Plea to the Lesser

In a mystery, let’s say you have your minimum of three possible suspects. Each has been introduced and each has been given a clue or two that draws the reader’s suspicion. Now what? How do you keep the suspects vital in the reader’s mind? You need to keep on turning up clues, but how is that accomplished with the persons who didn’t commit the crime?

One way of looking at the problem is to rank crimes on a scale. At the top is premeditated murder: a killing was planned and carried out. Scrolling down the list, we find such items as manslaughter, armed robbery, unarmed robbery, and trespassing. Now the scope of the lesser suspect’s motives has widened. Anyone who committed any sort of crime would fear exposure, and nothing draws law enforcement attention more than a homicide. Indeed, we all have secrets that, like rodents scurrying out of the light, we do not wish to be discovered.

Let’s take Rhonda, who was a good friend of the victim, call him Brian. Detective Mulligan learns that Rhonda’s fingerprints were all over Brian’s cell phone, among other items, which was lying on the night table in the bedroom where he was knifed. He later learns from phone records that Brian called her shortly before the murder. She might admit that, long ago, the two had casual sex—but it didn’t mean anything, to either of them. What the good detective doesn’t know yet is that Brian was also an inveterate photo hound; his cell phone was loaded with photos. And the reason Rhonda came into his room that night was to erase embarrassing photos he had taken of her flirting with her lover on the beach, ones her husband would not forgive.

This is but one instance of a wide variety of lesser crimes that can be employed. The same sequencing of clues can be employed as for the major crime, because any crime has clues attached to it. The person who committed the crime has the same reluctance to talk to police, the same fear of being found out. Yet because a mystery is a deliberate process of opening closet doors to find skeletons, a reader early in a book does not see what is lying in the dark. All you have to do is create trails—of phosphorescent stones, say—that lead to a sequence of doors you want the reader to open.

Exercise: Open a new file for Rhonda, or the equivalent in your book. Write down the reasons why she became a suspect in the first place and how she retains a place on the reader’s suspect board. Do those reasons remain compelling as the book goes on? If not, examine her relationship to the victim. Could a lesser crime be committed that entails blackmail or simply needs to be hidden from a nosy police officer’s flashlight? Now create a sequence of events that followed that crime, including the victim’s involvement. How could you devise a trail that keeps Rhonda looking awfully suspicious?

“You can't wait for inspiration.  You have to go after it with a club.” 
—Jack London

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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