I remember when I took my first creative writing course at San Jose State sooooo many years ago, the professor, Robert Burdette Sweet, said to us, “If your character is going to kill himself on the last page, the gun better be hanging over the mantelpiece on the first page.” Good advice for any kind of writing. It’s really important, and only fair, for the writer to leave a trail of breadcrumbs for the reader to follow. This is especially important in whodunits. I’ve got a whodunit knocking around in my head I expect to start working on soon, so this blog is a way of reminding myself to follow that important rule.
In my last post, I raved about John Hart’s spectacular novel The Last Child. As I read that wonderful book, I spent a lot of time muttering to myself and even shouting “Holy Cow” and other such phrases at the ends of chapters, but not once did I find myself saying, “Whoa! Where did that come from?” There were a few chuckles followed by “I should’ve seen that coming.” It was all there. Not that there weren’t red herrings enough to keep readers guessing, but the bread crumbs were there. And when you finished the book, it was with the same satisfaction one has finishing a big, tough jigsaw puzzle. All the pieces are there. You just have to put it all together.
Now, I have read some books that didn’t follow the rules. A couple of years ago I picked up a James Patterson book. It’s the only one I’ve ever read with his name on it. I’m reluctant to say “by him” because I’ve read Patterson comes up with story ideas and outlines them, then farms the project out to a whole stable of writers who do the heavy lifting. But if he has his name on the books, you’d think he’d read them and make sure everything that should be there is there. This book was called Beach Road and when I finished it, I remember saying, “You have got to be kidding me. Where the heck did that come from?” The only good thing about the book was that I bought it at a garage sale and only paid a quarter for it. After reading that one, I’ve never been able to use any of my hard-to-come-by reading time for another Patterson book. So I have to admit, maybe Beach Road was an anomaly, but I’ll never know for sure.
I remember feeling the much the same way about Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane. It wasn’t as bad as Patterson’s book by a long shot, but when I finished I still felt Lehane had cheated. Maybe it was particularly disappointing because two of my favorite books are Mystic River and The Given Day. Both are spectacular books, brilliantly written. Time permitting, I would read them both again. Unfortunately, time isn’t permitting these days. Mystic River is perhaps the best whodunit I’ve ever read, although thanks to John Hart, there is another contender for first place. Maybe it’s a tie. If you haven’t read these two by Lehane yet, find some time and give yourselves a treat, but don’t bother with Shutter Island. I’ve read a few of his other books and liked them pretty well. His detective novels are quite smart. So I will say here, anything by Dennis Lehane, with the exception of Shutter Island, is probably worth your while.
One of my critique partners, Robert Gordon, has decided to add an element of mystery to the book he’s working on at present. He has introduced a spy into his WWII historical novel. I watch with interest the journey he’s taking with this book, going back to dot his Is and cross his Ts, dropping a few more crumbs, rewriting and rewriting. It’s coming along nicely and I admire his perseverance. I think mysteries must be the most difficult form of writing. There are so many balls to keep in the air, so many clues to be planted, so many facts to be checked. I’m looking forward to the idea of writing a mystery, but realize it will probably be the toughest task I could set for myself. I’m still in the thinking-about-it stage and have a way to go before I start writing. I sure don’t want people slapping their foreheads at the end of my whodunit and muttering, “Whoa. Now where the heck did that come from?”
4 thoughts on “Playing By the Rules”
Thought-provoking post, Rosie. I love a good mystery (so really appreciated these suggested reads). But I want to write a mystery one day too. I love the suggestion of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.
I got into Patterson a lot last year, both audio books while commuting and used paperbacks. I focused on two series, the Alex Cross books (at least three I think, made into thriller movies starring Morgan Freeman), and the “Women's Murder Club” books. In both groups, I found very satisfying tales as well as ones where the ending left me saying, “Hey, wait a minute.” I've found the same thing in Stephen King. I like Patterson. The earlier Cross books were his alone, the others involve collaboration with one person at a time. Still, I've been disappointed often enough that I check the Amazon reviews now, even before buying a used copy.
I will never write a mystery for the very reasons you give above, so many balls to keep in the air. But if the will is there, I'm sure you can do it, Rosi. Good luck with your next project whatever it is.
Thanks for your comments,everyone. I thought i had posted answers earlier, but something went wrong and they didn't show up. Mitty, I thought you had a good mystery in the works, and I'm looking forward to reading more. Morgan, I will give Patterson another shot, but only one more! ;-)Margaret, I'll bet you could write a mystery if you tried. Your books are very complex.