Literary Miscellanea, Mystery

The Screenwriter of ‘Knives Out’ Reveals the Secret of Mystery-Writing

I recently watched a video of Rian Johnson explaining how he wrote the screenplay for the film Knives Out. His advice finally put to rest my concerns about the mystery genre – concerns that I have written about here and here. Knives Out [DVD] [2019]: Movies & TV

Johnson explained that a mystery is not exactly a puzzle to unravel. Instead, the reader is given clues that may not mean very much at the time but make sense at the very end. Although the reader may not be given all of the information she needs to identify the killer or the killer’s motives, she should have have an “aha” moment at the end, when she learns from the detective what all the clues meant. In other words, a mystery is successful when the big reveal corresponds with the clues that have been dropped along the way.

Having discovered the “secret” of mystery-writing, I feel more comfortable with the genre. I have always enjoyed the puzzle of reading mysteries, but I will no longer be frustrated that the novel did not mention everything before the big reveal. Thank you Rian Johnson!

Literary Miscellanea, Mystery

What Constitutes “Fairness” in the Mystery Genre?

One of my favorite genres is mystery – in particular, historical mystery. I enjoy a good mind game set in a small community. Bonus points if the mystery examines social norms or political events. In fact, I would love to write a historical mystery set in 16th century France.


Yet, despite having read countless mysteries, it seems that I don’t really understand the genre expectations. I have been assuming all along that the reader should be given enough information to identify the killer, but so many mysteries that I have been reading recently withhold key information until the final chapters of the novel. After some research, I’ve learned that this is typical of the genre. I should not expect to be given all of the necessary clues by the 50% mark so that I might figure out the mystery myself.

I just finished a Brother Cadfael mystery (Monk’s Hood) by Ellis Peters and The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, a recent release by Elsa Hart. Peters’ Cadfael novels take place in a 12th century English monastery, while Hart’s book explores the eccentricities of 18th century collectors in London. Both are relatively quiet despite being murder mysteries. I didn’t mind the characters or the setting, especially since I love history. However, I wish that I had been given all of the clues early on. I was frustrated by the big reveals because I could never have guessed the motivations of the murders since the authors deliberately withheld key information.

I always thought that a mystery was a puzzle that the reader had to unravel. However, that doesn’t seem to be the norm. Have I been missing something? I have read a few articles about the Fair Play Whodunnit subgenre that gives the reader all the clues that she needs to solve the mystery, however most mysteries seem not to qualify. I’ve had the same experience watching the “Father Brown” television series ; the viewer cannot possibly unravel the mysteries with the clues that are given. Father Brown always knows something that we are not privy to. If I rightly identify the killer, I’m just lucky.

If the reader is kept in the dark for so long, what constitutes “fairness” in the mystery genre?

Have you read any mysteries recently that you would consider “fair”? Do you expect to be given all the clues well before the final three chapters of a mystery? Perhaps, I need to shift my expectations.

Mystery, Reflections

I’m Terrible at Guessing Mysteries

Gray Magnifying Glass and Eyeglasses on Top of Open BookAm I the only one who can never decode a mystery? I’ve been reading mysteries off and on for years, and I am still terrible at connecting the dots. At times, I manage to guess the identity of the perpetrator, but I never know why they stood out to me as guilty.

In the past, I have rarely been concerned about my inability to figure out mysteries. Good mysteries keep the reader guessing, anyway. That’s the fun. But my goals for reading crime novels have changed in the last few weeks. I now want to try my hand at writing a murder mystery.

The difference between reading a mystery and writing one is the difference between enjoying magic shows and performing magic yourself. As a spectator, you are expected to buy into the illusion. But a magician has to know how to create the illusion. I have always been impressed by the intricate plot structures of whodunit mysteries, but I am ignorant of the narrative tricks that mystery writers employ. I don’t know what is considered “fair” in the genre.

I recently finished my first Inspector Maigret mystery: Les vacances de Maigret (Maigret on Vacation). Like most readers, I found it a very fun read. I stayed up until 2 am, finishing the last 100 pages of the novel (basically the second half of the book). That is pretty typical for me. Once I get to the interviews, I don’t put the book down until I’ve reached the big reveal. But unlike many readers, I could not piece together the mystery. I asked myself several questions throughout: Which details are important and which details are not? What are the different characters’ intentions? Why do the characters behave this way? I was totally off.

