I Keep My Visions to Myself*

cards close to the chestOne of the many balances that crime writers consider is how much to share with readers. As the sleuth gets information and forms theories, is it better to let readers in on that thought process, or is it better for the sleuth to ‘hold the cards close to the chest?’ On the one hand, most people agree it’s important to ‘play fair’ with readers and give them the information they need to make sense of the mystery. On the other hand, many readers enjoy being challenged and not always knowing what the sleuth is thinking and what her or his theories are. And readers want to remain engaged in a story; so if the author is going to reveal the sleuth’s thinking process, there need to be other aspects of the story that keep readers invested.

Different authors have taken different approaches to this question. In some cases, the sleuth is quite tight-lipped about what she or he is thinking until ‘the big reveal.’ For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is like that. By the end of a given story, we know what the clues are that led Holmes to a given deduction. And fans will know that Holmes is a stickler for following evidence in a scientific way. But he doesn’t reveal his theory until he’s ready. In The Sign of the Four, for instance, Watson asks about Holmes’ theory about certain footprints. Holmes’ reply is:

‘You know my methods. Apply them, and it will be instructive to compare results.’

Watson is no mental slouch; still, he never fails to be surprised by Holmes’ deductions. Neither do we.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is a bit like that too. As he himself says, he doesn’t always look for things such as cigarette ash or unusual shoe prints. But like Holmes, he tends to keep his theories to himself. He says it’s because he may be wrong, and doesn’t want to sway anyone else if he is. But in Death on the Nile, he hints at another reason for which he doesn’t reveal his theories until the last moment:

‘‘I like to say, ‘See how clever is Hercule Poirot!’’

Even die-hard Poirot fans will admit that he does like to be the admired focus of attention. Christie fans will also know that Miss Marple isn’t always exactly forthcoming about her theories either. She offers hints here and there, but seldom explains herself before the ‘big reveal.’

Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver is another sleuth who doesn’t share much about her thought process as a story goes on. She listens to her clients, makes suggestions, does her own investigation and the like. But we often don’t know exactly what her theory is until she’s ready to explain it all. There are a lot of other fictional sleuths who take a similar approach (I know, I know, fans of Ellery Queen).

Keeping one’s cards close to the chest can be effective in a story. But readers can also be drawn in when they have the opportunity to follow along as the sleuth works things out. This allows for certain plot twists and other events when the sleuth makes the occasional mistake. After all, sleuths are only human…

There are a lot of examples of this approach. One is Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi series. Marconi is a detective with the New South Wales Police. As she investigates cases, she frequently talks over her ideas with her police partners Dennis Orchard and, later, Murray Shakespeare. Fans of this series will know that it also features paramedics who figure in some way or other into each plot. Howell shares their thoughts as well. But Marconi is sometimes wrong, and in any case, isn’t privy to everything. So Howell can build suspense without having Marconi keep her theories to herself.

Readers are also ‘in on’ the way Peter James’ Superintendent Roy Grace thinks. And so are his colleagues. As he investigates murders, he often shares ideas with his team-mates, particularly his second-in-command, Glenn Branson. The tension is built in these novels in part because the reader also knows some things that the detectives don’t know. We aren’t told everything of course, but James shares the points of view of several characters. This strategy gives the reader some omniscience and allows for suspense (i.e. ‘Is Grace going to find out that X knows about Y, and is lying about it?’). So even though we know what Grace and his teammates are thinking, there are still plot twists in the series.

One of the more interesting examples of sharing what detectives are thinking is the case of H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ganesh Ghote of the Bombay/Mumbai Police. Ghote is a reflective police officer who often mulls over things. For instance, at the beginning of Inspector Ghote Breaks an Egg, he’s sent to a small town to investigate a fifteen-year-old murder as quietly as possible. This mission concerns an Eminent Figure of such high rank that it’s thought Ghote ought to use some sort of guise, rather than go as a police officer. The Eminent Figure instructs Ghote to go as a salesman for a new chicken-feed product. Here’s what Ghote thinks about it:

‘Ghote had rejected the notion of explaining to the Eminent Figure that…in the remote part of the state to which he was being sent chickens were just one more set of scavengers feeding where they could on what they could find.
After all, one did have a duty to feed one’s family. There could be no gainsaying that.
But he hoped profoundly, now that he had arrived, that the disguise the bold, orange box provided would be sufficient.’

