shorter than I usually write, one of several reasons we parted company) from about 77K, and I did it by removing a subplot and a logical suspect. I still have that character and his backstory on a flash drive and keep looking for places I could resurrect him because he was fun to write.

  7. My favorite example of "how did he know that?" was in L.A. Confidential. The TV show Blacklist stole the gimmick last year.

  8. Looking forward to reading your story and getting the new AHMM! My favorite thing is to make it look like one crime is what the story's about - but underneath there's another crime, which is mentioned "off-hand", that's the real one. The best job I did of that, I think, is in "No Fences" (AHMM, Dec. 2011), where the highly inappropriate relationship between librarian and student (and subsequent murder of student's trashy girlfriend) is front and center, while the real crime(s) is mentioned and linked but doesn't rise to the obvious until the very end... (Also used the same technique in "A Time to Mourn". And others... maybe it's time to change my pattern...)

  9. cj Sez: Great Post, Steve, and just when I needed it. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  10. Great post, Steve! Love these examples.

  11. Got to this late and what a nice, informative article.

  12. "Hiding the ball!" I love it. This is why I write mystery. Great post.

  13. Steve, nice article.

    Thanks for posting the July/Aug AHMM cover. I hadn't seen it yet. Being in one of the fly-over states, it seems my copies and subscription arrive last. Always nice to get my name on the cover with John, O'Neil and you.


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