Sleight of Hand

I’ve been fascinated with magic ever since my Uncle Jimmy pulled a quarter out from behind my ear. He let me keep the quarter, which was a major attraction too. I have never figured out how tricks are done. Oh, I know about the quarter, and I think I once used to be able to do a (note the singular) card trick, but rabbits out of hats, cutting people in half? Nope, not a clue.

The amazing Randy and Johnny Carson, who was a fine magician in his own right, claimed that the tricks are accomplished through sleight of hand, misdirection, and deception. Writing mysteries is like that. The first rule of mystery writing is play fair with the reader. Just how is a writer supposed to do that? If the writer truly played fair, then the reader would know who the killer is immediately. After all, the writer usually does—sometimes by the end of the third draft, sometimes immediately—depends if you are a pantser or a plotter.

Writers use the same tricks as a magician. We hide clues in plain sight, we misdirect the sleuth and thus the reader, and sometimes, we outright deceive, the sleuth, who takes the reader along for the trip down the wrong road. After all, in real life, witnesses lie, or misremember, villains don’t own up to the crime and try to shift the blame, and the investigators don’t always look in the right places first.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle perfected the art of hiding clues in plain sight. Remember the Hounds of the Baskervilles? Spoiler alert if you haven’t read the story—the hounds remained silent, the silence was the clue that was introduced in the very beginning of the story, but left unremarked until it became the clue that solved the crime. It was always there, right from the start, hidden by Doyle’s unmatched sleight of hand.

Daphne du Maurier in Rebecca opts for deception. The unnamed second wife is led to believe that Max and Rebecca shared a wonderful marriage, that he can’t overcome his grief at her loss, and that the second Mrs. DeWinter is unloved. She doesn’t see the deception until at long last, she’s convinced her marriage is over by the very same event that proves to be the salvation of the marriage. Truth saves the day for Max and the second wife. It’s the downfall of the deceivers.

JK Rowling uses misdirection throughout the Harry Potter series. She had little choice. Harry was a child. His interpretations were not always accurate, although the reader believed they were. Harry was not acting as an unreliable narrator, at least in my opinion. He believed what he saw was truth, and so the reader believed too.

Sleight of hand, misdirection, and deception are all tricks in the mystery writer’s arsenal, but tricks intended to make the sleuth work hard to decipher the mystery. The reader enjoys sifting through the clues to solve the puzzle in a race with the sleuth. After all, a writer playing fair will expose the same clues to the reader as the sleuth it’s always a challenge to see who gets the solution first.

Readers, do you think sleight of hand, misdirection, and deception are fair plays, or would you prefer a more linear story? Writers, which is your favorite for hiding your clues?

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Author: kaitcarson

I write mysteries set in South Florida. The Hayden Kent series is set in the Florida Keys. Hayden is a SCUBA diving paralegal who keeps finding bodies. Underwater, no one can hear you scream! Catherine Swope is a Miami Realtor with a penchant for finding bodies in the darndest places. I live in an airpark in Fort Denaud, FL with my husband, six cats and three birds. And oh yes, a Piper Cherokee 6 in the hangar!

17 thoughts on “Sleight of Hand”

  1. A good, thoughtful post, Kait. I think all three are part of life, though we don’t usually label them because of intent, and, yes, I think they’re fair. We don’t always see what’s happening until we can look back and point out the guideposts we should have noticed along the way.

  2. Clues are often hidden from me, too, as I write! But as a reader… I recently read some of the Georgette Heyer mysteries, and it was interesting to see the way she hid her clues through using an overabundance of of red herrings, which annoyed some of the readers in my book club. It’s a fine line we walk between playing fair and annoying the reader!

  3. Someone once tried to convince me that Harry Potter was an unreliable narrator, but I’m with you, Kait. He truly believes what he thinks and it’s the reader’s duty to sift through the information and say, “Oh no, Harry – you’re wrong!” Or right. If you read the books straight through, the clues are right there.

    Me, I think deception is crucial to a good mystery. Yes, all the information has to be there (that’s the playing fair part). Your sleuth can’t simply magic up a solution at the last moment. But as Susan says, misdirection and deception are part of life. We can’t always recognize what something means in the moment, but we can much later when we stop and think back over what happened.

  4. @Susan, exactly right. They work because you don’t see them until you look back. Wonderful point!
    @Sue, yes, that’s so true. When a writer spends all of their writing time salting in multiple red herrings…it’s as if the writer is trying to fool the reader instead of play fair. I took a class once that said every mystery should have three or four complete storylines. Two or three of which are red herrings. Christie pulled off the multiple red herrings as did Heyer (I think) but it’s a skill.
    @Sam, thanks!
    @Mary, I’m glad you agreed about Harry! I’ve been taken to task for the viewpoint.

