There is an unspoken rule in storytelling that if two characters meet together for a scene and depart at the end, then the next scene won’t begin with them meeting once more. Two scenes later they might, but it is always preferred to have that space of at least one scene between every coming together.
The reason for this is purely aesthetic. Because while we understand that any period of time might transpire between two scenes, they remain a sequential experience to the audience. It just feels wrong to read of two people walking apart and then immediately read of the same two people walking back together. Where one scene concludes by asking a question we do not expect to already have the answer at the opening of the next.
To be clear, two characters can meet in one scene and then progress together into the next, but they cannot move apart and then return together immediately. In a story we measure the passage of time by changes. We need to feel the separation and the return, the change of clothes and sets, the gaps which create that artificial sense of minutes and hours spinning by.
Let’s look at a specific example of what I’m talking about.
The film adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is a hardboiled detective noir. Like many of that genre it features a core set of characters that interact with one another many times over. Promises are broken, bribes are offered, and threats are extended at reckless abandon, requiring the same characters to depart and return again many times over.
And yet, the film firmly follows this rule of letting characters stay apart for a scene before reuniting them. Here are how the opening scenes play out.
Scene 1: Sam Spade and Miles Archer are partner detectives. Their secretary Effie Perine introduces a new client to them, Ruth Wonderly.
Scene 2: Miles Archer goes from the first scene to meet with an unknown murderer who guns him down.
Scene 3: Sam Spade receives a call in his apartment that Miles Archer has been killed. He calls Effie and asks her to break the news to Archer’s wife.
Scene 4: Sam Spade arrives at the scene of the murder and discusses the matter with the police there.
Scene 5: Sam goes to his apartment and is grilled by Polhaus and Dundy, two police detectives.
Scene 6: Sam is back in the office with secretary Effie Perine. Archer’s widow comes to meet with Sam.
At this point notice how Sam Spade and his secretary Effie Perine are the two characters that have shared the most scenes together: 3 out of 6. But each of these scenes together are separated from the others by at least one intermediary scene.
Scene 7: Spade goes to the new client Ruth Wonderly’s apartment. She admits to having lied earlier.
Scene 8: Spade returns to his office with Effie Perine (once again notice that they were kept apart by Scene 7 before reuniting), and meets another new client named Joel Cairo.
Scene 9: Spade is being tailed by an unknown man on the streets. He arrives back at Ruth Wonderly’s apartment and calls her out on more lies.
Scene 10: Spade and Wonderly go back to his office together and tell Joel Cairo to meet them there. In the middle of their argument detectives Polhaus and Dundy come to grill Spade further.
Scenes 7, 8, 9, and 10 therefore involved Spade and Wonderly, Spade and Cairo, Spade and Wonderly again, and Spade and Wonderly and Cairo. This limited cast of characters is interacting with each another rapid fire, but they still get spaced out with a scene between them, or else move together to the next scene without parting in between.
The arrival of Joel Cairo greatly helps to maintain this hopscotch pattern, as it provides a second thread for Spade to pull on in addition to the one with Wonderly. He is able to bounce between progressing each of these lines and the interactions never feels awkward as a result.
Here the film comes to a tricky juncture, though. In the last scene pretty much every known character came together. So how to progress forward? Well, Scene 11 opens with Sam confronting the man who had been tailing him earlier. Yet another thread to pull on while letting the others gestate.
Scene 11 does also provide the first and only exception in the entire film to the rule of giving characters a scene apart, though. For after conversing with the new man, Wilmer, Spade bumps into Joel Cairo once more. And while these two men are technically revisiting each other two scenes in a row, the brief conversation with Wilmer in between helps to offset the awkwardness of that.
Even stories that spend a long time in a single setting will deliberately pace themselves in this way. You can find an excellent example of this in another Humphrey Bogart classic: Casablanca. Watch the scene near the start where we first come to Rick’s Café Americain. It is an extended sequence of nearly a half hour, with many of the same characters repeated. But we hop from one conversation to another and back again. One thread is established about some stolen visas, another about an upcoming arrest, another about a mysterious revolutionary arriving, and then back to the first. Everything flows seamlessly and is aesthetically pleasing because just enough space is given around each character and thread before we return to them.
And to be clear, a story does not naturally divide itself into staggered pacing like this. It comes about by a very intentional weaving. In writing my own stories it is often necessary for me to refactor my structure when I realized I wasn’t giving each moment enough space to breathe.
I have been careful to manage this very thing in my latest piece: The Punctured Football. This is a short story with a limited set of characters, but look at the scenes and you will see that I change which character is interacting with the protagonist each time. The same individuals never meet back-to-back. And I’ll be keeping that rule as I conclude the story on Thursday. Come back then and make note of how I drive the whole thing forward while hopping between its multiple different threads.
It took everyone a moment to process what Daley had just done.
“Where did you get those?” Maria breathed, her face as white as a sheet.
“I went walking by your place today and saw that your caretaker had brought out the trash…with these in it. Mexican law states that anything abandoned through the garbage system does not require a warrant to acquire and is admissible as evidence in court.”
Price gawked at Daley. He wasn’t sure exactly how many lies his friend had just uttered, but he said it all with such a straight face that Maria didn’t question the matter any further, she just slowly shuffled back towards her seat. Price used the moment to grab the box and inspect it closely. “.45 ACP,” he observed, “just like the gun Otto used. Only…” he lifted one of the bullets and peered at it closely, “they’re blanks.”
“Yes, they’re blanks,” Maria said softly.
“So you were helping Otto out with some fake-suicide plan?”
“Yes…I’m–I’m sorry that I lied to you detectives.”
“Oh don’t be,” Daley said. “Actually it’s very helpful for us. Let’s us know we’re going the right direction. But how about you tell us what actually happened now?”
Maria nodded and swallowed. “Well, it was just like you said. He wanted to get out of his marriage, but not lose all of his wealth in the process. So he told me about his scheme to fake his suicide and run out of the country. He was sure that if the police found a purchase record of the gun and ammunition, but could never actually retrieve them or the body, then no one would ever suspect a thing.”
Daley raised his eyebrows at Price. Price coolly ignored him.
“I want to make something clear,” Maria added earnestly. “I never liked this plan. I always thought it was dangerous and stupid!… But…Otto was set on it. More and more, with each passing day. It was clear I wasn’t going to change his mind, so…yes, I helped him to set it up.”
“So how did you help him?” Price gently prodded.
“He went to pick out the gun, bought it with his credit card. Then he gave me the card and cash to buy the bullets for him the next day.”
“Card and cash?”
“Card for the real bullets, so they would show up on the bill, and cash for the blanks so there wouldn’t be anything to tie them to his name. He also wanted them from different stores so that a store clerk couldn’t remember both being bought in the same transaction.”
“Why didn’t he buy the real bullets at the same time as the gun? Why leave you to get those?”
She shook her head in frustration. “He was being stupidly particular about it. He had this little narrative in his head of what you detectives would piece together. ‘Oh look, he got the gun on a Thursday, but the bullets on Friday…he must have been gradually working up his nerve for it.’ Silly things like that.”
“Okay, so you bought both sets of bullets the next day, from two different stores.”
“Yes. Soon we met up and I gave him both sets, then took an airplane back to Mexico. He didn’t want me to fly back too soon to when he would fake the suicide, in case that would look suspicious,” she rolled her eyes. “And I took with me the box of blanks, so it wouldn’t turn up as evidence. Though really it was supposed to be the real bullets, but in the blanks’ box. You see he was supposed to switch them during our last visit. The ‘real’ box with the blanks in it and the ‘blanks’ box with the real bullets in it. He would load all of the blanks into the gun on the morning of his birthday, then leave the empty ‘real bullets’ box where it could be found.”
“Did something go wrong with that switch? The box from your place is still filled with the blanks.”
“Obviously something went wrong,” Maria’s eyes moistened. “But I don’t know what…or how…”
“Hmm,” Price rubbed his forehead. They’d come so far, but perhaps this last conundrum was a secret Otto had taken with him to the grave. It didn’t seem that–
“Before you met with Otto and showed him the bullets, did you open the boxes? Look at the ammunition and do something with them?” Daley spoke up quickly.
“What? No. He handled that by himself.”
“But that’s not true,” Daley sighed, he reached into the same coat pocket from which he had taken the box of blanks. Now he extracted a plastic bag, presumably the one that had held the box. Squinting, he pinched at something stuck to the bag, reached out with thumb and forefinger, and stuck a small piece of clear tape to the side of the box of blanks. Then he did the same thing again with a tan piece of tape.
“Both boxes were taped shut,” Daley stated, “and you have both pieces of tape in your bag. You opened them before you gave them to Otto.”
Once again Price tried to not gawk at his friend. It was an incredibly bold statement, one that Maria could easily deny. There might be any number of reasons how that tape would have turned up in her bag. Now that Daley had made the claim, though, Price realized that Maria had indeed glossed over the details of how the bullet-swap had occurred.
Maria sighed and lowered her forehead into her palm. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I keep lying to you detectives.”
Daley pursed his lips, as if weighing whether to say what was on his mind. Eventually he ventured forward. “Honestly, the fact that you did lie is even more telling than the fact that you opened the boxes. It means there’s something you feel guilty about with that. I’m sorry, but we really need to know what it is.”
“I swapped the bullets before I met with Otto. I put the real bullets in the blanks box and the blanks in the ‘real bullets’ box. I just wanted to be sure for myself that I was leaving with the live ammunition. When I met with Otto I handed him only the box with the blanks inside and said ‘it’s all ready.’ He asked to see both boxes, to make sure everything was right. Then he asked me to get him a rag from the kitchen–we were at his house–so that he could wipe off my fingerprints. When I came back he had just finished loading the gun and handed me back the box you found today. I had a really weird feeling, but I didn’t understand it then. I think a part of me realized that he might have misunderstood what I meant by ‘it’s all ready,’ and had just performed the swap himself–”
“And ended up putting the real bullets back into the gun.”
