Dilemma is the soul of mysteries. It is the impetus for the crime. It is what thwarts discovery of the solution. Sometimes it is the breakthrough that leads to the culprit’s identity.
Last night, I watched the excellent Bruno Cremer as Maigret in Simenon’s Maigret Goes Home. This story was a delightful example of dilemmas in every aspect of the mystery.
As his wife astutely points out, Maigret faces the dilemma of losing his objectivity because he is at the estate where he grew up and has slipped back into being the son of the steward to an old French noble family. Can he shake off the influence of his past to look at everyone with a fresh eye? As for the murderer, he faces a predicament similar to what the young Maigret did but with a special twist. Unlike Maigret, who chose to leave before the situation got worse for him, the murderer solves his dilemma of conflicting loyalties and damaged pride by causing a death. And, thanks to Mme. Maigret, it is the detective’s realization of his own dilemmas as well as their significant that helps him see who did it and why. The fun twist, and nod to the Golden Age of mysteries, is the meeting of all the suspects in the dining room where motives for each, as well as their particular dilemmas, is laid out before the killer is revealed.
As Simenon did so well in this book, a dilemma that might be a weakness can become a strength. (Mairget casts off the blinkers formed by his past but does not reject what it taught him.) A dilemma that might be a strength can become a tragic failing as the killer makes bad decisions. And everyone’s dilemmas can become the red herrings.
May your characters be faced with wonderfully troubling dilemmas!