When I was young, one of the great pleasures of reading mysteries by Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie was the challenge of spotting clues and finding the villain before the fictional detective did. It required careful reading, and taking the time to ponder the evidence. I fear readers today don’t have the same patience.
I say this because of comments I’m hearing about my new novel PLAYING WITH FIRE, which has a startling “Sixth Sense” revelation at the end that completely flips the reader’s assumptions upside down. “You pulled a rabbit out of a hat!” “You didn’t play fair!” are some of the reactions. When I point out the numerous clues that are evident throughout the story, clues that should have told them all they needed to know to solve the mystery, their response is: “Oh, I missed that,” or “I didn’t realize that was important.” They had read the story so quickly that they’d simply skimmed right past the half dozen glaring clues without pausing to consider their significance.
A far cry from the days when readers would carefully ponder the evidence the way Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes did.
I don’t think this was true 16 years ago, when I first started writing the Rizzoli and Isles series. Crime readers are a pretty clever bunch, and it used to be a challenge to surprise them. I’d have to carefully disguise every clue. Now I find that more and more readers are missing those clues and even need me to point out where they occur in the story. I don’t think readers are stupider; I think they’re just not reading as attentively as they once did, and the reason may be that many are reading stories in digital format. As a result, they’re doing more skimming and less pondering.
And they skip right past vital information.
PLAYING WITH FIRE is about Julia, a violinist who buys an old handwritten music manuscript in a Rome antique store. It’s a complex piece that accelerates into some high, piercing notes. Whenever she plays it, her 3-year-old daughter Lily seems to turn violent and even stabs Julia. No one else witnesses these attacks, and Julia’s husband doubts they even happened. The search to explain Lily’s behavior leads to a series of doctors and medical tests. But soon it’s Julia’s sanity that’s in doubt.
Although the answer to the mystery may be shocking to some, the evidence is actually there all along, in the form of some pretty obvious clues. Which are….
(more comments below, after the spoiler)
*********SPOILERS AHEAD. SKIP PAST THE FOLLOWING IF YOU DONT WANT TO SPOIL THE SURPRISE ENDING !!! **************
— Julia has headaches. Several times throughout the story, she complains of them.
— A pediatric neurologist discusses the possibility that Lily suffers from Complex Partial Seizures, where the patient appears to be awake, may perform bizarre behaviors, and is completely unaware this is happening. The patient has no memory of this and experiences only a puzzling gap in time. The doctor also explains that these seizures can be set off by certain high frequency sounds or by flashing lights.
— The doctor also reveals that many patients with CPS are misdiagnosed as having psychiatric problems.
— Julia loses track of a few hours and fails to pick up Lily at daycare. All she knows is that hours have passed and she can’t account for them.
— Her husband complains that lately Julia doesn’t seem to be listening to him and she doesn’t answer his questions.
— Julia later suffers another gap in time after she sees a camera’s flashing “low battery” light.
As I was writing the story, I worried that the clues were TOO obvious. Wouldn’t readers find it too easy to figure out that the problem wasn’t Lily at all, but JULIA, who turns out to be a whoppingly unreliable narrator?
But no. They didn’t see that answer coming at all. They missed the clues, so they think the answer came out of left field. All the signs were there, yet they missed the diagnosis. So they blame the writer.
(Interesting side note — I just heard from a reader who was recently diagnosed with CPS. He recognized what was going on in the story because he’d experienced something very similar.)
******************END SPOILERS *********************
So now we mystery writers face a dilemma. As the percentage of our digital readers climbs, readers who click past pages so quickly they often miss vital details, how do we adjust our stories? Do we label our clues with bright red flags? Do we insert traffic signs warning them “slow down, twists ahead”? Must we consider the shorter attention spans of an audience that seems to revel in reading faster, ever faster?
I don’t know. I just know that I miss the days when we took our time to read — and understand — books.