Sometimes I see this criticism leveled at an author, and it has to do with who the villain is.Â “She sprang that villain on us out of the blue.Â She didn’t play fair.”Â Meaning,Â the authorÂ didn’t give the reader enough clues to guess the villain’s identity.
Patricia Cornwell has certainly had to face this criticism.Â I believe it was in BODY OF EVIDENCE where the killer didn’t show up until the climax — when he threatens Kay Scarpetta.Â I happen to think thatÂ book worked perfectly well. Â 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.Â Her book was simply giving us a taste of reality.Â 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.Â Â True investigationsÂ must oftenÂ chase forensic and behavioral clues before they even encounter the killer.Â The killer isn’t nicely sitting in the drawing room, waiting to be identified.
But crime readers don’t really want reality.Â They want the artificial guessing game.
The result is far too many crime novels where the villainÂ turns out to beÂ a cop or insider orÂ loverÂ who’sÂ insinuated himself into the investigation.Â The author feels compelled to use one of these tired old devicesÂ for only one reasonÂ — so THE READER will feel satisfied whenÂ the killer is finally revealed.Â (“A ha!Â He was there all along!”)
Sometimes, though,Â even when the villain has been there in the story all along, readers STILL aren’t satisfied.Â Â
InÂ a major newspaper review ofÂ one of my books, the critic complained thatÂ my surprise villain was “sprung out of nowhere”.Â “This character was hardly even mentioned anywhere in the book,” he said.Â
The reviewer was obviously not paying attention.Â That particular villain took part in scenes that made up FORTY PAGES of the novel.Â The character appeared inÂ four separate scenes, speaking dialogue in every one.Â Clearly, the villain was there all along in the book, but theÂ reviewer was oblivious to the character’s significance until the very end.Â Why?
Because I, the author, was too damn clever for the critic.
This is what really bugs me as an author.Â We work hard to make villains blend unobtrusivelyÂ into the story.Â We slip them into the story in ways so organic that they seem invisible.Â 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 beforeÂ his unveiling isÂ considered “fair”?
In general, I try to introduce him/her intoÂ at least two, and preferably three or more,Â scenes.Â
But sometimes it’s not possible.Â Sometimes there’s no way to introduce a villain earlier into the story without sacrificing verisimilitude.Â In BODY OF EVIDENCE, the surprise really wasn’t the villain’s identity — it was HOW he gained access to his victims’ homes.Â Â And I was perfectly satiisfied with that shock.Â 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.Â Â
If a reader demands an AgathieÂ Christie line-up of suspects, then maybe the reader should stick to Agathie Christie.Â