Whodunnit? Who cares?

I just finished a new manuscript for my German publishers- another “crime/thriller” as they’re called. I had it professionally edited in Australia and one of the comments offered by my editor was that the ending came as too much of a surprise. I needed to include more clues.

This is interesting, because of many different factors.

The standard whodunnit has been dealt a serious blow in recent years by the advent of forensic science. It’s like the villain only needs to fart somewhere in the same suburb and “forensics” will inevitably link them to the crime. Detectives don’t have to interview anybody, do any deductive thinking… Agatha Christie must be rolling in her grave.

It’s a problem for writers unless- of course -you’re Kathy Reichs or someone and the whole point of the novel is that scientific examination of the smallest detail. But forget forensics, if you can, and think about the normal detective novel. The question is, how much do you give away? How many red herrings do you litter the story with? Basically- and this is the crux of the matter -should a dedicated reader of crime fiction be able to determine who the villain is before the end of the book? Is the author writing a story or a puzzle- or both?

I have to say a lot of television crime these days doesn’t give you a chance. Even Christie’s adaptations seem to have been re-written to the point where someone inconceivable is revealed as the murderer in the closing minutes… you’d never have guessed. And don’t get me started on “Midsomer Murders”. I love the show, it’s got a great vibe and everyone enjoys that quaint, English setting- but you’ll never guess the killer, right?

So how do you do it now? As a fiction writer, I mean? Well, in my new book the first thing I did was avoid the forensic thing. I created a situation where forensics are no real help. Then I got on with the job of writing an old-fashioned whodunnit where there’s clues, red herrings and God knows what else to make the ending a surprise.

Too much of a surprise? I DID take notice of my editor’s comments- a good writer always does, because an editor is usually the first person to see a manuscript objectively as a whole. The author has long since gotten too close to the story. So I did a few tweaks, salted a few more clues… hopefully not too many.

Giving away the villain’s identity too soon is a crime itself.

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