These Days There’s a Million Ways to be Pulled and Torn, to be Misdirected*

Real life illusionists such as Penn and Teller (yes, that’s the duo in the ‘photo), and fictional ones such as Elly Griffiths’ Max Mephisto know something very important. People find it hard to pay attention to a lot of things at the same time. So, if you focus your audience’s attention on one thing, they’re less likely to notice something else you may be doing. It’s called misdirection, and these people are experts at it.

Misdirection is an important part of crime fiction, too. Authors use it all the time. In fact, there’s probably a book’s worth of commentary on the way crime writers manipulate readers’ attention. So do fictional characters. After all, if you’re a fictional murderer, it suits you very well if everyone’s paying attention to something else, so that you can get away with your crime.

Misdirection is a part of many of Agatha Christie’s novels and stories. I’ll just give one example. Christie fans will know there are plenty of others. In Death in the Clouds, a group of people boards a plane for a flight from Paris to London. Among them is Marie Morisot, a French moneylender who goes by the name of Madame Giselle. Just before the flight lands, one of the stewards goes around to the different passengers to give them their meal bills. That’s when he discovers that Madame Giselle is dead. At first, it looks as though she’s had a serious allergic reaction to a wasp sting (and there is a wasp on the plane). But Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same flight, notices some things that suggest she was deliberately poisoned. And so it proves to be. The only possible suspects are the other passengers, so Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out which passenger is the killer. And it turns out that the murderer used misdirection quite effectively to carry out the crime.

In Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, we are introduced to Frank Cairnes, a detective novelist who writes under the name of Felix Lane. As the story begins, he is distraught over the death of his son, Martin ‘Martie’, who was killed six months earlier in a hit-and-run incident. Cairnes decides to find and kill the man who murdered his son and sets out to learn who that person was. After a time, he establishes that the driver of the car is a man named George Rattery. So, he contrives an introduction by starting a romance with Rattery’s sister, and soon gets to know Rattery. He’s decided to kill Rattery by drowning him during a sailing trip. The only problem is that Rattery has found Cairnes’ diary, so he knows Cairnes’ plan. He tells Cairnes that if anything happens to him, the police will know who is responsible. Cairnes counters with the threat that if the police read the diary, they will also know that Rattery killed Martie. With the two men at a stalemate, they return to the Rattery home. Later that day, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes contacts PI and poet Nigel Strangeways to ask for his help. He knows he’ll be suspected of murder, but he says he’s innocent. After all, he claims, why would he plan to poison a victim after already having planned to drown him? What’s more, there turn out to be several other possibilities when it comes to suspects. In the end, Strangeways finds that the killer has used misdirection to keep from being caught.

Elizabeth Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank introduces her sleuth, Amelia Peabody. In the novel, Miss Peabody decides to take a tour of the Middle East. When her companion falls ill and can’t join her, she fears she’ll have to cancel her trip (this story takes place in the days before it was considered appropriate for ‘proper ladies’ to travel alone). Her problems seem to be solved when she meets Evelyn Barton-Forbes. It turns out that Miss Barton-Forbes has been abandoned by her lover, and now has to make her way in the world as best she can. She’s delighted and grateful at the chance to serve as Miss Peabody’s companion, and the two set out for Egypt. That’s where they meet archaeologist brothers Radcliffe and Walter Emerson, who are working on an excavation in Amarna. Miss Peabody has an interest in ancient ruins, and is well-informed on them, so when the two women stop at the excavation site, they decide to stay on for a bit. That’s how they get drawn into a bizarre case. First, a mummy that the team has found seems to disappear. Then, villagers and other locals report that a mummy has been seen at night. Other strange and disturbing things begin to happen, and it’s now clear that someone wants the Emerson excavation to stop. If the team is to stay alive, and continue the work, they’re going to have to find out the truth. And it turns out that someone has used misdirection to get everyone frightened about the mummy, so that the real motive for what’s going on will stay hidden.

In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, Nick and Nora Charles, who live in San Francisco are on a visit to New York City. By chance, Nick, who is a former PI, is spotted by Dorothy Wynant, the daughter of a former client. She’s worried because her father, Clyde Wynant, seems to have gone missing. Later, Nick gets a visit from Wynant’s lawyer, who thinks he’s in New York to track Wynant down. That’s not the case, but Nick seems to be getting more and more drawn in to the matter. The next day, Wynant’s secretary, Julia Wolf, is found dead. Now, Nick’s even more deeply drawn into the case. As it happens, there are several suspects in the murder, any one of whom might be guilty. Misdirection plays an important part in this story as we find out the truth about Wynant’s disappearance and his secretary’s murder.

And then there’s Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri is saddened when he finds out that a former client, Dr. Suresh Jha, has been killed. Jha was at a meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club when something extraordinary happened. Witnesses say that the goddess Kali appeared, and stabbed Jha. To Kali’s devotees, this makes sense, since Jha was dedicated to science and to debunking people who used religion and spiritualism to deceive people. But Puri doesn’t think Kali really appeared and committed murder. So, he starts to ask questions. And he discovers quite a lot of misdirection as he finds out what really happened.

