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?