Ghote ponders his cases themselves in the same way. So in that sense, he doesn’t hold the cards particularly close to his chest as far as the reader is concerned. At the same time, there are enough surprises that the reader doesn’t know everything right away.

The decision on whether to have a sleuth hold a lot back or not arguably depends on the kind of story the author is creating and the sort of suspense the author wants to build. What do you think about this strategy? Does it bother you when the sleuth holds the cards very closely? Do you like to know what the sleuth is thinking the whole time? If you’re a writer, how do you handle this matter?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, H.R.F. Keating, Katherine Howell, Patricia Wentworth, Peter James

30 responses to “I Keep My Visions to Myself*

  1. I don’t need to know everything the sleuth is thinking, but I do want a fair shot of figuring out the mystery for myself. Nothing irks me more than an ending that seems to pop out of nowhere. In my writing, I might mention a certain painting by describing it in detail without saying it’s clue. In that case I’ll refer to it again later. Other times, I have my character tell another character it’s a clue, or think it through. But I always give them a chance.

    • I think it’s important to do that, Sue. It might very well spoil a story to give too much away, or to have the sleuth provide every detail of her or his theory. But at the same time, I agree that clues shouldn’t come out of nowhere. To me, that’s not ‘playing fair,’ and it’s ruined more than one story for me.

  2. Kathy D.

    I don’t mind if the reader is fed information by the detective or if he/she reveals all of their deductive reasoning in the denouement. Holmes certainly liked to give the final reveal but along the way, he will explain the clues he finds. He will describe all of the information a person shows by his/her appearance, clothing, callouses, complexion. He’ll explain what he sees at a crime scene. He doe all this but saves the perpetrator’s name until the end. Fun for us.
    The Belgian detecitve love to line up all suspects and go around a room explaining all of their backgrounds and motives — and then Poiror gives his big reveal in front of everyone. He does like the attention.
    And then there’s our New York eccentric genius and egotist, Nero Wolfe. He will give some information along the way to Archie Goodwin who is doing most of the legwork in the investigations. But, as Poirot, Wolfe will line up all of the suspects in his study and then ask questions and point fingers — and then he gives up the perpetrator’s name in front of everyone — often, with a big cops in the room. He, too, likes the attention and wants to be proven again and again that he’s a genius and everyone should know that!
    I’m fine with his tactics.
    With most crime fiction, a reader doesn’t know the perpetrator until the end which makes reading fun. And I don’t mind this if we have been given clues and that suddenly at the end a crazed Italian aunt who’d hidden out in Sicily is found to have secretly sneaked into town and committed murder. And we readers didn’t know this. Or that it’s found that poison suddenly was found in someone’s filet of sole and only one person could have committed the murder because he/she had bought arsenic at a small pharmacy in Uppsale or Devon or Bologna and had done so incognito. Nope, we need the clues.
    If the detectives surprises us at the end and needs the attention, we applaud, but only if he/she has a lot of charm or drama doing so.

    • You’re right, Kathy, about the detectives you mention. All of them keep the proverbial cards close to the chest. At the same time, though, they do provide clues. Sometimes they’re even quite clear about those cluse. What’s more, the solutions to the best of those authors’ mysteries fall out naturally from the plot. That is, as you say, answer isn’t some strange solution that we couldn’t have possibly worked out. That, to me, is not ‘playing fair’ with readers.

  3. IT takes so much skill to write a good mystery! I’m not particular about whether a lot or a little is shared, only that it all makes sense and comes together at the end.

    • It does indeed take a lot of planning, and thinking, and yes, the best mystery writers do have a lot of skill, Karen. And you have a point: the real question is: does it all come together and make sense. There are a lot of ways to make that happen.

