From the Sunday morning mind of Earl Staggs
A few years ago, a writer I knew invited me to her debut signing event. She’d written three or four Romance novels which went unpublished before writing this one. It was her first Mystery and a small press published it. I was excited for her so I went.
She handled herself well in her presentation, I thought. She’s an attractive girl, bubbly in spirit, and well-spoken. Everything went along just fine until, in response to a question, she stopped me cold with this:
“I didn’t know who the killer was myself until the final chapter.”
I don’t know how the rest of the audience reacted, but I was numbstruck. How could this be? How could a writer put together a complete murder mystery without knowing who did the awful deed? Did she toss in a large number of red herrings and suspects, then draw a name from a hat at the end? After I read the book, I felt that’s most likely what she’d done.
She’d developed several viable suspects, but none more suspect than the others. There were a number of what seemed to be clues, but none pointed to anyone in particular and none were crucial to solving the crime. In the end, the protagonist somehow decided who dunnit, confronted her, and got a confession.
I felt cheated.
When I read a mystery, I like to stay in step with the protag as the clues and suspects are presented, weighing and assessing them until the stew boils down to a credible denouement. I don’t mind at all being surprised by a good plot twist as long as I can reconcile it with what’s gone before and it rings true. I can also understand how a writer can begin a novel with one perpetrator in mind and change to another one as the plot progresses. I’ve done that myself, but I’ve gone back and rewritten where necessary to make it work.
But to write a complete novel, then choose the killer with an eenie-meenie-minie-moe method and expect readers to be satisfied!?!?
Would someone pack all their belongings, hit the road making right and left turns at random, then when they run out of gas, that’s where they stay?
Would a builder accumulate a pile of boards, begin cutting and nailing them together, then when he runs out, decide whether he’s built a house, a garage, or a bridge?
Maybe there are people out there who do things that way. My only hope is that they don’t write mystery novels.