Magicians amaze us. Yet, their job is to simply get us to look here while they do something over there. This is a skill novelists, certainly mystery novelists, must master. In order for the reader not to arrive at the solution before you want them to, it’s important that you litter their path with obstacles to throw them off. The writer has to keep them so focused on the immediate path in front of them as if they are driving in a fog that they are oblivious of the road ahead.
Photographers also do this trick with their cameras. They’ll take a picture with an item clear and prominent in the forefront and then everything beyond it is distant and blurred or unclear. The idea for an author is to keep the reader focused on that prominent item rather than the distant events. This way the reader can be surprised by things they are not expecting. Alfred Hitchcock was a master of keeping viewers looking elsewhere then he caught them just when he wanted to.
As a lifelong mystery fan, I’ve long admired the ability of a mystery author to catch me unawares. I love a story that hooks me in, and lets me believe I know exactly where it’s going only to discover I was too focused on that item the writer wanted me focused on and missed out on what he or she was really doing in the background. Fool me, as long as you’ve done it fairly. If those clues are there in the background all along and I simply failed to note their importance, I’ve been played fairly. I love a writer who brilliantly plays that card. They are rare.
Whether it’s mysteries or not, all writing has this foreground appeal. This ability to get your reader to focus on what you want them to until you want them to realize the bigger picture. It’s a wonderful gotcha moment when the reader slaps their forehead and goes, “I should have seen that coming.”
I’ll never forget the first time I saw The Sixth Sense, never forget that moment when I realized I’d been had so effectively. I remember thinking, I should have seen that coming. I literally went back through the film remembering scene by scene, the clues that I should have “gotten.” I loved it. I didn’t feel let down or betrayed. I felt I’d played a game and been bested by a master. This is what a mystery writer should always want their reader to feel.
Do you like a book that challenges you fairly? Have you ever read a book that you felt didn’t play fair? No names, please but why do you think it went wrong?