Five years ago, I attended the first of many writing seminars, Writing the Legal Thriller for Lawyers with Alice Orr. A lawyer friend of mine told me about it after I had confided my first story idea to her.
I had read, and had watched, many, many mysteries by then and had a general sense of a pattern but I wasn’t consciously aware of story structure. Just as when you first look at a house, you don’t think about the foundation, framing, plumbing and wiring, instead you think what a pretty color, what a lovely design.
It was in this seminar that I heard the obvious: plot twists are essential to mysteries. Plot twists, Alice Orr explained, are built on secrets and lies. Big light went on in my head. Maybe everyone else got that, but I had to fly from Anchorage to San Diego to have someone tell me.
In Agatha Christie’s classic A Murder is Announced, there are a ton of secrets and lies. Set in the post-war English village Chipping Cleghorn, the mystery revolves around the house known as Little Paddocks owned by Letitia Blaylock, a retired spinster who has taken in several boarders.
Letitia is poised to inherit a fortune from the dying Belle Goedler if Belle’s long lost twin niece and nephew, Pip and Emma, do not claim the inheritance first.
Two of the boarders are Letitia’s distant cousins, brother and sister, Patrick and Julia Simmons but that’s a lie. Julia is actually Emma, Belle Goedler’s long lost niece. And Patrick and Emma are actually married or engaged to each other. The real Julia Simmons is secretly in Australia working on her acting career.
A gardener who boards at Little Paddocks, Phillipa Haynes, turns out to be Pip – not a nephew of Belle Goedler but a niece and the twin sister of Emma. Having been separated in early childhood, Pip and Emma didn’t recognize each other until deep into the story.
Knowing the terms of the will, Pip and Emma came to Chipping Cleghorn to ask Letitia for charity after she inherits. Why neither of them doesn’t go to Belle and claim their rightful inheritance, I never figured out. Maybe it’s in the book. I only watched the two Miss Marple versions where that point was obscured.
And then it turns out Letitia Blaylock isn’t Letitia at all. Letitia died in Europe during the war of some undisclosed dread disease. The woman posing as Letitia so she could inherit the Goedler fortune is really Letitia’s sister, Charlotte (Lottie).
So, when Lottie/Lettie becomes afraid that her true identity will be uncovered and she will be denied the Goedler fortune, bodies begin to fall.
Secrets and lies. There wouldn’t be a mystery without them.