“the author didn’t play fair”

Sometimes I see this criticism leveled at an author, and it has to do with who the villain is.  “She sprang that villain on us out of the blue.  She didn’t play fair.”  Meaning, the author didn’t give the reader enough clues to guess the villain’s identity.

Patricia Cornwell has certainly had to face this criticism.  I believe it was in BODY OF EVIDENCE where the killer didn’t show up until the climax — when he threatens Kay Scarpetta.  I happen to think that book worked perfectly well.  Although you never see the villain until the end of Cornwell’s story, you do see the investigators piecing together bits and pieces about him.  Her book was simply giving us a taste of reality.  Real-life investigators don’t have the benefit of an Agatha Christie line-up of suspects, who just happen to be hanging around to make the detective’s acquaintance.  True investigations must often chase forensic and behavioral clues before they even encounter the killer.  The killer isn’t nicely sitting in the drawing room, waiting to be identified.

But crime readers don’t really want reality.  They want the artificial guessing game.

The result is far too many crime novels where the villain turns out to be a cop or insider or lover who’s insinuated himself into the investigation.  The author feels compelled to use one of these tired old devices for only one reason — so THE READER will feel satisfied when the killer is finally revealed.  (“A ha!  He was there all along!”)

Sometimes, though, even when the villain has been there in the story all along, readers STILL aren’t satisfied.  

In a major newspaper review of one of my books, the critic complained that my surprise villain was “sprung out of nowhere”.  “This character was hardly even mentioned anywhere in the book,” he said. 

The reviewer was obviously not paying attention.  That particular villain took part in scenes that made up FORTY PAGES of the novel.  The character appeared in four separate scenes, speaking dialogue in every one.  Clearly, the villain was there all along in the book, but the reviewer was oblivious to the character’s significance until the very end.  Why?

Because I, the author, was too damn clever for the critic.

This is what really bugs me as an author.  We work hard to make villains blend unobtrusively into the story.  We slip them into the story in ways so organic that they seem invisible.  And when their guilt is identified, the reader sometimes doesn’t even remember seeing them before –even though they’ve been there all along.

How many times should a villain appear in the story before his unveiling is considered “fair”?

In general, I try to introduce him/her into at least two, and preferably three or more, scenes. 

But sometimes it’s not possible.  Sometimes there’s no way to introduce a villain earlier into the story without sacrificing verisimilitude.  In BODY OF EVIDENCE, the surprise really wasn’t the villain’s identity — it was HOW he gained access to his victims’ homes.  And I was perfectly satiisfied with that shock.  I didn’t care who he was; I just wanted to know how he chose his victims and why his victims let him into their homes.

So I think readers should cut Cornwell a break on that one.  

If a reader demands an Agathie Christie line-up of suspects, then maybe the reader should stick to Agathie Christie. 

23 replies
  1. zaedok
    zaedok says:

    Dr. Tess–you are blogging during the Super Bowl!! Well why not. I found the game so dull that I dozed off.
    Regarding your blog entry, maybe too many people grew up playing the game of Clue.

  2. Kome
    Kome says:

    “Because I, the author, was too damn clever for the critic”

    ROFL! Well, you can’t please everyone. some people want to be challenged, others want it handed to them on a silver platter.

  3. Rikkesoft
    Rikkesoft says:

    I agree twice with your statement.
    First of all, I certainly agree with the article: the bad guy don’t has to be known to the reader all the time, simply because once the bad guy has an identity, the reader knows he’s gonna be caught one way or another, and from that moment on a part of the surprise has gone.

    On the other hand I agree with the title. Writing my critics, I used this phrase once when an author started to play with the sexe of the killer, by naming him/her “she” in some chapters and “he” in others, although it was obvious there was only one villain. And it was certainly not the result of any new facts arising during the investigation. I was just a trick to try to get the reader away from the obvious. But such a cheap trick….

  4. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    Hi Tess,

    I guess there’s still a market (dwindling, as I understand it) out there for traditional fair-play whodunnits, but surely these critics are aware that the mystery as a form has mutated and evolved extensively since the days of Agatha Christie. Many contemporary examples even show the villain’s identity in a prologue.

