Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Over the weekend I read a mystery-thriller that, according to the review at the top of the back cover, was “chilling without being predictable.” Why, then, was I able to correctly predict half way through that the babies had been switched at birth and that one of the characters in the backstory would turn out to be an ancestor of one of the characters in the main part of the novel?
Was it because the book was poorly done? Not at all. It was actually a pretty good book, and I wish I could recommend it, but having given away a big part of the ending, I can’t tell you its name. The larger point I’d make is that even though I found the book somewhat predictable, that didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of it.
And the even larger point I’d make is that predictability, particularly in genre fiction, is pretty near unavoidable and shouldn’t, in itself, be held against the author. It’s not necessarily a crime in its own right — only when it’s handled badly.
Somebody Ought to Get It
Being a mystery writer myself, I read a lot of mystery novels , both for pleasure and to see what ideas I can steal and adapt to my own ends. Sometimes that allows me to spot what the author is doing. For instance, I was reading a Scandinavian detective novel a few years ago, and in the first 40 pages, the author cut from the main narrative to a scene written from the killer’s point of view. As I read it, I thought that if I were writing that scene in that way, it would be because the killer was a police officer. Bingo!
It’s also true that when a mystery novelist is playing fair, a certain number of readers ought to be able to figure out the ending. Based on reader feedback, about a quarter of the people who told me they’d read my first book, The McHenry Inheritance, said they’d guessed who did it. That’s about right, and a number of people who didn’t guess, said they were really surprised by the ending.
The reality is that any mystery writer today who fools everybody has either written a new classic or an incoherent book — most likely the latter. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was unpredictable because no one had, up to then, done what Agatha Christie did in that book. A book that used her idea today would be guessed out by half its readers.
Not What You Do, But How
When you get into the realm of mystery-thriller-suspense-crime fiction, there’s practically no such thing as a new story, so the relevant question is what has the author done with an old one. Has she created a structure and set of details that make it difficult to guess the ending of this particular iteration of the old story? Has he created interesting characters and a sense of pace? Is the writing style muscular and vivid? All those things, I would submit, are more important than the so-called predictability of the story?
If you read a lot of mystery fiction, as I do, there are pleasures to be had from seeing how each author spins his or her variation of an old tale. When we were kids, we would fall in love with one book and want our parents to read it to us over and over. As genre-reading adults, we read different variations of the same stories and enjoy the twists and quirks of each particular book. I suppose that amounts to growing up as readers.