See what I mean? Misdirection is critical to crime fiction and crime writers. Wait a second – what was that? Look over there!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Blonde Over Blue.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Elizabeth Peters, Elly Griffiths, Nicholas Blake, Tarquin Hall

16 responses to “These Days There’s a Million Ways to be Pulled and Torn, to be Misdirected*

  1. Agatha Christie was so good at using misdirection in her novels and it was good to reminded of Death in the Clouds and of course so many novelists have their villains using this to try to get away with murder. I’ve just read the latest book by Sarah Hilary where that is exactly what happened but of course my lips are sealed on how and why…

    • Oh, and Sarah Hilary is quite good, Cleo. I look forward to your review of that one! You’re right, too, that Christie was very good at misdirecting the reader as a writer. And plenty of her villains (and others’ villains, too) use misdirection to get away with their crime.

  2. Margot: In Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz there is such a major misdirection that to describe it would be to spoil the book. It has been the biggest misdirection in my recent reading history.

    • Oh, interesting, Bill. I admit, I’ve not (yet) read that one, but Horowitz has talent. I ought to explore that one. And it sounds like a clear example of what I had in mind with this post, so thank you.

  3. Gail

    I don’t have anything to add to your column. I just want to say I have just found your Blog and I love it. The only problem is that I keep adding more books to my “to read” list and I am not sure I will ever have time to read them all.
    Thanks for a great blog.

    • That’s very kind of you, Gail. It means a lot to me that you took the time to stop by, too. Thank you on both counts. You’re welcome any time, even if you don’t add examples.

  4. As I started reading your post, my immediate thought was that crime fiction doesn’t use misdirection nearly as much as it did back in the golden age, so I was intrigued that the majority of your examples were of older books. It seems to have been replaced by the “twist”. For me, misdirection is fair play, in that the author gives the reader all the info but hides the important clues among lots of red herrings; the twist always seems like unfair play – it tends to come out of left field with very few clues having been given along the way. A few authors do it well – Sharon Bolton springs to mind, and I second Bill about Horowitz’s Moriarty – but many just leave me feeling cheated. I’d be interested to hear what you feel is the difference between misdirection and the twist, if any…

    • It’s funny you would say that, FictionFan. As I was putting the post together, I noticed there were a lot of examples from earlier crime fiction, and fewer from contemporary crime fiction. And the funny thing is, there are plenty of modern authors who write traditional-style novels, and who do use misdirection. I’m thinking of Cathy Ace as one example, but she’s far from the only one. so there are still people who use that strategy.

      But you’re right that the twist is something different. It’s always been with us, too. For example, some older novels include characters who turns out to be someone else completely (an ID switch, as you might say). Those sorts of twists do seem unfair unless they’re handled very, very well. And I would say you’re likely right that twists may be used more often than is misdirection these days.

      For me (since you asked), misdirection involves making everything available to the reader right from the beginning. A clue may be more subtle, or hidden, as you say, among ‘red herrings.’ But all the clues are there. Plot twists, on the other hand, are changes to the story or characters as things go along. The reader can’t anticipate what they will be. They may be realistic, but they’re not all laid out from the start. At least that’s how I see the difference.

      • Very interesting – thank you. Of contemporary books I’ve read (and as you know I haven’t been reading too many of them recently) I’d say I come across misdirection more at the cosy end of the spectrum, which I feel often tends to follow the traditional rules of mystery novels, whereas grittier novels tend to go for the twist, or neither. But that’s based on such a small sample size, I could be completely wrong.

        • I do see your point, FictionFan. I honestly haven’t taken a really careful look at the question, but my gut feeling is similar to yours. Traditional-style mysteries, whether or not they’re cosies, do make use of misdirection a lot. And gritty novels often have those twists to them. I’d have to really dig in to see if there’s anything to that gut feeling, but I know just what you mean.

  5. Col

    I’ll have to backtrack and read some of Hammett’s fiction, thanks for the reminder.

  6. It’s been a long time since I was here but your post is brilliant as usual 🙂 Enjoyed reading it!

  7. I love a well-done bit of misdirection, and am very interested in the exchange above considering the difference between that and a twist! (another blogpost on this one please!).
    Michael Gilbert’s Night of the Twelfth has a really excellent example of misdirection, it’s not a massive part of the story but it is very clever, I kept thinking about it afterwards. Jill McGown is another author who excels in dangling something in front of you, but persuading you to see it as the exact opposite of what it really is… Her Death of a Dancer is a good example.
    I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say, I like an author who can persuade you of someone’s character, then turn it upside down.

    • I know what you mean, Moira. And I’m glad you’ve mentioned McGown and Gilbert. Both wrote some fine books, but neither gets the ‘airplay’ that you might have hoped. I often wonder why that is… At any rate, thanks for filling in those gaps. And it is an interesting topic. I may indeed have to do another post…

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s