Secrets and Lies

 

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.

SPOILER ALERT!

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.

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14 thoughts on “Secrets and Lies”

  1. Plot twists are built on secrets and lies. That’s brilliant! I never heard it put that way before, but so true. Definitely something to think about as I gear up for Draft Zero of the next book. And I didn’t even have to fly to San Diego. 🙂

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  2. Whew! Thank you guys, I thought you’d all say “duh”. Now when I’m plotting out the next story, I make a list of secrets and lies separately and when the story seems to be sagging, I grab one off the list and work it in hopefully so it looks organic to the story.

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  3. This is so timely for me as I draft my mystery. I think I need more secrets and lies in my MS. Gonna brainstorm. That’s the fun part.

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  4. I love this post, Keenan! Just taught this book during spring semester. You did a great job of explaining the complicated relationships. So admire Dame Agatha’s ability to misdirect…the Lottie/Lettie thing is RIGHT THERE the whole time, for example, yet it makes sense because of the way she depicts the character who confuses the names, so we don’t see what we’re seeing.

    ps: Giggled when I got to the “spoiler alert” at the end…kind of expected one earlier on. 😉

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    1. Cynthia: Yours is a good point. For the next Guppies article (after the one I just submitted), I think I’m going to analyze another Christie story from the point of view of a probate attorney (so many Christie murders were motivated by inheritance) so I should include spoiler alert.

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  5. Keenan, I love that you had to fly from Anchorage to San Diego to learn the obvious. Laughed out loud. I’m right there with you. I just had one of those lightbulb moments myself over something I assume is completely obvious to every other writer on the planet.

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