In the mystery course I recently taught, we found the ending of Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced to be both disconcerting and glorious. There are many wonderful aspects to her writing, but we were most engaged by how she gracefully “undoes” the characters we felt we knew because she had built them so convincingly.
On the flip side, we were slightly less excited about Edgar Allan Poe’s solution to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—mostly because there was no character to be undone. Poe’s story is of course important for many reasons, not the least of which is that he is a brilliant writer who is basically creating a new genre by showing us a great mind in action via C. Auguste Dupin. There is much to admire. But still…that ending! Quasi-spoiler alert (which I hope you’ll forgive since the story came out more than a century ago): a human is not responsible.
One of the delicious thrills involved in mystery reading is the opportunity to speculate about people and their motives—but by the time we reach the end, if all goes well, it will be revealed that at least one of our character readings is wrong. And, interestingly, being proven wrong is a desirable rather than frustrating aspect of the experience. You don’t need to read too many reviews of mysteries before you see a pattern: many readers are committed to guessing whodunnit but still want to be surprised by the answer.
The reveal is a disruptive but jubilant mechanism. When the guilty party (or parties) of a traditional mystery becomes apparent, it prompts us to rethink our earlier assumptions. We are catapulted backwards through our reading again, as we correct our impressions in a satisfying way. This, the undoing, is part of our reward…now we see who that character really is and how it all fits together. Success!
Let’s pause for a moment to consider how challenging this is for the writer. It’s a complicated business to craft a character who appears one way but is, secretly, another way. Authors must establish possibilities without drawing attention to them, write toward an ending that provides an inevitable conclusion without giving away what’s to come, and construct a character who could plausibly be responsible for heinous crimes without excessively signaling such capabilities. Delicate balances indeed!
While there are existing methods for writers to complicate our understanding of character and plot (strategies for misdirection, red herrings, and so forth), they are quite difficult to pull off successfully. In truth, there is no tidy formula guaranteed to work….just a creative mind and dedication to developing the intricacies of the story in a way that remains compelling to the reader. It’s almost an impossible task.
Applause and gratitude to writers who manage to surprise us, book after book!
What are the most successful examples of undoings you’ve encountered in your reading? Or what are the things you most struggle with writing such undoings?