The most recent winner of the Robert L. Fish Award for best short story by a new American author, E. Gabriel Flores did a post for this site in April, and she’s back this month with a post about a phenomenon that figures, in one way or another, in many mysteries. The geography professor turned fiction writer is a lifelong fan of the mystery, and her love of the genre is apparent in her fiction. We have a new Flores story coming up in EQMM soon. —Janet Hutchings
Paredolia is that unique phenomenon that humans—and possibly cats—are prone to, where we see things that are not really there. Our brains insist on solving puzzles that don’t exist, creating order out of chaos, making patterns where there are none. As a child, I marveled at how the pile of clothes discarded on a chair in the corner transformed itself into a scary monster as soon as the light was dimmed. The monster would invariably disappear and become innocent clothing once again when the light was turned back on.
In the light, no matter how hard I looked, that monster stubbornly remained invisible. But then paredolia kicked in again as soon as the light went out, revealing the monster crouching there in the shadows. The only thing for it was to remove the clothes and put them into the closet or the hamper where they belonged. And maybe, for good measure, leave the monster-defeating light on for a while. However, the light revealed a new problem: how to deal with the jagged crack in the corner of the ceiling that looked just like the scowling face of a witch . . .
There are numerous paredolia websites—not that I have wasted any time on them, of course—where there are rocks that appear to have human profiles, old photos that seem to conceal secret images. There is a face on the surface of the moon, a teddy bear in a cloud, a dog in a pile of leaves, a bearded religious icon etched into the morning toast. The creepiest paredolia images are those that are the most difficult to see, those where you look and look and then, suddenly, the woman’s face hidden among the leaves leaps off the screen into your consciousness, and you cannot unsee it. (So I am told by people who spend all that spare time on the internet, scaring themselves silly looking at paredolia images instead of, say, working. At least it isn’t one of those puppy videos, like the one where the cute little dog. . . . but I digress.)
Mystery stories specialize in their own type of paredolia, but in reverse. Instead of a face that isn’t really there leaping out at you, the face that is there disappears. The reader is led to believe that the criminal is an innocent person, just an ordinary faceless cloud floating there among all the other clouds. No face to see here, nothing in that cloud, move along everyone. And then, aha! says the detective. You see, there really was a face there after all! The perpetrator, by rights, should stand out, perhaps with a flashing neon “guilty” sign over their head. Instead he or she fades unnoticed into the background like Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes in his urban camouflage suit, blending in seamlessly with the wallpaper.
It takes a special skill, I think, for a writer to be able to hide the real perp among the innocent suspects in just such a way as to make them indistinguishable, even unnoticed, until the big reveal by the great detective. As a mystery fan, I am enamored of the way detective and crime writers construct their stories, carefully planting those distractingly juicy red herrings among the real clues, surrounding the one person who is guilty-of-this-crime with all those other people who are guilty-but-of-something-else. Some of the best mysteries are those where everyone has a motive, where everyone is acting suspicious, where anyone could be the criminal. Often it is the person you least expect who turns out to have dunnit.
I recently reread “Dead Man’s Mirror,” one of the longer Hercule Poirot stories by the unparalleled Agatha Christie. In that classic story there is the usual bevy of possible suspects who might have committed the crime, but the actual perpetrator is there all along, hidden in plain sight. When you go back and look, you can clearly see that this is the person it had to be. Like the imaginary face that jumps out of the cloud or leafy forest, you cannot unsee the guilty person, once all the clues are clearly pointed in the right direction.
I love Dame Agatha’s work, even—or perhaps especially—when I am fooled by her misdirection. When I am misled, it is almost always because I failed to follow the instructions of her other famous detective, Miss Jane Marple. Miss Marple often warned that it was unwise to ever believe a statement made by one person that cannot be corroborated by someone else. But who can keep track of all those statements scattered among the distracting piles of leaves and banks of clouds?
Another writer who is an expert at hiding the face in the cloud is Jeffery Deaver. He specializes in leading readers along the garden path, twisting and turning, showing us all the possible faces hidden in the leaves and among the branches. Then he turns on the light and shows us that it was never any of those faces after all. It was actually this one, right over here, all along. Or maybe not. How many pages are left in the book?
Then there is Louise Penny, who serves up an entire Quebecois village of likely suspects and more with each book. So far, nobody among the regulars has committed a murder, even though one went to prison for a while by mistake when the clues pointed in their direction. But who knows? It is not just the guys who run the bistro who are waiting for crazy old Ruth Zardo to finally murder someone. I keep expecting her face to leap out of that cloud. It hasn’t. Yet.
Suspense, in the hands of a great mystery writer, is not just about keeping the reader in the dark. It is keeping everyone—the people in the story as well as the reader—in partial darkness and partial light. That means hiding some clues while revealing others. So, when the criminal is finally unmasked, and we find out that we were looking at the wrong pile of rocks or the wrong cloud, several people in the story are shaking their heads right there along with us.
We read these stories because we enjoy the experience of realizing that the criminal had been hidden right there in front of us the entire time. Unlike the fake monster in the pile of clothes, in a mystery story, the baddie does not disappear when you turn on the light. On the contrary, it is only when the light is turned on and the detective points out the guilty person, it is then that the monster in the clothes, the icon on toast, or the face in the cloud is clearly revealed.
“…when the criminal is finally unmasked, and we find out that we were looking at the wrong pile of rocks or the wrong cloud, several people in the story are shaking their heads right there along with us.” Well said! Great post.