Perhaps, I should reread the story with a pencil. I’ve enjoyed rereading Agatha Christie mysteries in the past. If I reread Maigret on Vacation, would I be able to piece together the plot like so many readers claim to have done?

Writing a mystery sounds fun. I love the detective-work of research. That is what I love about doing a PhD. But can a terrible detective write a good detective novel?

What are your suggestions? Am I alone? Have you ever tried writing a mystery yourself?

Mystery, Peters, Ellis

Review of A Morbid Taste for Bones (Cadfael #1) by Ellis Peters

Image result for a morbid taste for bonesI finally read a Cadfael mystery.

A Morbid Taste for Bones is the first book in Ellis Peters’ Chronicles of Brother Cadfael series. The eponymous Benedictine monk has had quite a life. Before entering the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury, Cadfael was Godfrey de Bouillon’s companion during the First Crusade. At the start of the novel, Cadfael is working in the abbey garden alongside two other brothers: Brother Columbanus (a raging mystic) and Brother John (who is tempted by the pleasures of the outside world).

But the peace of the monastery is suddenly broken when Prior Robert Pennant asks the brothers to find relics to bolster the abbey’s reputation. Each of the surrounding Benedictine monasteries house the relics of a miracle-working saint, but Saint Peter and Saint Paul has nothing to boast of. Ever ambitious, Prior Robert seeks far and wide for a saint to unearth and carry back to the English abbey. Finally, Brother Jerome receives visions confirming the intercession of a Saint Winifred. These alleged visions inspire the prior to lead a procession of monks to the saint’s burial site. Unfortunately, Brother Robert has underestimated the amount of effort it will take to convince the Welshmen of Gwytherin to relinquish the bones of their village saint to a group of English monks.

Upon his arrival, Brother Cadfael runs into a young woman named Sioned. For a Welsh woman, she is surprisingly competent in English. Soon, Cadfael learns about her secret love for an English ex-outlaw and the advances of a suitor to whom she is indifferent. Sioned’s father Rhisiart respects and even houses the ex-outlaw Engelard, but he objects to Engelard’s interest in his daughter. Further, he opposes Prior Robert’s quest.

Rhisiart may be the only obstacle between the Shrewsbury monks and the miracle-working saint on the one hand and Sioned and Engelard on the other, but who would want him dead?

While A Morbid Taste for Bones is a murder mystery, it is also written as a work of historical fiction. Ellis Peters describes the Welsh village of Gwytherin with an eye to historical accuracy. The mystery is only one plot line in the novel. We are also introduced to English monasticism and the English-Welsh conflict. In many mysteries, the setting and characters are secondary to the intrigue. But not in A Morbid Taste for Bones. The mystery element seems almost accidental to Prior Robert’s quest. Benedictine abbeys in the 11th century were concerned about their reputations; holy relics helped them compete with surrounding monasteries. Brother Cadfael may be religious but he is also practical. He draws from a lifetime’s worth of experiences to fulfill his monastic and social duties. He knows how to play the game.

I look forward to learning more about Brother Cadfael and his fellow monks in the rest of the series. Peters has managed to write a book that appeals to mystery buffs and medievalists alike.

Favorite Quote

“Meet every man as you find him, for we’re all made the same under habit, robe or rags. Some better made than others, and some better cared for, but on the same pattern, all.”

Eco, Umberto, Mystery

Review of Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

What was it about?

The Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and his sidekick, a Benedictine novice named Adso of Melk, arrive at a Benedictine abbey in Italy run by Abbot Abbo to help defend Franciscan poverty in a theological dispute between the Minorites and the Avignonese pope John XXII. Upon his arrival, William learns that a monk named Adelmo committed suicide. After the translator Venantius is found headfirst in a jar of pig’s blood, the abbot commissions William to determine the cause of the deaths. The murder seems to revolve around a book found in the labyrinthine library at the monastery, but unless William finds the book the safety of the monks and the integrity of the Franciscan ideal will be compromised. Set in the 14th century, Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose is at once a murder mystery and an exploration of the theological, philosophical, and political debates of the Late Middle Ages. Eco, a semiotician by trade, explores the use and meaning of signs through a story set in a world obsessed with signs. William of Baskerville is a disciple of William of Ockham whose philosophy guides the friar-detective in his investigation. Name of the Rose is the quintessential postmodern novel.

