Whodunnit? Whocares?

I’m lazy and ultimately this results in bad endings. I don’t plan ahead and I’m usually writing to a deadline (whether contest or self-imposed) so by the time it comes to write the ending I’m ready to be done with it and take the first ending that pops into my head. This is not a tact that leads to brilliant endings. Taking that into account though, these days, how important is the unveiling of the murderer in a mystery novel, specifically a PI novel. I’ve read a bunch of PI novels and some of them stick in my head years after I first read them but I can’t remember the killer in anyone of them. Mostly, the killer is a logical choice that was determined by the detective in a logical and believable manner, but nothing that makes me slap my forehead and go “Duh.” Well, with one exception. Harlan Coben is perhaps the trickiest mystery plotter around and I can remember two ending distinctly that wowed me. Coben is also one of the only “thriller” writers I read and enjoy because his suspense, tricky as it is, seems more organic. I despise the manipulative plotting of writers like Jeffery Deaver or James Patterson.

I think this comes down to something Charlie Williams said a bit ago. Those writers who don’t outline tend to read other writers who don’t outline. Those who do outline read books by authors who outline. I believe that’s true and I believe you can tell the difference between an outlined book and more organically produce (soy books?) product. Maybe this is why I seem to read so many novels where the actual identity of the killer doesn’t mean much. What really seals a book for me is that final chapter or two where the deeper themes of the book and how they impact the detective’s life are pondered. These are the scenes I remember years later. I like Raymond Chandler’s motto that a mystery should be about how a case works a detective, not how a detective works the case. He also said a detective novel should be a good novel even if the last page is cut out.

If the author is out to trick the reader, there are only going to be so many ways to do it before the trick box is empty. While I don’t enjoy Jeffery Deavers’ novels, I do like a few of his short stories. I have his story collection in my car to read when I have spare moments and even after reading only five or six of them, his “twists” become pretty obvious so there has to be more there to hold me and usually there isn’t.

So how much thought do you guys put into coming up with your killers? Many hardboiled writers don’t even have a whodunnit aspect, people just die and die and die and then the book is over. As long as the writer doesn’t resort to some tricky gimmick (like faking death) can he get away with a less than bombastic revelation?

4 thoughts on “Whodunnit? Whocares?

  1. I like surprise endings, even when I have them figured. I just like it when the author twists the plot just one more time and you don’t see it coming… I don’t know that’s going to happen in this novel, but…

  2. I like some sort of straight mystery element in my own stories, but it doesn’t have to be a “fair play” mystery, where you plant clues, etc.And I enjoy books like Pelecanos’ which generally don’t have any mystery element at all.

  3. I disagree that writers who outline read writers who outline. But then I don’t consistently write one way or the other. And if you ask me why I do or don’t, you’re wasting your time. I don’t know. It all depends on whether I have a (possibly irrational) need to know the story before I actually write it. And that doesn’t always happen.

  4. According to my editor, there needs to be some sense of resolution at the end of the story. Some sense that things have been sorted out one way or another and the reader has a vague way of knowing where they stand.This doesn’t mean the murder/thief/duck-buggerer needs to be unmasked, just that the story needs to reach some kind of proper conclusion (‘American Psycho’, I’m looking at you).I tend to go along with that. Of course, she’s my editor, so if I don’t go along with that she’ll have me hunted through the streets by heavily-armed men with spears.Also, I don’t have the foggiest who outlines and who doesn’t, nor what really constitutes “an outline” as opposed to “a vague idea where their story is going”.

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