Give them a few solid clues, point them in the right
by D. J. Herda
Writing top mysteries is a bit more complicated than reading them. Mystery readers want to be 1.) entertained; 2.) surprised; and 3.) challenged, not necessarily in that order. It stands to reason, then, that a well-written mystery will entertain, surprise, and challenge.
In reality, a top who-dunnit does that and a whole lot more. And the top mystery writers writing today know it. So, just about the time a reader gets complacent, the writer stirs up the pot with a big black stick. For example:
This little setup does a couple of things for the reader. First, it prepares him for the resolution of the crime--in this case, Mauston's murdering his boss. Then, just as quickly, it yanks the rug out from under the reader, jarring him back to reality. And, suddenly, the mystery is reopened.
More than that, the scenario expands the writer's options, opening up an entirely new set of possibilities to pursue. The most obvious is that, with Mauston out of the running, the writer gets to name the real murderer. Less obviously, he has the option of maintaining Mauston as the murderer, despite the revelation of his earlier death. How? Elementary, my dear Watson.
Mauston could have set the wheels of the murder in motion before dying unexpectedly of natural causes, himself. Or, he could have faked his own death, using someone else's look-alike body, then killed his boss, although that would have negated his motive for the murder--taking over the presidency of the company (something he could hardly do without exposing the fact that he was still alive, although he could have had another motive).
Mauston could also have planned the murder and shared the fact with a wife or a girlfriend, only to have her turn on him, making it look as though he had committed a murder-suicide, leaving her in the clear--to collect insurance, marry someone else, or just plain be rid of the oaf. Or, Mauston could have planned the murder and then fallen victim to a double homicide committed by a third party, perhaps another employee farther down the corporate ladder--someone who discovered the plan and stood to benefit from the murder of both the company's president and vice-president.
The possibilities are endless, and that's one of the things that makes mystery writing so alluring. For the logical mind that enjoys twisting and toying with reality, the mystery is the ideal literary medium. So long as the writer can stay at least one full step ahead of the reader, the reader is hooked--and both the reader and the writer emerge winners.
Of course, not all mysteries involve a murder, and even of those that do, not all withhold the identity of the murderer until the end. In Double Indemnity, for example, we know from the opening confession of the murderer into a Dictagraph machine that he did it. In cases such as that, the mystery is not the murderer's identity, but rather the motive and the means to the deed. We discover those only at the very end of the story. In either case, the effect is the same: the reader is hooked, and the writer is charged with keeping him that way.
That's where the writer has the advantage. But he must maintain his edge over the reader at all times, anticipating even the most jaded mystery junkie's penchant for solving the most convoluted of cases. Often, while plotting a mystery from an outline, a writer will have some unanticipated stroke of genius enter his head, something he hadn't foreseen or planned. A good writer will take advantage of every nuance available, making an already solid piece of high concept fiction even stronger and more unpredictable.
It's the very unpredictable nature of the mystery that makes it so popular among readers. When you think about it, there are elements of mystery in nearly every literally genre--some nagging questions for the reader to have answered before the story's end. The only difference between a Romance in which a mystery man sets out to destroy someone and a Mystery in which a woman sets out to ruin a man's life is that the Mystery zeroes-in on the unknown, dropping small clues and endless side streets for the reader to pick up on along the way. Everything else is mere window dressing.
So keep your mind (and your options) open as you write that next great mystery. Make your stories plausible, keep your readers guessing, and set a lively pace. The bottom line: you'll be selling who-dunnits like crazy.