    The story question doesn’t always have to be “Who?” for a novel to qualify as a mystery.

    For me, motivation and modis operandi are the more compelling questions, along with, “Will the villain strike successfully again?”.

  5. Patricia Wood
    Patricia Wood says:

    It’s funny. When an author is able to trick me like that I have a tendency to say,”Good one!”
    I do not begrudge being fooled one bit!

  6. vividexpression
    vividexpression says:

    The people who don’t like to be surprised must not like to think. I enjoy trying to figure out the story and be shocked at the end.

    In real life the killer works to evade detectives/police and that makes the police work that much more difficult. It’s like a game of cat and mouse to see if the police will find the killer before he attacks again. It makes for a great story to me!

  7. ec
    ec says:

    Some readers have very little territory between, “Hmmph! Like I didn’t see THAT coming…” and “I didn’t see that coming–you didn’t play fair!” There’s not much to be done about that, or them.

    As a reader, I am particularly fond of endings that are both logical and surprising. But if the characters are engaging and the book is well written, I tend to enjoy the game and not worry overmuch about the rules.

    Lawrence Block tends to break ALL the mystery rules, particularly in his Bernie Rhodenbarr series. Bernie is the first-person narrator, but he doesn’t tell the reader everything he knows or even everything he does. Most of the mystery is solved offscreen: he tells us about it in the denoument. He most definitely does not play fair, but that choice makes sense because it fits the character. Bernie is a bookseller by day and a cat burgler whenever he gets the itch. It’s not in his nature to be 100% forthcoming with anyone. So while certain storytelling rules are broken, the books are true to a certain internal logic.

    It’s more illuminating to ask, “What did the author wish to portray, and how well did they accomplish this goal?” than to judge a book by how neatly Tab A fit into Reader Expectation Slot B.

  8. JMH
    JMH says:

    Tess, here’s how I get around the whole problem. I have at least 2 “villans” in every book. One is a main character and the reader sees everthing from his point of view for a full 1/3 of the book. To me, it’s important that the reader see the villan clearly. For example, how effective would the movie “King Kong” be if you never saw him but only saw his footprints?

    Then–here comes the important part–I have a second villan. Readers are always shocked and enthralled. At the end of the book they get to find that that THERE IS YET ANOTHER VILLAN, and also find out who it is. They never feel cheated because they weren’t even looking for the person.

    That’s why my books appeal to both thiller and mystery fans. Anyway, that’s my $.02. Jim.

  9. SassyDevil
    SassyDevil says:

    I’m with Patricia. I don’t mind being fooled, or not being able to guess the villain. If s/he’s there, great. If s/he’s added in the end, I’m ok with that, too. It’s fun to try to guess among the current players, but if it turns out to be someone new, that’s cool. I don’t read traditional mysteries or books that are typically labeled “Mystery” much; I prefer thrillers, which often include mysteries, of course. I like it when I can see the clues, but still can’t figure out who the “bad guy” is. I also like it when I have difficulty guessing, but I make one, and I get to see if I’m right or not. For me, it’s like a game, and I have fun whether I “win” (guess the villain) or not. If the author writes a fantastic story and manages to delay my guessing or leaves me without a guess at all, I say, “Good show!”

    As Kome says, “You can’t please everyone.”

  10. Vanessa F
    Vanessa F says:

    Personally, I love it when I’m sure I’ve got the ploit all figured out and then in the end discover I was all wrong. I love Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta novels and am actually rereading one right now. There are still some of us out there who like a true mystery.

  11. Craig
    Craig says:

    Well, my attitude is that if I can figure out who the villain is then it probably wasn’t that much of a book. As long as it makes sense who the villain is I’m fine. I don’t want to figure it out halfway through. If I can, why bother. But I can also tell you that if the villain is revealed and there’s still some 50 pages to go and the characters walk away smugly, then something awful is about to happen–evil twin, apprentice, mistaken identity, something.