What did I think of it?

What Eco is able to accomplish in this work is astounding! The murder mystery is set in a time period so very different than our own; therefore, the detective and his sidekick use the knowledge of their time period to try to unravel the mystery. Adso (who is also the narrator) not only describes the views of the people but demonstrates their views in the way that he tells the story. A knowledge of Franciscan history is recommended but not necessary (I recommend C.H. Lawrence’s The Friars). Eco explains it well. What is perhaps more important is a basic knowledge of the views of William of Ockham (also known as nominalism). It is the medieval philosophy that has most influenced the modern world. It also underpins aspects of postmodernism. Eco demonstrates well in this work William of Baskerville’s dictum that ” [t]he idea is a sign of things, and the image is sign of the idea, sign of a sign. But from the image I reconstruct, if not the body, the idea that others had of it.”

The story itself is brutal in parts, but you would expect that in a book set in the 14th century. Heretics and inquisitors abound. Cruel and unusual punishment is the law of the land. The Franciscans are convinced that the apocalyptic prophesies of Joachim of Fiore are being realized in their day. Discovering the murderer turns out to be as hard as determining the layout of the labyrinthine library. If you like Dan Brown’s works, love books about books, and/or are looking for deftly constructed murder mystery told from a unique perspective I highly recommend Name of the Rose. It is just as gripping as Angels and Demons but much better written. Honestly, it doesn’t hold a candle to Brown’s book. I can’t believe I waited so long to read Name of the Rose. It felt like it was written for me.

Favorite Quote

“Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.”

Adventure, Estes, Eleanor, Mystery

Review of Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes

What was it about?

Jerry Pye (aged 10) and his sister Rachel (aged 9) wonder whether Gracie the cat would be bothered if the Pyes purchased a dog. Just the other day, Ms. Speedy offered to sell one of her puppies for a dollar. After seeing the puppies in the barn, Jerry and Rachel knew that they just had to have one. Mom said that it was OK and Sam Doody, their high school friend, promised the children a dollar if they would dust the church pews. With the help of 3-year-old Uncle Bennie, Jerry and Rachel dust the pews and purchas their puppy Ginger. But things suddenly go very wrong. The dog hasn’t been in the Pyes household for very long when he’s suddenly taken by a stranger in a yellow hat – or at least they think the thief has a yellow hat for they have spotted it at various locations in town. They don’t, however, know what the thief looks like. Rachel is sure that he must be ugly and sinister. Jerry agrees and draws a likely portrait of the “unsavory character” to give to the local police. Ginger Pye written and illustrated by Eleanor Estes is the 1952 Newbery Medal-winning book about Jerry, Rachel, and Uncle Bennie’s search for a beloved missing dog and his unsavory thief.

What did I think of it?

Eleanor Estes has successfully accomplished a rare feat – writing a compelling story from the perspective of 9 and 10-year-old children. It is difficult to write believable dialogue between children, but there was never a time in the whole book when I felt like the children were acting in ways atypical of their age group. This is probably the primary reason why Ginger Pye was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1952. But this cannot have been the only reason. While I was able to predict early in the book the identity of the thief, a young child would be left guessing until the very end because Rachel and Jerry react very believably to the situations they encounter. I was entertained by the light suspense as well as by the humor. It is worth noting, however, that the eponymous dog is mostly absent from the story, for obvious reasons. Some children see a dog on the cover of a book and assume that it is a “dog book”. In reality, Ginger Pye is mostly about the children who are looking for their dog. The cover and title may be slightly misleading, but the book is exciting just the same. I am glad that I read Ginger Pye and definitely think it deserved the Newbery Medal.

Favorite Quote

“Well, of course, since Mama was such a young little thing and wore only a size two shoe, and, moreover, ate like a bird, Papa had to marry her. They fell in love at first sight and though she was only seventeen, they got married as soon as all the permissions could be granted.”


This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge


Christie, Agatha, Mystery

Review of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

the-murder-of-roger-ackroyd1What was it about?

