Secrets and the lies required to keep them are incredibly destructive in real life, but they are the stuff mystery fiction is made of, the raw materials of the genre. Mysteries involve crime—usually murder—and the stories begin by posing a simple question: Who killed the victim and why? Naturally, the killer doesn’t want that secret revealed. The police professional or amateur sleuth does. Upon that conflict hangs the plot.
The challenge for readers is to sort through the evidence—the clues and the red herrings, the secrets and the lies—to discover the truth. The challenge for authors is to keep the reader guessing until the final reveal.
How do we do that? How do authors handle the tension between the perpetrator, who needs to keep his deep, dark secrets, and the sleuth, who is determined to unmask them? The answer will vary from author to author and from book to book but remembering five simple principles will help you elevate a killer plot.
The Victim Was Killed For A (Secret) Reason
Unless your victim is murdered randomly or accidentally (and that would hardly make for a compelling story), he or she was killed for a reason—not necessarily a good reason or even a sane reason, but a reason. This means your killer is hiding not only the fact that he or she committed the crime but also the motivation behind it. Knowing the why of a murder goes a long way toward revealing the who.
Psychologists tell us murders are committed for lots of reasons—greed, shame, fear, self-defense, the desire to escape, a loss of control, sexual jealousy, loyalty, personal satisfaction, and insanity. That list and its many permutations provide the mystery writer with a nearly infinite number of possibilities. Why take the easy route? A psychopath who kills for the sake of it may be terrifying in real life, but in fiction, it’s pretty boring. Presenting the victim as a horrible person who makes tons of enemies, all of whom would cheerfully stab him in the heart, is common—too common. Why not dig deeper? Why not create a secret, hidden motive that overturns readers’ expectations? Maybe your victim was a ruthless real estate developer, forcing small businesses into bankruptcy in order to snap up the property at bargain prices. But what if that dodgy real estate developer was killed for an entirely different reason altogether—one that is integral to the plot and which you carefully seeded in from the beginning, but which emerges only in the final act?
In Agatha Christie’s Peril At End House, for example, a young woman survives a series of near-fatal attacks staged to look like accidents. Poirot tries to protect her—until he realizes the victim herself staged the accidents to cover a murder of her own. I won’t give away her secret motive, but even the little Belgian detective is fooled at first. Which brings us to the second principle.
Not Every Secret Is Relevant
Uncovering the hidden motive behind murder inevitably requires more than one suspect, and that means uncovering secrets and lies that, in the end, prove to be red herrings—false clues that send the reader off in the wrong direction. The purpose of a red herring in crime fiction is to deflect the reader’s attention for the purpose of disguise.
In Christopher Huang’s debut mystery, A Gentleman’s Murder, a member of Eric Peterkin’s London club is found stabbed to death in the club’s inner recesses. Only one of the club members is guilty, but just about everyone has a deep, dark secret of their own, one they are determined to conceal but which did not lead them to commit murder. As Peterkin uncovers those secrets, guilt falls temporarily on one suspect after another. Instead of plotting the sleuth’s investigation like a circular labyrinth with a one-way path toward the center (clue leading to clue), Huang constructs it instead like a hedge maze with lots of dead ends along the way.
Even dead ends are enlightening. As Sherlock Holmes famously said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbably, must be the truth.” As dead ends are met and discarded, the list of still-viable suspects is narrowed until there is only one left—the real culprit. The mystery is solved. The innocent are cleared, and their secrets shown to be irrelevant. For one character, however—the killer—the slow unraveling of his dark secret has inevitably taken a toll.
Keeping Secrets Is Costly
Sigmund Freud wrote, “No mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” Freud wasn’t talking about murder, but he might have been, because unless your killer is a sociopath who can do anything and feel no shame, the secrets he keeps and the lies he tells will eventually take a toll on him.