“But I didn’t think to ask him about it. He was being so very assertive and sure. He told me to rehearse my next steps so he could be certain I hadn’t forgotten any, then hurried me out. I just– I think I just didn’t want to make him upset by questioning what he clearly had under control.”
“And you didn’t want to tell us because you were afraid we would think you had somehow set the wrong bullets up for him on purpose.”
“Sometimes I think…maybe he didn’t misunderstand me. Maybe towards the end he really did want to go through with it, and he sent me away so that I wouldn’t see him swapping the bullets back. But then I think maybe I’m being paranoid, an honest mistake seems so plausible.”
“Or maybe he wasn’t sure what he even wanted,” Daley offered softly. “Maybe he couldn’t be certain what you had meant, and found in that uncertainty an opportunity to just chose a box of bullets at random and let fate decide.”
“You think so?”
Daley shrugged. “I really have no idea.”
“Anyway, that’s what happened Detectives. I didn’t orchestrate his death, I didn’t want him to commit suicide. Somewhere along the way, though, I think I did something wrong.”
“Well I wouldn’t say that you did something right,” Price sighed. “But it’s not our job to judge what you did. We just pass the information along.” He turned to Torres and nodded. “She’s your suspect now.”
Torres thanked Price and Daley, then asked Maria to follow him out of the room. The two men were left seated side-by-side, still at the interrogation table. For a long while neither of them said anything at all. Finally it was Price who spoke.
“Well, not as simple of a case as I assumed. But maybe not quite as dramatic as you had?”
“No, but that’s alright. Mostly I just wanted to know.”
“Well…you still don’t. Not all the way.”
“No, not all the way,” Daley agreed. “Otto keeps some of the mystery to himself…. But I don’t mind. It’s alright to not know what you can’t.”
“That’s some pretty deep zen you got going on there,” Price chuckled. It was a humorless sound, though, and Daley could tell that his partner’s mind was on something else. Price was on the cusp of leaning into a more personal topic. Daley flirted with the idea of making up some excuse to stand up and walk away. But he didn’t.
“That was an interesting thing you said to her,” Price began. “About how more significant than the fact that she opened the boxes was the fact that she lied about doing it. There’s a lot of truth to that.”
“When I picked you up from the grocery the other day, it was your wife who told me you were there…at the pharmacy. But when you came out you denied it.”
“Going to a pharmacy doesn’t mean a thing, but lying about doing so? Something’s up with that.”
Daley stared ahead unblinking.
“Something else interesting that you said–back at the start of the case–something about going to the person who cares most for the suspect. You said they’ll conceal things if the person’s guilty, and be forthcoming if they’re innocent. So…I went and spoke to Marcine, James. I hope you’ll forgive me for that, and her too, because she told me about your diagnosis. She told me all about the cancer.”
Another heavy silence. Clearly now was the time for Daley to say something, but he didn’t. Awkward and trite as it sounded, Price finally had to ask “Did you want to talk about it?”
“Not really,” Daley said, and he stood and walked over to the door. But then, with his hand still on the knob, he turned his head and called over his shoulder, “but even if I don’t want to…I guess you’ve earned that right. Come on. It’s our last night in Mexico. Let’s go for a ride together and talk.”
Well there we have it, the end of my mystery story. I rather like how it wound up, being a compromise between both Price and Daley’s expectations. I’m also pleased with how I balanced between letting the reader interpret the scene according to their own imagination at some points, and being more explicit about what happened in others.
An example of the first would be when Daley produces the evidence he has found and Maria finally starts unveiling what actually happened. I did not want to pander to the reader by explicitly stating “she was telling the truth now,” but I also didn’t want them to think she might still be dishonest. I decided to resolve this issue by changing her manner of speech from before. On Monday I pointed out how her speech when concealing information had been short and brusque. The audience could read her deceit just in the way that she spoke.
So for today I flipped her mannerisms. I say “Maria nodded and swallowed” to signal a turning point, and then have her speak with long and flowing dialogue. I could be wrong, but I suspect that most readers will subconsciously note the change and accept that she must now be telling the truth.
But then, when Daley and Price have their private conversation at the end, I suddenly became very explicit in describing every look and pause. I tried to paint it as clearly as I could and leave as little as possible to the reader’s imagination. I would never recommend this sort of explicit control over the duration of a story, but carefully used in specific moments, it can have great effect.
The effect that I was hoping to achieve here is one of heaviness and slowness. I want the reader to feel the long, pregnant pauses, and so I describe them in detail. I felt this measure was necessary because I had just allowed the reader to breeze through a rapid-fire exchange, so something special had to be done to put on the brakes.
And as I said, I’m pretty pleased with how it all turned out. In fact, while I’m finished with the plot of Detectives Price and Daley, I’d like to spend a little more time in this world and style. Sometimes one of the most exciting things about a story is the way that it can inspire new ones to us. I’d like to explore this idea of extending a theme from one tale into another. I’ll have a post about that on Monday, and then next Thursday we’ll see how I keep the spirit of Washed Down the River alive in my next short story.
“It’s for you,” Officer Torres said to Price. “I’ll carry on in here.”
Price thanked him and exited the small one-room office that was home to Guzman Charitable Services. Just outside of the room Maria sat in a chair, silently fuming, with her arms crossed so tightly that Price thought it must be painful. He ignored her, though, and went to the end of the hall where a receptionist held a receiver aloft.
“Thank you,” Price said as he took the phone. “Hello?”
“Hello, Price,” Daley’s voice came in brightly. In the background Price could hear a lot of other voices and the clinking of plates. Daley must have been calling from some diner.
“Wasn’t expecting to hear anything from you,” Price scowled, not even trying to keep the resentment out of his voice.
“Yeah, well, I’ve been watching the clock, and I figure right about now you should have gotten underway with searching Maria’s business?”
“Yes. Going to take longer without your help, of course.”
“Yes, probably an hour at least?”
It seemed a strange question. “What’s that got to do with anything?” Price asked suspiciously.
“Oh, and you have Maria there with you, of course?”
“Yes, of course. Was there any actual point to your call, Daley?”
“Um…no, that’s all. Thanks.”
And then he hung up. Price stared at the receiver in utter confusion as it slowly dawned on him: Daley wanted to be sure that Maria was being occupied for a while longer…so that he could raid her place while Torres and Price searched the office.
“Why would you tell me that?” he said numbly to the earpiece. “Why not let me live in ignorant bliss?”
“Señor?” the receptionist held her hand out for the phone.
“Sorry, never mind that. Gracias.” He handed her back the phone. She took it and then extended out a manila envelope. It was the building’s lease information on Maria’s office, which he had asked to be retrieved when they first arrived. He took it, thanked her, and made his way back down the hall.
Maria was fidgeting as he approached, struggling between her equal desire to lay her fury into him, and also to continue the indignant silent treatment she had maintained since they summoned her. Just as his steps brought him level with her the first side won out.
“Why do you choose to disbelieve me?” she snapped. “I already told you, I turned down this man’s money. Call whomever is in charge of disposing the will, they’ll tell you.”
“Oh we did, right after our chat with you. They confirmed it.”
Price sighed. He knew he should just move on. It was more than stupid to ever discuss your reasons for suspicion with a person of interest. The directive given to all investigators was that the less you said, the less the precinct might have to apologize for. And yet…
“It’s funny how–” Price began, then snapped his mouth shut so forcefully that Maria stared back at him in shock. He cleared his throat. “Excuse me,” he strained, then ducked for refuge into the office. What had he been thinking?! To distract himself Price pulled out the three papers from the manila envelope and examined them while walking towards Torres, who was flipping through Maria’s business ledger.
“You find anything yet?” Price asked.
“No…everything appears as it should be. She registered for the charity, paid for her license, linked it to a bank account opened in her own name…all appropriate, all without so much as a single reference to Otto Davies. I assume the office was leased in her name, too?”
Price turned the page he was reviewing to the back, then quickly again to the front. “I wonder…oh, yes she licensed it herself…but–there’s this phone record that the building kept, and…” he used his free hand to pull out his pocketbook.
“What is it?” Torres asked.
“Look at this record of the first call. My Spanish isn’t very good, what does that say?”
“Uh…’Representative for Ms Guzman querying for availability and prices.'”
“Alright, and then this phone number given here, is that the callback number that was given?”
“But notice it’s different from the number given in all the other phone records.”
“Hmm, so it is. And this number is from the states.”
“Not only that, it sounds familiar to me.” Price flipped through his pocketbook until at last he found the number Mrs Davies had left to reach her at home. They matched.
“You did know Otto Davies,” Price pronounced to Maria an hour later, after the two men had finished their search. It had only been appropriate, of course, to finish gathering any additional evidence the office might have held before coming out to confront her. “He made the first call when you were looking for an office space.”
Her eyes darkened. He could see she was about to deny it, so he cut her off by extending both the phone record and his open pocketbook.
“They kept a record of this?!” Maria said incredulously.
“So it would seem. I’m sure you understand that we need to bring you with us for more questions now.”
She sighed, but stood up, resigned to follow them.
“Oh, and to answer your question from before,” Price continued. “We were suspicious of you because you turned down the money.”
An hour later Price and Torres were seated in the interrogation room with Maria. Right as they were about to begin, another officer poked his head in and said something that Price couldn’t understand to Torres. Torres turned to Price and relayed it in English.
“Your friend is waiting at the receptionist’s desk. He wants to come join us.”
Price sighed. “Would you mind?”