  5. Great post, Kait! Love your examples. I’m with you and Mary re: Harry Potter doesn’t seem like an unreliable narrator, more like a naive narrator. Unreliable narrators tend to be intentionally deceptive, and usually the reader is warned that they aren’t to be trusted (which I always find extremely entertaining…). My favorite kind of deception to write is when my MC notices a detail but doesn’t realize its importance until later in the story, a method that seems popular in cozies 🙂

  6. As a reader, I do like clues hidden in plain sight. I want the writer to play fair but to be secretive and mysterious — it is a MYSTERY after all. I do not like stories that have too many distractions seemingly just thrown in to make the plot more complex, ones that have no real connection to the characters of plot and are not “addressed” in the final resolution of the story. I can appreciate an unreliable narrator when the story is well written, but I hate unorganized, random, thoughts and comments throughout the plot. I do look for “hidden” clues placed throughout the story, but if there is mention of a gun (knife, poison, rope, etc.) languishing in a drawer, then it had better be used sometime later on. If not, that is probably the last book I read by that author. Don’t tease without follow-through.

  7. I tend to see the clues and sleight of hand better in TV or movie mysteries. Perhaps because the camera lingers? I dunno. But watching something light like a Miss Fisher, hubs and I will say, “Hmm. THAT must be important.” But reading, all the words tend to carry the same weight, at least on the surface. As a writer, I struggle with burying the clues too deep because I don’t want to telegraph them. Thank goodness for beta readers!

  8. @Kate – Thanks! Oh, I’m with you on having the MC notice something that doesn’t become important until later. When I’m drafting I note those clues as signposts and then I worry that I’ve given them too much importance and given away the plot! Does that happen to you too?

    @3 – good to see you post, I was thinking of you the other day and wondering if you were away for the summer! Don’t tease without follow through – something for every mystery writer’s quote board! What’s your favorite mystery genre?

    @Becky I’m thinking Jessica Fletcher when I’m reading your first sentence. That show was such fun to watch because you could solve it in the first ten minutes, and then watch the rest to see if you were right. I always hoped for a surprise, can’t think of a time it happened though. You’re right, I hadn’t thought about the weight of the words. It does make it harder to see sleight of hand. Great point.

  9. I find this the trickiest part of crafting a mystery. I tend to throw in details when I think of them and surprisingly enough, they often end up being clues. Or the protag thinks they’re clues, but she’s wrong. I guess it’s the subconscious at work. Enjoyed reading your take, Kait!

  10. That *absolutely* happens to me, Kait! I always worry that a detail is going to stick out as obvious. This is where beta readers come in especially handy. In general, my rule of thumb with important details is to always introduce other details at the same time (I like the rule of 3) so as not to put a spotlight on the important clue. Then again, I don’t want to bury the important detail so much that readers won’t remember it. What a tough balance! I’d be curious if you, or anyone else, have rules of thumb they use??

  11. @Jan Thanks. Isn’t it true! Sometimes I’ll be ten chapters ahead, and I’ll think for no particular reason, oh, xyz needs to go into that confrontation scene ten chapters back, so I’ll drop something in and it turns out when I get to the end, it was just what I needed!

    @Kate – Beta readers are golden! One of the questions I always ask mine is to tell me when they knew who did it and if their first impression was right. I too like the rule of threes, but what I have found helpful is something I picked up from one of the multitudes of writing books I have. I am a pantser, or maybe a plotster, since I am trying to do some plotting in advance. I divide a paper in thirds and in each third I put ten things that have to happen and two or three signposts. The signposts are the big clues (I’ve never been right on who done it, but the clues usually hold up). Then I bury the signposts. sometimes it works.

  12. Ooh, I may try that technique as I get ready to start plotting my next book (I’d also call myself a plotster; I try to plot, but usually end up changing things along the way). Thanks for sharing, Kait! 🙂

  13. Well, Kait Carson, I read almost all mystery/crime/thriller novels and like most of them. I am not the most enthusiastic reader of historical crime fiction, but I pick one up every now and then. I try to balance my reading so I won’t get overloaded. If I read a high-tech intensive thriller, I follow it with a cozy just to let my mind recover. Around assorted holidays, I pick up a holiday-themed cozy since really, “hard” crime fiction just does not seem to fit in with Christmas cookies and such.

    Glad you “missed” me, but I’ve been around, reading but not posting since I am remodeling, visiting family in Ohio and Las Vegas, and just sitting on the beach. But, it’s back to being “grounded” and reading AND writing once again.

  14. @Kate – singing to the choir! Me too, but I find it does help keep me on track.
    @3 Very eclectic. I find the same so I know what you mean. My Kindle is full of cozies, my hardbacks are crime/thriller/traditionals. There is something very palate cleansing about cozy mysteries, don’t you think. Good luck with the remodel. That is so exciting! Talk about the ultimate mystery. Enjoy the dregs of summer and we’re looking forward to having you back as a regular poster/contributor. What are you writing? Share! You’ve always presented yourself as a reader. You know we want to know.

  15. Kate, great post! Plotting the clues is the trickiest part and if it were easy, every one would do it. But I have to note that so many very successful crime writers don’t, they write thrillers instead. Anyway, I like to break the clues up so that the logical nexus that you need to make from one clue to the next is stretched across the entire story and then fill up the middle with red herrings and genuine clues that interfere with that nexus. I’m working on a short story now with a homage to the dog that doesn’t bark for those Sherlock fans.

  16. Yep, Keenan. That’s me. I swear one of these days I’m going to tackle writing a traditional mystery, but the closest I’ve come is a police procedural. I’m not smart eough.

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