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie is told from the perspective of James Sheppard, a surgeon living in King’s Abbott, England. Although he first meets Roger Ackroyd at a dinner in Fernly Park, Sheppard has known for years about Roger’s family troubles. His stepson Ralph Paton, somewhat of a prodigal son, is engaged to be married to Flora Ackroyd, the daughter of Roger’s sister-in-law. At the start of the novel, Sheppard learns of the death of Mrs. Ferrars, a widow who rumor claimed had killed her first husband. Roger had been engaged to marry this woman.

After the dinner, Roger Ackroyd invites James Sheppard to his study and informs him that Mrs. Ferrars had been blackmailed by someone for the alleged murder of her husband. Roger suggests that the blackmailer is responsible for the woman’s death. Parker, Roger’s butler, enters the study and hands Roger a letter which the latter opens but doesn’t read. As Dr. Sheppard is returning home, he runs into a man who asks Sheppard for directions to a nearby village. Although the doctor does not recognize the stranger, he thinks he has heard his voice before. Hours later, he receives an alarming phone call from Parker. Roger Ackroyd has been murdered.

Dr. Sheppard grabs his large black medical bag and  rushes over to the Ackroyd establishment . Parker denies having called the doctor, but Sheppard knows what he heard over the phone. Upon breaking open the door to Roger’s study, Dr. Sheppard finds Roger Ackroyd dead as expected, a large knife lodged in his back. The police interview all of the people Roger knew in his last days. Parker, Ralph Paton, and Geoffrey Raymond are all promising suspects, but Flora Ackroyd doesn’t trust the investigators. She hires Hercule Poirot, Dr. Sheppard’ next-door neighbor and an acclaimed private detective, to identify Roger’s murderer. Poirot accepts the appointment and asks Dr. Sheppard to accompany him in his investigation. Sheppard reminds Poirot so much of his assistant Captain Hastings. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is rightly considered one of the greatest murder mysteries ever written.

What did I think of it?

I have read many Hercule Poirot mysteries in my day, but The Murder of Roger Ackroyd stands out from the rest of Agatha Christie’s books for its ingenuity and craftsmanship. If you have never read anything by Christie, I don’t recommend you start with this one. Death in the Air, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, or even Murder on the Orient Express would serve as better introductions. Because of its uniqueness, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is also one of Christie’s most controversial works. It is better to start with one of her least ambitious works lest you turn out to be disappointed by this one.

Dr. James Sheppard has a sister named Caroline Sheppard who is the busybody of King’s Abbott. She knows everyone’s business and is not afraid to speak her mind. Dr. Sheppard’s sarcastic remarks are lost on his sister, but they add a touch of humor to an otherwise dark story. It is no secret that I prefer Hercule Poirot to Sherlock Holmes. Poirot, an avid gardener with a well-formed mustache and an egg-shaped head, is quite a memorable investigator. And of course, everyone is a red herring; the reader is left guessing until the very last chapter (unless you are me and you accidentally spoil the mystery for yourself while only part way through the book). If there is one Christie book I would like to reread it is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Even though I knew the ending, I would never have predicted it. Agatha Christie is like a magician whose tricks I want to understand because they are so ingenious.


Hammett, Dashiell, Mystery

Review of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

What was it about?

Private Investigator Samuel Spade has a new client. Miss Wonderly wants Spade’s help to find her sister Corinne who has run off  to New York with a man named Floyd Thursby. Thursby will be arriving at the St. Mark’s hotel at 8 pm this very night, and she is afraid that Thursby will attack her. Spade informs Miss Wonderly that his partner Miles Archer will accompany her to the hotel to spy on Thursby.

Early the next morning, Samuel Spade receives a call from the Police Detective Tom Polhaus. Miles Archer has been found dead with a loaded revolver in his pocket. An automatic revolver was laying near him. Tom believes that this is the revolver that was used to kill Miles. Shortly after returning home from the crime scene, Spade receives another call, this time from Lieutenant Dundy. Floyd Thursby has been found dead, shot in the back before entering the St. Mark’s hotel. Lieutenant Dundy and Tom Polhaus blame Spade for Miles’ and Thursby’s deaths. It doesn’t seem like a very far fetched conclusion to make. It is no secret that Spade hated Miles. On top of that, he was in love with Miles’ wife, Iva. Iva even blames Spade for her husband’s death. But Spade denies having anything to do with the murders.

