Saturday, March 10, 2012

Brad Parks on the Couch

By Brad Parks

Phew, am I glad Sandy asked me to be here on Poe’s Deadly Daughters today, not just because it’s a home to some lovely writers and great readers, but because I know Liz Zelvin is a therapist.

And, well, I’ve got something I need to get off my chest.

So excuse me while I get my feet up on the couch and relax for a second – this is confidential, right? – and, okay, here goes…

See, doc, I write mysteries for a living, and you would think that would make me good at sussing out the killer in other writers’ mysteries, because I know all the tricks and sleight of hand that goes into keeping folks off balance, but… well, doc… I’m just gonna come straight out with it:

I may be the dumbest mystery reader you’ve ever met.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where I’ve successfully guessed whodunit. The ending is always a big surprise to me.

This is true when I read, where at least I’m the only one in the room who knows just how dumb I am. But it’s also true when I watch movies, television shows, YouTube videos… pretty much any media. Even when everyone in the living room is crowing “The butler did it!” I’m that guy in the corner going, “Gee, I don’t know, are you sure it’s not the professor? Because he looked pretty sinister in the first scene…”

I’ve even read books for a second or third time and – because of a sieve-like brain that forgets the plots of books roughly four seconds after I finish them – I’ve been fooled all over again. I’ve probably devoured John D. MacDonald’s entire canon two or three times, yet he always stumps me like it’s all brand new.

And as long as I’m confessing, doc, can I tell you this? Most of the time, I don’t even try to guess the killer. I just get it wrong anyway. But I also I think it diminishes my enjoyment of the book when I dedicate too much energy to the whodunit part. I’d rather dive into the characters, the setting, the plot twists, the writing. Figuring out the red herring ranks just about dead last on my list of things to do.

(As a matter of fact, I’m so hopeless with this stuff, the first time my editor at St. Martin’s Press used the phrase “red herring” I had to ask her what that was. I told you I’m dumb.)

(And, hey doc, as long as I’m in parenthetical mode, I might as well confess that the first time a reader asked me if I “played fair,” I had to ask what that meant, too. It had never occurred to me to play any other way as a writer.)

I guess this has all been on my mind because of an exchange I had recently with Jeff Pierce over at The Rap Sheet. Now, mind you, Jeff is a guy who reads a lot of mysteries – he’s probably in the 99th percentile when it comes to readers who are tough to fool. But he told me he figured out the “whodunit” about halfway through my latest book, The Girl Next Door.

I was impressed, mostly because I don’t plot out my books – I go seat-of-the-pants, seldom knowing more than one or two scenes ahead of time what’s going to happen. I guarantee you that when I was halfway through writing The Girl Next Door, I didn’t know who the killer was going to be. But Jeff did! Is that guy good or what, doc?

Then it occurred to me: Wow, I’m not only dumb when I’m reading mysteries, I’m stupid writing them, too.

But then I started wondering, does it matter? How much do readers really care? As long as it’s not blindingly obvious, does it ruin the experience of reading if you’re, say, 75 percent sure who the bad guy is?

Does it, doc?

Yeah, I know that a lot of readers really enjoy the puzzle aspect of mysteries. But if all they wanted was the puzzle, wouldn’t they just do Sudoku instead? And don’t they have to read to the end to at least see if they’re right?
Anyhow, doc, I’m eager to hear what you have to say about this. Am I the only one? Is there anyone else out there as dumb as I am?
Brad Parks is a winner of the Nero Award and the Shamus Award. His latest book, The Girl Next Door, releases from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books on March 13. For more Brad, sign up for his newsletter, like him on Facebook, or follow @Brad_Parks on Twitter.


Sheila Connolly said...

Hi, Brad, and welcome.

I'll bet a lot of people Mute that annoying analytical voice in their head so they can enjoy the story--the characters, the language, the setting. You have to will yourself to be surprised.

It's usually easier to solve the puzzle in television and movies. Remember the Red-Shirt Guy on Star Trek? Unfamiliar face with two lines in the open scene--and he's dead by the first commercial. Never failed.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Brad, if you were my client, I'd be empathic and reassuring about your shaming belief that you are stupid and encourage you to explore your childhood and identify how and when your inner child got that toxic message. Since you're not--awww, we all know your interns write your books, anyhow. ;)

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, you're just not old enough. When your aging memory gets as old as mine, you ARE surprised. No effort involved. ;)

Sandra Parshall said...

I wish I could turn off my internal critic when I'm reading, so I could simply enjoy mysteries the way I used to. I'm happy when I don't figure everything out ahead of time, but only a few of my favorite writers can fool me these days. You're lucky, Brad. Appreciate it. :-)

Barb Goffman said...

I rarely figure out whodunit in advance. When I do guess and am correct, I feel smug all day long. That's the beauty of mysteries. Either I'm pleasantly surprised or happily smug. Ahhh.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I read for enjoyment, so I don't care if I can figure out the killer or not. But I'm glad to see so many others feel the same way. I remember a survey of viewers of the first Prime Suspect, to see how many identified the murderer before it was revealed. Most people didn't identify the killer, which makes me feel almost normal.

Anonymous said...

I read mysteries for fun. If I wanted to figure stuff out, I'd read non-fiction or grade papers or...bake with substitutions. I just want the ride.

Julia Buckley said...

If a novel has entertaining characterization, I am willing to overlook contradiction, even plot inconsistencies sometimes. But it all depends on how well the author is distracting me with the other good stuff.

I do tend to guess the killer fairly often, but I think that comes from being a mystery writer (and reader) for so very long.

lil Gluckstern said...

I read for the surprise, the characters and the setting. I'm perfectly happy going along with the ride as long as the writer does a good job with those things, and so far, Brad, you haven't let me down ;)

Anonymous said...

See? I feel so much better already. (lil Gluckstern, in particular, has me feeling better). Actually, wait, one more question: Liz, do you take my insurance??

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

These days I see clients online at, and insurance doesn't pay for it. Brad, you're gonna have to pony up or live with your insecurities.

Sandra Parshall said...

What Brad may not realize is that the rest of us *like* him with his insecurities. He wouldn't be nearly as funny without them.

jenny milchman said...

Brad, I read like you do, and am very glad for reader/authors like you!!

JJM said...

Unless I know the author is going to pull an Ellery Queen on me and issue a Challenge to the Reader a few chapters from the end, I am not going to sit there taking notes as I read in the hope of figuring out whodunnit before the challenge is issued. Like some of the others, I read for pure enjoyment -- I'm along for the ride, not for the quiz at the end of the period. If I figure it out, fine, but that's by happenstance.