Torres turned to the officer and asked for Daley to be brought in. Two minutes later he arrived and took a seat next to Price. Then the three men focused on Maria, who was sitting on the opposite side of the table. She had her arms folded in front of her, and her eyes were steeled in defense.
“Please tell us the nature of your relationship with Otto Davies,” Price said gently.
“We were…close,” Maria said haltingly. “I met him in the states while at a bar about…eight months ago.”
“Please, go on,” Price encouraged after it was clear she had finished speaking. Sometimes it was good to leave it to a suspect’s own imagination where they were supposed to fill in the details.
“Well, so, his family had no knowledge of me. He was…a very miserable man. Not happy at home.”
“Did he ever talk about leaving his ‘not happy’ home?”
“Perhaps he would say something angry like that in passing. But never anything serious about it.”
“Or about ending his life?”
“No, of course not,” for the first time some genuine sadness seemed to creep into Maria’s face.
“What did you want him to do?”
She shrugged. “That was never my decision to make.”
“That wasn’t the question.”
“Well, then I don’t know. I hadn’t thought that far ahead.”
“Why did he help you setup the charity?”
“Just…thought it would be something good for me to do.”
“According to the books in your office your charity hasn’t done anything, well, charitable in the three months since you founded it.”
“I’m still trying to secure funding for my initiatives.”
“Which also are not clearly spelled out anywhere. The only thing resembling a charter that I can find is the line you filled out when you applied for your license…’to help the poor of the city.'”
He raised an eyebrow at her.
“You don’t think that is a worthy cause?” she returned.
“Well if you are lacking funding, then it would seem the money Otto tried to leave you in his will would have gone a long way to help. Why did you really reject that?”
“Obviously to avoid the scandal.”
“Oh his family felt plenty scandalized anyway.”
Maria looked down at her feet. Daley used the opportunity to look sideways at Price and slowly raise a finger, signalling that he would like to speak. He had a shy, but winning smile, like a boy who is in trouble but asking for a new toy even so. Price’s didn’t try to withhold the disdain from his face. Daley had enjoyed taking Price down a peg or two that very morning, but now he was in an official interrogation room and knew that Price could deny him any access to the case whatsoever. So now he would smile, now he would be polite, and do whatever it took to satisfy his curiosity. Price entertained the thought of throwing Daley out right then and there…but though he hated to admit it, he genuinely did want to hear what Daley was so anxious to bring to the table. So he rolled his eyes and shook his head in a long-suffering way, but then waved his hand for Daley to proceed.
“Mmm,” Daley cleared his throat. “Ms Guzman, surely you can see that things aren’t quite adding up for us. The notion that you didn’t want to upset his family feels…weak.”
“You think I would want to profit from the death of the man I loved?!” she spat out.
“See, now, that would have been a much more convincing answer…if it had been the first one you had given. It feels to us like you’re making up answers–thinking of better and better ones as you go, I’ll admit–because there’s something you’re still trying to hide.”
Maria’s eyes went wide and her nostrils went narrow. Price genuinely felt uncomfortable being in the same room as her, but at least Daley was finally getting a reaction. That was something. In any case, words failed her, so Daley simply plowed on ahead.
“Now what would you have to hide? Well, let’s consider the situation. Otto Davies was miserable with his life. You claim he had never voiced an intention to leave it, one way or another, but whether that’s true or not, we still know that he was miserable. Add to that fact that he helped you to setup a charity, only a matter of weeks before he changed his will to send all his wealth to that charity. Any idea why he would do that?”
Maria’s lips remained pursed, so still Daley continued.
“Here’s a theory, then. If Otto had simply left his family, then the prenuptial agreements would have been executed, which sharply favored his wife. But he knew there was a chance to still cut her out through his will, though it would be unlikely for that will to be honored if it left everything to his mistress! But if he left it to a charity? Suddenly Otto’s reasons for helping you to set this business up seem pretty obvious, don’t they? I guess the only question is whether you shared in those plans?”
“No really, Ms Guzman,” Price interjected. “We do need you to respond to that.”
She paused, picking her next words very carefully. “I was not aware of any intention like that. It was not my intention.”
“Yes, well, if you did share any such intention it would be difficult for you to admit it,” Daley nodded. “Because then you’d be afraid that we would accuse you of being complicit in his suicide.”
“If that had been my intention, then why would I turn down the money? I did that before there were ever police attached to the matter.”
“Ah, well done, that is a very good point,” Daley thumped the table. “And you are absolutely right, it wouldn’t make any sense that way. So it must be just as you say: that if he helped you setup the charity with the intention to leave you the money after his suicide, then you, at least, were never aware of such a plan and never would have approved of it.”
“At last you’re talking sense.”
“Unless…of course, the suicide was never actually the real plan. Perhaps there was another strategy that you were involved in…one that wasn’t supposed to end in Otto’s death. One that you still don’t want to tell us about.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Perhaps he only wanted to stage a suicide and slip away to Mexico? He could live with you off of the wealth he funneled into your fake-charity, and no one would ever come looking because, well, he was ‘dead.’ Maybe that was a plan you would have been able to accept, one you would even help him to set up. But then…he actually did die, and whether out of fear or guilt, you tried to wash your hands of the entire thing.”
“I am finished here,” Maria hissed. “I will not be insulted anymore.”
“Did you help Otto buy bullets for his gun?”
“Just stop!” Maria stood up and started towards the door. Torres glanced nervously at Price, wondering if he was going to intervene. “Of course I didn’t!” she cried as she reached for the knob.
“That’s a lie.” Daley reached into his pocket, pulled something out, and slammed it down on the table. It was a box of bullets.
On Monday I spoke about stories that are sensational and stories that are grounded. I discussed how this mystery story has featured a little bit of each. Price is grounded in the realities of life as a detective, constrained by all the mundane elements of paperwork and red tape. Daley meanwhile is free to chase a more idealized version, a game that is stripped of all the rules. Each of these perspectives shade the story, and mix across it in ways that are hopefully interesting.
At the start of the interrogation Price is direct and procedural. He asks clearly defined questions, and he receives short, unhelpful answers in reply. The process is slow and uninteresting. Then Daley has his turn and things quickly become heated, long-winded, and spiraling out of control. It even ends with a dramatic flourish at the end because that’s the sort of story Daley is trying to make this into: a sensational one.
Something else I wanted to point from this piece was how I wrote all of Maria’s responses to be extremely brief. The intention is to build up a sense of terseness, even before any adjectives are employed. This ability to imply details is something that I’m still learning how to utilize, and would like to dive into more deeply with my next post. Come back on Monday where we consider the ways authors can make dialogue self-descriptive, and then on Thursday we’ll have the conclusion to our mystery.
The two men walked into the building and soon found a secretary to help them in their research. Price provided her what little details he had about the charity, and she went to look through a wall of filing cabinets, flipping through index cards at random.
“So does the family think they’ll get the money back somehow?” Daley asked Price while they waited. “I mean this can’t be too great of a shock after he told them off, can it?”
“Well there were the prenuptial agreements, so yeah, Mrs Davies was expecting her payday. Apparently those agreements highly favored her, and the judge decided they were unfair, so he’s superseding them with the will.”
The secretary came back, carrying a single index card back with her.
“I don’t have very much,” she said to the men. “The only reason I have anything at all is because yes, the institution was set up by an American.”
“No, someone named Maria Guzman.”
“But she’s an American?”
“Yes. Not by birth, this mark right here means a naturalized citizen. You can go check the census records for more information if you need it, I’m afraid that this is all I have.”
“Oh this is plenty,” Daley smiled.
The two men did indeed follow up on Maria Guzman, and Price presented the information they found on her to Mrs Davies the next day.
Maria Guzman is a woman (obviously)
Thirty-seven years old
Born in Mexico, but went through the immigration process in her twenties
Maintains dual citizenship, and has a home both in Mexico and in the states
Within five miles of the Davies’ residence to be even more specific
“And you…spoke to her?” Otto’s wife asked, her face pale as a sheet.
“No, can’t,” Price shrugged his shoulders. “Well I mean I could, but it would have to be over the phone and that’s just never very effective. She’s in Mexico right now, has been for the past month.”
“Mm,” Mrs Davies pursed her lips together. “And you can’t go to Mexico?”
“Not officially, no. Well I mean I could, if we had an understanding with their government, but I highly doubt that my superiors are going to approve me continuing to chase this case any further.”
One week later Price and Daley were on a plane out of the country. Price had introduced Mrs Davies’ to his “private detective” friend, and she had readily agreed to send him to follow up on things. Then, the next day, Price decided he might as well sit down with Commissioner Howell and request permission to go to Mexico just in case. At first Howell dismissed the notion entirely, but took it under more serious consideration when he learned that Daley was already planning the trip.
“I know you’re worried about what he might do down there, same as me,” Price said. “You know we can’t leave him alone. He needs…looking after.”
“So that’s the official police business now?” Howell snorted. “Looking after rogue private detectives?” But even though Howell was shaking his head, the corners of his mouth twitched with concern for his friend. “However…” he said slowly, “I am worried about how this might blow back on the rest of us. I can’t stop Daley from going, obviously, and I’m worried he’ll foul things up royally! It’d be a PR nightmare if he did something stupid and people learned he was an ex from our department!”
“Yes, that’s my thought as well.”
Howell narrowed his eyes as he weighed his options. “Of course…I wouldn’t want you starting to think that this is how things are done now. That Daley can keep pulling these crazy stunts and we’ll be there to save him all the time…”
“No, of course not. I understand you completely, this would just be a one-time thing.”
“And if I did send you, it would only be because I know you would do your job right. You would be there as a bright and shining example of proper, decent, police procedure. Hopefully so bright as to prevent Daley from summoning all unholy Mexican wrath on our heads!”
“That’s all I want. One week.”
