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TODAY'S POST: I-Spy: Writing the Gay Mystery – Clues and Red Herrings
Nowadays much of what passes for “mystery” within the m/m genre (and indie publishing in general) is more properly described as “romantic suspense,” “thriller” or “crime” stories. There is minimal investigation and even less traditional deduction.
Partly this is due to a mistaken belief (mistaken, given that all of Christie’s novels – Christie still being hailed as the Mistress of Misdirection – remain in print and continue to sell well all across the globe) that modern readers aren’t interested in anything but forensics and psychology. Partly the absence is due to the fact that sprinkling legitimate clues and red herrings throughout a story is not an easy thing to do; let alone hide them successfully from the now-jaded modern mystery reader.
But if there is one single element that characterizes the classic mystery novel from the rest of the crime family, it is The Clue.
In Mystery Fiction Theory and Technique, Rodell writes:
Clues are the traces of guilt which the murderer leaves behind him. Whether they are tangible, material things, like a button torn off at the scene of the crime; or personal traces like footprints or fingerprints; or whether they are intangible habit patterns or character traits, they are the signposts leading detective – and reader – in the right – or sometimes wrong – direction.
A single clue does not, in itself, prove guilt. Rather, these are the breadcrumbs the sleuth gathers up along the way that then allow him to follow the trail to the correct solution. Some clues mislead the sleuth, and those are called Red Herrings.
The best clues appear to initially lead in the wrong direction, but in fact ultimately form part of the final deduction.
In the Golden Age of mystery writing, and particularly the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s, tangible clues were often puzzling, even crazy, minor mysteries within the greater mystery: footprints on the ceiling or a blue rose or whistling from a sealed crypt. The sleuth would have to figure out how the footprints got on the ceiling or how a rose could turn blue or how a corpse could whistle – and that solution would eventually, against the odds, lead to the identity of the murderer.
In real life, clues are more typically known as evidence. There are four types of evidence: Statistical, Testimonial, Anecdotal, and Analogical. But mystery fiction is not real life, and therefore our clues are not typically DNA samples, ballistic reports or witness testimony. Although these are all part of building a case and solving a crime. Therefore a partial fingerprint is not really a clue UNLESS it is the fingerprint of an innocent person, in which case it is a red herring.
Classic mystery fiction clues are personal rather than scientific. Thus we have an abundance of overheard bits of conversation, lost cell phones, threatening letters pasted from bits of magazines, and smashed wristwatch dials. These are fine, as far as they go. But ideally the importance of the tangible clue is not in the clue itself, so much as what the clue reveals: a smudge of lipstick in a color few women can wear; a strange whiff of smoke that turns out to be, not incense, but clove cigarettes; a haunting melody that is revealed to be a fragment of an old folk song.
Alternatively, the clue might not be significant in itself, but yet triggers some train of thought or memory for the sleuth that helps him connect the dots that form the murderer’s portrait. This kind of clue is ideal when you’re writing a series because it helps flesh out your protagonist as well as help solve the crime.
The challenge is to describe the clue fairly without putting undo emphasis on it. Or to put huge emphasis on it, thereby fooling the astute mystery reader into thinking the clue is not important. The experienced reader now knows that any character who seems a little too suspicious or obviously guilty is almost always a red herring. Equally, they know that the least likely suspect is generally the one whodunit. So the real least likely suspect is the genuinely least likely suspect, which in fact is the MOST likely suspect.
And if that didn’t confuse you, nothing will!
A favorite tangible clue is the clue that is not immediately recognizable. The puzzling shard of glass or sliver of wood that, once placed, provide a key to the solution. Again, you have to play fair with the reader and make sure the reader has access to whatever the betraying item is.
Sometimes it is the absence of the tangible clue that is most revealing. Rodell quotes the classic Holmes story “Silver Blaze.”
"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.
Tangible clues, though fun, are increasingly outdated by the advancement of science. This brings us to intangible clues. Intangible clues are closely linked to psychological profiling. They are clues to character traits or behavioral patterns.
Clues to character traits are generally linked to motive. Behavioral patterns are linked to identity.
There are three basic methods for concealing clues:
1 – Distraction. Immediately after the introduction of the clue, something exciting and dramatic should happen to distract the reader from fully noting the significance of the new discovery. It’s a bit of literary sleight of hand.
2 – Disguise. Bury the clue in a list of other similar innocuous items. Better yet, include a hard to ignore item in that innocuous inventory. A drawer contains a bunch of junk including keys and a gun. One of the keys is to a safe deposit box, but it’s likely that the reader will notice the gun and not the pay especial attention to all those loose keys.
3 – Delay. Present the clue in a straightforward manner but delay revealing its possible application for a good fifty or so pages. Hopefully the reader will have forgotten about the original item by the time the significance of the second bit of information is clear.
Clues supply much of the fun of mystery writing, both for the reader and the writer. The main thing to remember is that you must play fair with the reader, even though the modern mystery reader has already seen and read every possible trick in the, er, book.
All clues must be logical and have a believable and reasonable function within the story. They cannot exist merely because you know a mystery story should have clues.
Questions? Thoughts? Opinions?
A distinct voice in gay fiction, multi-award-winning author JOSH LANYON has been writing gay mystery, adventure and romance for over a decade. In addition to numerous short stories, novellas, and novels, Josh is the author of the critically acclaimed Adrien English series, including The Hell You Say, winner of the 2006 USABookNews awards for GLBT Fiction. Josh is an Eppie Award winner and a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist***********************************************************
FUTURE POSTS will cover:
Kindlegraph / the art of research / writing male/male romance / rejection and writer's block / building suspense / writing love scenes / anti-piracy strategies / audio books / interviews with editors and agents / using Calibre.
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