Spade is convinced that Miss Wonderly has been lying to him. Finally, after much interrogation, Miss Wonderly, whose real name is Brigid O’Shaugnessy, admits to having lied to Sam about her sister. Sam isn’t surprised by this revelation. She had paid the detectives too much to spy on Thursby.

Sam receives another client in his office. Joel Cairo is looking for a certain falcon statuette, and he is willing to pay five thousand dollars to get his hands on it. Spade agrees to help Cairo, but he secretly has his suspicions. Maybe the murders of Floyd Thursby and Miles Archer are somehow connected to this falcon – this Maltese falcon.

What did I think of it?

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett was a fast-paced and fascinating detective novel. Spade is a very typical fictional private detective. He is brilliant, self-interested, and a womanizer. Because of these characteristics, he is a great literary detective; Spade has the ability to think like a criminal. He also works alone. Lieutenant Dundy and Tom Polhaus want Spade to share what he knows with them. When he doesn’t, the police think that their colleague is complicit in the murders. The Maltese Falcon is suspenseful but humorous, a great summer read.

Favorite Quote

[Brigid O’Shaugnessy]: “I’m eighty years old, incredibly wicked, and an iron-molder by trade. But if it’s a pose it’s one I’ve grown into, so you won’t expect me to drop it entirely, will you?”


Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan, Mystery

A Study in Scarlet

Sherlock HolmesWhat was it about?

Dr. John H. Watson has returned from war. After years of service in the Army Medical Department, Watson is ready to settle down. He has had enough excitement and witnessed enough suffering to last a lifetime. But he is in need of some cheap lodging and his friend Stamford recommends that he room with a Mr. Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street, London.

Shortly after moving in with Holmes, Dr. Watson comes face-to-face, once again, with death. Sherlock Holmes is a self-taught detective and a self-proclaimed expert in the “science of deduction”. So, it surprises Dr. Watson that detectives Lestrade and Gregson would consult Sherlock Holmes about the recent death of a gentleman named Enoch J. Drebber. He was found dead on the floor of his front room with a pack of cards in his pocket. Upon inspection, Lestrade discovered the word “RACHE” written in blood on the wall although there was no fresh blood on the victim. Gregson and Lestrade cannot make heads or tails of the case, but Sherlock Holmes knows who did it.

What did I think of it?

This was the first Sherlock Holmes story I have ever read. I had seen some film adaptations of the stories, but I much prefer reading a book first before watching the movie. The first half of the story was very captivating. Holmes, Lestrade, and Gregson make one discovery after another. But, suddenly, the tone of the story changes. Watson stops writing in the first person; instead, the second half of the book is written in the third person omnipresent.  Near the end, the story goes back to being told from Watson’s perspective. The truth is that I lost interest in the story after the first half of A Study in Scarlet because the murderer is arrested before part 2 of the book even begins. I was surprised that the murderer is revealed so early in the story. I think much of my disappointment has to do with the fact that I kept comparing this mystery to Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries, which I enjoy. A Study in Scarlet is also filled with stereotypes and obvious misunderstandings about the Mormon religion. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle presents the LDS Church as a cult run by some very frightening and controlling Elders. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes a few times.

While A Study in Scarlet was not a terrible story, I recommend the recent (2010) BBC version to the book. The BBC version leaves out the Mormons, and the murderer is revealed at the end of the show rather than in  the middle. You really experience the adrenaline rush that I believe should come with reading a mystery.

That being said, I have not given up on Sherlock Holmes. I hope to read more stories from the two volume set. Hopefully they will get better.


Favorite Passage

“You seem to be a walking calendar of crime.” said Stamford with a laugh. “You might start a paper on those lines. Call it the ‘Police News of the Past.'”

“Very interesting reading it might be made, too,” remarked Sherlock Holmes , sticking a small piece of plaster over the prick on his finger. “I have to be careful,” he continued, turning to me with a smile, “for I dabble with poisons a good deal.” He held out his hand as he spoke, and I noticed that it was all mottled over with similar pieces of plaster, and discoloured with strong acids.