I Can See Clearly Now*

The Big RevealIn many crime fiction novels there’s a point in the story where we learn who the criminal (usually the murderer) is. Of course, a lot of crime fiction fans try to figure it out from the very beginning, but there’s often a point where the killer is named. That point’s sometimes referred to as the big reveal. It’s a crucial point in a story too for a few reasons. The obvious one of course is that that’s where the reader learns the answer to a central question in the story. If that point in the novel doesn’t mesh with the rest of the story, or if the criminal isn’t believable, the reader can get pulled out of the novel and be left frustrated and disappointed. Another reason the big reveal is important is that the circumstances surrounding it can add to the suspense in a novel. That can keep the reader engaged.

In a lot (but certainly not all) of classic and Golden Age crime fiction, the sleuth gathers the suspects together and names the killer. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is particularly fond of showing off that way – even he admits that about himself. But Miss Marple has her own ‘big reveal’ moments too. In 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!)for instance, Miss Marple’s friend Elspeth McGillicuddy witnesses the murder of an unknown woman while en route by train to St. Mary Mead. The only problem is that there is no evidence for what Mrs. McGillicuddy says that she saw. No body is discovered and no-one has reported a missing person who fits the description of the victim. So almost no-one is inclined to believe Mrs. McGillicuddy – except Miss Marple. She deduces that the body must be on the grounds of Rutherford Hall, home of the Crackenthorpe family, and with help from her friend Lucy Eyelesbarrow, she finds out she’s right. When the body is discovered, the police get involved and all of the members of the Crackenthorpe family come under suspicion. At the end of the novel, Lucy arranges for Miss Marple and Mrs. McGillicuddy to come to tea at Rutherford Hall. That’s when Miss Marple catches the killer through a clever trick in front of the suspects. It works, too.

Margaret Maron’s Sigrid Harald uses a variation on this technique in One Coffee With. She and her assistant Detective Tilden are assigned to investigate the poisoning murder of Riley Quinn, deputy chair of the Art Department at New York’s Vanderlyn University. In the process of the investigation Harald and Tilden learn a lot about the inner workings of the department, including its rivalries and the cold reality of funding issues. It turns out that many of the department members had a motive for murder. So did some of the students. But bit by bit, Harald and Tilden find out who the killer is. Towards the end of the novel Harald makes an arrangement with another character and together they lure the killer out of hiding as the expression goes. That’s when the reader finds out for sure who murdered Quinn and why. Then Harald goes on to explain how the clues led her to the truth.

Of course, not all authors use that plot point of gathering a group of suspects together for the big reveal. In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle for instance, Inspector Richard Queen investigates the murder of noted fashion designer Sheila Grey and of course his son Ellery gets involved too. The first most likely suspect is wealthy businessman Ashton McKell, with whom Grey’d been involved. When McKell is cleared of suspicion, his wife Lutetia becomes a suspect and then so does his son Dane. There are other suspects too. Grey left a cryptic clue though, and the killer has unwittingly left a ‘calling card.’ When Ellery discovers this ‘calling card,’ he’s able to identify the killer. In this novel we learn who the killer is as the Queens confront that person. That is, it’s not a dramatic reveal in front of a circle of stunned faces. Rather, it’s a more personal encounter.

That’s what happens in Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black too. In that novel, sixteen-year-old Catherine Ross is found murdered in a field not far from the home of local misfit Magnus Tait. Tait’s the most obvious suspect since he saw the girl on the day she was killed, and since he was implicated in the disappearance of a young girl several years earlier. But Inspector Jimmy Perez doesn’t think it’s that simple and he is proven right. To find Catherine’s killer, Perez has to look into all of the relationships among the residents of Ravenswick, Shetland, where Catherine lived. Bit by bit he uncovers the complex network of relationships and history. He also learns quite a lot about Catherine’s personality along the way. In the end he deduces who the killer is and confronts that person. And in keeping with the nature of this novel, that confrontation isn’t an overly-dramatic scene involving a car chase or gun battle. It has its own drama, but that drama is more psychological and that’s an effective fit with the novel.

