Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Invisible Villain

Sandra Parshall

“I knew who the killer was the first time I saw him.”

That’s probably the most common complaint I hear about crime fiction, and it’s often followed by either “It ruined the story for me” or, even more alarming to a writer, “As soon as I knew whodunnit, I stopped reading. What was the point of going on?”

I don’t fully understand this attitude. I figure out who the villain is fairly early in at least 75% of the crime novels I read, and it never ruins the story or makes me stop. I read for a lot of reasons, and the puzzle factor is last on the list. “Why?” intrigues me much more than the simple “Who?” ever will. Twisted reasoning,
long-buried secrets, hidden rage that’s simmered for decades before boiling over – that’s the stuff I love, and even after I’ve figured out “who” I will stick around to learn the whole story behind the killer’s actions. Meanwhile, I enjoy knowing that the hero or heroine is misjudging this person. I like seeing the villain wiggle out of potentially disastrous situations, all the way up to the ultimate unveiling. Knowing who the killer is adds another, almost always enjoyable, dimension to the book for me.

Still, I realize most mystery readers want to be surprised, and I’m sure most writers fully intend to keep the villain’s identity under wraps until the end. So why do they often fail?
The most likely answer is that writers are too close to their stories to see the flaws. An author thinks the villain is cleverly concealed and can’t see the obvious give-aways. (We might ask why an editor doesn’t spot the problem, but we’re not likely to get an answer.) Whatever the reason, authors make the same mistakes again and again.

Ask any mystery reader about the “new boyfriend” cliche and you’ll get a groan and a roll of the eyes. If the crime-solving heroine has a new love, and the guy does nothing but stand around being supportive or getting in the way, you can bet he’s the killer. (Linda Fairstein did a nice, wry twist on this theme in one of her books, but I won’t give the title and spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read the novel yet.) The same goes for any other character – if this person has no real reason to be in the story, just hovers around the edges or tries to insinuate himself into the investigation, he or she probably did it.

Many writing teachers advise authors to cast suspicion on the killer early on, then clear him or her in a convincing way so the reader will rule out that person as the villain. But today’s mystery readers, with their devious minds, have little trouble spotting this ploy. A guy’s been cleared before the story is one-third over? He must be guilty, and at some point his alibi will turn to dust and blow away.

Steering clear of PPS (Purposeless Character Syndrome) is the easiest way for a writer to avoid painting “I did it!” on the killer’s forehead. The villain who is hard to spot has a job in the story from the beginning. He’s can be touched personally by the crime or play a role in the crime-solving – but he’s not on the murder scene before anyone else shows up and doesn’t find supposedly valuable evidence, he’s not the one and only person who receives phone calls from the killer, he’s not obviously trying to misdirect the investigation. When the camera shifts to him, there’s a good reason and it seems to move the story forward.

But there aren’t any hard and fast rules. Concealing the villain’s identity until the end is tricky, no doubt about it, and what works on one reader may point a neon arrow at the killer in another’s mind. One story that had me fooled all the way through is P.J. Tracy’s Monkeewrench, and I thought the authors (a mother-daughter team) did a great job of misdirection. Usually, though, I don’t care if I guess the killer early. I can enjoy the book anyway.

Is this an important issue for you? If you guess the killer’s identity, do you feel deflated and enjoy the book less after that point? If any books have kept you baffled until the end, I’d love to know the titles. I’m always looking for something good enough to satisfy the merciless, bloodthirsty bunch in my mystery discussion group. Hasn’t happened yet, but there’s always a first time.


Sofie Kelly said...

If it's too easy to figure out who the killer is, yes, I do lose some enthusiasm for the book. But if it's a challenge then I don't mind--maybe because that makes me feel smart! I didn't guess with Monkeewrench either and because of that I've turned into a big PJ Tracy fan.

And Sandy, what's the title of the Linda Fairstein book? You've piqued my interest.

Anonymous said...

It's hard not to guess who the killer is, because there is a limited number of characters in the story, and we're told not to bring in a total stranger in the end. We as readers have to be willing to suspend disbelief sometimes.

But as writers, do we always know who dunnit from the start? I don't. Makes writing the story kind of fun.

Sandra Parshall said...

Sheila, I do need to know who the killer is when I start writing. The thing is, though, I may change my mind at some point. I'll decide the killer is too obvious, or I may develop different motivations for the crime as I write, so I have to change the killer's identity. Many mystery writers say that knowing who the villain is upfront would make the writing less fun, so not knowing works for a lot of people. To satisfy readers, they should go back and plant clues after they decide who the killer is, to avoid having the solution come out of nowhere for the reader.

Terry Odell said...

Interesting question, because it addresses the major distinction between mystery and suspense.

I've had readers say they knew the bad guy in Finding Sarah right away, but I wasn't trying to hide him. The conflict for the hero was that he was a cop who dealt in black and white, and even though he had a good idea who was behind things, the "villain" never did anything that would have allowed the cop to take action without crossing his own line.

As the author, my goal was to push my hero to see what it would take to make him cross that line, and it didn't really matter that the reader probably knew fairly early on. It was the proof and the catching. In that sense, the book was more suspense.

I don't mind figuring out a killer in a mystery (although a lot of times, if it's a series with continuing characters, I'm easily sidetracked by the relationship plot). As long as the detective/cop doesn't look stupid for not catching on. Since I'm wrong so often, I figure it's a coup for me to catch on early.

I guess it's kind of like tv -- if there are still 20 minutes left, the bad guy they caught can't be the real bad guy.

Sandra Parshall said...

Even in suspense novels, the author often tries to hide the villain's identity until the climax, and readers are annoyed if they figure it out early. Then there are suspense novels like Nikki French's SECRET SMILE, in which the reader and the heroine know all along who the villain is, but nobody else can see it. The question is whether the heroine can get anyone on her side before it's too late.

Chris Redding said...

I'm disappointed if I figure it out from the beginning.And I am so delighted when I don't. Since I write this stuff it's easier for mr to see it.

gs said...

=As soon as I knew whodunnit, I stopped reading.=

There are people who think like this? Seriously? How do they know they are right if they don't keep reading? It seems arrogant to assume they are smarter than the writer, and the writer doesn't have an ace up her (or his) sleeve.

I keep reading, and if I do turn out to be right I might (or might not) be disappointed. But I would never stop reading.

=If any books have kept you baffled until the end, I’d love to know the titles.=

The books that have kept me baffled -- or at least unsure -- are too legion to list here, but, as a writer myself, one that I admire is Rex Stout's A Right to Die.

But the one I always direct people to when discussing surprise killers is E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case. On the slim chance that you haven't read it, you can download it for free here.