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Sleight of Hand

Books are written left to right in one linear line, but a good book doesn't feel linear. When I read a good book, I feel like I'm free to explore an imaginary world. When I read a bad one, I feel like the author is leading me by the nose.

I mentioned in my last post that readers don't read passively. When writers write, we tend to think of the written stories as our static creations. But when a reader picks up a story, what she imagines is much, much more than the words she sees on the page.

When I read, my mind doesn't stay in the "present" of the story. I'm imagining the heroine's back story and predicting her future. I'm thinking about the parallels between her life and mine, and how I would have felt/acted similarly or differently. I'm fleshing out the lives of minor characters, dreaming up spin-offs that star her quirky coworkers, and playing matchmaker between her gruff brother and her perky best friend.

In a mystery, I'm imagining dozens of scenarios for how the murder might have played out and why. I'm imagining the tragic past of her suspicious new neighbor, the sordid secrets hidden in the glances between suspects, the exciting confrontation with the person I suspect is the killer.

Let the reader play.

In some cozy mysteries I've read recently, the authors never gave me a chance to imagine much of anything. The heroine would be in Location A and find a clue that directed her towards Location B. She'd go to Location B and find information that pointed her towards Location C. The authors would heavily imply that Suspect X was the most suspicious, then shift the spotlight to Suspect Y, without letting the readers make their own decisions. I never had enough information to imagine different possibilities.

Books structured A -> B -> C feel like the author is handing me one puzzle piece at a time and saying, "Now put that piece in place. See how neatly it fits? Okay, here's the next one." That's no fun at all. I want to have all the pieces dumped out on the table, and then I can sort through them and start to see the structure emerge as I play.

Lay out all clues within the story, not at the end.

Every puzzle piece readers need to solve the mystery should be present in the body of the story. I consider it bad form for a mystery author to withhold critical information until the very end, making it impossible for readers to make sense of anything before they get the final clue.

In fact, the final clue shouldn't be a clue at all. It should be a trigger—a hint that helps the heroine and readers figure everything out from information they already had. I'm satisfied, as a mystery reader, when the trigger reminds me of something small I'd read a hundred pages before and forgotten about. I'm angry, as a reader, when a heroine stumbles into a final clue that changes everything on page 230 of 240.

For example, last weekend I read a cozy mystery about an amateur sleuth who lives on the New England coast. The sleuth investigates the murder of a book illustrator. One of the suspects is the victim's editor, whom we'll call Jane Doe.

At the very end of the novel, the sleuth meets someone who reveals that the woman who calls herself Jane Doe isn't Jane Doe—she's really Janice Smith, the victim's psychotic ex-girlfriend. Moments later, Jane/Janice jumps out of the shrubbery with a gun and confesses all.

The author of this book gave no clues before then that "Jane" wasn't who she claimed to be, or even clues that a psychotic ex-girlfriend existed somewhere in the world. The revelation was a Surprise Twist. In my opinion, Surprise Twists are enjoyable in the beginning or the middle of a mystery, but not at the very end.

How to do it

So how do you include all of the information a reader needs to solve a mystery, but make sure nobody actually solves it before your protagonist does? It's not that difficult, really, because you have 70,000+ words to dazzle readers with distractions. With their attention misdirected with red herrings, dubious suspects, and dead-end leads, the real clues will slip by undetected.

Here are some common techniques for giving readers clues without giving away the ending.

Hide important clues among useless ones.

Your sleuth is snooping around the home office of the victim, a prominent politician in her idyllic small town. She describes his desk like this.

An expensive laptop sat on the mahogany desk. The usual office bits and bobs were arranged neatly around it: a green and gold banker's lamp, a wooden pen holder stamped with the Yale University logo, a black ashtray filled with discarded cigarette butts. A blown glass paperweight held down a stack of important-looking documents. Strands of blue and gold swirled and glittered inside it.

I had the nagging feeling I'd seen another paperweight just like it recently. Where was it? That's right—in Mary's gift shop by the pier.

What seems to be the important clue here? The paperweight. What's the real clue here? The ashtray, though readers won't recognize it yet. And by the time the ashtray becomes important, they will have forgotten it existed.

Make the clue something that shouldn't be there.

Why is the ashtray important? Because it's filled with cigarette butts that shouldn't be there. But cigarette butts are so innocuous that nobody would think they're out of place.

The ashtray becomes a well-hidden clue when combined with tidbits revealed elsewhere.

  • The victim's grieving wife cries about the unfairness of his death. Her husband always took care of his health so he could live a long life. He walked three miles every day. He avoided junk food. He quit smoking.
  • The sleuth interviews the victim's maid, who mentions that every evening she straightens his papers, dusts the bookshelves, and empties the ashtray. She was in his office the night before his death and overheard him arguing with someone on the telephone, but she didn't know who it was.
  • The sleuth meets only one suspect who smokes cigarettes. Between puffs, he says he hadn't been to the victim's home in days.

If readers notice the ashtray, they'll know the suspect is lying. But most of them won't, thanks to your masterful sleight of hand.

Make the clue something that's missing.

A clue can be something that isn't at the scene that should be. This works especially well if the object is something few people would think about.

Let's say the victim was poisoned. Your sleuth puts together a timeline of his movements before he died.

  • The owner of the victim's favorite deli says he came in around noon. The victim seemed worried about something, but he didn't want to talk about it. He bought a turkey sandwich and a banana and walked home.
  • The victim's mistress tells the sleuth that he called her around 1:30 and asked to meet her that night. She suspected he intended to break up with her because his wife had found out about the affair.
  • The victim's wife says she'd gone shopping that morning and had lunch with friends. She arrived home around 2. She made her husband a cup of coffee because he looked tired and stressed out. She looked for him at 2:30 to make dinner plans, but he wasn't in his office. She says she didn't know then that he had been poisoned, so she took the empty coffee mug and washed it out. Then she found the victim dead in the bathroom a few minutes later.
  • During the sleuth's description of his office, she mentions the contents of the trash can in passing: a banana peel, an empty packet of Sweet 'n Low, some junk mail, and a dried-out pen.

What's missing? The sandwich wrapper. Our chain-smoking friend had come by while the wife was out and poisoned the sandwich, then took off with the evidence. But how many readers would think to ask about a missing sandwich wrapper, even if you remind them of his lunch with the banana peel? And they'll be so focused on the wife and her coffee, they probably won't think about the sandwich at all.

Make the detective misinterpret the clues.

Some clues can do double duty as real clues and red herrings.

Say the sleuth investigates the paperweight on the victim's desk. On the bottom she finds the engraved logo of the art studio and a price sticker from Mary's gift shop. She later finds out that Mary was the victim's mistress. Since the maid says she'd never seen that paperweight before, the sleuth concludes that Mary must have visited the house that morning. She imagines the victim broke up with Mary, and Mary poisoned the canister of coffee grounds to take revenge on him and his wife.

However, the actual clue in the paperweight isn't the price sticker, but the logo of the art studio. The studio bought supplies from Mr. Chain Smoker, and some of the minerals in the colored glass were toxic to consumers. The victim found out and bought the paperweight to use as evidence, and Mr. Chain Smoker killed him.


Just like good magicians don't need expensive equipment and fancy whiz-bangs to put on an entertaining show, writers don't need a convoluted murder method or complicated character charts to construct a fun mystery.


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