Sometimes authors don’t use a big reveal as such. They may include a confrontation between sleuth and criminal but that’s not when the killer’s identity is revealed. Instead, those authors show how the sleuth finds out who the criminal is. In other words the reveal comes as the sleuth figures out what really happened.

We see that for instance in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City. Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur and his team are called to the scene when the body of a seemingly inoffensive elderly man named Holberg is discovered. At first there doesn’t seem much motive for murder. Holberg wasn’t wealthy and the place hadn’t been robbed, so money doesn’t seem to be involved. And Holberg didn’t have any obvious enemies either. But as the team gets to know more about the victim, we learn that Holberg was hiding a dark past. He’d been accused of several rapes, although he’d never been convicted. So it becomes quite possible that one of his victims chose to take revenge. Bit by bit Erlendur and team find out who the killer is and that’s how we learn that person’s identity. At the end of the novel, Erlendur confronts the killer with what he knows, so there is a scene between them. There’s a great deal of psychological tension in that scene too. But it’s not the stereotypical ‘big reveal.’

Some authors don’t really include a confrontation between sleuth and criminal in their reveal. That doesn’t mean the reveal can’t be highly effective though. For instance in Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly, Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate the suspicious death of Giorgio Tassini, night watchman at a local glass-blowing factory. Before his death Tassini had claimed that the glass-blowing industry was illegally dumping toxic waste. So there are several suspects including the local factory owners and their powerful supporters. Little by little Brunetti and Vianello find out who killed Tassini and that’s revealed in a more understated way. In that sense, there isn’t a big dramatic reveal. Brunetti never actually hauls the criminal away in handcuffs. But the reader knows who the killer is and at the very end of the novel, Brunetti gets the one piece of evidence he needs to make sure the killer faces consequences.

The big reveal can be dramatic or subtle. It can involve a violent confrontation or none at all. The best ones though have in common that they make sense given the characters and the kind of novel. Which big reveals have you liked best?



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Johnny Nash song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Arnaldur Indriðason, Donna Leon, Ellery Queen, Margaret Maron

18 responses to “I Can See Clearly Now*

  1. Margot, I must admit that the “big reveals” I like best are the ones I can’t really see coming – the ones where I have been cleverly led in the wrong direction by the author, led to expect that a particular person will be revealed as the killer – and instead am stunned by a sudden twist.

    I can give lots of good examples. Christianna Brand’s “Green for Danger,” for instance, Inspector Cockrill sets up a dramatic confrontation with the killer – but even he is stunned by a couple of sudden last minute twists which leave readers gasping. John Dickson Carr’s “The Nine Wrong Answers” features a revelation and confrontation at the end which, I suspect, very few readers will see coming. Many Ellery Queen novels (in addition to the one you cited) also work that way, as we come to several apparent conclusions which prove to be false ends…and Ellery himself takes us over the final twists to reveal the true culprit. Elizabeth Daly is another author whose endings can induce whiplash, taking the reader for unexpected turns, particularly in “The Book of the Dead,” where the reader is taken to a confrontation that is not at all what he/she may have been expecting. All fine books, all entertaining reads – and all big revelations which are likely to amaze the reader.

    • Les – Like you, I always really respect an author who can lead me, without one unfair or untrue word or device, right up the proverbial garden path. When that happens, I always scramble to go back and find out where I was misled and I always learn.
      You’re right too that Green For Danger has an absolutely expert final twist. Folks, you will not see it coming. And yes indeed, Carr, ‘Queen’ and Daly all created books where the big reveal really is a complete surprise, even to those familiar with the way mysteries work. Thanks for those examples; you filled in a gap I’d left. I like matching wits against the author like that, so I’m always pleased when the author puts me on my mettle.

  2. kathy d.

    Nemesis by Jo Nesbo features a shocking secret about the murderer at the end after the reader rides a roller coaster for hundreds of pages. Great reveal!

