Showing posts with label whodunits. Show all posts
Showing posts with label whodunits. Show all posts

08 July 2017

Whodunits: Pet Peeves

by B.K. Stevens

Whodunits sometimes seem like the Rodney Dangerfield of the mystery world: They don't get no respect. When people want to make fun of mysteries, they usually make fun of whodunits (probably because these people don't actually read mysteries, so they think all mysteries are whodunits). Even people who do read and enjoy mysteries often look down on whodunits, seeing them as hopelessly formulaic and old fashioned, as not nearly as smart or daring as their cool noir cousins. How often are unabashed whodunits nominated for Edgar awards? To be honest, I can't answer my own question, because I don't keep careful track of such things. But most of the Edgar winners and nominees I've read aren't whodunits. (I've wondered if some of them were really any sort of mystery--but that's a subject for another post, one I'll probably never write.)

Well, I'm unsophisticated enough to admit I love a good whodunit. Most of my favorite mysteries are traditional whodunits--and most of them were written many years ago, back when more people took whodunits more seriously. When I come across a new whodunit that tells an absorbing and believable story, plays by the rules, and still manages to deliver some surprises at the end, I'm both delighted and impressed. And, partly because I love well-done whodunits so much, I get seriously irritated by ones that don't play fair, ones that make things too easy for the detective (and the writer). Here are some of my pet peeves. I won't claim they're anything more than pet peeves, won't try to argue I'm objectively right. I'm simply going to list some things that get on my nerves. Maybe they get on your nerves, too.

  • Unrealistically chatty suspects and witnesses: Most law-abiding people feel some obligation to answer a police officer's questions. Even so, and even if they're not guilty of the crime, they might withhold facts they find embarrassing or painful, as well as facts they think might arouse false suspicions. If a private detective or an amateur sleuth is asking the questions, people are under no obligation to answer. Some people might be so talkative (or so lonely) they welcome any opportunity to spill secrets, but it's hard to believe many people would be that way. Wouldn't most people question the detective's motives, worry about getting in trouble or offending someone, or simply not want to spend the time? Private detectives and amateurs who try to bully people are out of line--they don't have the right to demand that anyone say one word to them. If a private detective or an amateur sleuth showed up at my door, asking for information about a friend or family member, I'd have some questions of my own to ask, and I wouldn't reveal anything unless I got satisfactory answers.

  • Overheard conversations: During the course of a story, a detective might catch a lucky break or two. But detectives should solve crimes by detecting, not by watching clues fall into their laps. If the detective just happens to overhear two suspects conversing and picks up vital information, I'm skeptical; if the detective overhears more than one helpful conversation, I usually stop reading. (An overheard conversation is more palatable if the detective goes to some trouble to overhear it--goes to a restaurant where two suspects always meet for lunch on Tuesday, puts on a wig, poses as a server, practices a French accent, and so on. Then I'll attribute any information the detective picks up to ingenuity and effort, not to dumb luck.)

  • Convenient coincidences:They're as bad as overheard conversations. The detective, too frazzled to keep deducing, goes for a run in the park and happens to spot two suspects sitting on a bench, holding hands and locked in intense conversation--but both have sworn they don't know each other, have never met. Now the detective can confront them with their lies and get them to break down. Or the detective decides to leave a party, puts on a suspect's coat by mistake, and finds a conclusive clue in the pocket. The detective hasn't earned the insights such incidents yield, so I'm not impressed--I'm incredulous and more than a little annoyed. As Ronald A. Knox says in "A Detective Story Decalogue," "No accident must ever help the detective." It was a good rule back in 1929, and it's still a good rule nearly a century later.

  • Culprits picked out of a hat: All the suspects have means, all have opportunity, and all have motives--very different motives: One will inherit a fortune from the victim, one is an angry ex-husband, and one is a business associate who went bankrupt when the victim didn't honor a contract. Several clues point to each. In the last scene, one case-cracking clue proves the would-be inheritor is the culprit, and all evidence about the victim's unhappy marriage and unethical business practices is irrelevant. If the final clue had been different, the culprit would have been different. That's one way of surprising the reader, but it's an easy, artless way. When I read that sort of whodunit, I feel as if all the effort I've devoted to weighing the evidence in ninety percent of the story was wasted. I thought I was working on a puzzle, but it turns out I was working on three separate puzzles. The puzzles don't interlock, and only one was completed--only one mattered. Any pleasure I might have found in being surprised is eclipsed by irritation.