And so Daley and Price flew to Mexico on the same flight, Daley in first class on Mrs Davies’ dime, Price in coach on the precinct’s. Daley breezed through customs without any wait, while Price showed his documents and had a long conversation with an official. Then the two grabbed an unlicensed taxi and made camp at a nearby motel. The next day they went to the address they had for Guzman Charitable Services, which was a single room rented out of a dinky office building in the heart of the city. They knocked on the door but no one answered.
“Not in the office at 10 am on a Thursday?” Daley clicked his tongue. “Doesn’t sound like a very reputable institution if you ask me.”
“I’d be curious to see how many charitable services Guzman Charitable Services has actually done since being instituted,” Price nodded. “We need to check in with the local precinct anyway, let’s see if we can’t get a warrant to look at this place’s books.”
Daley looked at his watch. “And then try and catch Ms Guzman at her home this evening?”
They submitted their request for the warrant, killed a few hours walking the streets, and then that evening went to the residence for Ms Guzman, accompanied by a local officer named Torres. The house was in the suburbs, and though it was small, it was very well maintained. They knocked on the door, and a moment later a slender woman in her thirties answered.
“Hello, Ms Guzman? My name is Detective Price, and this is my friend James Daley. We’ve been sent–”
“Yo no hablo inglés, lo siento.”
“Por favor señora,” Torres leaned forward, “esto solo tomará un minuto.”
The woman sighed. “Come on in.”
She turned her back and Daley flashed a grin at Price. The four of them walked over the tiled floor and into a receiving area that doubled as the dining room. The woman waved nonchalantly at the seats around the table. The three men ignored them, but she took the one at the head.
“You are Maria Guzman?” Price clarified.
“Sí…I mean, yes. And you are here about the money?”
“Some American sent some money to my institution the other day. I assume you are here to take it back, but it won’t do you any good.”
“Not to take it back, that’s not how we work…. Why wouldn’t it do any good, though?”
“I don’t take money from people I don’t know,” Maria said indignantly. “Rejected it as soon as I heard about it.”
“You turned it down?” Daley’s eyebrows raised. “My understanding is that it was quite the sum!”
“All the more reason to not get tangled in it. What do I want with a dirty fortune?”
“Well you might have left it to me,” Daley chuckled, which caused Maria’s eyes to narrow.
“I don’t think I care for your sense of humor, sir. A death is a terrible thing, and I have no wish to profit from that.”
“Yes, please excuse my friend,” Price piped up, “he’s incorrigible. But do you mean to say that you did not know Mister Otto Davies?”
“No you don’t mean to say that, or no you didn’t know him?”
“No I did not know him.”
She frowned. “At all.”
“Why would he leave you all of his money then?” Daley asked.
“I would say you’d have to ask him, but apparently that’s impossible. Perhaps he saw our charity in the phone book and decided to do some good. I don’t know.”
“Saw your Mexican charity in a phone book from Florida? We barely found any record of your place at a business registry, and that was only because we were specifically looking for it!”
Maria’s nostrils flared, but she didn’t rise to the implied accusation that she was lying. “That does sound odd when you put it like that, but I don’t know anything about it.”
From that point forward Daley settled back. He folded his arms and patiently waited as Price and Torres covered the last of the formalities. Then the three left the place. As soon as they entered the car Price dropped his professional demeanor.
“Well that was useless,” he slapped the dashboard in frustration.
“What do you mean?” Daley asked. “That was great! She’s lying.”
“Yeah, you think? But so what? She knows this isn’t a murder case, and she knows we’ll have to drop it before long, so she has plenty of incentive to not cooperate. I don’t see what you have to be all happy about then.”
“Because we know that she has the information we want. This is the place to dig. Sure, I don’t know how we’ll get it out of her yet, but we’re going the right way…. I’d say we finally found the person who cared the most for Otto.”
“Well I’ll tell you one thing, I’m sure going to enjoy tearing her office apart once the warrant comes through. There’d better be something there.”
The next morning the two detectives checked in at the precinct and by noon they had the warrant ready to go.
“Officer Torres, could you get Miss Guzman on the phone?” Price grinned. “Tell her she needs to open up shop for us.”
“Let me know what you find down there,” Daley smiled.
“What, you’re not coming?”
“Nah, it’s a small space, I’d just be in the way.”
“Nuh-unh, that doesn’t fly. You came all the way to Mexico because you had such an itch for this case, and now you’re telling me you aren’t going to be there for a search? How come?”
“Not feeling so good. I was going to go lay down and hopefully feel better this afternoon. I’d rather be there for the interrogation after you find something to pin on Miss Guzman.” Daley turned and started to walk towards the exit.
“Hey, hey, hold up,” Price hurried to catch up to him. “You know that you’re fooling absolutely nobody, right?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” The two exited the building and continued their argument down the street.
“I don’t know where exactly you’re headed, but it’s to do some detective work that you know I couldn’t approve of.”
“If I were, then I wouldn’t be very motivated to tell you about it, now would I? Far better to just keep mum and not vex your poor, little conscience.”
“Listen Daley, I came here to do real detective work! To do things by the book!”
“And you are.”
“And I was the one who even introduced you to the Davies and told them they should send you to Mexico. So don’t pretend that your vigilantism doesn’t affect me! You get caught doing something indecent and it’ll all blow back on me!”
“Please, I’m a very delicate man!”
“And that’s to say nothing of the principle of the matter!”
“Well let’s say nothing of it.”
“Daley, come on!”
“No, you come on,” Daley finally stopped and turned to look Price in the eye. “You made it more convenient for me to be here, that’s all. I was already coming anyway, remember? So it’s not on your conscience that I’m here. And speaking of your conscience, you set the trip up this way to ease your anxieties, not to help me. Don’t pretend otherwise. Thus far I’ve indulged you in that, I’ve made you feel respectable for hanging around me. But now I’m not. That must be hard, and I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is.”
Price shook his head and took a step back. “You say all those words like you actually mean them.”
Daley shrugged and started to walk away again. He spoke without turning to look back at his partner. “What are you going to do, Price? Arrest me? You’re far outside of your jurisdiction here.”
On Monday I discussed how the different parts of a story will interrupt one another in order to have their say. The hope is that these transitions will not be jarring, and that they will combine to form a unified message, but there’s no getting around the fact that all but the smallest of tales are going to shift gears now and again.
Last week I had a scene that changed its focus partway through, and then went back to its original intent later. In today’s piece things were broken up at a much more granular level. In short, each scene of this story is focused on one thing and one thing only. The transitions of focus only occur when the next scene begins. This approach is certainly simpler, though it perhaps lacks some of the immediacy of making the change on the fly. I settled on this approach because I wanted the story to move at a quick pace, and get through multiple settings in a hurry. This meant many short scenes, which are far more difficult to interweave multiple voices within. To put it another way, it is usually better to not paint an intricate landscape when you’re working on a small canvas.
Even with the simpler approach of separating focuses into different scenes, it was still important to ensure that each story moment made sense with where I put it. For example, I knew I wanted Price and Daley to have their argument at some point during this chapter, I knew the case needed to be pushed forward, and I knew that Maria Guzman needed to be introduced as a major character. Introducing Maria while advancing the case made sense, and so I dedicated that scene solely to those two tasks, and saved the argument for later. When I considered when I should put the argument, then, I realized that it would be the perfect final note to a piece of increasing tension.
Thus there was careful consideration for when each theme would take the reins from the others, and how they would build the overall experience.
There’s one other element of this story I’d like to take a look at. If my readers had not figured it out already, this is not one of those mystery stories that is steeped very heavily in sensationalism. There’s nothing wrong with having sensational elements in a mystery story, but I wouldn’t want any of my readers to have the wrong idea about what they’re getting into.
I would like to examine this idea of sensationalism in stories more closely. Come back on Monday where we will discusswhat it is, how it is different from fantasy, and how to use it, or not use it, properly.
“You think this wasn’t a suicide?” Price asked skeptically.
“I think he wanted it to look like a suicide, but yeah, didn’t intend to actually die in the process.”
Price chuckled. “And all because that guy–”
“Yeah, all because that guy was told to come pick someone up and get him out of the country? I thought you said Gene didn’t even know the name of the passenger he was supposed to carry. Could have been someone else and it’s just a coincidence that Otto washed downstream the same day.”
“Then where’s that someone else?”
“No doubt scared off when he saw two Coast Guard boats sweeping the area!”
Daley closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to think of how to explain himself. Every now and then he would have a flash of clarity where he could almost express what his intuition was telling him, but then it would fade away as soon as he tried to do just that. “You really don’t think its weird that Otto waited until a public event with a ton of witnesses, demanded that the party be held right here, walked himself to the edge of the stage over the river, shot himself in the chest instead of the head–”
“Why does that matter?”
“Everyone would think it was weird if they saw a guy shoot himself in the head and there wasn’t a fountain of blood, but if he shot himself in his jacket and they didn’t see anything? Not so surprising. So yeah, shot himself in the chest, was swept down towards the gulf, where there happened to be a boat waiting to pick up someone, and Otto had a pocketful of cash… You’re telling me you don’t see anything suspicious in all of that?”
“It’s odd, sure. But none of it matters.”
“Because Otto is dead! If you had all this conjecture and we hadn’t turned up a body, I might say you were on to something. But there is a body, and it was honestly and truly shot through the chest.”
Daley shook his head, unconvinced.
“Hey look, I think I’ve got it figured out,” Price said enthusiastically. “No really, I’ve got it. You’re right, Daley. The man was sick of his family and he wanted out. He planned this grand getaway and set everything up just like you say. Who would think twice if we didn’t find a body? We would have just said it was lost at sea and confirmed the case as a suicide, which was just what he wanted.”
