“Doing the Twist” (by Laura Pigott)

With our September/October issue just on sale, this morning we introduce a writer whose Department of First Stories debut appears in that issue. Laura Pigott works in the field of corporate communications, but she has been interested in mysteries since childhood. She has won the Golden Pen Award for best writer from UnitedHealth Group twice, and now she has turned her hand to fiction writing. Were anticipating that her debut story, Therapy Dog, will soon be followed by other published fiction, as she tells EQMM she is working on a collection of short stories. In the following post, she shares some insights into the type of short story she favors.—Janet Hutchings

One of the reasons I became an avid mystery fan early on is the delicious possibility in mysteries of thinking things will turn out one way only to have them switch up at the last minute. As a child, life often seems depressingly linear: you do something wrong, your parents find out, and you’re punished. How many times do you wish, and if you’re young enough even believe, that it was someone else who done it?

I became a graduate student in English lit at a time when genre fiction—mysteries, sci fi, romances, westerns—were just beginning to be accepted as worthy of critical consideration. Narrative linearity was no longer a requirement in literature, and since the writing of James Joyce and his cohorts, no longer cool. I was still wedded, however, to the concept of a plot, where events unfolded logically. But I wanted a little something extra, a development that would make me do a double-take, think “Hang on a minute, what just happened?”

Enter O. Henry. His stories were plot-driven and easily accessible, although burdened by what would now be considered authorial conceits and flourishes. Their subject was human experience, and he had a tender eye for the hopes and foibles of the common man or woman. Best of all, many of his stories featured a twist, where the reader’s expectations are foiled at the last minute. Taking readers off guard drove home the story’s message, whether a condemnation of the world’s cruelties or a call for compassion.

In one of O. Henry’s most famous tales, “The Gift of the Magi,” an impoverished couple sells their only treasures to buy a Christmas gift for each other. She sells her beautiful hair to buy him a fob for his heirloom watch; he sells his watch to buy combs for her hair. The moment when they present their cherished gifts and learn of each other’s sacrifice still takes my breath away.

Henry’s brand of short fiction has mostly gone out of fashion, except in one genre: mysteries. The mystery stories that stay with me are the ones where the writer leads me down the path to a conclusion, then pulls the rug out from under my preconceptions. The use of “red herrings” to mislead the reader along the way is an established practice and can be an entertaining way to delay the final revelation. What I find most compelling, though, are twists rooted in a protagonist’s complex psychology.

News stories about serial killers, lurid scandals, and domestic intrigues fascinate us because we want to know what caused their subjects to go off the rails. We question if it could happen to us or to the people we know. The mystery is an effective platform for exploring the consequences when something simmering below the surface in everyday lives erupts in unexpected ways.

All of us have experiences where presumptions about a person’s motives — loved ones, friends, colleagues, or even strangers — foster misunderstandings and premature judgments. Suddenly we find ourselves second-guessing our perceptions, wondering where our initial assessments went wrong. In a political climate polarized by rigid positions, could the twist in mystery stories also act as a cautionary tale about jumping to conclusions — train us to suspend not disbelief but belief, at least long enough to get all the facts?

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