  • Loose ends: As the previous pet peeve made clear, I'm not a fan of mere red herrings. I prefer whodunits in which all clues, no matter how much the detective may misinterpret them at first, ultimately point directly or indirectly to the solution. But if writers can't resist the temptation to throw a mere red herring into the plot, they should at least have the decency to explain it at the end. Years ago, I read a well-written whodunit that had an intriguing plot and some interesting, complex characters--but also had one big problem. I mentioned the book to an old college friend who also loves mysteries. "I think you might enjoy it," I said, "except for one thing." "I know," she said. "I've already read it. You never find out who the baby's father was!" Yes, that was the problem. The murder victim was a young, single woman, and the autopsy revealed she was several months pregnant when she died. So the protagonist's initial investigation focused on three men who might have been romantically involved with the victim and might have fathered the unborn child. Eventually, the protagonist realized the motive for the murder had nothing to do with the pregnancy and focused on other suspects. And the writer never bothered to tie up loose ends by saying who the father was. I understand that it's good to end a mystery at a dramatic moment. I know many readers--and many editors and critics--don't have much patience with the old-fashioned scenes in which suspects gather in the parlor to hear the detective go over all the evidence and gradually zero in on the culprit. But I don't think that's any excuse for leaving loose ends dangling--and leaving readers wondering.  

  • Withholding secrets: Awakened in the middle of the night when the phone rings, the detective listens to what an unidentified caller says, jots down some notes, and goes back to sleep. Later, the detective looks through the victim's appointment calendar, takes out the notes from the phone call, underlines something, and nods sagaciously. But the reader doesn't learn anything about what was said in the phone call or what was written in the appointment calendar until the final scene, when the detective reveals that the bits of information each yielded connected in a surprising way, making the culprit's identity clear. How can readers keep up when the detective knows things they don't? Golden age writers declare such ploys unacceptable. "The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery," S.S. Van Dine says in "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories" (1928). Knox agrees: "All clues must be plainly stated and described. The detective must not light on any clues that are not instantly produced for the reader." And the oath taken by members of the Detection Club (including Knox, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and E.L. Bentley) asks inductees to "solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader."
I could go on. I love good whodunits so much that I have lots of other pet peeves about lazy ones. I'd better stop here, though. I may have already reinforced the stereotype that whodunits are hopelessly formulaic and old fashioned, governed by rigid rules set down nearly a century ago. But some of the rules Van Dine, Knox, and others proposed no longer hold writers back (if they ever actually did). The rules saying whodunits shouldn't have a "love interest" have faded from significance, for example, as have the ones forbidding "subtly worked-out character analyses." The rules whodunit purists still cite with approval are the ones that helped shaped the genre, and they boil down to two simple principles: Be reasonably realistic, and play fair. A whodunit, when it's done right, presents detectives, writers, and readers with difficult but possible intellectual challenges. We're cheating if we make our detectives' job too easy, and we're cheating if we make our own job too easy, too. We shouldn't shower our detectives with unearned clues. And while misleading and surprising readers are essential parts of our job, we shouldn't accomplish them by bombarding readers with completely irrelevant red herrings, or by withholding vital information until the last possible moment. We should treat the whodunit form with more respect. If we do, maybe, just maybe, others will respect it more, too.

Do you have pet peeves about whodunits, or about other kinds of mysteries? I'd love to hear them.

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.)

07 September 2016

Enter the Villain

by Robert Lopresti

I'm not going to tell you the author or title of the book I am discussing today, but I will say that it was not written by any past or present SleuthSayer.

The book is a first novel, much anticipated, and written in a particular style.  It is a style I like and I was much looking forward to it.  And everything was going well for the first third of the book.  Then a new character walked in wearing a black top hat covered with neon letters spelling out I'M THE KILLER.

Okay, I am exaggerating.  No hat.  No neon letters.  But as soon as this guy walked in I said: that's the killer.

I am not a reader who feels a need to guess the murderer or feels disappointed if it's too easy or it's too hard.  Most crime novels I read are not even whodunits. But this rankled.

It got worse.  A hundred pages later the heroes received the benefit of what I call an unearned clue.  They visited a place for reasons unconnected to crime, and chatted with a stranger.  When the stranger found out they were cops it was "Oh, by the way..." and out came a big hint that pointed straight to top-hat-man.  They didn't recognize it.

By J.J. at the English language Wikipedia
At this point I kept reading for only one reason: Either this is the best red herring in the history of crime fiction or it is a disaster.


Well, it was a disaster.

The editor - a well-known one in the mystery field - should be embaressed. He or she (I'm not telling) should have spotted the first-time author's mistakes and  insisted that they be fixed, which would not have been that hard.  Instead we have what looks like contempt for the reader, which is never good for future sales.

I checked the blurbs on the cover of the paperback edition.  Only one was from a review.  The rest, and they were plentiful, were from well-known mystery writers.  Perhaps they liked the book, but I suspect they liked the author more.

Enough whining.  Perhaps I can provide a useful writing tip.  Why did I suspect the killer was the killer as soon as he walked in?

Because he had no other plot-related reason for being there at all.  He strolled into his boss' office while the cops were interviewing him, got a detailed description from the author, and was introduced.  No immediate explanation for why he belonged in the story.  And so, my alarm went off.

My penance for that author?  Read five Agatha Christie's.  She had her limits, but nobody could hide a killer or a clue in plain sight with her skill.

So what disappoints you in a mystery?