“But then he woke up this morning and said ‘maybe I should just go ahead and do it for real.’ Huh?”
Daley weighed the theory for a moment. “It might be.”
“No, that’s it. I’m sure of it now. Anyone who is miserable enough to consider faking a suicide is miserable enough to consider the actual thing.”
“Well, even if you were right then you still ought to keep the case open to verify it. Let’s find out for sure if it was Otto who hired Gene, find out where he got that gun and ammo, find out if there was some haven in Mexico with his name on it.”
“All in the hopes that we’ll find something to implicate foul play, no doubt. Give me a reason why you don’t like my theory.”
“Well…this is weak, I know. But like I told you from Quincy’s testimony: Otto looked surprised when he shot himself. I think he felt the bullet and was surprised that it wasn’t a blank.”
“Or like Quincy said, just shocked that he had the nerve to do it.”
“Or, second theory, he did everything like you said, but he messed up and bought actual bullets instead of blanks! Idiot messed up and killed himself on accident.”
“In which case it would be an accidental death, not a suicide.”
“Is it?” Price’s face was one of genuine curiosity. “I mean in this case it would seem more like he was trying to make an accident, but succeeded by mistake!”
“Huh, yeah,” Daley grinned. “I dunno how you’d rule that…. But anyway, it’s obviously still worth keeping the investigation open a little longer.”
Price sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. Daley knew what he was thinking: that there was a lot more important work he could be doing than differentiating between a suicide and an accidental death. Price had ruled out the possibility of foul play entirely. Daley didn’t even know why he himself thought it might still be involved, nor why he was so interested in exploring this case any further. Well, maybe it was because now that he didn’t have to worry about reports and red tape there wasn’t anything to prevent him from being genuinely curious. Being off the force had truly unburdened him.
“Do it for me,” Daley said. He could tell there wouldn’t be any convincing Price, so it would just have to be an appeal to friendship. “One week.”
Daley grinned and clapped Price on the shoulder.
“Where do you want to start?” Price sighed. “Go question the family?”
Daley frowned. “Otto hated those people. And from the little bit I’ve seen, they didn’t care for him much either.”
“If you want to know someone’s secrets you have to talk to the person that cared about them most. They’ll conceal things if the person’s guilty and be forthcoming if they’re innocent. Either way it lets you know where the truth is at…. Problem is, I don’t know what person cared most about Otto.”
Four days later Price was seated in his Chevrolet Vega, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. He was parked outside of the grocery store, waiting for Daley to come out. Daley’s wife had told Price where to find him. Five minutes later he emerged.
“Hey, you done with the pharmacy?” Price leaned over and called out the passenger window.
“Pharmacy?” Daley wrinkled his nose. “No, just getting a doughnut. Yeah, I’m done. What are you doing here?”
Price shrugged. “Couple things came up with that Otto Davies guy, thought you’d want to hear about it.”
“Oh yeah,” Daley stuffed the small, white bag he carried in his coat pocket and opened the passenger door. “So I was right?”
“You’re getting way too ahead of yourself,” Price said after Daley had taken his seat and closed the door. Price started the ignition and drove out onto the street. “Just some…interesting stuff, may not mean anything at all. First thing is that we got his credit card records and found the shop where he bought the gun and the shop where he bought the bullets.”
“Wait…were they not the same?”
“Nope. Not even in the same city.”
“I’m guessing the shop where he bought the gun carried ammunition for it?”
“Oh yeah. And in fact the store owner remembered Otto because there was a funny moment where he asked for the gun and ammo, then said ‘no wait, I just want the gun is all.'”
“And then he did something else funny. He paid for it with cash, and then just as the transaction finished he said he had done it wrong, could they please give him the money back and let him pay with his credit card instead.”
“Hmm…same credit card he used to buy the bullets?”
“Yeah,” Price raised an eyebrow. “Why? What does that mean to you?”
Daley shrugged. “Probably nothing, just if he was trying to hide the purchase, like so his wife didn’t know he was buying a weapon, cash would have made more sense. But specifically getting each with a card leaves a nice paper trail for anyone like us to follow.”
“Yeah, I had the same thought. But then I realized I was just being paranoid like you, and probably he just needed the cash for something else that day.”
“Yeah probably,” Daley smiled. “So how long ago did he get the gun?”
“About six weeks.”
“And the bullets?”
“The very next day.”
“So he went and bought the gun…then went and bought the bullets in an entirely different city one day later? Huh. They’re not blanks I take it?”
“Fully functional .45 ACP rounds.”
“They remember anything about Otto there?”
“Nah, but, uh, something else interesting happened just this morning.”
“They read out the will and apparently seven weeks ago Otto changed it. Sent all the money to some charity in Mexico.”
“Yeah, knew you’d like that. Course it isn’t surprising that he cut out his family, but choosing somewhere in Mexico corresponds nicely with your theory of him wanting to run down there.”
“What do we know about the charity?”
“Nothing. That’s why you’re coming with me to the registry. We’ll see if they have anything on file about it. Doubtful that there’ll be much, given that it’s international…”
“Unless it was actually started by an American!”
“That is the question…. But uh, you know that means we’re quickly running out of jurisdiction here. And it’s not like I’m going to get approval to go out of country to keep pulling on a suicide case.”
Daley was quiet for a minute.
“That’s alright. If the trail goes to Mexico, I’ll go there myself.”
“What?! You’re crazy!”
“Wouldn’t take me more than a week. Tickets are pretty cheap, and I’ve got loads of time.”
“And you’re telling me Marcine would be okay with this? Brother, she hated anytime you had to stay out past six!”
“She might not be happy about it,” Daley shrugged. “But she’s always made do.”
“Listen man, is everything alright between you two? Way I’ve heard you talk, Marcine’s always done right by you.”
“Oh she has.”
“You doing right by her?”
“You think I wouldn’t?!” there was a bite to Daley’s tone now.
“Hey look, I know I’m crossing far into ‘none of your business’ territory but I’m worried about you, man. I care!”
Daley looked down and nodded. “I know you do, Price. You mean well. I appreciate that.”
“So why don’t you listen to me?”
“And why don’t you talk to me?”
“I…now’s just not a good time for that.”
Price shook his head incredulously. “That’s not how friendship works, man. You’re just gonna push everybody away.”
“I hope not,” Daley said softly. “Or maybe that’s for the best…I dunno…”
He stayed silent and Price glanced out of the corner of his eye every few seconds to see what Daley was doing. Every time was just the same. Daley’s eyes were pointed down at the dash, but they were glazed over as he intently weighed some private debate in his mind. It was worrisome, but Price didn’t want to interrupt unless he had to. After a full three minutes Daley finally spoke up again.
“I know that quite a few people are concerned about me right now. You, Marcine, even Commissioner Howell has reached out a couple times. And I really do appreciate everyone’s consideration, I wouldn’t want you to think that it goes unnoticed. And I know I haven’t been responding to any of the concern you’ve all been showing, and I get that that’s frustrating. It has to be. Like talking to a wall I would imagine.”
He paused, and Price could hear the “but” coming from a mile away. Daley continued. “And I’d like to make things easier on you all if I could…but the simple truth is that I can’t. There is something going on, but I’ve got to figure it out for myself. Talking to someone isn’t going to help me, actually I think it would only get in the way. Maybe you can accept that, maybe you can’t, but either way that’s how it’s got to be. Are you able to understand that? That some things you have to work through on your own? No matter if it seems right to anyone else, sometimes you just have to.”
Price only grunted.
“But even while I can’t make sense of my own self, I am able to make sense of this,” Daley tapped the case file laying on the dashboard. “This stuff makes sense to me. I can work it and I can uncover its secrets and I can find definitive answers if I just keep pushing long enough. And right now that feels so fulfilling to me. I need that right now. Maybe that doesn’t make sense to you, but if the trail leads to Mexico, then that’s where I’ve got to go. I hope Marcine understands, I hope you do…but even if not…”
Price shook his head. “No, I don’t understand…. But so long as you’re so dead-set on it, I might be able to help. Otto’s family is very upset about the changed will, and they wanted me to look into it. Even offered to pay for travel and expenses. I imagine they’d extend the offer to any private investigator I put them in touch with, too.”
“That would be nice.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what friends are for…for whatever that’s worth. Looks like we’re here.” Price pulled into an available parking space and stopped the car. The registry building awaited them.
On Monday I talked about how a mystery can distract the audience from some points while focusing in on others. I talked about how this can be used to hide major revelations in plain sight, so long as you can get the audience to look the other way. On the other hand, I also talked about how mysteries can pause to make sure the audience is on the same page as the detective. Many of these stories will have distinctive moments where the action halts and the characters talk through everything plainly, just to make sure no reader was left behind.
In the case of today’s post, I opened with just this sort of scene. Price and Daley talk about the clues, theories, and conclusions in great detail, reminding the audience of exactly what is known, and exactly what is not. By the end of the conversation I intended for the audience to have in mind the exact same questions that Price and Daley do.
And then I started to lead into the next development in the case, but I interrupted it with a moment of character development. For a brief period the case sinks into the background and the story is now all about two friends and their relationship. Then the conversation comes to a close, and the case comes back to the fore.
I’d like to take a closer look at these sorts of narrative interruptions more closely. Why do we tell stories that shift gears like this, rather than hold to just one thread from start to finish? What makes the difference between a clunky transition and a seamless one? We’ll explore these points and others when we come back on Monday. I’ll see you then!
I am currently writing a mystery story, and this type of tale presents a most unusual dilemma. In most mysteries the author must hold the attention of the reader, but at the same time the author must distract them as well. In fact the author must primarily be calling the audience’s attention to the distraction, getting them to focus on the wrong thing on purpose.
