Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Behind the Mask

Well-written mystery and crime fiction depends on suspense. Sometimes, that suspense is built by a “cat-and-mouse” game between the sleuth and the murderer. Other times it’s built through plot twists. But for real engagement and therefore, suspense, it’s hard to do better than characters with something to hide. In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot discusses this point with Dr. Sheppard, from whose point of view the story is told:

“You will find, M. le docteur, if you have much to do with cases of this kind, that they all resemble each other in one thing.”
“ What is that?” I asked curiously.
“Everyone concerned in them has something to hide.”

Of course, to an extent, we all wear masks. We don’t reveal our innermost thoughts to everyone (sometimes, not to anyone). But in a well-written mystery, at least one of the characters is hiding the fact that she or he is a criminal, and it’s the stripping away of that character’s mask of innocence that keeps the reader turning pages.

Some authors are quite literal about the word “mask.” In their mysteries, the killer hides behind a disguise. For example, in Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in his Life, Queen accepts an invitation to stay in the guest house of John Levering Benedict III, a wealthy jet-setter. Staying with Benedict in his main house are his three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary. On the first night of his visit, Queen gets a frantic call from Benedict, who says that he’s dying. By the time Queen arrives on the scene, it’s too late. Among the few clues at the scene are a green wig, a glittering gown, and a pair of dress gloves. As Queen figures out who owned each of the items and who wore them, he finds out that, as is so often the case in a murder mystery, things aren’t always what they seem.

Agatha Christie also sometimes uses physical disguises to hide the murderer and offer readers red herrings. For example, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts) and Murder on the Orient Express, the police and/or Poirot are led astray (at least at first) by clothing or the physical appearance of a character. In Evil Under the Sun, a vital clue to the murder of beautiful, notorious Arlena Marshall is hidden with a sort of disguise.

In other mysteries, it’s the characters’ veneers of respectability that serve as a mask. Caroline Graham uses this technique effectively in her Inspector Barnaby series. For instance, in The Killings at Badger’s Drift, the first Inspector Barnaby novel, elderly spinster Emily Simpson dies suddenly of what everyone thinks is a heart attack. Her friend, Miss Bellringer, however, thinks otherwise and is eventually so insistent that an investigation is made. When it turns out that Miss Simpson died of hemlock poisoning, Inspector Barnaby and Sergeant Troy begin to look more deeply into the lives of the residents of Badger’s Drift. What they find is that, beneath the calm and peaceful exterior of English village life, each of the residents has a secret to hide. Some of the secrets aren’t relevant to the murder, but some are. It’s the weeding out of the relevant secrets from the simply embarrassing ones that adds suspense to this novel. The contrast between the upright, respectable personas that many of the characters have and the reality behind those personas is also fascinating. We can also see this contrast in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. In that novel, Inspector Piet Van der Valk is sent to the small Dutch town of Drente to investigate the source of some anonymous letters that have led to two suicides. The people of Drente are, on the surface, extremely respectable, small-town folk, but as Van der Valk looks deeper into their lives, he finds that many of them have some dark secrets.

This also happens in several of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels. In many cases, Morse and his assistant, Sergeant Lewis, have the thankless task of sorting out suspects’ embarrassing and sometimes dark secrets and deciding which secrets are relevant for the case. For example, in The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Morse and Lewis investigate the murder of a Deaf member of Oxford’s Foreign Examination Board. As they look at the background of each of the suspects in turn, Morse and Lewis find that they all have secret lives and that Quinn had the opportunity to find those secrets out. The suspense builds and stays strong as the two detectives figure out not only what Quinn might have known, but which of the secrets that he knew led to his murder.

Sometimes, a person’s identity serves as a mask. Colin Dexter uses this strategy as well. For instance, in The Daughters of Cain, Morse and Lewis investigate the murders of Dr. Felix McClure, a retired Oxford don, and Ted Brooks, his former scout. In the process of working the case, Morse finds out that some of the suspects and witnesses aren’t who they seem to be, and their real identities prove crucial to finding the motives for the murders. That’s also true in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, in which the identities of a wealthy businessman and his fellow rail passengers are important clues to his murder. In Rita Mae Brown’s Rest in Pieces, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen’s new neighbor, Blair Bainbridge, is suspected of being a murderer when pieces of a body show up on his property. Since her property adjoins Bainbridge’s, “Harry” gets involved in the case. The more she uncovers about Blair’s past and the identities of two of his friends, the closer she gets to the truth. In the end, those identities become crucial to finding the murderer.

Of course, a competent sleuth in a believable mystery usually does find out many of the dark secrets that the other characters are keeping, including the secret of murder. That’s an important part of the suspense that keeps the reader engaged. But what happens next is equally important. The moment when the sleuth takes the masks away from the characters can also be quite suspenseful when it’s done well. Does the character admit the truth? Does he or she continue to dissemble? Different authors handle this differently. Agatha Christie, for instance, often uses the strategy of having the character admit the truth he or she is hiding, but insist on his or her innocence. In this case, the character basically says, “All right, perhaps I’m a thief/adulterer/blackmailer/etc, but I’m not a murderer,” or “All right, I was there the night of the murder, but I didn’t kill ____.” Of course, it’s important to remember that the suspect may not be telling the truth, and that possibility can make that moment of revelation very suspenseful.

I do a similar thing in my Joel Williams mysteries. For instance, in Dying to See You, one of the suspects in the death of up-and-coming criminology professor Craig Peterson finds out his wife has been having an affair with Peterson. When he’s accused of Peterson’s murder, he admits he knew about the affair, but claims he’s not the murderer. A similar thing happens in B-Very Flat, where one of the suspects in the death of Serena Brinkman, a young violin virtuosa, admits to an intense rivalry with the victim, but claims she “wanted to beat Serena [in a music competition], not kill her.”

