I Know What You Did… and I Don’t Care

One of the minor inconveniences of reading mysteries almost exclusively over a long stretch of time (thirty years in this blogger’s case) is that you’re becoming harder and harder to fool (also to please, but that’s another matter) While a few masters of the form elevate plotting to fine art and remain mostly unpredictable, most crime writers end resorting to the same bag of tricks and the time always comes when you’ve seen them all and can thus see through their game. Even worse, sometimes not only you come up with the right solution but you also can think of some others the author didn’t even envision. This is pretty rare however, as in my experience any solution you can think of that is not mentioned in the course of the story is bound to be the correct one – this is one of the tricks one learns over time; the reader that is more clever than the writer is often a writer themselves.

I see you scratching your heads, however, wondering why I call a « minor inconvenience » something that to many completely ruins the mystery reading experience? Of course there is a kind of reader who enjoys being right, but most expect/hope being fooled and are sorely disappointed when they aren’t. I myself long felt the same, and still do to a lesser extent now. It took me some time to realize that « disappointing » and « bad » were not one and the same. A mystery that is not mysterious enough is not necessarily a bad mystery.

I’m not saying here, like most modern reviewers do, that plotting is only a secondary matter that can be made up for with fine writing and credible characters. It is certainly true in the sense that it’s always better when a mystery is a good read independantly of the puzzle, but this is not the point I’m trying to make, also readers of this blog know full well that I care a lot about the puzzle plot, the genre’s one distinctive feature. They also know however that my idea of a good plot is not an orthodox one; I think what matters most is not surprise, but cohesion and build-up. Plotting is admittedly about conjuring tricks but it also about architecture, so to speak. A great plot can be absolutely transparent and yet a thing of beauty because of how well built it is. Sayers or the Humdrums wouldn’t disagree here. I can be lenient for a lack of surprise as long as every piece falls into the right place in the end and the logic is sound. What’s more, I may even realize that while my hunch was right, I failed to see the clues that would have made it more than mere guessing – for surprise in a mystery story can be about the how as well as about the who.

So no, finding out whodunit before the end is not necessarily the death of a mystery, at least as long as it isn’t the result of the author’s indifference or inability. I said previously that most writers work out of the same bag of tricks but fortunately not everyone uses them in the same way. Many try to renew them or at least making a less familiar use of them; they may or many not succeed but their trying commands respect. Same goes for the adventurers who set out to invent new tricks – whether they work or fall flat is of no importance for once again they tried. Those deserving of our scorn on the other hand are those that plainly recycle antediluvian tropes, hoping the reader to be dumb enough to fall for them again and again. This can be the result of either the writer not bothering or just being a weak plotter but in both cases the result is unreadable. Also bad are the twists and surprises coming from nowhere rather than being the logical outcome of what preceded; too many readers mistake them for plotting brilliance when they’re actually one of the easiest effects in the book. Everyone, literally everyone, can write a story with a surprise in the end – what is more difficult is to have that surprise making sense and being hinted at yet successfully hidden throughout the story. It’s about architecture, I told ya.

All this is to say that there are many other ways to enjoy a mystery than just expecting to be fooled, as I have found out over the years. You can care whodunit – and believe me, I do – and yet still having a good time with a story that doesn’t pull the rug out from under your feet. You may even find, as you’re becoming increasingly jaded, that it is the only way not to become entirely disillusioned with the genre.

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