Though not entirely. For if you have all of their attention pointed towards the false conclusions, then they won’t be able to recognize the right one when it does come along. So you need their full attention to your story as a whole, but part of it must be divided towards the truth, and part to the lies.
Thus, in the same moment the author must be the teacher that is lecturing, and the goofball that is shooting spitballs, and they must be able to gauge just how interested the reader will be in each of these conflicting voices at each beat of the story.
There are a few different ways that mystery writers can approach this balancing act. Here are the most common.
Revelation at the End)
The easiest way to ensure that your reader has the right amount of information and misinformation is to give it to them explicitly. If you want them to have caught on to something, you show it to them. If you want them to not have caught on to something, you do not show it to them.
In the Columbo episode Suitable for Framing, the detective knows that the murderer has stolen a priceless painting. Columbo is convinced of who the guilty party is, an art critic named Dale Kingston but he needs a way to prove it. At one point he approaches Kingston, who is walking with a large brown bag which contains the stolen paintings. Columbo grabs at it, asking if he can see what is inside, to which Kingston refuses. Kingston then scurries away to plant the paintings on an innocent woman, intending to frame her for the murder instead.
Up to this point the viewer feels that they are right-in-step with the detective Columbo, but then comes the climatic finish which reveals he was just a little bit ahead. The paintings are revealed in the custody of the framed woman, and Columbo insists that they dust it for fingerprints.
Kingston laughs at that. He is already known to have been in contact with that painting under innocent circumstances. If his fingerprints show up on the piece it won’t mean a thing. Columbo says he isn’t looking for Kingston ‘s fingerprints, he is looking for his own. When he grabbed at the brown bag that Kingston was carrying earlier, he intentionally poked his fingers inside and pressed them against whatever was in there. Columbo makes the case.
Now a mystery whose solution depends on secret information is usually frustrating because it doesn’t feel like the story is playing fair with the viewer. The episodes of Columbo gets around this issue, though, by flipping the script.
You see in Columbo you aren’t trying to figure out who the murderer is. You know right from the beginning who the guilty party is, and even seen how they have covered up their tracks. Rather than having our perspective behind the detective’s shoulder it is behind the killer’s. And so it makes sense that we only know what the killer knows, and not necessarily what Columbo does.
The Quicker Mind)
But many mysteries do take the perspective of the detective, and therefore should not conceal the sleuth’s information from the audience. So what can a mystery such as this do to make the final revelation still a surprise? They can give the audience all of the information necessary to solve the case, but all the pieces are so convoluted that they require some time to straighten it out. Before the audience has done so, the detective has beaten them to it.
This is how things play out in the recent film Knives Out. This movie is recent enough that I won’t go into details that spoil the outcome, but just know that the film will give you everything necessary to solve the case yourself, but it will be unlikely that you will piece it all together before Benoit Blanc does.
I guess, to be fair, one of the clues is only explicitly disclosed during the final revelation, but based on the context the viewer already knows what it must be, and it only has to be spelled out as a formality.
Mystery stories like these play fair in that they don’t withhold information from the audience, and they also present a sort of challenge to the audience: can you solve it before the detective does? And as it turns out, some people really do work out these solutions faster than the story does, but if anything this only adds to the enjoyment. It is pleasant to be hoodwinked, but it is even more pleasant to avoid being so.
Step for Step)
The final approach for these mysteries is to have the audience discover the truth side-by-side with the detective. There is no secret revelation at the end, no mental gymnastics to tie all of the threads together, the ending comes plainly and predictably. Mysteries like these embrace the pleasure of the journey, rather than of the climax only.
A classic example of this is the Sherlock Holmes case The Hound of Baskervilles. Here the villain is identified several chapters before the end, but without enough evidence to convict him. And so the climax of the story has us observing how Holmes and Watson lay a trap to get that man to implicate himself, which necessarily requires putting their client at mortal risk!
Even though there is no surprise twist at the end, it is still a satisfying game of cat and mouse, and it has since become the most recognizable case of the most recognizable detective. Sometimes an audience just wants to go on an adventure with a detective, and don’t need to be tricked into enjoying it.
With my own story I have been trying to weave all three types of mystery-story-telling into one. At the end of the last section Daley interrogated a man, based entirely on a conjecture that he had made up in his own mind, and which conjecture had not been disclosed to the audience. Thus there was something secret that gave him an upper hand in the case.
But on the other hand, his secret was simply a conjecture, which it is possible some of my readers had already made up in their own minds as well. Thus we see this situation is blended with the second pattern of mysteries, the one where it is a race between audience and detective to reach the same conclusion.
This pivotal moment of interrogation represented a shift in my story, because up to that point I had remained firmly in the third pattern: that of keeping audience and detective perfectly in sync. In fact I took some time to explicitly spell out every clue that stood out to Daley, what he was thinking about them, and what elements yet remained unknowable. Thus I ensured that everyone was on the same page.
On Thursday we will continue with the investigation, and in this segment I will once again pause and ensure that reader and detective are walking side-by-side. Then we will continue on to the next wrinkles of the case on equal footing.
Daley declined the ride from Officer Hales. His conversation with Quincy had got his mind stirred, and he needed time to muddle out why. So instead he dug his hands into his pockets, turned his feet towards the Gulf of Mexico, and began his slow walk in that direction.
It wasn’t even that he had questions to answer. Indeed, it would have been nice if he could have distilled an intelligible question out of the knot twisting in his mind. There wasn’t anything particular that he wanted to know, he just couldn’t shake the feeling that the entire affair was somehow odd.
Otto had thrown a big party for his friends, and let them all watch as he blasted himself away. He had been uncharacteristically public about the whole thing. It seemed likely that he had intentionally placed himself so that he would fall into the river and be swept away. Even an explanation like Quincy’s–that Otto had just indulged in a single moment of over-the-top drama–still left Daley dissatisfied. That was just another strange thing compounded on top of all the others.
“And he shot himself in the chest,” Daley said out loud as he kicked at a stone. That was unusual, too. Most people wanted to be certain that they would not be left suffering for a long while after they shot themselves, and a shot through the heart was trickier to get right.
Daley had encountered confusion like this before, of course, and he had come to learn what it meant: simply that he did not know enough. It didn’t matter if you were handed important puzzle pieces if the overall picture wasn’t complete enough for you to know what hole they filled.
Thus as he finished his mile’s walk he made his peace with the ambiguity. For now it was enough to embrace the uncertainty, and then wait patiently for more of the details to come trickling in. He smiled as he found that tranquility, then looked up to take in the scene unfolding before him.
The river had continued to run steadily by him all the way to the Gulf. Here it drastically widened, spewing itself into the larger body with a churning froth. In this fringe area the water spun in little whirlpools as all the different currents competed with one another. Then, after they had cancelled one another’s momentum out, the water was sucked by the underlying loop current down the southern arm of Florida, then eastward and into the Atlantic Ocean.
Three boats were lazily drifting around the coast now. Since the suicide was recent, there was still a chance that the body was caught in the churning froth. That was good in that they might snag it before it was lost to the Gulf, but it was bad in that it meant navigating some treacherous, choppy water for the boats.
“Made it, did you?”
Daley looked to his side, down the rocky outcropping that he stood on, and saw Price’s head hovering below.
“Didn’t see you there,” Daley said. “How are things getting along here?”
Price shrugged. “Dragging their nets, as you can see. Haven’t found anything yet so far.”
“Yes, well, it might be a difficult find. Hang on a second, only two of those boats are coast guard. Who’s on the trawler?”
“Some local was nearby, agreed to help us with the search.”
“Why was he here?”
“Fishing I guess.”
Daley scowled and shook his head. “There isn’t any good fishing here, just look at this place!”
“Gee, I dunno. Maybe its a new boat and he wanted to get the hang of it in choppy water.”
“Hmm, maybe. Just a little strange, anyway.”
“So what if it is? That’s hardly anything worth getting worked up about.”
“No…but then there’s a lot of strange, little things going on.”
Daley ignored the question. “And each little, strange thing I have the same thought: well that doesn’t really mean anything. But all together it seems like a few too many oddities.”
Price shook his head. “You know what’s odd? You’re wanting to be here for boring body retrieval. What did you call this earlier? A hobby? What kind of hobby gets you somewhere like this?”
“I’m not bored. Why? Are you?”
Price scoffed and pulled a walkie-talkie up to his mouth. “Hey you guys find anything yet?”
“Well…we would have told you if we had.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
After another hour of waiting Price and Daley called the men on the boats to ask what they’d like for lunch. Then they drove off to get hamburgers and called the men when it arrived. One of the boats made for the single dock a quarter-mile down the coast, and the two detectives drove down there to join them. They remained on the boats then, watching from the deck as they continued dragging their nets across an ever-widening circle.
They were nearing the end of the bay, which meant that the water was finally getting steady, and also that it was about to widen out into the bulk of the Gulf. Not a good sign for ever being able to retrieve the body. But then, just as they were getting ready to call it for the day, the second coast guard vessel signaled that they’d found something caught on the rocks at the corner of the bay.
“Yep, that’s a body,” Price observed as the corpse was laid out on the deck. He knelt down and opened the man’s jacket. A large, red stain covered the shirt, but the bullet wound had long since stopped bleeding. It gave Price a clean look at the entry hole. “Looks like a .45 maybe…you didn’t find the gun yet, did you?”
“Yes. He was still holding it in fact.”
“Oh wow! Let me look at that. Colt Commander…. Yep, just one bullet discharged. Hey how about that, Daley? We got it all right here. Nice and tidy for once! Hey…what are you looking for?”
Daley had finished going through the man’s jacket and front pant-pockets, now he was tipping the body sideways so that he could reach the ones in the back.
“Just wondering if he–aha!” He pulled out a thick wad of cash.
Whew! one of the coast guards whistled from the side. It was clearly more than a thousand dollars.
