‘It was you,’ Inspector Flimsy said dramatically, ‘Lady Melchett!’
‘No it wasn’t!’
I love a good murder mystery. Not only do you get an engaging story but you get a fun intellectual puzzle thrown in as well. What a bargain! In saying that, I don’t often solve the mystery. But that’s the point. The author doesn’t want you to actually solve it, only have the illusion that you could have if you’d been a little less dunder-headed. But never fear! My years of research have given me a great insight. Sure, the clues they provide are far too cryptic for anyone to actually decipher, but we don’t need them. Because in providing clues, the author is really providing you the answer. Not in the clues themselves but in how they are placed. I am going to show you how to solve a murder mystery novel without using any of the clues, only by using the novel itself.
Just looking at the characters that might have done it, we already start to formulate an idea. Of course there’s the ‘least likely suspect’ trope but now that everyone’s aware of that, what constitutes the least likely suspect? If everyone suspects the least likely suspect doesn’t that make them the most likely? On the other hand, no one really suspects the most likely suspect (too obvious!) so do they actually become the least likely suspect? Then does that mean they’re again the most likely suspect? Never mind all that, let’s move on to my character clues’.
One-off suspicions will never apply to the actual murderer
This is a way of sharing the suspicion around. Authors don’t want you to actually suspect the murderer so they’ll never explicitly state a clue that helped the detective solve it in the end.
If the detective finds somebody’s glasses at the scene of the crime then that person didn’t do it. It’s just too obvious and way too disappointing if what led you to the murderer was simply the fact that they left something of theirs at the crime scene.
The same usually applies with motives. If somebody has an obvious motive for killing someone, it’s unlikely this will be the actual motive, even if that person does end up being the murderer. Focus on those who have seemingly no motive or those whose motive is very stock-standard. If somebody’s motive is that they’re the sole beneficiary of the dead person’s will, that’s not likely to be the reason why. It may be realistic in real life but in a novel, the reader expects more ingenuity than that.
Of course, the murderer may be suspected by the detective at one point. Pay attention to anyone who becomes too obvious. Disregard the explicit clues that point to them though. The author isn’t going to serve you up the murderer and the clues halfway through the novel. Look for other clues or other interpretations of the given clues to see if it still fits with the person. If all the evidence is stacked up against one person early on, usually that person will have been ‘framed’ and be cleared later on. Don’t stop suspecting them just because the detective does. Could the suspect have planted obvious clues that would be proved false so that the real evidence pointing to them would also be considered false?
Just How Suspicious?
A good author won’t concern themselves with the ‘least likely/most likely’. They’ll focus on trying to stop you ever suspecting the murderer. So rather than ‘least suspected’ it’s ‘never suspected’. Sometimes the ‘never suspected’ trope can backfire on the author. If they spend a lot of effort convincing you that one person could definitively not have committed the crime, then double your suspicions on that character. If a character was observed somewhere else at the time of the crime, incapacitated so that they couldn’t physically have done it, or somehow have some unimpeachable alibi, then they’ve done it.
If your detective doesn’t consider them a possible suspect or remarks that they couldn’t have done it, that person did it. Look for characters that are above suspicion: The investigators, the person who asked the detective to investigate, the person who insisted what everyone thought was an accident was really murder, the person someone’s trying to kill, the helpful but bumbling sidekick. If someone is above suspicion not based on evidence but simply because of their character or suspicion then it’s most likely them.
You’ll never be given clues – at least not in their proper form
Of course you’re given clues, but not in their meaningful form. You’ve got to do some of the work yourself! Therefore, never judge a clue on face value. You need to think creatively as to how else the clue could be interpreted. When Poirot emphasises the importance of the calendar in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, it is not the calendar that’s important at all. Whilst the reader is considering the implications of whether the calendar had the wrong date or a particular date circled, its real importance is that the butler has to look at it up-close. The calendar establishes the butler’s poor eyesight, and then we can start to question whether he has mistaken one of the characters for someone else or an object for something else. Also consider Sherlock Holmes’s interest in ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night-time’. You may be confused because the dog seemingly did nothing curious. Then you begin to consider all the curious things that the dog may have done and what they mean. Of course, the dog didn’t do anything, and that’s important because usually the dog would do something, which points to who the perpetrator was.
This is more about the book itself then the actual plot. If you can solve what sort of book it is (what’s special about it) you can probably solve the murder.
Have critics lauded it as one of the most shocking endings of all time? Well what kind of ending would it have to be to constitute that? It’s obviously not going to be a plain-cut solution. Look at which characters would prove a shocking murderer. The detective’s assistant? The detective? Is the victim really dead?
Does it remind you of other books by the same author?
If an author uses a successful trick in one book, it’s easier to try to reuse that trick than come up with a new one. I’m not saying mystery writers are unoriginal hacks but they may look for ways to reinvent or remodel a past solution to provide a new one. When reading a book by an author you’re familiar with, look for variations on a theme. Agatha Christie often used the theme of the love triangle. This is when three people are involved in a complicated love affair. A loves B but B is in love with C. A and B were in love but now B and C are together. A and B are in love but C is capturing the attention of B. When you start to notice a recurring theme or similar plot, consider how you could fit the old plot or theme into the new novel. Two of Agatha Christie’s novels, Death on the Nile and Evil under the Sun, have the same relationship at the heart of the novel. A happy couple’s relationship is threatened by an interloper. In Death on the Nile, the interloper is an ex-lover, In Evil under the Sun, it is a shameless ‘man-eater’. Without trying to spoil either plot, the relationships revolve around the similar idea of not being the relationship that is suggested, although executed differently.
So these are some of the ways that you can get a kick-start in finding that pesky murderer without having to do any difficult clue-finding and interpreting. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to apply these rules to a book once you’ve already finished it and know who did it. But perhaps that’s for the better. Because sometimes it’s fun to just go along for the ride and let yourself be fooled.