Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Muddying the Waters...

Well-written crime fiction challenges the reader intellectually. There’s not much mystery, after all, and not much to engage the reader, if a fictional puzzle is too easy to solve. And in real life, there are plenty of crimes that are never solved, so a crime novel is more authentic as well as more engaging if there’s something that muddies the waters, so to speak, and complicates matters. Authors have several ways of muddying the fictional waters, and each of those ways can add a spark of interest and keep the reader engaged.

One way that crime fiction authors add complications to mysteries is to include some plausible “red herrings” among the suspects and clues in a story. The more plausible the false leads are, the more the reader is challenged to figure out the truth. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, successful American businessman Samuel Ratchett is traveling by train through Eastern Europe on the famous Orient Express train. On the second night of the journey, Ratchett is stabbed to death. Hercule Poirot is traveling by the same train and he’s asked to solve the murder. The only suspects are the other passengers on the first-class coach in which Ratchett traveled, and Poirot begins to sift through everyone’s alibis and all of the clues. There is no lack of evidence, and one of Poirot’s tasks is to figure out which clues are real clues and which are “red herrings.” Among the clues are a woman’s handkerchief, a smashed watch, a pipe cleaner, a set of threatening letters, and an elegant silk dressing gown. In the end, Poirot is able to figure out which of these clues point to the real killer, and he identifies the murderer.

There are also plenty of “red herrings” in Dorothy Sayers’ Clouds of Witness. In that novel, Lord Peter Wimsey’s brother Gerald, the Duke of Denver, is arrested for the murder of Captain Denis Cathcart. The Duke admits that he quarreled with Cathcart, but says that he is innocent of the crime. Wimsey and his friend Inspector Parker investigate the murder and soon find that all of the clues seem to point, if you will, in different directions. There are mysterious footprints, a letter and other clues that lead Wimsey and Parker in the wrong direction – at first. Eventually, they sort out the truth and find a strange series of coincidences that left a trail of “red herrings” in its wake.

It’s not just “red herrings” that can muddy the waters of an investigation. Sometimes, the murder victim is unidentified, and that can make a mystery more complicated, too. For example, in Tony Hillerman’s The Dark Wind, three Hopis find the body of a dead man. The soles of the victim’s feet and the palms of his hands have been removed, and he has no identification with him. So at first, Officer Jim Chee of the Navajo tribal police has no idea who the dead man is; the only thing that’s fairly certain is that the victim is a member of the Navajo Nation. Chee’s not able to get very far with solving the murder at first, because no-one seems to know (or will admit to knowing) who the man is. When the victim’s finally identified, Chee is able to tie in that murder with investigations he’s making of a plane crash, drug smuggling, theft and vandalism.

In Martha Grimes’ The Winds of Change, Inspector Richard Jury is called in when the body of an unidentified five-year-old girl is found. She’s been shot in the back, and evidence suggests she was also sexually abused. At first, Jury’s investigation is hampered because no-one seems to know who the girl is. In the end, though, Jury and Melrose Plant are able to tie in the girl’s death with the death of a woman whose body has been found on the property of wealthy Declan Scott, as well as with the disappearance of Scott’s daughter, Flora, four years earlier.

Investigations can also be complicated if the crime is a so-called “impossible” crime or “locked room” mystery. Those mysteries can be tricky because in the end, the solution has to make sense. However, when it’s done well, the very impossibility of a crime can muddy the investigative waters. For example, in John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man (AKA The Three Coffins), Superintendent Hadley investigates the shooting death of Professor Victor Grimaud, who’s working alone in his study one night when a masked man runs in and locks the study door behind him. Witnesses hear him arguing with Grimaud, and then they hear a shot. But by the time the study door is opened, it’s too late. Grimaud is dead, and the masked man is gone. No-one has seen him leave, and there are no footprints outside the window, although it’s snowy. The most natural suspect is illusionist Pierre Fley, who threatened Grimaud’s life. However, just a few moments after Grimaud is shot, Fley is also murdered. His death, too, seems impossible, since there were witnesses on both ends of the street, but no-one saw Fley’s killer, although he was shot at nearly point-blank range. Now, Dr. Gideon Fell, Carr’s sleuth, has to figure out how someone could commit two impossible murders within a few moments of each other.