“What, he was going to bribe his way past Saint Peter?” Daley said pointedly to Price, but his companion did not follow. “Oh come on! You really don’t see it yet?”
Price just gave him a bewildered stare, so Daley stood up and took charge. The volunteer searcher had pulled up next to the coast guard boat with his trawler, and in one fluid motion Daley strode to the brink of the two boats and hopped over to the other. He could feel the tension among the coast guards behind him, could see it in the eyes of the volunteer. That was alright, a little tension might help him squeeze out what he needed from the man.
“Hey, I just need a quick word with you,” he said brightly, gripping the boatman firmly under the elbow and steering him towards the trawler’s cabin. “It won’t take a minute.”
“Just a formality, come on.”
The man was clearly very uneasy about all of this. That was good. That meant he knew something, and Daley was right to have drawn a connection from the money to him. As they rounded the corner Daley let his eyes do a quick appraisal of the man. He and his boat were untidy vessels, but uncharacteristically dressed up for the day. The man had shaved his thick stubble just this morning, evidenced by the tan line on his cheeks, his messy hair was hidden away, just the fringes of it peeking out from under the new ball-cap he had put over it. The boat was uncomfortably empty, like it had been filled with clutter which had recently been hauled away all at once. The man had been expecting company, and either it was someone important…or someone wealthy.
They passed through the doorway and into the small cabin in the middle of the boat. Price was bounding after them, so Daley quickly slammed the door shut and turned the lock, leaving his partner giving him a befuddled look through the window.
“There, no police,” Daley said as he rounded on his prey, “so hopefully you’ll be honest with me.”
“Hey man, I don’t really feel comfortable with this, don’t you think–”
“You were hired to pick up a passenger and smuggle him into another country. Probably Mexico. Just say yes.”
Daley winced and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I guess you’re not ready to be honest. What’s your name?”
“Hey man, this isn’t legal, is it? I should have that cop out there arrest you for breaking and entering! Aren’t you a cop yourself?”
“Nope, just a volunteer. Like you. So really you should be open with me. Because while I’m not a cop I do know them and I can get them off your back. I don’t care that you smuggle people, Jones–”
“My name’s Gene!”
“I don’t care that you smuggle people, Gene. I really don’t. What I do care about is that the police don’t get the wrong idea and think that you’re involved with a murder! So help me out, we’re on the same side here.”
“Involved with–what?! Those guys–” he jabbed his finger towards the coast guards “–they told me that guy was a suicide!”
“Yes, to keep you around until they could pin you with some hard evidence.”
The man’s eyes went wide with horror and Daley had to make a special effort not to smile.
“There’s too many suspicious things up at the crime scene,” Daley continued, “and the biggest of them all is a random boat that just happens to hang out where the body turns up.”
“Oh come on, if that man was murdered and I had something to do with it, you think I’d just be hanging around here waiting to get picked up?”
“No, I don’t. That’s what I’m trying to tell you, I think you’re innocent! But I’m not the one that has to be convinced.”
“I didn’t have anything to do with this,” Gene folded his arms and furrowed his brow. “So let the cops take me in if they want, the truth’ll see me through.”
“If you want it that way, sure. But then the truth means telling them why you were really here instead, doesn’t it?” Daley paused to let the weight of that sink in. “And even if you weren’t here for murder, you still don’t want the cops poking into the real reason, now do you?”
Gene remained silent, so Daley continued.
“You got a call, right? Pick some guy up at the mouth of the river, he’ll have a pocketful of cash for you. You just got to get him out of the country and into somewhere else without going through customs?”
“Why are you doing this?”
Gene paused, weighing his next words carefully. “So…if, theoretically, things really were like how you just described…why are you trying to get me to tell it to you now, rather than to the police down at the office?”
It was a fair question. Gene didn’t want to be conned and he could tell that Daley’s explanation didn’t quite hold up. Daley would have to be a little bit honest with him to win his trust.
“Because, Gene, the police have to operate within a system. And I hate that system. It’s far too slow and far too encumbered. That makes for a lot of uncertainty. So maybe they would question you right now, but maybe they wouldn’t for a few days. Maybe by then the trail’s gone cold. Maybe by then you’ll have thought up a story and you’ll lie to them because they won’t put the right pressure on you. Honestly…maybe they don’t even question you at all. It’s entirely possible that you could sail away today and never hear another word about this again.” He paused and clasped his palms together in front of him. “But if you did that, then a man would have been murdered today and it would never be set right.”
Gene looked down at his feet.
“I don’t think you’re a bad guy, Gene. I really don’t. And I don’t think you want to stop us doing right by that poor sap they just pulled out of the water. His name is Otto, by the way. Don’t know if you knew that. And really, I just want to help Otto out, Gene. I really don’t care one bit about whether you’re a smuggler or not. Just tell me that that man was planning to meet you here, still alive, and that raises enough uncertainty for us to keep this case open. You won’t have to make any official statement, you won’t have to talk to the police. The detective out there is my personal friend and he’ll take my word for it. He’ll bend the rules that much because he just wants what’s right like you and me.”
Gene cleared his throat slowly. “And if he did want to talk to me, it would just be your word against mine.”
“That’s right. And if you changed your story, they’d throw out anything I said as inadmissible.”
“You’re not wearing a wire or anything?”
Daley pulled his shirt up.
Gene exhaled slowly and looked at his feet tapping on the deck. He looked up. “Okay…it’s like you said.”
On Monday I spoke of how a story often includes multiple layers, including meta-commentary on its own subject matter. Very often characters will discuss themes on the side, and then playing them out in their own drama. A classic example of this is the conversation between Captain Kirk and Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The two are debating as to whether no-win scenarios really exist, and what the correct behavior in such a position would be. Unsurprisingly, the action of the movie brings them face to face with that exact quandary.
I have tried to put over the mystery of Otto’s death another layer of mystery, that of Daley’s choice to stop working on the force. We did not see much development of that in this post, that will be further pursued in my next section. For today, though, I decided to try another form of multi-layering with the conversation between Daley and Gene. The conversation here is layered and also interwoven. Daley is telling lies, telling truths, and telling half-truths. He is taking his own perspectives and putting them in the mouth of the police. He is making up false accusations that Gene might be the murderer…but he is expressing a true opinion that someone has played foul.
Gene is obviously lost in the layers. By the end of the conversation he has a bit better idea of what Daley is really about, but still not complete. However the audience has been given enough context (I hope!) to see through the whole rigmarole and understand what Daley is really driving at. It was fun to try and write a layered piece that would be confusing towards a character, but be illuminating towards the reader.
In a recent post I shared a little bit about how storytellers try to obfuscate facts to make their final revelation a surprise to the reader. In my next post I’d like to look at that idea in greater detail, particularly how it is used in murder mysteries. While there I’ll also point out which of these murder mystery tropes I am using in Washed Down the River, and which ones I am not. See you next Monday!
“…you about there? Just got a call from the coroner wondering how long he’s going to have to wait.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Detective Price lifted the mic towards his mouth. “Just pulling up as we speak.”
“Good,I’ll let you–hang on–Commissioner is asking whether Daley is there with you?”
“What? No! Of course he isn’t.”
“Of course he isn’t,” the dispatcher repeated sarcastically. “Carry on.”
Detective Price switched the mic off and Detective Daley chuckled in the seat next to him. Technically it wasn’t Detective Daley anymore.
“You might as well tell them the truth, Price. They already know it.”
“Innocent until proven guilty!”
“So they say.”
“Look, if you’re so concerned, then why don’t you stop asking to come out with me? Why can’t you be like a normal retiree and stop doing your work after you leave it?”
Daley shrugged. “Nothing ruins a passion like having to do it for a job. Now that it’s just a a hobby I actually kind of like it.”
Price scoffed. “You just enjoy being able to break the rules.”
“And not having to wear a uniform. Really you should retire, too, Price, it’s much better this way.”
“Can’t. I still got a family to provide for. Oh wait, you have a family that needs providing for, too!”
“Are you trying to pry into my personal finances, Price?”
“I wasn’t talking about them needing your money.”
Daley frowned and looked out the window. “My family knows what I’m doing and–and they’ll have to make their peace with it if they haven’t already.” He shook his head and kept talking before Price could ask him if everything was alright. “Anyway, you’re still the one who picks me up each morning,”
Price shrugged. “I guess after all these years I’ve forgotten how to get from my home to the precinct without stopping by your place first.” An awkward silence. “But, uh, you wanna talk? About things at home?”
“Buy a map, Price.” Daley popped open the passenger door and stepped outside of the ’71 Chevrolet Vega. Price followed him and the two made their way across the broad lawn that sloped gently upwards to the massive art deco house ahead. There was a cobblestone walkway running from the entrance, and two red leaf palms on either side of the door. They were quite striking trees, with a single plume of crimson sticking out of their crowns…like a stream of blood gushing from a great, green head. One didn’t see these trees in Florida very much, they weren’t even native to the state.
“Pretty nice place here,” Price whistled, “it’ll be nice to see how the other side lives.”
“Dies, don’t you mean?” Daley returned dryly.
“Hey, you two the detectives?” an officer hailed them, making his way quickly down the lawn.
“Just him,” Daley jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
“Oh?” the officer half-raised his hands, as if unsure whether he should allow Daley to continue towards the estate.
“He’s alright,” Price said. “Daley is–consulting on this matter. Detective Price,” he introduced himself with extended hand.
“Officer Zane. Pleased to meet you. I hardly think you’ll need any consultant for this one,” the officer raised an eyebrow as he shook Price’s hand. “It’s an obvious case of suicide. Very public and everything.”
The three of them continued up towards the house, Officer Zane continuing to explain things along the way.
