Part of the fun of reading mysteries is anticipating whodunnit. Mysteries are games as well as stories. Readers get to see the crime scene, the clues, the array of suspects, and their motivations. Readers get to figure out from the story who can be trusted (or not) and which clues are real clues as opposed to red herrings. It’s a puzzle. As Sherlock is famously quoted, “The game is afoot!”
Can Ms. Reader figure out the solution before the sleuth? The Writer hopes not! But writers have to play fair with the reader. Writers have to lay it all out—all the clues and suspects—and yet, it has to be done in such a way that the reader doesn’t see it coming. The reader wants to be surprised…pleasantly.
It’s a mighty task for the writer: lay it all out in plain sight, but still keep it masked.
The writer has to resort to a few tricks. Agatha Christie certainly knew how to master those tricks and distract the reader from the solution.
Remember the challenge Ellery Queen laid down to the reader at the start of the third act? All of the elements of the mystery were in place. The reader had as much information as Ellery to figure out whodunnit. We love to read about sleuths who have special abilities to analyze the clues and see the truth behind a mystery.
Finally, we came to the famous drawing-room scene of those classic mysteries, where the sleuth gathers all the suspects and explains the mystery through his or her extraordinary insight.
Such scenes have fallen out of favor today, and yet the writer still has to keep the reader anticipating all the way up until the end—but, but… Whodunnit?
Today, the revelations often come in a climactic action scene where the sleuth faces the villain, and the reader is (hopefully) pleasantly surprised. But this confrontation raises new questions for the reader to anticipate: Whydunnit? And how will justice be served?
It’s a fine line between explaining just enough to satisfy the reader or dumping an overload of information to continue the story when the events of the story are done. The story is done when there’s nothing left for the reader to anticipate. Anticipation keeps us reading all the way to the end. Anticipation = mystery. Without it, the reader can close the book, hopefully with a sigh of satisfaction.