There’s another “locked room” mystery in Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead. In that novel, Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, are summoned to Bendigo Island, the property of wealthy munitions tycoon King Bendigo. With him on the island are his wife Karla and his brothers Abel and Judah. Bendigo wants the Queens to find out who’s been sending him threatening letters. One night, the threat becomes all too real when Bendigo is shot. What’s strange about the shooting is that when it happens, Bendigo and his wife are inside his hermetically sealed private office. There’s no gun anywhere in the office, and Karla Bendigo has no gunpowder on her hands or clothes, so there’s no way that she could have shot her husband. The prime suspect in the murder is Judah Bendigo, who threatened his brother and in fact, had the weapon used in the shooting in his hand. But Judah Bendigo was with Ellery Queen at the time of the shooting, so he couldn’t have committed the crime. Queen and his father find out that this crime is related to King Bendigo’s history, so Queen goes to the small town of Wrightsville, where the Bendigo brothers grew up, to get to the bottom of the case. In the end, he’s able to figure out how and why Bendigo was shot, and who shot him.

One of the most common ways for murder investigations to be muddied is the habit that witnesses have of covering things up. As Christie’s Hercule Poirot says, everyone has something to hide. Quite often, that something is, relatively speaking, harmless and isn’t related to the investigation. But getting to the bottom of those “harmless” lies is necessary if the sleuth is going to solve the crime. For example, in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's Last Rituals, Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir finds out who murdered Harald Guntlieb, a German student of history studying in Iceland. As Thóra and Matthew Reich, the Guntlieb family’s representative, begin to investigate, they find out that just about everyone involved, including the victim, has been hiding some sort of secret. Once Thóra and Matthew find out the truth about Harald Guntlieb’s life, they’re able to uncover many of those secrets and find out who really killed Guntlieb and why.

"Red herrings,” unidentified victims and people who hide things are only a few ways in which murder investigations are muddied. There are lots of others. Which are your favorite ways to “muddy the waters?”


  1. "Well-written crime fiction challenges the reader intellectually." I think that is one of the best lines about mysteries I've heard in a long time. That's what I try to do with my stories...

    I love the locked room mysteries you talk about here. I find them so fascinating to solve.

    Also, I love to add to my stories many different subplots so that if the reader solves one mystery, he's still got a few left to go. Not too many so as to confuse the reader with which story is important but also in the end to somehow tie the stories together somehow.


  2. I like the 'red herrings' thrown in a good murder mystery. Just when you think you've got the murderer identified, there's a 'red herring' to make you think otherwise. They can keep you guessing right up until the very end if the author has done a good job. A very thought provoking post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  3. Clarissa - Thanks : ). I think it's critical to challenge the reader; I think it's a way to keep the reader engaged, and wanting to know more. And I agree; sub-plots help a lot with that. As you say, not so many that it gets confusing, nor so complicated that they take away from the story, but yes, sub-plots can challenge the reader.

    Mason - Oh, yes, "red herrings" are very useful in keeping the reader guessing. And the better the author is at creating a "red herring," the harder it is to spot which clue is real and which ones aren't. I like that, too, because it invites the reader to pay very close attention so as to keep track of things.

  4. Red-herrings are great as long as they aren't screaming "I'm a red-herring". I think a mystery particularly needs a few of these to keep the reader actively guessing and trying to solve the crime.
    Thanks for an excellent post.

  5. Cassandra - How kind of you : ). And I agree; "red herrings" really can keep the reader guessing. That's one of the beauties of weaving them through a story. You're right, though; it's best if they're not obvious. That way the reader really has to think...

  6. ONE favourite? Impossible!

    I love reading about them, and I love making them up, but of course Clouds of Witness is an excellent example.

  7. Dorte - LOL! I, too, would be hard-pressed to mention only one novel with really nicely-muddied waters, so to speak. It's great fun, too, isn't it, to dream up those complications and put them in our plots; For me, that's a big part of what makes writing interesting.

    I'm glad you liked the Clouds of Witness example; I thought of you when I wrote it : ).