Hints, Clues, and Walking Through Doors

Hello and happy Friday!

All week we’ve been thinking about British mysteries—why non-Brits write them, getting the policing right, understanding the unique British sense of humor, and following (or not following) the rules of mystery laid down by the famous Detection Club. Today I’m asking my fellow Miss Demeanors what they think about those rules. Check out yesterday’s post for a refresher.

CONNIE: The rules of the Detection Club mean playing fair with the reader—surprising them with the solution at the end and yet providing clues that, if noted and followed, would have led the reader to the right conclusion. Is it important to play fair with the reader?

ALISON: Put me squarely in the play-fair camp. The reason I read mysteries is for the joy of solving the puzzle. When a mystery writer doesn’t play fair, it not only destroys the fun of figuring out whodunit, but it’s generally a sign something is wrong with the story structure. That’s true for me, anyway. I know I’ve taken a wrong turn when I find myself with an overly helpful accident or gut feeling.

CONNIE: Someone told me once (I can’t remember who) that writers can use an accident or coincidence to put the sleuth in more trouble but never to get her out of it.

PAULA: I think you have to play fair. If you don’t, you’re gonna hear about it from readers—if not from your editor first. The clues are there, but I always have to go back and add what my editor calls “showing the tumblers of the locks falling into place.”

SUSAN: I would add that it bothers me to get to the end of a mystery, and the murderer is revealed, and I can’t remember who that character is. She appeared briefly in some part of the book and never again. I like the surprise of finding out that someone you knew (or thought you knew as you were reading) had this dark secret.

CONNIE: I wonder if this has something to do with the “no chinamen” [Rule #5]—pinning the crime on some obscure, unknown person at the end.

ALEXIA: I’m a huge fan of play-fair mysteries. Nothing ticks me off more than a mystery that can be solved only by using a fact known to the detective alone (the author). A copy of the Detection Club rules was one of the first things I pinned to my bulletin board when I started writing my first novel.

ROBIN: Surprises are good, like twists, but it’s only fun (for me and for readers) if you’ve laid the groundwork. As Sue Grafton said, “My job as the writer is to fool you. Your job as the reader is to see if you can catch me.”

ALEXIA: Fabulous quote, Robin.

CONNIE: Yes! That one’s going up on my bulletin board.

TRACEE: I’m a fan of play-fair mysteries, but since I have always loved Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, I am clearly willing to see the rules broken.

CONNIE: The “best crime novel ever written,” according to the British Crime Writers’ Association. And yet Christie took some initial criticism for the story. The review in The Times Literary Supplement (10 June 1926) said “…too many curious incidents not really connected with the crime have to be elucidated before the true criminal can be discovered….The great Hercule Poirot, a retired Belgian detective, solves the mystery. It may safely be asserted that very few readers will do so.” Tracee, do you think Christie played fair with the reader?

TRACEE: Yes, because there were hints—Ackroyd’s tinkering with machinery, the recent legacy, the voices in the office that didn’t make sense. I think this is where traditional mystery parts ways with contemporary domestic suspense and the rise of the unreliable narrator. All part of one genre but perhaps cousins and not twins.

CONNIE: It seems Agatha Christie anticipated the recent spate of unreliable narrators. She also broke Rule #7 in Poirot’s Last Case: Curtain, in which an elderly and dying Hercule Poirot, fearing a murderer would escape justice, executes the man himself by poisoning his cup of hot chocolate. Shocking, but the hints were there.  

ALEXIA: Hints are fair. If you drop a hint in chapter two, I can go back to that chapter and say, “Damn. How did I miss that?” If you reveal a secret diary at the last moment and then tell me the detective found it eight chapters ago but didn’t share the info with the reader—that’s cheating.

MICHELE: Fair play is the foundation for the relationship between the reader and the writer. Once I was laid up with the flu and had been reading a well-written book by a best-selling author when, on the last pages and with no warning, a major character walked THROUGH the door. I don’t mean he passed through the door. He physically walked through it. I was so infuriated I threw the book across the room, something I had never done before. I considered it an act of betrayal by the writer that made a lasting impression on me. I committed to never reading twice an author who violated the notion of fair play. I have no problem with people walking through doors, but I’d like to know about that character’s capability long before the last chapter in a book.

CONNIE: So what about supernatural elements? Can you write them and still play fair?

ALEXIA: I do have supernatural elements in my stories, but I work hard to make sure the clues and solution are “real world,” and I don’t let my ghost pop in to save the day (insert ghost in the machine joke here). And I work to make my mysteries fair play—no cheating the reader.

LAURIE: I definitely cannot stand it when anyone other than Sherlock Holmes discovers hidden and secret qualities about clues that no one else on earth would know. But that’s his schtick. If it’s a schtick or particular approach that’s been established with a sleuth, I have some grace. For instance, Maisie Dobbs is a psychologist, but she’s also intuitive in an almost supernatural way. Not quite like a medium, but close. I can totally deal with that because it’s been established that’s her approach. As the reader you still have to catch the clues to the puzzle.

CONNIE: My protagonist, Kate, has a similar gift. When handling certain fine antiques, she gets an impression—longing, sadness, fear—as if the emotional atmosphere in which the object existed seeped into the joints and crevices along with the dust and grime of the ages. But these impressions never give her clues or lead to the solution of the mystery.

LAURIE: I tend to (once in a while) go against Rule #1 (not being in the mind of the killer). I have a chapter where you are in the mind of a potential villain, but I still keep things secret. That’s why my mysteries are technically “mystery thrillers.” But I like having a little taste of another point of view. And I’m not super-fond of the dumb side kick [Rule #9]. I find them annoying, and I’m taken out of the story instead of being swept into it.

ALISON: We live in a world of genre-blending. Not all readers want the cerebral experience of a Poirot or Dalgliesh. I will, however, always tip my hat to the writer who plays fair with flair. There’s nothing quite so satisfying as being outwitted by a master.

CONNIE: We have lots of masters to learn from, beginning with Dame Agatha. Let us know what you think about playing fair, dropping hints, and blending genres.


  1. It’s a challenge for any writer to provide clues but at the same time bury them within other things so that the reader focuses on something else. I particularly enjoy mysteries where I can follow the clues only to find out that I hadn’t guessed correctly. That shows the writer was a master of mystery.

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