The Central Bud

A primary component of a murder mystery is an investigator’s lack of knowledge about a victim’s private life. In the realm of physical evidence, a detective or the like must uncover either clues related to the crime scene or records left behind. These days such records are often in electronic form, but no matter what the device, a plot thread can be developed by planting a core clue at the beginning that is then reexamined at multiple stages during the book.

In order for that to happen, the evidence must be elusive. While physical puzzles can be elaborate, such as the cryptex in The Da Vinci Code, for the purposes of this post I’ll use the simplest device: a word or phrase that has multiple interpretations. It can be used in a variety of contexts as the book goes on, leading the main character to continually refer back to this core enigma. 

One example of a word with multiple meanings is “confession.” If the clue finder uncovers, say, a string of emails from a person in love after he is murdered, an oblique reference to a “confession” can be made to seem romantic. The ambivalence occurs because the two correspondents have a wealth of personal reference points and can refer to events in shorthand that outsiders don’t understand. So the investigator may be led to assume at stage one—if the string of emails shows a pattern of badgering that amounts to stalking—that the person receiving the “confession” is the killer. 

Yet if the second of the email correspondents is subsequently killed, the meaning of the word must be viewed in a different light. Killing a stalker makes no sense if the recipient of the unwanted attention is also killed. At this stage the investigator may reexamine the word “confession.” In the world of law enforcement, for instance, “confession” bears another meaning altogether. 

Such revolutions of a core concept can arise after each significant plot development. Each time the same clue can assume a different guise, depending on what information is revealed. By the end, in the example above, it may turn out that the “confession” was made by a friend of the first murder victim, who is being tried in a courtroom case that occupies another plot thread in the novel. It really was a confession—to a murder—that ends up uniting the two plot threads.

Exercise: Recurring discussions of clues by the protagonist don’t work if they don’t lead to new interpretations of the case. All readers are bored by repetition. To some degree, yes, you do want to remind the reader of how the clues are stacking up, but keep in mind that the discussion itself must represent a step forward in the plot.

“There is always a pleasure in unravelling a mystery, in catching at the gossamer clue which will guide to certainty.”
—Elizabeth Gaskell

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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