Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How Could You Do That?

One of the best things about well-written mystery novels is that they can be very satisfying on several levels. When the mystery is solved and the murderer caught, there’s a sense of catharsis, especially if we understand how and why the murderer committed the murder. It’s intellectually satisfying when we know how the murderer committed the crime, and it’s satisfying on an even deeper level when we know what drove him or her to the crime.

Sometimes, authors take the reader “behind the scenes” from the very beginning of the book. The suspense in the book doesn’t come from trying to guess why the murder is committed or how; rather it comes from the murderer matching wits against the sleuth. Robin Cook takes this approach in several of his novels. For instance, in both Shock and Seizure, we meet the unethical and greedy owners and operators of the Wingate Clinic, whose primary purpose is to make money and who stop at nothing – including murder – to do so. In both of those novels, the reader learns what motivates the murderers and how they go about committing their crimes fairly early in the books. What keeps the reader interested is the way the sleuths (in Shock, two Harvard graduate students and in Seizure, a medical researcher) match wits against the Wingate clinic staff.

Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear also show the reader how the murderer thinks and what the murderer does right from the beginning in their Anasazi series. That series focuses on the discovery of unexplained deaths both in the ancient past and the present, and ties those deaths together. The narrative is told in two time periods, and includes – from the beginning – the perspective of the murderer. What makes this series even more interesting is that we know what the murderer is thinking and how the murders are committed, but even that doesn’t entirely explain why the murders are committed. That answer only comes as the sleuths (both past and present) put the clues together.

What’s really interesting about this approach is that it allows the reader a look into the murderer’s mind. The reader can really understand (if not accept or condone) why the murderer kills and how, exactly, the murder is committed. That can be very satisfying.

Agatha Christie uses a “multiple perspectives” approach in The A.B.C Murders. In that novel, Hercule Poirot works with local police and Scotland Yard to find out who’s committed a series of murders at several seaside resorts. The novel sometimes follows Poirot, Hastings and the people they encounter. At other times, it follows Mr. Alexander Bonaparte Cust, a nondescript but eccentric door-to-door stocking salesman. This approach gets the reader caught up in the story and keeps the reader interested until the very surprising end when Poirot explains how the murderer’s been able to get away with multiple killings, and why they’re committed. In classic Christie style, nothing is really as it seems in this novel.

Christie also uses other approaches to letting readers know how the murder is committed and why. One of them is that the murderer him- or herself tells the reader exactly how the thing was done. That happens in Lord Edgeware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner) and most famously in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In both of those novels, we aren’t told who the murderer is until the end, when Poirot reveals all. So the reader gets to match wits with Christie (no easy task!) throughout the novels. What adds special interest to these novels is that at the very end, the murderer takes pen in hand and explains everything. That perspective helps the reader “get into the mind” of the murderer and see exactly how the trick was done, so to speak.

In some novels, the murder himself or herself tells the sleuth the “why” and “how” of the crime(s). Very often, that happens when the murderer thinks that she or he is about to get rid of the sleuth, so it won’t matter whether the sleuth knows everything. That climactic scene can add suspense to a story, too, so long as it’s not too melodramatic. For example, in Hope Against Hope, the first of Susan B. Kelly’s Inspector Nick Trevellyan series, Trevellyan meets Alison Hope, whom he thinks of as a jaded London “townie.” When her cousin, Aidan Hope, is murdered on the night of Alison’s housewarming party, Trevellyan is charged with the investigation. What adds suspense to this story is that he suspects Alison of committing the crime, even though he’s also strongly attracted to her. Then, the killer strikes again. At the climactic moment in the story, the murderer reveals all just as yet another murder is about to be committed. It’s then that we learn exactly what’s behind these killings. Kelly creates suspense quite effectively in this scene without getting too close to melodrama.

Rita Mae Brown and Laurien Berenson also create suspense by having the murderer explain all to the sleuth when he or she thinks that the sleuth is about to die. Those authors have created amateur sleuths who have in common that they have a habit of getting into trouble. In the case of Brown’s sleuth, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, it’s because she’s insatiably curious. Berenson’s Melanie Travis is curious, too, but more often, she’s persuaded (sometimes bullied) into using her ability to ask questions and put pieces of a puzzle together. In several of Brown’s and Berenson’s novels, the sleuths get to the truth behind a murder, only to find that the murderer plans to kill them as well. It’s in that climactic scene that the murder tells the sleuth why he or she killed.

Of course, the classic approach to showing the reader how the murder was committed and why is to have the sleuth explain everything. That happens quite often, for instance, in Ellery Queen mysteries, when Queen explains, often (but not always) to his father, exactly how the murder was committed and what clues led him to that deduction. Queen also explains the “why” of the murder. Agatha Christie does the same thing in many of her novels. Sometimes, the sleuth tells everything to a group of people right before naming the murderer; Hercule Poirot is particularly fond of an audience. Other times, the sleuth explains the “how and why” later – after the murderer has been brought to justice. That happens at the end of 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), when Miss Marple explains what’s behind a murder that a friend of hers thinks she witnessed through the window of a train.

In my own Joel Williams series, I use different approaches to explaining the “how and why,” depending on the murderer. For example, in Publish or Perish, the reader finds out what the murderer of a hard-working graduate student is thinking from very early in the novel, so the motive is clear. The “how” is made clear, too, once the body is found and the medical examiner does his work. Because there are several suspects, though, and the novel follows each suspect’s thinking, the reader has to use the clues to figure out which suspect’s motive actually led to the murder.

What’s your preference? Do you like to go “behind the scenes” from the beginning? Do you like the murderer or sleuth to explain everything at the end? Or do you like to figure it out for yourself and simply have the sleuth verify (or refute) what you think?


  1. I loved Christie's method, where I found out the killer's identity along with the room of suspects. I love the dramatic moment where the sleuth explains--in detail--how the crime was committed. But I'm busily collecting clues along the way and comparing my notes with the sleuth's at the end.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth - It's intellectually engaging (and can be fun, too!) to match wits with the author and the murderer and look for clues in a mystery. You're right, too, that there's a lot of drama when the sleuth tells all. When it's done well - as Christie did it - the reader can almost hear the gasps. I really like the intellectual satisfaction and the catharsis.

  3. I have always enjoyed some of Christie's explanations for the 'how'; that woman's imagination was boundless; and the gathering of the suspects in one room while Poirot explains the crime and then points to the culprit have become classic.

    I've never worried too much about the 'how' in my own writing. I'd like my readers to try and discover the 'who' and the 'why'. I don't think I have the imagination to create a 'locked room' scenario and, to be honest, bizarre methods of death knock me out of the reality of the situation. My thinking is if someone was smart enough to devise an incredibly complex method of death, then they're probably smart enough to avoid detection!


  4. Elspeth - You make a really interesting point here! Just like anything else in a well-written mystery, the method of murder has to be believable. "Locked room" scenarios are intellectually really interesting, but if the plot isn't beleivable and the murder isn't feasible, then the story can lose a lot of its "punch."

    I've also, by the way, always loved the way Chrstie was able to think of ingenious, yet perfectly plausible ways of committing murder. As you say, her imagination seems to have been limitless.