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
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
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
"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?”