“Of Jigsaws, Roller Coasters, Crosswords, and Mazes” (by A.J. Wright)

Although his work appears in EQMM for the first time in our January/February 2017 issue, on sale December 20, A.J. Wright is a historical mystery novelist who already has three books to his credit, all belonging to a series set in his native Lancashire. The first book, 2010’s Act of Murder, won the Dundee International Book Prize. The second, Striking Murder, was shortlisted for the British Crime Writers’ Association’s award for best historical crime novel. A third book, Elementary Murder, is about to be released. In this post we get a glimpse of what led the former teacher to write fiction, and a hint of what we can expect to find in his novels and stories.—Janet Hutchings

We all love being fooled, hoodwinked, or deceived, but never lied to. I’m not talking about real life, of course, but in our reading of mystery stories and novels. It’s part of the unwritten agreement we have with our author when we turn to that first page, that sense of anticipation that sooner or later on our voyage through the pages we’ll be tricked in some way with a masterly stroke of misdirection.

Actually, the first time I met with misdirection was from something my mother used to say to me.

Constantinople is a very big word. Spell it.

As I struggled with the spelling of the “big word” she would laugh and point out that she had asked me to spell a very simple word—it—and I had failed.

Mind you, I was only 27 at the time.

But I reckon that’s what attracts us to mystery writing: the certain knowledge that the writer will try, and hopefully succeed, to misdirect our attention in some way. The greater the deception, the better we feel.

Lateral-thinking puzzles do it all the time. Legend tells us that the first example of lateral thinking came in ancient Greece, when the Sphinx, an evil monster, attacked and killed visitors to the city of Thebes where it stood guard. It asked them this riddle, and when they couldn’t answer, it savaged them to death:

What goes upon four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs at night?

Oedipus gave the right answer—Man in his progress through life—and the Sphinx stormed off in anger. (The four legs are a baby crawling; two legs, man walking in his prime; three legs point to his need in old age for a walking stick.)

Actually, that’s not a good example, is it? I mean, the ones who couldn’t answer the question didn’t say, Hey, what a cool riddle! It’s difficult to be positive when you’re a Sphinx’s dinner.

Seriously, though, mystery writers feed off (no pun intended) this basic human trait: the need to be faced with a problem, a puzzle, and then we can pit our wits in trying to solve it. Many of us enjoy jigsaw puzzles, where the task of piecing together all of the different sections is somehow calming and frustrating in equal measure. The similarities and differences with reading a mystery novel, especially my favourite, the whodunit—are obvious. A jigsaw puzzle gives us the answer to the puzzle—the whole picture—immediately. There’s no real mystery as we know what the end product will look like. That would be anathema to us readers if we were given all the answers in the prologue:

Colonel Theobald Fortescue will kill three people with a little-known poison, and it will take all the genius and clear thinking of Inspector Solomon to bring him to justice. It all started one evening . . .

And yet we spend days, even weeks, filling in our jigsaw to produce the picture we were presented with on the front of the box!

Still, completing them is a challenge, and we sometimes struggle to fit a piece into its rightful place. We have the visual clue as to where it should go, of course . . . and there’s that immense feeling of satisfaction in putting in that final piece and also closing that final page.

This voluntary need for confusion followed by revelation is what drives us on from one story or novel to the next. And while other genres do bring satisfaction when conflicts are resolved and relationships enhanced (or ruined), I think that the mystery novel fulfils our desire for puzzlement in a much more basic and satisfying way. Novels in other genres might occasionally balk at the structural importance of a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’ve read some novels—unnamed—where I’ve been left with a feeling very much of dissatisfaction, a sense that the author has not explained the ending with any coherence or consideration. Mind you, how many films have you watched and been left with that same What the . . . feeling?

I know the arguments that will be put forward:

But real life isn’t like that.

Novels surely need to reflect the real world where there is a sense of dissatisfaction or incompleteness . . .

Problems don’t always get solved.

Blah-de-blah.

True. But if I want the real world I can switch on the TV or walk down the street at midnight. When I pay good money to read a novel—a mystery novel, because that’s what I like and I know (hope) it will entertain me—I don’t want the real world—the real real world to intrude. I want to escape from the real world and enter a world where I can take up the author’s challenge, read the clues he/she presents and tries to hide in open view, and solve the mystery before those final revelatory pages.

That world bears a passing resemblance to the real world, of course—it has to do, to create that air of credibility—but we know that by the end, when the villain has been exposed, order will finally be restored.

I’ll hold my hand up and say, Yes, that’s escapism. Shoot me.

It’s also a matter of trust. We trust our author to play fair with us and lay down certain clues as to the identity of the murderer, but we also trust that he or she will plant those clues in such a deceitful way as to mislead us. But the key element here is trust.

In a way it’s that same feeling of trust that we place in the operator of a roller coaster. We know it’s going to be a thrilling journey with ups and downs and twists and turns and a slow pace and a frantic pace, but we have an abiding faith in the way the operator is controlling the pace of the thing, a firm belief in how the ride will end:

Safely, but with that sensation of Wow, let’s do that again!

But I’m a writer, too, and from a writer’s point of view, all of this places a great burden on my shoulders. I want to deceive honestly. So I’ll offer my reader the evidence he or she will need to solve the puzzle, but I’ll also throw metaphorical sand in their eyes to blind them.

Where else but in a mystery story would you trust someone more the more they deceived you?

Crossword compilers do this, don’t they? The cryptic ones, at any rate. They’ll offer you a clue but disguise it in such a way that you’ll either tear your hair out trying in vain to solve it, or jump three feet in the air when you get the answer! Here’s an easy clue I made earlier (but kindly refrain from looking down at the end of this blog. That’s cheating and comparable to glancing furtively at the last chapter of a whodunit when you’re only half way through!).

Golden Age writer’s story about lady on shore?*

Easy? Or frustrating? Remember, no peeking! And work it out without any indication as to number of letters. If I gave you that, you’d get the answer easily. So, tough!

Whether the story or novel is a cosy or hardboiled, historical or modern, there’s always that confidence (or should I say hope?) that the pace of the novel will match our expectations. Cosies, at one extreme, are more sedate and less shocking than noirs. A cosy is when you read a murder mystery in your own bedroom. A noir is when you read one in a motel (one of the Bates chain). When I’m reading a cosy, for example, I expect it to be like entering a maze, where I can walk through at a quite leisurely pace, follow the false trails until I get to the end, knowing that sometimes I’ll be helped by the maze attendant and sometimes I’ll make my own way out. Either way, it’s a delight to reach the end. An achievement.

It’s part of the human psyche then to relish the puzzle, whatever form it takes. When writing my mysteries, I’m in control (most of the time) and enjoy the laying of false trails and throwing that metaphorical sand in your eyes. Sometimes, though, I’m like the comic house painter who covers the floor with paint only to find he’s in a corner and can’t get to the exit. Going back and changing things is far less messy when you’re a writer, though—thanks to the Delete button, I leave no paint-stained footprints to highlight my foolishness!

Still, creating an intricate puzzle for readers to solve is a labour of love. Reading a puzzle so I can solve it is a love of labour (someone else’s!).

And finally, remember what the most famous detective of all, Sherlock Holmes, had to say about deception:

There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.

Keep your eyes peeled and well away from metaphorical sand. Happy reading!

* Answer to crossword clue: Dorothy L Sayers
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