The world of words, reading and writing

To Solve or not to Solve?

The main game with a murder mystery novel is to discover the solution before the detective can reveal it. It’s a race against time, a battle of wits between author and reader. But what happens if the reader is able to emerge triumphant? Has the author failed in their task to deceive? Should the reader be disappointed if they solve the ending or commend the author for playing fair?

If the reader can solve the crime then the author is definitely doing their job of creating a puzzle to test the reader. I’m happy to be wowed by an author’s clever trick but I want it to be more than just a trick. If I fail to reach the solution I want it to be because of the author’s superior intellect at hiding the clues or my failure to find them, not because the author simply decided against planting any useful clues in the first place. I would be much happier prematurely solving the crime than having had no chance at ever solving it. If you can’t solve it because the author is withholding information then they have failed to play fair and that is when you should feel cheated.

But does the author actually grant the reader the chance to solve the crime before the detective or do they merely grant the illusion of having this chance? I read a how-to book for writing murder mysteries and in it, the author suggested that the solution should only be obvious once it has been revealed. Certainly, as an author you want the reader to go ‘Of course!’ when you reveal the solution, but they elaborated on this by saying that the clues should only reveal the solution once the clues’ true meaning has been revealed. Basically, they were saying that the clues would only be of use once you had the solution and worked backwards from there.

To me, that doesn’t seem fair. What’s the point of having the clues if you can’t even use them? Wouldn’t you feel more cheated as a reader if you had no chance of solving the crime than if you solved it prematurely? On the seldom occasion that I have deciphered a clue or discovered the solution before it was revealed, I was pleased as punch. If you’ve used some intellect to work out the ending then I think that you would be proud of yourself. Most probably, you would boast about how clever you are to have solved such a difficult puzzle (I know I would). You certainly wouldn’t want to diminish that by complaining about how obvious it was.

Sometimes, however, they are much too obvious. Badly placed clues or far too obvious hinting do make the reader feel cheated. If you are just handed the solution then you’re robbed of the fun of trying to work it out.

So I feel that the author has a very fine line to tread. They must certainly make the crime solvable. But they must also make the reader work in order to solve it. There’s no fun if you never had a chance at solving it and there’s no fun if there was no chance of you not solving it.

Jeez, it must be hard being an author.


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