Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Planting Clues


When I reviewed the new Peter Lovesey novel, Stagestruck, recently, I mentioned that it is a very good example of how an accomplished detective story writer who wants to "play fair" with the reader plants clues in an artful manner.

As a seasoned reader of detective fiction, I felt rather pleased with myself when I spotted a throwaway line describing the background of one of the characters. I figured that this pointed the way to identifying the culprit's motive, and I could not resist the temptation to construct my own explanation of events, as well as identifying a suitably unlikely suspect.

But I have to confess that Peter Lovesey outwitted me. I had spotted the right clue, and the motive, but I had missed an earlier clue that led to an entirely different outcome – one I’d thought about for a nanosecond, but dismissed. That earlier clue, if spotted, gives the game away – a bold and confident move by a writer on top form. It reminded me of a very clever early Reginald Hill book, where the key clue crops up in the very first sentence – bravura clueing, to be sure.

Agatha Christie is rightly regarded as the best in the business at clueing, but a number of modern writers take it seriously. I’ve always been rather proud of a clue planted in my first book, All the Lonely People, and another in Eve of Destruction, as well as some of those that crop up in the Lake District Mysteries. It’s really a game with the reader – not the crux of the novel, to be sure, but I find it great fun, and so, I think, does Peter Lovesey.

14 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Planting clues well really does take a deft hand. I agree with you that Christie was the best at that, too. I'm glad you mentioned that it can be fun to figure out how to let clues out without giving away too much. It takes work, but it can be a good game, too.

Ed Gorman said...

I'd add Margaret Millar to your list of extraordinary clue planters. At least three of her novels are turned around on the last page.

seana said...

Nice piece, and thanks for not giving away the clues in the other works in the process.

Martin Edwards said...

Ed, you are absolutely right. Millar was a clue planting genius!

John said...

There are very few contemporary authors who are good at this sort of thing. I picked up Arsenic Labyrinth at a local book sale a few weeks ago. I'll see if I can spot your clues, Martin!

I nominate John Dickson Carr. I just finished The Reader Is Warned with a wheelbarrow full of clues. Carr (or in this case his Carter Dickson guise) is one of the best at planting clues. He always baffles me. I know what I'm supposed to pay attention to but it is always for the wrong reason. Not exactly a red herring - more like a clue that is ambiguous and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The real mystery in this book is the murder method. I got it at the very last minute, but I sort of stumbled upon it. Didn't really figure it all out with all the proper clueing.

I devote one paragraph in my latest post on the book to this very topic. More synchronicity at work in the crime blogs.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I'll have to read "Stagestruck." I love it when an author can slip in clues without my noticing. :)

Dorte H said...

Ah, I must read Stagestruck at some point. I also enjoy a clever mystery.

Deb said...

Ruth Rendell is also very good--not only with planting clues, but with turning them on their heads at the very end (they're still viable clues, but they point to something completely different than we first thought). Robert Barnard plants the clues and then adds a fabulous twist in the last sentence. And, of course, Agatha Christie is the Queen of clue planting. I still remember how stunned I was by the ending of DEATH IN THE CLOUDS when I went back and saw that she had very clearly planted a huge clue and I had completely overlooked it.

Uriah Robinson said...

Jo Nesbo plants a thumping great clue in one of his Harry Hole books. When you reach the end only then do you remember that snippet of extra information that solves the case. His tribute to Agatha Christie?

Martin Edwards said...

John, you have really made me want to read the Carr book!

Martin Edwards said...

Elizabeth, I'm sure you will enjoy it. Great fun.

Martin Edwards said...

Deb, I quite agree. I am a huge Rendell fan. And I'm just reading an unpublished story by Bob Barnard for a possible anthology.

Martin Edwards said...

Uriah, do email me and tell me more. Please!

Alistair Macfarlane said...

Honestly, I never look for clues.
The way the story unfolds is much more fun for me.
I will have to go back to my Reginald Hill books and take a look, though....