  3. I wonder if in real life, this is a pretty rare occurrence. I would imagine the police would not want to lay out their case for a criminal. They know if they have the goods and why tell the suspect anything.

    • Patti – Now, that’s an interesting question. I’m pretty sure that in real life, the police wouldn’t tell a suspect everything the have. Even after the criminal has confessed, if s/he does, it’s probably the custom to keep at least a little back. But I have to admit, it can work in crime fiction.

  4. I’m not so fond of the old-fashioned group reveals/wrap-ups anymore. What I love most are great twists to the plot so that I stay in the dark until the very end.

    • Pat – Interesting isn’t it how our views about that sort of thing change as time goes by. I like to be kept involved in the story until the end, too, even if I do figure out whodunit.

  5. It’s getting harder and harder to have these ‘big reveals’ nowadays, I think, as crime fiction fans are getting better at guessing even the most unlikely plot twists and the identity of the murderers. So I quite like the novels where we are pretty much aware of whodunit, but we follow the detective’s deductions and search for proof or motives.
    And I do have a sneaking fondness for the ‘let’s all gather in one room and make each one of the people present feel guilty, turn by turn’ technique.

    • Marina Sofia – I can’t help but be fond of that old-fashioned big reveal myself. I think it’s probably because I read a lot of Agatha Christie’s work when I was young. There’s just something about that dramatic unmasking of the truth isn’t there? But that said, I do agree that crime fiction fans have gotten very savvy over the years. So it takes more cleverness on the part of the author to pull off a complete surprise in a credible way.

  6. I don’t recall reading crime-fiction with “big reveals” in them. Frankly, I wouldn’t see the criminal or murderer even if the author dangled him or her before me and shouted out their name aloud. Dr. James Sheppard in THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD is a “big reveal” in a subtle way but I didn’t see it either! I don’t mind a writer revealing the identity of the criminal or murderer in the beginning for it indicates that there is much more to a detective mystery than tracking and apprehending the culprit, such as layers of suspense and intrigue. I like the idea of a “big reveal” turning out to be a red herring in the end.

    • Prashant – You make a well-taken point that there is so much more to a good crime fiction novel than the identity of the killer. There is suspense, character development and so on. And a crime novel that doesn’t have those elements isn’t engaging even if it does have a dramatic big reveal. And I know what you mean about the big twist at the end where the big reveal turns out to be…wrong. That can be really effective, too.

  7. Following up on your exchange with Prashant about big reveals turning out to be red herrings, I would point you both to Leo Bruce’s mischievous “Case for Three Detectives,” written in 1936. The three detectives are very funny parodies of Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot and Father Brown. All are contemptuous of the police, in the person of Sergeant Beef. All three come up with brilliant and ingenious solutions to the locked room murder, solutions which Sergeant Beef respectfully admires – the only problem being that all three are wrong; in the end, it is Sergeant Beef who identifies the killer – but then he has been saying through the entire book, “I KNOW who done it.” It’s great fun, and if you like red herrings, here’s a barrel full.

  8. Don’t have much to offer in this discussion, but I am intrigued by the suggestion from Les Blatt: Case for Three Detectives. That will be perfect for a vintage mystery read. I will have to find it.

    And I love that song. I am home sick today and listening to that song.

    • Tracy – Just your commenting adds to the discussion. And I love Les’ suggestion too and plan to look it up. I know exactly how you feel about being homesick too. Glad you liked the song; I like it very much myself.

  9. The ‘big reveal’ does have an old fashioned feel to it doesn’t it? But I do so like then – again all my classic crime reading I think. I do like to be surprised but I don’t think I read crime fiction specifically for the ‘whodunnit’ element but also for character/plot and the quality of the writing.

    • Sarah – I know what you mean about a background in classic crime fiction. That’s affected what I like in novels, too, and yes, the big reveal carries that feel. And you’ve a good point about writing, characters and so on; they’re important to me, too, and I’m willing to give up being surprised if they’re well-done.

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