One of the easiest mistakes a writer can make in just about any genre, but especially in any story that features a mystery, is to assume that your mystery has to be mind-blowing and convoluted.

The fact is, most mysteries, once revealed, are pretty pedestrian. What makes a mystery work is that the author knows the solution and the reader doesn’t, and that gives the author incredible power. They can mess with the reader all they want. They can deceive, dissemble, and misdirect. And, most importantly, they can heavily imply that the mystery is a brilliant knot that only their weary protagonist can solve, when the mystery itself is actually pretty obvious once revealed.

Even in the most celebrated mysteries of all time, like the Holmes and Christie stories, the solution is usually a bit of a let down. Oh, they all killed him, you say? Oh, it was a poisonous snake placed in the room, you say? I’m not saying these aren’t clever, it’s just that once you know the secret the mystery is usually something perfectly rational and even obvious.

The trick is, your reader doesn’t know that.

The Obvious Child

That means that you really shouldn’t spend too much time trying to come up with a mind-blowing mystery that will shatter people’s psyches. The trick is, any crime becomes mysterious and enticing when it’s not explained. Start with a simple murder—say a husband killing his cheating wife—and then work backwards, erasing clues and coming up with coincidences. By the time you get to the beginning of the story, the mystery will be pretty thick and you’ll be able to sell your reader on its difficulty simply by dint of it being obfuscated.

The simple fact is, 99% of all mysteries are let downs. Once you see how a trick was done, it’s kind of disappointing. The joy isn’t in the solution, it’s in the journey—so stop wasting time trying to be too clever by half, and just work backwards.

Plus, make your detective a ventriloquist. There’s never been a ventriloquist detective. It’s genius. Like Jay-Z says, I’m just trying to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99.

2 thoughts on “The Obvious Mystery

  1. Actually, the ventriloquist has sort-of been done. In the popular Japanese detective series, “Detective Conan,” the young detective, who is actually 17 but was drugged with a special formula so that his body is now that of a small child, often conceals the fact that he has solved the mystery (and hence protecting his true identity from those who drugged him–I’m simplifying greatly, partly because the whole plot is quite involved, and partly because I don’t fully get it myself) by using a special voice-changing mechanism in his bow-tie, that not only makes him sound like someone else, but also projects his voice so it sounds as if that other person is speaking. He uses a special dart to render that person unconscious first. That other person is usually his girlfriend’s uncle, a bungling P.I. who has developed a reputation as the “sleeping detective” because he solves crimes by suddenly going into a comatose state and revealing the killer and the M.O. while hardly moving his lips. My SecondBorn has been a devoted fan of the show for years. 🙂


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