  4. I feel cheated when too much is kept from the reader. I like having enough information -clues and evidence to form an opinion so I can try to solve the crime. I also don’t like when too many events occur off screen. For example, when one scene or chapter ends with us believing one thing and the next picks up with the bad guy’s arrest followed by the sleuth informing us how she reached her conclusion and filling us in on a whole bunch of events that occurred off screen.

    I also think it builds suspense when the author writes from alternating POVS villain and protagonist. It creates tension when I know something that the MC doesn’t or when I am aware that she is in danger or walking into a trap, while biting my nails, wondering if she will catch on or if not, how she will get herself out of the danger.

    Melissa Sugar

    • You bring up two important things, I think, Melissa. One is that readers really do want to have a fair chance to solve a mystery. They don’t want to feel that, ‘Well, if I’d known that – if it hadn’t been held back, I’d have figured the mystery out!’
      The other point you make is the tension that can come from the reader knowing something the protagonist doesn’t. Sometimes that really can be effective. It can invite the reader to keep reading to find out what happens next.

  5. I too want the author to play fair. Even if the detective doesn’t divulge what he or she is thinking, the clues should be there in front of us to make our own deductions. It is always fun when I realise OMG! It was there, and I didn’t even notice.

    Too many cryptic references by the detective tend to put me off.

    • I know exactly what you mean, Neeru. As long as the clues are there for readers, the detective doesn’t have to reveal everything s/he is thinking. And you’re right; it is fun to look back and see the clues one’s missed (e.g. ‘How could I have missed that!?’).

  6. I’m with the majority here Margot, I don’t want the clues to be kept from me but I don’t mind if they are kept close to the sleuth’s chest. I love the format of the reveal in front of all the possible suspects as Poirot does it. The quote you gave us of why he doesn’t share his thought process made me smile – typical Poirot! As has been mentioned when readers get to know information the sleuth doesn’t as in many of the Peter James books, including his latest, that can create more tension, particularly if the reader has more of an idea about the perpetrator than the sleuth. Great post!

    • Thank you, Cleo. And I agree that James does an effective job of showing the reader different viewpoints as a way to build suspense. As to Poirot, well, he’s hardly perfect, but I don’t think we can accuse him of not seeing some of his own faults. It’s interesting too that you mention the big reveal in front of all the suspects. That’s done very well in some of the Golden Age novels, and it gives readers the chance to look back and see how well they’ve done at working it all out.

  7. I consider myself lucky, mainly because my characters dictate what information they share, and so far haven’t let me down. I do agree though, that writing mystery thrillers is not easy…

    • Jenanita – I think you’re quite wise to listen to what your characters say. I find that doing that makes my writing better. And they’ll do what they want regardless of whether we like it or not, won’t they? 😉

  8. Sue

    Great post.

    Playing fair with readers is so important because the reader needs to trust the author – I have read books where important facts were hidden or characters were introduced very late in the book and I’ve felt cheated because the puzzle couldn’t be solved with the facts presented in the book.

    • You know, there really is a sense of trust that should develop between reader and author, Sue. And part of the contract between the two is that the author won’t cheat by holding back critical information. When that does happen (it’s happened to me, too), it really is a breach of that trust. Little wonder readers feel let down and cheated.

  9. Keeping to one side examples where the detectives deliberately keep us in the dark, I was fascinated when re-reading a Philip Marlowe story how successfully we are kept int he dark despite a first person narration that seems to share everything with us – very impressive, but then I’m a big Chandler fan anyway!

    • No doubt about it, Sergio; Chander was gifted. And he certainly did a fine job of keeping readers guessing, despite the first-person narration. I’m glad you brought that up, as it’s something that takes a lot of skill. And it’s a gap that needed to be filled, so thanks.

  10. I’m with the majority here, Margot. I love it when an author cleverly hides clues from us by misdirection – yet when the detective reveals his thought processes at the end, we can see where we were given the same information he/she used to solve the mystery. Even when the detective “hides” the information (usually by saying something like “you know everything I know; you should be able to solve the mystery yourself.”), if we have indeed been given the information, I feel that I have been treated fairly.