As Michael Kurland points out, few people believe they are villains. They tell themselves they have good reasons for what they do. Life is unfair. They got a raw deal. They deserve more. And yet, psychologists tell us guilt is the natural emotional response to causing harm. This guilt may be suppressed, sublimated, or outwardly denied, but keeping that guilty secret will require constant effort. As you plot out the slow reveal, consider the short- and long-term effects of guilt—and the toll that self-deception will take on your villain. Take this opportunity to create a more complex and interesting bad guy.
Your killer is human, after all. How does he respond internally to the weight of his secrets? How can you show his growing guilt without giving the game away? Maybe the killer makes mistakes because she really wants to be stopped. Maybe he piles lies upon lies, one of which eventually leads to his downfall. Maybe guilt takes a physical toll—lack of sleep, stomach problems, headaches. Keeping that deep, dark secret becomes increasingly more difficult and costly. When confronted, will your killer blurt out a confession, attempt suicide, try to escape, or summon his remaining strength for one final evil act? Remember the psychology of guilt. And remember something else as well.
The Author Has Secrets, Too
In mystery fiction, the author must play fair with the reader. We can’t withhold vital clues for the purpose of deception, and we can’t tell outright lies (although our characters can). What we can do is disguise or camouflage the real clues, directing the reader’s attention toward details that appear relevant but aren’t.
Like magicians and conjurors, our stock-in-trade is the art of misdirection. According to Michael Kurland, the goals of misdirection are “to slide information past the reader without waving it in her face, to change the direction of a story in mid-page, and to plant clues that will lie dormant until they’re ready to sprout.” The trick is to embed the fictional sleights-of-hand naturally within the plot or subplot so they don’t raise the reader’s suspicions—or if they do, to direct those suspicions toward the wrong suspect.
Agatha Christie was a master of the Art of Misdirection. She constructed her scenes, said Elizabeth George in Write Away, “so that the clue was present but so was the red herring. And the scene pivoted around the red herring, not around the clue. Brilliant.”
Fortunately, there are many ways to misdirect the reader. Here are four:
- Creating a false clue. A stabbing victim is found clutching a piece of paper on which is written the partial word MIL. The police suspect he was fingering his friend Will Millman for the crime. Turns out he was reminding himself to buy a gallon of milk.
- Confusing the time frame. The victim died between 7 and 9 p.m., exactly when the killer was playing the violin on stage before an audience of hundreds. But did the victim really die then?
- Creating a Distraction. Six people dine together at a pricey restaurant. One of them is the killer; another is the victim. Just as the killer reaches into her purse for her lipstick (a vial of poison disguised as a lipstick), another diner stands up, throws a drink in the victim’s face, and stalks angrily off.
- Burying the real clue in a list. Readers tend to remember the first two or three items in a list—and the last one. They also remember more intriguing or colorful items over the seemingly mundane. Who remembers a half-filled glass of water when there’s a bottle of sleeping pills on the nightstand, a smashed window with bloody fingerprints on the frame, a gold button with a distinctive crest on the carpet, and a book on black magic on the bed, open to a chapter on necromancy? Later, the red herrings will be explained away, but the half-filled glass of water will be the seemingly insignificant fact that cracks the case.
Like the audience in a magic show, readers love to be fooled. But unlike that audience, mystery readers want to know exactly how the author did it.
All Secrets Are Revealed in the End
With notable exceptions—Tana French’s In The Woods, for example, where the author never reveals what happened to two children who disappeared in the woods 20 years earlier; or Barbara Vine’s A Dark-Adapted Eye, where the reader knows the identity of the killer from the get-go but is never told the motive or even the identity of the victim—the unwritten contract between mystery author and reader dictates that, in the end, all clues are accounted for and all questions answered. At least the ones bearing upon the central plot.
Unless questions are purposely left hanging for a subsequent book, the author ties up the loose ends, providing a satisfactory ending. Secrets are revealed, order is restored, and justice is served. Unlike real life.
Maybe that’s the appeal of mystery fiction.