In part 2 of this 1931 article about mystery story techniques, George Dyer offers his suggestions for how to drop hints about who the real criminal of the story is.
By George Dyer
Writer's Digest, April 1931
Your murderer is a combination of your own feelings, modified by the character and appearance and background of some real person of your acquaintance. Your victim is a variation on your own particular of Editor Jones. Around these two group other personalities, families, friends, business associate, accomplices as required.
Obviously, in this game you do not introduce your murderer plainly labeled with the brand of Cain. The crime is committed, the man who will turn out to be the killer is introduced as casually as possible, and then for the required number of thousands of words, the game is on! By every legitimate method you attempt to throw the reader off the scent; in every fair way the reader tries to detect you at your work of concealment and to be able to say, at the last page, “I guessed it all along.” If this is true, he wins. If his reaction is “Why didn’t I see that,” you’ve won. If he reads straight through to the end and exclaims, “That’s not fair,” and gives adequate reasons, then you’ve probably broken the rules.
This concealment of the guilty man patently involves other characters. Others are suspected and dismissed, or die violently in a similar fashion to Editor Jones. This raises the knotty problem of how many suspects are advisable.
In the mystery short story, the ideal number of suspected persons would appear to be limited by the construction of the vehicle, to three. One of these is the Obvious Suspect, a villain if there ever was one, and with every reason and opportunity to commit the crime. He is for the thoughtless reader-player; only such a person will accept him as the culprit in the solution. The second may be classed as the Suspect, or Middle Suspect, and the writer may find it is wise to make him the actual criminal. He may be given either motive or opportunity, but either motive or opportunity must be apparently impossible. This fact of an apparent alibi in one or the other element will cause the stupid among the writer’s opponents to dismiss him from the suspected list, while the very clearness of the opportunity or motive given him will cause the intelligent reader to disregard him as too obvious. That, at least, is the writer’s hope. The third is the Buried Suspect, who is inserted to draw the clever reader’s attention from the really guilty man. He may also have either motive or opportunity, may have been heard to speak bitterly of the deceased, or covetously of the stolen object.
In consideration of so constricted a form as a short story, only two grades of reader intelligence can be reckoned upon; the Clever, and the Dull. In the preparation of a mystery story of this kind, it is often helpful for the sake of clarity to set down a list something as follows:
The Obvious Suspect–(to throw off the Dull Reader).
The Middle Suspect–(Actual Criminal).
The Buried Suspect–(to throw off the Clever Reader).
The longer detective novel or novelette, however, should be built with five levels of suspicion for four grades of reader mind. In this case, the table looks more like this:
The Obvious Suspect–(for the Very Dull).
The Less Obvious Suspect–(for the Dull).
The Middle Suspect–(Actual Criminal).
The Buried Suspect–(for the Clever).
The Deeply Buried Suspect–(for the Very Clever).
It will be seen that the same trio of suspected persons appears in both lists, and that the Middle Suspect may just as well be made the guilty man in the solution of the novel-length work.
In the longer piece, five levels of suspicion would only be the minimum. But more than five seems inexpedient, since a greater number of intentionally manufactured suspects will increase the confusion of minor characters. The case-hardened reader of detective stories may be trusted to suspect everyone in the narrative without any deliberate implication on the part of the writer.
Continuing the example above, Editor Jones dies, very painfully. A man is seen running away from the spot, say, with a knife in his hand. He is apprehended, found to be an individual known to have borne a grudge against the late editor. With the chart filled out in blank before you, you enter this character’s name after the heading “Obvious Suspect.”
The police view the body, the coroner appears. A friend of Editor Jones turns up, plainly broken up by the death. Perhaps you have him admit that he was near the spot by chance, but permit him to show that the murder would mean nothing but loss to him. If he is your actual criminal, you enter him after “Middle Suspect.” Then, as your tastes dictate, the super sleuth with his Watson, or the young District attorney, or the newspaper reporter arrives, and picks up the subtle clue which you have thoughtfully deposited near the corpse.
It is difficult not to be trite in the discussion of clues. The burned cigar butt, the handkerchief smelling faintly of musk, the finger-printed pistol, have all been worn thin to transparency. But you will find that an actual consideration of the murder, by you, of a real Editor Jones, will offer better things than these for your use.
Thus the story unrolls. Bit by bit, and always in the most casual fashion, you produce the scraps of evidence upon which the final solution is to be based, dropped in among other facts which are red herrings dragged across the trail. Here is where your superior knowledge helps you, for you are well aware of what is coming, and so realize what is significant and what is red herring, while the reader must sort out what he believes to be important without the advantage of fore-knowledge.
In passing, I have found it convenient to keep a list of the misleading occurrences on a separate sheet. For all these must be explained, during the narrative or at its conclusion.
It is useful, occasionally, in this game of outwitting the gentle reader, to put the detective character somewhere in the scheme of suspected persons. Either he or the deceased, through a hint of possible suicide, may very well be jotted down as the “Deeply Buried Suspect.” At some point in the action it is advisable to have the actual criminal suspected, and then apparently cleared on a motive or opportunity alibi which looks unshakeable until ultimately proved false.
Opinions differ widely as to the amount of blood which should be splashed around the walls and carpets. Personally, I agree with the contention that one murder, or two at the most, should suffice for either short story or novel-length mystery. Each subsequent killing, it seems to me, detracts further from the effect of the first, but that is a matter of individual taste.
And in the last analysis, the whole conduct of this game of “murder for profit” is a matter of individual taste, how you play it, within the compass of the rules sketched above, and even, of course, whether or not you choose to play it at all.
It is a game, a good game, and the author has the more interesting side of the board. He is quite willing to say keenly, as he puts a sheet in his typewriter and moves forward his first pawn: “Checkmate to the better player!”
Learn more or sign up for the Writer's Digest University course, Advanced Novel Writing.