One major challenge that crime fiction authors face has to do with clues. Crime fiction fans are fairly savvy readers, so if the clues are too obvious, they get bored or see a story as implausible (e.g. “How could the sleuth not figure out what that clue means!?”). On the other hand, as I’ve mentioned before here on Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…, if clues aren’t provided, or if the clues that are given are too hard to work out, the reader may feel cheated (i.e. “Well of course if I’d known that I’d’ve guessed why ____ was killed!”). So placing clues has to be done thoughtfully and crime writers work very hard at doing that. Trust me. When it’s done well, though, a clue can be placed elegantly so that it’s all “above board” but the reader still gets misled, at least for a while.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), we meet the members of the Abernethie family, who have gathered for the funeral of patriarch Richard Abernethie. At the reading of the will, Abernethie’s youngest sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up and even she retracts her remark. But everyone also privately wonders whether she was right. Then Cora herself is murdered the next day. Mr. Entwhistle, the family attorney, asks Hercule Poirot to investigate and he agrees. The family gathers again, this time to choose things that they want from the house before it’s sold. Poirot attends this get-together in the guise of a representative for the organisation that’s purchased the house. In the course of that week-end, Poirot hears a clue – one simple clue – that tells him a large part of what he needs to know to find out who the murderer is. It’s neatly and elegantly placed though, so it’s easy to miss. Still, Christie “plays fair” with the reader.
So does Arthur Upfield in The Bushman Who Came Back. In that novel, the peaceful life at the Wootton homestead is disrupted when Wootton’s housekeeper Mrs. Bell is shot one morning after Wootton and his ranch hands have left for the day. When the hands come back a little later that morning they also find that Mrs. Bell’s daughter Linda has disappeared. Everyone’s very fond of Linda so there’s an all-out search for her. It’s suspected that she was abducted by a bushman nicknamed Yorkie and that Yorkie also killed Mrs. Bell. Upfield’s sleuth, Queensland police detective Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte is sent to the ranch to try to track Yorkie and get Linda back safely if he can. Bony interviews everyone involved and looks for relevant evidence. Two clues in particular lead him to believe that Yorkie is probably innocent. There’s another clue too, not made much of at first sight, that is also an important pointer to the killer. Once Bony puts those clues together, he finds out who killed Mrs. Bell and why. The clues are there for the reader but it takes an astute reader to figure out what they mean right away.
There’s an interesting clue fairly early in Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbour. One morning, physiotherapist Rachel James is shot through her kitchen window. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are called in to investigate. At first, they can’t find much of a motive. Then Geoffrey Owens, a journalist who lives in the same neighbourhood as Rachel James, is shot too. Now it seems that someone is targeting the people who live in that neighbourhood. Morse and Lewis find though that James’ murder isn’t connected to that of Owens in that way. In the end, it’s a simple clue – something the reader knows fairly early on – that leads Morse and Lewis to the reason for James’ death. In the end, they also find out why Owens was murdered and who committed both crimes.
In Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, former attorney Jack Irish, who’s now a private investigator, gets a frantic call from a former client Danny McKillop. Irish represented McKillop in a drink driving killing; McKillop was convicted and has just been released from prison. McKillop wants Irish to meet him to discuss something urgent but by the time Irish gets back to his former client it’s too late; McKillop’s been murdered. Irish feels guilty for not following up more quickly and what’s more he feels responsible for the fact that McKillop lost the court case in which Irish represented him. So he decides to find out who killed Danny McKillop and why. He interviews McKillop’s wife, other members of the family and some friends and business associates. Bit by bit he learns that McKillop’s murder may be connected to the drink driving case for which McKillop went to prison – a case in which activist Anne Jeppeson was killed. Now Irish begins to look into who would want to kill Jeppeson and why. At one point, someone tells Irish something that doesn’t seem important at the time but turns out to be vital. Astute readers will pick up the clue; I didn’t at first. It’s that clue though that points Irish to the evidence he needs to catch the killer.
And then there’s Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, in which Oslo police detective Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the drowning murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland. Her body was found by a tarn near the village of Granittveien. There are no signs of sexual assault or other real violence, so the murder wasn’t rape and it’s clear that she knew her attacker. While Sejer and Skarre interview witnesses and suspects, Annie’s boyfriend Halvor Muntz doesn’t want to sit by and do nothing. He wants to know who killed Annie and why. It turns out that a casual thing she had said to him is a vital clue as to where he can find the motive for her murder. For his part, Sejer finds out some information too from a casual conversation. That leads him, from a different direction you might say, to the same truth. Those clues are given clearly fairly early in the story, but it’s still hard at first to see them for what they are at first.
That’s also the case with very important clues we get in Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. Seaton is the undermaster of the grammar school in 17th Century Banff, Scotland. He is shocked one morning when the body of apothecary’s assistant Patrick Davidson, who’s been poisoned, is found in his schoolroom. The most immediate suspect is local music master and Seaton’s good friend Charles Thom, who was Davidson’s rival for Marion Arbuthnott, the apothecary’s daughter. Thom claims to be innocent but he’s arrested and imprisoned. When Seaton visits his friend, Thom begs Seaton to clear his name. Seaton agrees and begins to talk to the people who knew Davidson. It turns out that there is more than one possible motive for the murder and Seaton explores all of them. But two clues, both given clearly and relatively early in the novel, point to the real truth. Once Seaton understands what those clues are and what they mean, he’s able to find the killer. In this case, we find the clues when Seaton does but it takes a very astute reader (more so than I am) to put the pieces together before Seaton does.
And that’s the thing about a really well-placed clue. When it’s done elegantly, we see it right there but don’t always recognise it for what it is. Are you good at spotting those well-placed clues? If you’re a writer, how do you decide where to place clues?
NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s A Room of our Own.