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.