I love mysteries. Well, any story where I have to figure out who did what by the end. Last night I finished a novel by a very prolific author that my husband and I like. I’ve read all of his books, and this one last night was written about mid-way through his career so he wasn’t a beginner by any means. And yet, the antagonist at the end turned out to be a character that was never introduced until that final moment. I say that’s cheating the reader. How can a reader know what subplots are relevant, which threads to try to unravel, which embedded clues should be remembered, if none of that points to a known character? And why should I spend the time it takes to read a whole novel, if I don’t have a chance of figuring out what’s going on? That’s like playing poker when you know the hands everyone has. Why play and where’s the fun?
Two favorite authors of mine, Karen Slaughter and Cornelia Read, are masters of the mystery. They are able to insert clues, misdirect the reader, and suck you into caring about even villains, with such a subtle pen that many times I have to reread the book in order to see what I missed. A recent book of Karen Slaughter’s opened with the point of view of a police officer. I inherently trust the police. I wanted to like this guy as the main point of view, but little things in his dialog, tiny ways he responded to people, made me not like him a whole lot. As the book moved along, more characters and more points of view were introduced, and eventually I found out Slaughter had done a fantastic job of tricking me, while at the same time giving me enough information that I should have been able to figure it out. Unlike the previous author who cheated me.
I love that subtle, very experienced way of drawing me into a story, into a character’s mind, and most importantly, into having to think and pay attention. The other style of writing just makes me question whether or not to pick up another book by that author. He’s lost my trust because now I won’t know if I’m being cheated again. I do like the way he draws characters though so maybe I’ll just have to read the ending first.
So what are your thoughts on building trust with a reader? Have you ever felt cheated by techniques an author employed? What are the personal ways you balance giving just enough information to the reader without giving away the ending?