I’m going to tell you one of the worst things about being a mystery writer. It’s not rejection, or bad reviews, or writer’s block (though all of those certainly make me question my vocation), it’s that writing mysteries has ruined reading mysteries for me.
I was reminded of this last week as I reached the halfway point on a book I was really enjoying reading. Just like that, long before the narrator or anyone else in the story, I was certain I knew who was behind the murders and why. And what had been a pleasant escape for the bus ride to work became irritating: why can’t everyone in this story see what’s so freaking obvious to me?
Probably, because they’re fictional. And not writers. I can’t turn off the writer part of my brain when I read, which not only means that I’m frequently revising other people’s sentences, but I’m also painfully aware of the mechanics of the story: the clues, the suspects, the red herrings. It’s highly unusual for me not to have the culprit pegged before I reach the halfway point of a book. When I don’t, it’s dizzyingly exciting, especially when the novel is well-constructed enough that I should’ve seen it coming but didn’t. But when I do pick up on things too fast, I’m left wondering if it’s the fault of the writer for making the solution so obvious, or if the fault lies with me being more attuned to what to look for than the average bear.
It’s part of the reason that I don’t write book reviews. It hardly seems fare to lambast a mystery for being too easy when I’m not really sure that’s the case. More often than not, I find myself reading other people’s reviews to confirm if the problem I experienced is widespread or unique to me.
This plot prognostication spills over to other media too: my husband hates watching mysteries or thrillers with me because I’ll peg the culprit early on. I’ve learned not to say it out loud, but he can always tell when that “aha!” has hit me and the rest of the evening devolves into his begging me to tell him what I think is going on.
This sixth sense can be detrimental to my own work. I’m so desperate to make a mystery hard to solve that I worry that I over complicate things so that readers like me won’t be spoiled halfway through the book. I do have rules though: any solution must be supported by the text, so that the re-reader can go back and see that the answer was there, if heavily cloaked, just like in the books I love. I don’t want the reader to feel cheated because I didn’t bother to introduce the culprit until the last chapter. As anyone who’s ever been a debater knows: you can’t have new arguments in the 2AR.
Have you been surprised by a mystery lately (in a good way)?