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 him, 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!