Playing Fair with the Reader

I’ve been an avid reader of murder mysteries since I was ten. That’s when I first read He Wouldn’t Kill Patience by my grandfather John Dickson Carr.  I was hooked. I’ve read so many mystery novels that it’s a rare one indeed that stumps me. I once watched my grandfather, Daddy John,  throw a book across the room because the author had not played fair with the reader. There were not enough clues for an astute reader to figure out who the murderer was.

Playing fair with the reader is just as important to me. Of course, a good mystery writer uses obfuscation to send the reader off into different deductive directions. But by the end of the book, the reader must never feel cheated. The clues pointing to the killer need to be planted in such a way that the reader thinks, “Of course that character was the villain!” By novel’s end, the clues were all there—pointing to the murderer. But the reader didn’t notice them all.

When I was about fourteen, Daddy John taught me how to plant clues so that the reader will pass right over them. When he gave up a clue, he would put something graphic immediately after it. He called it “blood on a white bandage.” Both he and Dorothy Sayers believed that the eye sees the image that follows the clue—and the mind forgets the clue. Even today when I’m reading mysteries, if I come across a very vivid scene, I’ll go back to discover the clue that comes right before it!


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