I am excellent at solving fictional crimes. Hand me a mystery novel or turn on a police procedural, and 99% of the time, I can figure out the perpetrator long before the fictional characters come close to doing the same. When it comes to solving fictional crimes, I’m practically psychic, and yet…
I would be horrible at solving real cases.
In the real world, if you walk into a room and see a man standing over his wife’s dead body, and the man is holding a gun, and the man had previously threatened to kill his wife, but insists he’s being framed…
There’s a very, very good chance that the gun-holding, murder-threatening, obviously guilty guy is, in fact, guilty.
But if you’re reading that scenario at the beginning of a mystery novel, there’s a good chance that he’s not. In the real world, the obvious suspect is frequently the one who did it; in mystery novels, the mere fact that someone is the obvious suspect makes it less likely that they’re the perpetrator.
Why do fictional mysteries operate under different rules than real ones? And how am I able to solve fictional crimes when I would make a pretty sorry real-world detective?
The answer, of course, is that I know the genre. By and large, I solve fictional mysteries by employing two cognitive tricks. The first is a heuristic, or cognitive short-cut, that is based on a schema of the mystery genre. I have a general idea of what mystery stories are like, how they are paced, and the unstated rules under which they operate, and I can use these ideas about the genre to short-cut the investigative process the characters have to go through to solve the crime. I have more information than they do, because they do not know that they are in a mystery novel.
The second cognitive capacity that I—and many other readers—use to solve fictional mysteries is called theory of mind, which refers to our capacity to conceptualize the minds of others as separate from our own and to theorize about their internal mental states based on external cues or behaviors. This sounds complicated, but it’s something that most of us do relatively effortlessly, all the time. In fact, there’s research showing that neurotypical individuals have trouble turning their theory of mind off. We can’t help trying to figure out what other people think, feel, know, or desire.
How does this apply to mystery novels? Well, obviously, both the readers and the characters in the book have to use theory of mind to sort out questions related to motive and opportunity. But there’s another level of theory of mind that many readers deploy when they read a mystery. We don’t just mind-read the characters. We mind-read the author. When information appears on the page, we think, “Why did she tell us that?” When we see a red herring, in the back of our heads, there’s a little voice going, “The writer wants me to suspect that person.”
And that’s exactly how I solve fictional mysteries as a reader. I always have an eye out for the tricks the authors are pulling, because I’m an author myself.
So, as an author, if I want a mystery to contain some truly surprising twists and turns, I have to turn my theory of mind capacity back on the reader. I have to know not only what they’ll be thinking about the characters and their motives and relationships, but also what they’ll be thinking about my motives. Tricking the savvy mystery reader often means upending the rules they’re used to playing by or using those rules to your own advantage.
One of my favorite expectations to thwart—and one of my go-to techniques for writing mysteries—is that if I’m going to do an expected thing, I do it at an unexpected time. If readers are expecting an answer to be revealed at the end of the book, reveal it in the middle. My absolute favorite game to play as I write is one I like to call you’re not reading the book you think you’re reading.
Multiple times. Every book.
For my latest book, Little White Lies, which focuses on a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who agrees to move in with her wealthy grandmother and do a debutante year, but only because she’s hoping to figure out which scion of high society is her biological father, my rule of thumb was that the book wasn’t a mystery book. It was a mysteries book, plural. So many of the heuristics we use to guess what’s going to happen in a novel are geared toward having one dominant mystery; to short-circuit those heuristics, I had three. Possibly four, depending on how you’re counting.
Little White Lies isn’t just a book about my main character, Sawyer, figuring out who her biological father is. It’s also a book in which the readers are invited to figure out how exactly Sawyer and three other debutantes end up in a jail cell on the night of their debutante ball. The story switches between flash forwards, where the debutantes are being questioned by a rookie police officer on the night of the ball, and the main storyline, where Sawyer is trying to figure out who her father is and discovering a whole parcel of secrets and scandals along the way. As is the case in all classic teen literature, there’s also a kidnapping, a jewel heist, a coma, blackmail, a masquerade, multiple black tie events, and all manner of mysteries related to what happened during Sawyer’s mother’s debutante ball, years earlier.
It’s complicated. And, by design, it’s not the book you think you’re reading, right up until the end.