One 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.