Is your mystery novel playing fair?

canstockphoto4265867One of the best parts of a mystery novel is its interactive feeling. Readers attempt to solve the puzzle alongside the sleuth. So, as authors, we must play fair and provide the reader with genuine clues. But what exactly does “playing fair” mean?

For starters, it means providing genuine clues that point a finger at the true murderer. Those clues reveal the murder’s motive, means and opportunity, and are strategically inserted within the plot. They can be subtle. They can be overshadowed by red herrings. They can be shuffled within meaningless information. But, they must be present. And when the murderer’s identity is finally reveled, the reader must be saying, “Of course!” The reader must feel that if she had picked up on that discarded scarf left at the crime scene, she too would have solved the mystery like your sleuth.

That’s playing fair. What’s not fair though is an absence of genuine clues and a big reveal that relies on a gimmick. In other words, when the mystery is finally solved at the end of the book, the concealment can’t be from:

An improbable disguise — I read a book back in the 1980’s where the murderer was pretending to be another character, and had adopted a wig, fake beard and mustache to impersonate that character. The sleuth was interacting with him all throughout the story, then in the big reveal — BOOM! — the beard and mustache come off and the deception was revealed. I was so angry. Not only was it stupid and unbelievable, but a really big cheat.

An implausible twist – All clues point to the kind and gentle town minister, but there’s just no way that he could be the murderer because, you know, he’s so kind and gentle. Still, there’s three witnesses that put him at the scene of the crime. Another witness remembers seeing him act all suspicious, tossing the murder weapon over the side of Old Man Johnson’s Bridge. But in the end, low and behold, we discover the kind and gentle minister really is innocent because he has an evil twin that no one knew existed. I think this might have been shocking and considered an acceptable twist back in the late 1800’s, but today it’s kind of lame. (Although an episode of Supernatural pulled it off pretty well…)

Coincidences and accidental solutions – The hands of fate can intervene to force your sleuth into solving the mystery. Those hands can bring two lovers together. They can reunite old friends and ex-fiancees, but they can not, under any circumstances, provide the opportunity for your sleuth to solve the murder. I read a story in my critique group where, in the last chapter, the sleuth can’t sleep and decides to take a walk. During that late night jaunt, he just happens to hear a woman screaming for help and runs to investigate. He arrives just in time to see his Number One Suspect attacking another woman, leaps into action and thwarts another murder. No. No. No. No. No. No.

Supernatural solutions — In a traditional murder mystery, the Sleuth can’t solve the murder by Divine Intervention or by calling upon the dark forces of Elzabad. He still has to figure out the Whodunit by putting the clues together. And, all those genuine clues still have to add up to motive, means and opportunity. That doesn’t mean there can’t be elements of the supernatural in your story, especially if it crosses into the spirituality or horror genres. Those genre-defining elements can lead to clues, help explain the meaning behind clues, and even lead up to the big confrontation. They just can’t take the place of strategically inserted genuine clues that point to the murderer’s true identity.

The Sleuth’s multiple personality disorder — The Sleuth investigating the murder should not — SURPRISE! SURPRISE! — turn out to have committed the murder. This is a tired twist that most reader’s (and movie goers) can smell coming before the end of the first act. I’m sure it will come back around as fresh again, some day in the distant future. Today though, in a true murder mystery, give your sleuth a good mystery to solve and a Big Bad who gets his comeuppance. And, while we’re at it, main characters who turn out to be ghosts is a little worn for wear too.

In the end, the murderer must be determined by logical deductions — not by gimmicks. You could say a murder mystery is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase. But when the solution is found by a gimmick, it’s the same as telling the reader, “Ha Ha! You lost! I actually had the answer up my sleeve the whole time!”

The whodunit must be solved by strictly naturalistic means with several genuine clues, giving the reader a chance to match wits with a rationalistic detective

Get a Clue: Three types of clues hidden in your mystery novel

canstockphoto13914461The whole point of a murder mystery is picking up on the clues and solving the whodunit. But, did you know that mysteries have three types of clues hidden within their pages?

“Genuine clues” point to the killer and help the sleuth solve the crime. They’re often subtle. The sleuth noticed that the gym teacher was wearing a brown necktie before the Principal was found dead, and now he’s wearing a blue one. A good rule of thumb is to plant three genuine clues in your murder mystery to give your sleuth (and your reader) a good chance of figuring it out. And, for your sleuth to have an airtight case against the killer, one clue should show motive, one proves means and the third proves opportunity. 

“Fake clues” point to viable suspects, but who ultimately prove innocent of the murder. You’ll often hear these called “red herrings” and they serve to distract the reader (and sometimes the detective). These clues are often very loud and blatant. The History Professor announces to everyone in the gymnasium that he will get even with the Principal, if it’s the last thing he ever does. Then an hour later, the Principal turns up dead. You can have several red herrings in your mystery, but make sure they lead somewhere. Red Herrings can easily turn into subplots. If they aren’t resolved, they’ll feel like loose ends.