“Seems they were having a party here this morning. The birthday of the deceased, I guess. His name was Otto Davies, just so you know, I should have mentioned that first. Anyway, when it came time to cut the cake, Otto gets up to give his little speech, but it wasn’t a birthday thank-you like I’ve ever heard! Apparently he really laid it all out. Told everyone that they were a pack of leeches, bleeding him dry, and how he’s been weighed down by them for years and can’t be free. Says that he just can’t go on living like that anymore.”
“See, the other side’s got it real good,” Daley ribbed Price in the chest.
“Then he pulls out a Colt,” Zane continues, “turns it into his coat, and blasts himself away in front of everybody.”
“Shot himself in the…chest?”
“Yeah, not the head. Right in the heart they say. I dunno, maybe he thought it’d be more dramatic that way.”
They had reached the front door of the house, which opened into a hallway running from left-to-right. Opposite the entrance another set of doors was open, these leading into a central courtyard area. A bitter-looking man in a tight, gray suit waited in the opening.
“So, uh, why isn’t there any ambulance here?” Price asked.
“Because there’s no body!” the man in the gray suit interjected angrily before Zane could answer. It was George Teeler. The coroner.
Price frowned. “No body? How–”
“Follow me,” Officer Zane said, “you’ll see.”
“Well Georgie, then I guess we weren’t keeping you waiting after all,” Daley grinned broadly.
“What are you doing here?” Teeler scowled. “I thought you were off the force now!”
“Aw, you wouldn’t deny me a chance to see how the other side lives?”
“Evidently they don’t.”
“Was that a joke?!” Daley appeared genuinely amazed. “Georgie there’s hope for you yet!”
The group made their way into the courtyard area, then past the rows of chairs towards the raised stage at the back. The party-goers had all been retained for questioning. Half of them lounged in the chairs, while the rest paced nervously around the perimeter walkway.
Officer Zane leaped onto the stage and quickly strode to the back of it.
“Blood,” he pointed to a large stain on the oak paneling. “Also here.” The back of the stage was open, with a broad view of the hilly countryside as it fell away into the Gulf of Mexico a mile distant. In order to prevent anyone from falling into that countryside, a wooden railing wrapped around the back of the stage, and a good amount of dried blood was sticking to this as well.
“So he stood here?” Price clarified. “At the back of the stage, against the little railing?”
The part of the railing here was twisted and part of it had snapped off. It might have been meant to deter people from falling past it, but it wasn’t strong enough to stop a body that was determined to do so.
“So then he fell backwards, into…there?” Price’s finger pointed down eight feet to the smooth current of water beneath them. Evidently the house straddled a small river, which jetted out directly beneath the stage.
“Which rushed his body away to…there?” Price’s finger traced the course of the river as it made straight for the Gulf of Mexico.
“You got it.”
“Well it wouldn’t do to have a run-of-the-mill suicide, now would it?” Daley scoffed. “Live large and die epically!”
“More like die a pain in the neck,” Price frowned. “You got anyone looking for the body down there yet?”
“What about the people here?” Daley asked. “You’re not going to get their statements first?”
“What for? Looks to me like Officer Zane covered things already.”
“I did take down their testimonies, yes.”
“Good man. I’ll read your report.”
Daley shook his head. “Well I need a clearer picture. You go ahead, Price, I’ll catch up.”
“Without a car?”
“It’s just a mile. I can manage.”
“Perhaps I could ride down with you?” Zane asked Price. “Then my companion, Officer Hales over there, could use our squad car and come down with Daley when he’s finished.”
“That works, too,” Daley agreed.
Price nodded as well, then he and Zane made for his car.
“And give me a call when you’ve found my subject!” George Teeler called after them, then went off to rest in the house’s parlor.
Daley paused for a minute to take in each of the guests. He measured them up, looking for which one would be best to question. He didn’t want some nervous twit who would gush their feelings all over him, so at last he settled on a thin, middle-aged man, who was seated apart from all the rest, and appeared thoroughly bored with the entire affair. Daley grinned and made his way over, smoothly gliding into a seat directly behind the man.
“These suicides sure aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, are they?” he asked. The man swiveled in his chair and gave him a bewildered stare. “A few seconds of action, but otherwise just a lot of long tedium.”
The man sniffed in an unimpressed way. “I do have better things I could be doing with my time, if that’s what you’re saying. What do they need to keep all of us here for? It’s not like one of us killed him.”
Daley shrugged. “Search me. I suppose you didn’t really know Otto either?”
The man smiled and shook his head. “No. And after this afternoon, I wouldn’t really care to.”
“I heard it was quite the speech.”
“What? You weren’t here then?”
“No, I’m just a friend of one of the investigators.”
“Oh…should you even be here?”
“Why not? Like you said, its not like the guy was murdered.”
“Hmm…I guess I don’t know how police business works.”
“Not sure that it does. So this was your first time at Otto’s house?”
“Well this wasn’t his place, you know.”
“No. Some relation’s. Cousin or in-law or something.” The man twisted in his seat and called to one of the women who was nervously fluttering on the walkway. “Marjorie! Marge! Over here…whose place did you say this was?”
The woman came over. She must have been the man’s wife. She was also middle-aged, wore the same style of casual, designer clothing, and her hair was dyed red, though not very well.
“And she’s Otto’s sister?” Daley asked.
“His wife’s sister,” Marge said.
“Oh, so his wife planned the party for him? That makes sense.”
“Well no,” Marge’s eyes went wide with the eagerness of a gossip. “We’ve just been talking about it over there. Apparently Otto explicitly wanted it here. Not just in this home, but made very clear he wanted it to be in the courtyard and with the cake up on the stage.”
“What’s so exciting about that?” the man asked.
“Because–well, it makes it seem like he planned to do it this way Quincy,” she rested her hand on her husband’s shoulder for support.
“Well yeah, this was clearly something he’d been thinking about,” Daley was nonplussed. “If you bring a gun to your birthday party, you probably didn’t just barely think to do it that morning. How long ago did you get your invitations for the party?”
“I don’t know…” Quincy scratched his head. “Four weeks ago?”
“And it said to come here?”
“Yes,” Marge nodded, then her eyes went wide. “Oh you mean he knew he was going to do this clear back then? And–and in front of all of us? Why would he want us to see this Quincy?”
“I don’t know darling, why don’t you go back to the others now.”
She scuttled off and Daley could hear her breathlessly telling her friends that they had confirmed her suspicions about this being a planned act. Quincy rolled his eyes.
“It’ll be months before I’ve heard the end of this, you know. That’s my real gripe with Otto. If he was going to off himself, why couldn’t he just do it in a private way that didn’t have to involve all of us?”
“A lot of people want it private. But I guess some people want a lot of publicity. Was Otto a rather flamboyant man?”
Quincy shook his head. “I’ve hardly ever seen him, and that’s not for a lack of opportunity. My wife and his are best friends, I’ve been to loads of their gatherings. He was always either shut up in his room or glued to the back wall with his drink. Maybe the introvert in him finally wanted to have his say for once. Wanted to see how it felt to be the drama queen.”
“Maybe…mind if I ask you about one other thing? Then I’ll let you enjoy your boredom in peace.”
Quincy turned his palms up and shrugged in surrender.
“You mentioned the cake. I heard that this whole speech started when it was time to cut it.”
“Well I can see that the cake is right there at the front of the stage. And the microphone stand is right next to it, too. But apparently he shot himself against the railing there, quite a bit back and to the right. Look, you can even see how the microphone cord runs from the stand over to the back railing.” Daley pointed.
“Oh yeah, he was backing towards the railing the whole time he screamed at us.”
“Strange to back away from people you’re screaming at, don’t you think? Was he meandering about randomly and ended up back there, or did he move that way pretty directly?”
“Directly I guess.”
“Huh, almost seems like he wanted to fall in the river.”
“Didn’t really think about that. Maybe so. Drama queen.”
“Maybe…did you notice if he looked down when he reached the railing? Like to see if he was over the river or not?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Anything strange at all when he shot himself?”
Quincy raised an eyebrow, and seemed to be weighing whether the thought in his mind was worth expressing or not. “Right after the gun went off, for that very brief moment before he slipped over the railing, he looked genuinely surprised. Like he couldn’t believe it had actually happened.”
On Monday I talked about ways that storytelling borrows from the art of magic in how it presents an initial world, progresses to a dramatic twist, and then reveals an even deeper world beneath. Obviously we haven’t seen that entire sequence in this first section of my mystery story, but we are seeing the setup for what will come later.
In that setup we see the shades of what the final revelation will be. It is unavoidable to tip one’s hand this way when writing a mystery. For in the setup of the mystery, what appears to be the state of things, must actually not be the state of things. The fact that everyone is certain this is a simple suicide signals to the reader that it must be something more devious. Though we haven’t been given any hard evidence that this isn’t a suicide, still we anticipate that revelation.
Another important consideration in the setup is the personality of the main character. Whatever they are written to be like will color the entire performance that follows. It can either color it in a way that supports the later revelations, or it can be a meaningless aside. Obviously in a story you want want the former. Ideally your main character’s style will support the plot developments that follow and vice versa.
Thus I took quite some time in choosing Daley’s personality for this piece. This is a mystery story, and so I decided to give the main character an air of mystery of his own. Aside from the question of “what really happened to Otto Davies?” there is also “what’s really going on with Daley?” Why is he no longer with the force? What’s going on in his home?
In this way I am setting up for a revelation within a revelation. We’re going to solve the mystery of the suicide, but we’re also going to solve the mystery of the mystery solver. Layered stories like this feel clever to us. We like when the theme is not only played out once, but multiple times, and sometimes as meta-commentaries of one another. On Monday I’d like to examine this pattern of storytelling more closely, and then on Thursday we’ll dive into the next segment of our mystery.