    I think my favorite example is in Ellery Queen’s brilliant novella, “The Lamp of God,” in which an entire house disappears, leaving an unbroken field of freshly-fallen snow. The key clues to that puzzle are given in two descriptive sentences (placed a couple of pages apart) that sound like mere scene-setting – but when Queen reveals what really happened, we find that those half-sentences were much more than just “fillers”…

    • Oh, Les, that is an excellent example! Not only is it a terrific mystery, but you’re absolutely right about the clues being right that. Thanks for filling in that gap. Folks, that’s one of the ‘Queen Team”s better stories if you like ‘impossible-but-not-really’ situations in your stories. See what you think. And this example reminds me of an Agatha Christie novel in which one sentence early in the story is a big clue to the whole mystery. But I know I didn’t pick up on it the first time I read it.

  11. Col

    I prefer knowing as much as the detective does as we go along. All the cards close to the chest, irritates a bit after a while,

    • I can see why you think so, Col. It really can be annoying, especially if the author doesn’t do it deftly. I like to know what the sleuth knows, myself. Even I don’t get the same meaning from it (i.e. have to look back later and say ‘Of course!’), I like to have all of the facts.

  12. I like a mystery to be fair, not producing something completely unknown out of a hat at the end. I can live with anything short of that – but the books I like best are those that have amazing, well-placed clues, so that at the end you think ”yes, kudos, they got that one right past me.” I love that feeling of satisfaction I get when I feel the author played fair, but fooled me.

    • You put that really well, Moira. I know exactly what you mean, and I feel the same way. I love it when the author is fair with clues and information, and when the sleuth says some things – but I still find myself at the wrong end of the garden path.

  13. I agreee with everybody else on this one – I’m fine with the detective holding everything back for the big reveal, but only if all the clues were available to me. The ‘big twist’ at the end can drive me crazy if it’s something we couldn’t possibly have deduced for ourselves. I’m also OK with the idea of going along with the sleuth as they work it out, but I think that’s harder to do, and I usually find that the charactersiation of the sleuth tends to take precedence over the plot in such stories.

    • That’s an interesting point, FictionFan. I hadn’t really thought about it, but it makes sense that the more emphasis there is on the sleuth’s thinking, the more there is on her or his character. And that can easily take over the plot if it’s not done really well. As to holding back clues? I’m with you. So long as I know the facts I need to work out whodunit (or howdunit, etc..), I can let the sleuth have the ‘big finish.’ But I really dislike that feeling of being cheated that you get if the author doesn’t share the relevant clues.

  14. I love the way tension can ratchet when you – the reader- knows more than the investigator – when you silently scream – No don’t go there/ don’t do that/look out/don’t trust him etc – but the protagonist doesnt listen to you 🙂 And I like to know have the information that the investigator has – not necessarily to understand what it means but to be able to look back and go…yes….I see….not get to the end and go “where did that come from?”

    • You put that so well, Carol! On the one hand, there’s something to be said for surprises. On the other, the ‘Where did that come from?’ reaction leaves the reader dissatisfied and annoyed. And I know what you mean about that feeling of tension when you’re trying to tell the protagonist something… but s/he won’t listen. That can be an effective suspense-builder.

  15. You used the perfect word at the beginning of the post, Margot: balance. Often the reader can’t know everything the detective does or the mystery will not be so mysterious, but keeping too much from the reader gets very irritating.

    I do get irritated with Nero Wolfe when he deliberately keeps things from Archie, but I love those books so much I don’t stay mad for long.

    • I know exactly what you mean, Tracy! There are some authors you forgive, because the stories are so good, or because you adore a certain character, or for some other reason. I know what you mean about Wolfe keeping things from Archie, too, but like you, I give him a pass…well, most of the time.
      And it really is all about balance. I think it sometimes helps writers to think like readers, and imagine what the reader will need to know in order to get the most out of a story.

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