Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Howmuchwhodunnit in your whodunnits

Years ago on a family vacation I asked my sister if I could borrow the mystery novel she was reading and she said, okay sure, could be a few days. I said, “A few days, you’re on the last page,” and she said, no, “I’m just starting, I always read the endings first.”

She went on to explain that she wanted to find out if she was going to like the book before she set aside the time she’d need to read it. “But what about the mystery,” I said and she said, “Oh, that’s not the important part.” Then she went on to explain that she liked the characters (it was a Kathy Reichs novel, I think) but she knew they’d catch the killer in the end and she didn’t want to be distracted wondering if she was collecting all the relevant clues as she read. She said she liked to read the scenes with the killer knowing that was the killer and knowing he’d get caught.

It was a eureka moment for me. At the time I was adding to my rejection letter pile for the second novel I’d written (actually I was pinning them to the wall above my desk – oh, for the days of the actual paper rejection letter). It was a private eye novel and the best rejection letters said the character was pretty good but the mystery wasn’t involving enough.

But now my sister had shown me that the mystery didn’t need to be there at all. All those complicated clues and red herrings and little bits of information hidden just deeply enough for the reader to pick up didn’t have to be there at all.

It was liberating. I realized I could write a novel that worked the way most police work does – it’s not about figuring out who did it, it’s about collecting evidence that can used in court. So we can follows detectives and we can follow the criminals. The reader can even be out ahead of the characters.

And now, someone’s done a study that shows spoilers don’t spoil the story at all, the actually make the stories more enjoyable.

This article in Wired explains it a lot better than I can.

Though I’m never going to tell my sister that she was right all along, that’s just not what brothers do.

But now I have to admit that this not worrying about clues and mysteries has come back to bite me in the ass, so to speak. Last week I was at a meeting with a nework exec talking about the outline to the TV show pilot I’d written and the big problem is that the clues and the mystery are either too obvious or so hidden it feels like cheating.

So, which one is worse? A mystery that’s too easy to figure out or one that’s impossible?


Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Considering the first book I was exposed to was "Rootie Kazootie: Boy Detective", and I loved the Encyclopdia Brown books as a kid,it's kind of strange that I'm really not into whodunnits. I do really like Colin Dexter's "Inspector Morse" novels though. I more enjoy howtheydidit's than whodunnits

Thomas Pluck said...

I don't read the endings first but I don't care much about mysteries. Characters and motivations are what interest me. The closest to mystery that I enjoy is a character's hidden past.
Your sister's attitude is affirming, because I'm telling a twisted tale of small town corruption where we know who dood it from page one, and the mystery is why and how the protagonist was forced into taking the fall.

Steve Weddle said...

Some folks love to 'figure out' who did the deed. They like putting the clues together. For them, they feel as if they've accomplished something, like getting the top answer in Family Feud.

Others seem to like the characters. MONK on tv is a good example, I think. You don't care about who killed the clerk, but you quite enjoy seeing Mr. Monk have to touch something icky because he does not like to touch icky things.

Dana King said...

Doing it well is still the key. We watched the killer do it in COLUMBO. The fun was in watching Columbo figure it out.

Richard Price writes books with a crime to be solved, and it usually get solved almost as an afterthought, and it's not usually much of a surprise. He's not writing mysteries as such, but they're certainly crime stories.

Whodunnit can be important, but so can How'd he do it, Why'd he do it, How are they going to figure it out, and what happens to everyone while they're doing something about it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I read for good characters, good atmosphere, good dialogue, good writing. There doesn't need to be a mystery or a crime at all. But sometimes it's fun to read one of the old ones and watch how the early masters did it.

Diana said...

I reread books that I enjoyed reading the first time. And the wonderful thing about doing that is that I can see how the author is setting things up as it goes along. It's the best of both worlds. The first time through I get the mystery. The second time through, I see all the clues that I missed the first time.

The only time that I skip to the end to find out who done it, is when the story has gotten so convoluted that I can't figure out what is going on.

Jay Stringer said...

I'd love to read a John McFet Private Eye novel. I reckon it'd be pretty cool.

Keith Logan said...

Whodunnits were my intro to crime fiction, via the likes of Encyclopedia Brown, Hardy Boys, and Scooby Doo. In my late teens I became (and remain) a huge Rex Stout fan. His Nero Wolfe series had it all: great characters, dialogue, action, and a whodunnit.

While I no longer feel the need to have a mystery to solve, I don't mind one. I would much prefer a complex whodunnit that would, in fact, bring me back for a second read than a too easy one that might leave me feeling cheated; cheated, that is, if the "mystery" was all the story had going for it. I'm assuming that a McFet whodunnit is still going to have great characters and crisp dialogue, so that caveat won't come into play.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I won't take a stand on the whodunnit? question, but I wish authors would. One narrative cheat that drives me nuts is the cheap effort to create suspense by withholding information. You know what I mean: the first-person narrator who has told the reader everything for two hundred pages. then says something like: "When I heard the message, I knew who the killer was" -- and does not tell the reader.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"