    Now I’ll give you an idea of what I consider cheating. This isn’t from a book but it’s from a movie, a thriller, written by Emilio Esteves entitled Wisdom. A man and a woman can’t make it on the outside after college and go on a crime spree with the woman killing a cop. The grand finale takes place on a football field as every law enforcement agency in the world is closing in on them and Emilio’s character wakes up and it was all a bad dream. Now that’s two hours of my time I’ll never get back. It worked quite well, however, in Alice in Wonderland.

  12. GerritsenFever10
    GerritsenFever10 says:

    Exactly Dr. G…if all of the villainy choices were flayed out from the get-go then the novel would technically cease to be about crime/suspense so much as mystery/intrigue. So I think that it’s good to blend in the villain unobtrusively and with just enough enigma to keep us guessing until he/she/it is finally revealed…if said villain is to even BE revealed. On a side note, how sad are you that the final Harry Potter novel is coming out this summer? 🙁

  13. Craig
    Craig says:

    On a side response to GerritsenFever10’s question I’m not too sad about the conclusion of the Potter canon; it had a good run, and, considering that each book is a bit darker than the previous, I don’t know if I would want to read an eighth. Since the book will be released on July 21, some time in late April or early May I will start from the beginning because I don’t live and breathe Harry Potter and read the entire series and try to finish the sixth roughly around the time of the 21st.

  14. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    I love to read books where I can’t figure out the bad guy.

    If I can figure it out early on in the story, it takes the fun out of it, for me.

  15. Ekiushi
    Ekiushi says:

    Personally, I get very excited when I correctly pick out the villain. But then, who wants to spend an entire book looking for clues for the villain’s identity?

    As for Harry Potter. I hope he dies. Don’t get me wrong, I like the books, Harry just annoys me. If Harry and Ginny die it would be a great ending. Even better if Voldemort wins.

  16. Chrissy
    Chrissy says:

    I love books with twists in the middle. For example Karin Slaughter’s ‘Triptych,’ it not only surprised me in being so GOOD. (Because I was expecting to read about her ‘usual’ characters, I thought I wouldn’t like it.) But half way through the book you realise *Oh my god* the cop is the murderer! 🙂

    And in response to what GerritsenFever10 said: I am very excited about the last book. I think 7 books is perfect, and the fact that she has said for so long that there will be 7 books in the series. And in response to what Ekiushi said about the same topic: I wouldn’t mind if Harry died, he annoys me too. But having Voldemort win? No way.

  17. kimsart
    kimsart says:

    I have to say I love it when I don’t guess the villan before the end of the book.

    As for Harry Potter, it will be sad when the series ends because to me at least she has created a whole world of characters that I care about and want to know how their lives unfold.

  18. Craig
    Craig says:

    Kimsart, what intrigues me is what Ms Rowling is going to do next. Whatever it is will get international attention.

  19. Ekiushi
    Ekiushi says:

    I liked Triptych. I hated that cop from the beginning! So it was great that he was the murderer. However, near the end of reading it I confused Karin Slaughter (I have no idea how) with Michael Connelly. I read one of his books right before reading Triptych. For a while there I found it really strange and amusing that an author would use the same first name for the murderer. I eventually realised. Blonde moment, I guess.

    Voldemort is the only cool character! Well, Snape is cool too. Whats wrong with having Voldemort win? Harry will be dead.

  20. Craig
    Craig says:

    Ekiushi, I disagree. Harry will probably end up as the headmaster of Hogwarts. As far as Snape’s concerned, I’m still not so sure that that he’s gone over to Voldemort’s side. Things aren’t always as they seem.
    Tess, one thing I’d love to see in one of your books is to see a public figure abducted and terrorized in one of your books–Jay Leno or Letterman or Michael Jackson. You know that in one of Kinky Friedman’s books Willie Nelson was murdered.

  21. Craig
    Craig says:

    Tess, even better why not have Maura or Jane interviewed by Keith Olbermann and the villain could be the “Worst Person in the World”.

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