What sorts of masks do the characters in your favorite novel or series wear? How do they hide their secrets, and what do they do when those secrets are found out?


  1. I just finished Ann Cleeves' White Nights which is set in an isolated village on Shetland (as if the islands themselves aren't remote enough) and was struck by this very issue. All the locals - who knew each other very well and had a lot of shared history - worked at keeping something of themselves private - for some it was nasty things (like being a murderer) but for others it was much more mundane but equally important to them to have something that was 'theirs'. I thought Cleeves did a good job of exploiting this realistic behaviour in developing her plot Oddly enough physical masks also played a role in this book.

    By the way Margot I am in awe of your daily thoughtful and thought provoking posts. I read them all even if I don't always comment - clearly I am not as quick a thinker as you are.

  2. Bernadette,
    Thanks so much for the kind words : ). I really appreciate that you read my posts. I wouldn't say, "clever," though - perhaps just verbose ; ).
    Thanks for bringing up White Nights. Your point about the people of that small village is exactly the sort of thing I meant, too, and I'm glad that Cleeves developed that aspect of the characters. Realistic characters, especially in a remote, small place, don't reveal everything about themselves, in part because they want to preserve their privacy, and of course, in one case, to hide the fact of being a murderer. How interesting that you'd have reviewed a book with that very point in it at the same time as I blogged about it!

    Folks, Bernadette's interesting and thoughtful review of White Nights is here.

  3. Just finished reading the talented Stieg Larsson's "Girl w/ the Dragon Tattoo." Wow---some secrets in that book! With mysteries, at any rate, the disclosure of secrets (or threat of disclosure) leads to blackmail and murder.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Elizabeth -
    Stieg Larsson certainly was talented! It would have been so interesting to see where that series would have gone had he lived. I'm actually glad you brought up The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo , too; in fact, I wish I'd included a mention of that one in this post, as it's certainly relevant!
    You're right, too, that secrets often lead to blackmail and murder in the mystery world. That's one reason they can add so much to a plot..

  5. Your posts are wonderful Margot.
    The book I have just finished The Redemption of Alexander Seaton is all about secrets and although the reader is given clues I picked out the wrong villain, not an unusual course of events. Part of the pleasure of reading crime fiction is being outsmarted by the author, I dislike books where I can spot the correct solution too early, and the protagonists wander about in a dream failing to notice evidence before their eyes.

  6. Uriah - Thank you : ). Your kind words mean a lot to me. You put your finger, too, on a very important purpose of secrets and "masks." They challenge the reader and keep the suspense and mystery going. Cases that are too easy to solve don't keep the reader's interest.

    Folks, Uriah's interesting discussion of The Redemption of Alexander Seaton is here

  7. What I find an interesting study is what each character considers to be a secret. Liking peanut butter might not seem like a big deal, but if someone has always said they're allergic to peanuts, discovering them with a big spoonful of peanut butter would be a revelation. A person may flaunt their extra-marital affair, but hide the fact they listen to Barry Manilow. Fascinating.

    Another great post, Margot.


  8. Thanks, Elspeth : ) - You're right, too; what people consider it important to hide really is interesting! It also can provide important clues to the mystery. For instance, it may not seem important that a character doesn't mention going to see a movie. But if another character is killed during the showing of that movie, then that secret can be very important.

  9. yes, I endorse what Bernadette and Norman say - your posts are really excellent, Margot- well researched, well written and engaging. I am so impressed.
    I feel sure that Donna Leon must have written a novel featuring masks, but I can't remember. (The one about the glass blowing sticks in my mind, and the recent one about the gypsies).
    Also, I think Fred Vargas is this kind of author, in that people are rarely what they seem, and physical disguises also seem to play a large part.

  10. Fine examples, e.g. Caroline Graham and Colin Dexter.

    I have been struggling with this problem in one of my own manuscripts. My female protagonist certainly wears a mask and hides several secrets. The problem is that I tend to let the cats out of the bag too late or too slowly so my readers lose interest in her before they realize that there IS a plot and some solid skeletons in the closet.

  11. Maxine - There won't be room for my head to fit in my front door if you keep saying such nice things about me - thank you : ). Trust me, I learn as much from your posts as you ever could from mine.

    Are the Leon books that you're thinking of Through a Glass, Darkly and The Girl of His Dreams? If so, I agree completely that Leon uses "masks" and dark secrets superbly in both of those novels. Interestingly enough, they both take place in rather secretive group settings, too, and I think this adds to the feeling that everyone is hiding something. Thanks for those reminders.

    I'm also glad you mentioned Fred Vargas. I haven't read a lot of her work, but from what I have read, she does an effective job of creating characters who aren't what they seem. Funny you would mention physical disguises, too. I noticed that in This Night's Foul Work . Perhaps it's because of her work as an archaeologist..

  12. Dorte -
    I empathize with your struggle. My characters have secrets, too, and it always is hard to decide when the best time is to let them out. It's also a matter of the reader's taste, isn't it? Some readers like the secrets "out there," and others don't. I would love to read your book, by the way : ).

  13. I´d be very happy to send it to you, but you´ll probably need an intensive Danish course first. (And it is not exactly an Easy Reader).

  14. Dorte - I wish I could speak Danish; it's not a language I know. As soon as the English translation comes out, I'll be first in line : ).

  15. You may have to wait a few years (fifty?)
    But if you want to read more of my flash fiction in English, you can give me your email address, and I will add you as a reader to my flash blog.

  16. Thanks, Dorte : ). And I have a lot of faith in you; I don't think your work will take 50 years to come out in English...