I’m going to let you in on a little secret. OK, perhaps it’s not such a secret after all. Crime writers are out to manipulate readers. It’s true. Oh, I don’t mean in the negative sense of exploiting readers; that isn’t ‘playing fair’ (I’ll get back to that point in a bit). But crime writers do want readers to ‘buy into’ a story. That sort of manipulation is an important skill too. If it’s a ‘whodunit’ the author has to distract the reader from the real killer. If it’s a ‘whydunit’ the author has to get the reader to believe someone would kill for a given motive. If it’s a psychological thriller the author has to make the reader question just about everyone’s motives and trustworthiness. And all of that requires some manipulation.
Most crime fiction fans don’t mind that. If the story is well-written and there’s payoff if I can put it that way, readers are willing to let the author work some magic. When there is no payoff, or when the manipulation seems unfair or contrived, then readers tend to get cross. I know I do. The line between the manipulation that authors need to do to tell a good story and unfair manipulation is a fuzzy one. That’s not helped by the fact that every reader has a different line. But when that manipulation is both deft and fair, it can be an effective tool to draw readers into a story.
One of my favourite examples of that kind of deft manipulation is in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In that novel, Hercule Poirot has retired to the small village of King’s Abbot (or so he thinks). He’s soon drawn back into active investigation when wealthy retired manufacturing magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed. Ackroyd’s niece Flora is very much afraid her fiancé Captain Ralph Paton will be arrested for the crime since he is the most likely suspect. So she begs Poirot to find out the truth about the crime and clear Paton’s name. Christie manipulated readers’ assumptions about what clues mean and how the story is ‘supposed to’ progress so that the dénouement took readers utterly by surprise when the story was first published. In fact Christie took a lot of criticism for that. But careful readers will note that she ‘plays fair’ throughout the story. It’s a really powerful example of how manipulation can be handled brilliantly.
Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery is another case where the author manipulates unwary readers straight towards the wrong solution. Roger Sheringham is a correspondent for the Daily Courier. His plans for a holiday are upended when his employer sends him to Ludmouth Bay in Hampshire. Elise Vane was killed in a fall over a cliff and there are hints that the death may be murder. Sheringham’s assignment is to follow the case and submit articles on it. When he arrives in Hampshire Sheringham begins by talking to the various people in the victim’s life. As it turns out, Elise Vane was an unpleasant person and very few people are upset at her death. Sheringham also connects with Inspector Moresby, who’s in charge of the investigation. Sheringham and Moresby don’t team up but they do share information and in the end we learn the truth about who killed Elise Vane and why. Throughout this novel, Berkeley manipulates readers by calling attention to all of the little pieces of evidence that point to one or another suspect and disguising the real evidence.
Some authors manipulate readers by making it unclear exactly whom one can trust. There’s a brilliant example of that in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne has reached a plateau in her career. She’s well-regarded and has a popular television show, but she’s keenly aware that there are ‘hungry’ younger journalists coming up behind her. What Thorne needs is the story that will establish her at the top of national broadcasts. She thinks she finds that story in the case of Connor Bligh. Bligh is in prison for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived because she wasn’t at home at the time of the murders. Everyone assumes that Bligh is guilty. But then little hints surface that suggest he may be innocent. If he is, then he’s been wrongly imprisoned and that will be a sensational story. Thorne begins to look into the case and talk to the various people involved. She also interviews Bligh himself and encourages him to tell her his side of the story. There is certainly evidence of Bligh’s guilt, but Thorne also finds evidence that someone else is responsible. Is Bligh guilty? Is he manipulating Thorne? Are the people who want him in prison manipulating the system? Those questions of whom to trust keep the reader (well, this one anyway) deeply involved in the story.
T.J. Cooke does a similar kind of manipulation in his Kiss and Tell. London lawyer Jill Shadow is a single mother who’s worked hard to put a life together for herself and her daughter Hannah. All’s going well enough until she agrees to take the case of Bella Kiss, who’s been arrested for drugs smuggling. Bella admits she brought illegal drugs into the country, but she won’t tell who paid or coerced her to do so. She’s obviously covering up for someone and afraid of what will happen if she doesn’t. Because she isn’t very helpful in her own case, Shadow drops her as a client, but then changes her mind when she sees just how vulnerable Bella is. Bit by bit, Shadow uncovers a network that involves some very powerful and ruthless people. Then there’s a murder. That murder is connected to an earlier death and to Shadow’s client. Now, some very dangerous people are determined that Shadow won’t take her investigation any further. As the novel goes on, Cooke makes it clear that some people are not what they seem. That strategy is a very effective way to manipulate the reader into one kind of solution to the case when Cooke really has something else in mind.
Another way crime writers manipulate readers is with the use of secrets that characters keep. Readers want to know those secrets; they want to find out the truth. Slowly revealing those secrets not only adds to the tension in a novel, but also can lead the reader to care about characters. Readers often get invested in characters when they know their secrets. Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) A Dark-Adapted Eye for instance is the story of long-held secrets in the Longley family. Years ago, Vera Longley Hilliard was executed for murder. The family has done all it could to erase that part of the past and live a very respectable, middle-class life. Then journalist Daniel Stewart gets interested in the Hilliard case and wants to know more about the case and the family. So he asks Vera Hilliard’s niece Faith Longley Severn to help him put the pieces of the puzzle together. As the two interact, Severn has to come face to face with her family’s past – and with several secrets. It’s one of those secrets that actually inspired this post. We don’t know the truth about one member of the Longley family until the end of the book and that secret keeps readers invested all the way through.
Most crime fiction fans know they’re being manipulated as they read. That’s part of the game. And if that manipulation means a terrific surprise ending, interesting revelations about characters or a good match of wits between author and reader, that can add to a novel. And crime fiction fans like that. When it’s done unfairly though, so that readers don’t get important information they need, or if there’s no payoff for that manipulation, then readers get pulled out of the story.
What about you? If you’re a reader, do you mind having your thinking manipulated? What’s your line between ‘it’s all part of the game’ and ‘this is not fair?’ If you’re a writer, how do you keep on the ‘playing fair’ part of that balance?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s Lead Me On.