Staci here, on my every other Saturday, to talk about clues.
More often than not, clues are a stumbling block when
writing a mystery, at least for me. Readers want them, stories need them, and
the more I think about how much I really have to have solid clues, the harder
it is to think them up.
On occasion, I’ll read a mystery that has no clues in it.
The main character blusters their way through the story, talking to people,
visiting places, and running into danger, but in the end, they stumble across
the solution by sheer good fortune, with nary a clue in all those previous
three hundred pages. Personally, I find that infuriating. It’s not a fair game
if I have no chance of solving the mystery. I don’t care what the clue is; just
make sure there is one. Mention something vital in an off-hand manner in the
middle of mindless babble, so I can read about it later and say, “Shoot, I
missed that.” Stick the bloody murder weapon in a flower pot full of gardening
tools, so when the detective mentions it later, I can say “Gee, is that what
that was?” As long as the clues are there, I’m happy.
Agatha Christie was a genius at planting clues and putting
them all together at the end to solve the case. While I generally don’t have
quite as many as her, I try to have at least two or three to give the reader some
opportunity to beat the detective to the solution. If I can think up the clue when
I’m planning the story, or even during the writing process, then things usually
work out fine. It’s when I finish the book and realize I need to put in one
more clue that things get hairy. No matter how much I tweak the text and smooth
out the words to try and slip in the clue, I feel like it’s screaming for
attention. I might as well put the clue in all caps and bold, because that’s
how obvious I think the vital information is. I realize it’s probably not that
blatant (notice I say probably), but since the clue wasn’t there in the
original text, it seems unnatural to be in there now. Then I have to weave in
more meaningless information and try to bury the clue so even I forget it’s
there. I just hope I can bury it half as deep as Christie managed to.
Who else besides Agatha Christie is good at planting clues? Sir
Arthur Conan Doyle comes to mind. Anyone else?