The “Pivotal clue” is the key element that directs the story to the solution—it’s the final piece of the puzzle and, ultimately, allows the sleuth (and the reader) to solve the crime. This clue generally shows up at the end of the middle segment, and leads the characters to a Big Show Down with the Big Bad. This clue can be many things – a lie is uncovered, a truth is revealed, another character returns, evidence at the crime scene that suddenly make sense – and it’s generally dramatic. One of my favorite Pivotal Clues is about what’s missing from the crime scene and should be there. Those are often tough to detect, but seem very obvious when revealed. In a lot of mysteries, the significance of the “Pivotal Clue” is understood but not explained by the sleuth. Ultimately though, it leads him or her to confront the murderer, where the identity is finally revealed.

All three types of clues are essential to a good mystery. It’s the reader’s job to spot them and decode them; it’s the author’s job to inject them into the story in a way that keeps the reader guessing.

The Art of Planting Clues in a Murder Mystery

canstockphoto9200023Are you struggling with planting all those subtle clues into your murder mystery, and looking for some tips on how to misdirect your reader while still playing fair? Check out this informative article “Don’t Drop Clues, Place Them Carefully” by Stephen Rogers published on

In it, he explains that “when planting clues, there are a number of tricks you can use.

  • Clues can have ambiguous meanings. A large footprint implies someone with large feet or a small-footed person wearing large shoes.
  • Clues can point to several people. A diamond ring can implicate someone who wears diamonds, someone who sells them, or someone who steals them. It could also be a plant.
  • Clues can be misread. The detective jumps to a wrong conclusion. Will the reader follow?
  • Clues can unfold. The flat piece of metal discovered on page three makes no sense until its mate is discovered many scenes later.”

I hate that he calls them “tricks” though, as readers don’t like to be tricked. They want to be surprised. And his list above, and more within the article, explains a lot of DEVICES that a well-written mystery utilizes to keep the reader guessing. He also illustrates how to play fair.

As the article states, “clues should appear and be visible before they play their part. If the killer is arrested because of a fingerprint lifted from a shell casing, you want to mention the discovery of a shell casing if not describe the actual lifting of the print. If a shotgun is fired in the third act, you want to show the gun hanging over the fireplace in the first. (Chekhov reminds us that if you place a shotgun in the first act, you must have it fired by the third.) The reader should see the wires and mirrors but not recognize their significance. This is how the writer plays fair.”

The most brilliant nugget in the article though is his explanation of what not to do when burying a clue within a list.  He refers to a recurring example of a stealth helicopter as a being an important clue in previous sections, and then refers to again.

“So my boss hands me this folder with all the items I’m responsible for and tells me I need to tag them with inventory stickers. I start thumbing through the sheets. One metal desk, beige. One motorcycle. One filing cabinet. One laptop. One helicopter, stealth. One stapler. Fifteen desk chairs. Fifteen chairs? Why would I have fifteen chairs?”

“The danger of hiding a clue within a list is that readers may recognize a list is coming and skip ahead. While you can stand on high ground and berate readers for not savoring each and every word, this is not the way to build a fan base.”

That completely tripped me up, as I skipped right over the list. Then read the final sentence and said, “Oh, yeah. He’s right. This is brilliant!”

If you’re currently writing a mystery and struggling with clue placement, jump over to “Don’t Drop Clues, Place Them Carefully.” It’ll get you thinking…

Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Hiding Clues in a Murder Mystery Novel

Keyhole with hidden murdererWriting a mystery novel is tough. You can’t withhold all the details until the end, but if you give too much away, your reader will discover who the murderer is before your sleuth. Both should realize the identity of the murderer at the same time. So how do you keep the mystery from unraveling before the end of your story? How do you hide the culprit in a good whodunit?

Here are some techniques I found to keep the reader guessing.

Draw attention elsewhere. Basically, use the old magician’s trick of distracting the eye. Emphasize the unimportant; de-emphasize the clue. That way, the reader sees the clue but not what’s important about it and is apt to glide right over its significance.

Camouflage a clue with action. Reveal the clue in the midst of a lot of action to distract attention.

Stage the real clue right before a red herring. Generally, people tend to remember the last item in a series. So, if your clue is among a series of items (say the contents of a purse) name the item you want the reader to remember last.

Create a time problem. Manipulate time to your own advantage. On the surface, the timeline of events or the time of death appears one way, but the truth is something else. Perhaps an incorrect time of death gives a suspect an alibi.

Hide the clue in plain sight. Tuck the clue among so many other possible clues that it doesn’t stand out.

Scatter pieces of the clue in different places and mix up the logical order. Challenge your reader by revealing only part of a clue at a time.

Have the clue turn out to be what isn’t there. The suspect painstakingly explains what happened in great detail, but the clue your reader needs to notice is what should’ve happened but didn’t. .

Have your Protagonist misinterpret the meaning of a clue. Your sleuth can make a logical mistake that sends the reader’s focus on a red herring.

Establish a clue before the reader can know its significance. Introduce the key information before the reader has a context to fit it into, generally at the beginning of the book and often before the murder takes place.