Something kind of strange happened the other day. One of my faithful reviewers indicated that she knew who the bad guy was in Self-Serve Murder early in the story. Okay, that happens, but then I was chatting with her about something else and she told me it was the best novel of the Death by Cupcake series. After I stopped dancing in my chair and spilling my coffee to boot, I started thinking about her comment and that’s when I wondered – Can a mystery still be good read if the reader figures out whodunit early on?
Part of being a mystery writer is trying to figure out a way to fool your readers. We add red herrings, plot twists, and false suspects all in the hope that the reader won’t catch the real clues we’re giving them until it’s too late. At which point the reader should palm their face and shout something like Duh! I should have seen that coming! Having a reader say that the villain is obvious is akin to a slap in the face. It hurts and is shocking.
First of all, let’s get rid of those readers who always figure out whodunit. My mother-in-law and I have this one thing in common. We love watching BBC mystery series and reading Agatha Christie. We’re also both convinced we figure out the entire mystery within the first half-hour of the television show. My mother-in-law swears up and down she figures out the Agatha Christie murders as well, but we all know that’s just craziness. As a murder mystery writer, you have to ignore these wet noodles who can’t seem to help themselves from shouting out I figured it out! before you’ve even managed to plant your second plot device. After all, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
But what about other readers? Is a murder mystery a – gulp – failure if the killer is too obvious? Sometimes but not always. That’s about clear as mud, isn’t it?
One of the reasons readers enjoy reading mysteries is to unravel the mystery. They enjoy solving the murder just as much as the writer enjoys writing about it. But solving the mystery and figuring out who the killer is, is not the same thing – not always. In fact, some writers will tell readers who the killer is early on, but then the reader is left wondering why him? The mystery concentrates on the motivation behind the killing, chasing the killer down, and perhaps the proof necessary to incarcerate the bad guy. In this case, knowing who the murderer is early on does not equal a bad novel.
In some cases, not knowing who the killer is until the very last second can be just as frustrating as figuring out the killer too early. A mystery ought to be fair. Readers should have all the information that the sleuth does. If the writer is hiding information from readers in an attempt to keep the mystery going even when the sleuth is perfectly aware of the information, this can backfire into reader resentment. In that case, there’s no way the reader can solve the puzzle along with the sleuth. That’s not fair and, frankly, no fun for the reader.
Some murder mystery writers will use a red herring or false suspect throughout the novel and only ‘reveal’ the true murderer at the last moment. Neither the sleuth or the readers have figured out who the killer is, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the mystery is a good story. Readers may be angry and feel cheated out of trying to unravel the mystery because they’ve wasted too much time reading about a lead that went on way too long and didn’t pan out.
It would appear then that there needs to be a balance between unraveling the mystery too early and waiting until the very last second to reveal the murderer. And finding that balance is where the fun for us writers begins.