November 30, 2016

The Reader as Chump

By Elena Santangelo

Watching political ads this year has put me in a mood to discuss deception and manipulation.

If Agatha Christie had written campaign ads for Wendell Wilkie, FDR would never have won in 1940. She was an absolute master at deceiving her readers. She'd tell you almost right out who the murderer was in the first chapter, then have a grand time strewing misleading clues and outright lies in your path. At the denouement, her readers frantically flip back to the beginning, and, voila, there's the main clue, now seeming to blink in neon light. A sore forehead is a symptom of a Christie fan, because you can't help smacking yourself when she tricks you.

Another excellent study in the placement of clues is the movie "The Sixth Sense." I can't say more without giving it away. If you saw it, you know what I mean. If not, treat yourself. Put padding on your forehead first.

The difference between mystery writers who can achieve the "Why didn't I see that?" reaction and those who can't is sheer chutzpah. Many writers I know are afraid to plant an obvious clue. Maybe they're thinking in terms of giving the reader a nice puzzle to solve. I have nothing against puzzles. One of the main reasons I buy a Sunday paper is for the crosswords and sudokus. (The other? The comics.) And I have a closet full of jigsaw puzzles that I piece together during the winter months.

Still, as much as mystery readers love solving puzzles, they also love matching wits with the detective. Hardcore mystery readers tend to be intelligent and savvy. If we writers don't send our readers off after red herrings--if we don't come right out and lie to divert attention--our sleuths may end up looking pretty stupid.

But unlike politicians, if we're going to deliberately mislead the reader, we have to play fair. We have to show the solution or the path to the solution early on. And frankly, once I plant that obvious clue, I have all the more fun being deceptive through the rest of the story.

Learn to lead a merry chase and your readers will love you. Be daring.

Don't forget to vote. And don't believe anything you hear.
Elena Santangelois the author of the Twins Mystery Series and the Possessed Mystery Series, including the novel BY BLOOD POSSESSED, which was nominated for an Agatha Award. Her armchair companion to Agatha Christie's short stories, DAME AGATHA'S SHORTS, won the Agatha for Best Nonfiction. She's also published numerous short stories, and co-edited six anthologies of short fiction. Writing under E.A. Santangelo, she's the author of YESTERDAY, TODAY AND FOREVER: The World War II Journal of Joseph B. Chicco, a biography and history of  life on a light cruiser in the South Pacific in 1945. She's a proud founding member of Delaware Valley Sisters in Crime. You can follow Elena at these links: Website:  Amazon 
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