Whodunit: Obvious or Unguessable?

Lately I’ve been reading a few mystery/suspense books in which the “whodunit” aspect was utterly unguessable. No, I didn’t see it coming, but on the other hand, how could I have done? There were no clues. No red herring. I had no guesses at all, and when I found out it was the baker, it could just as easily have been the butcher or the candlestick maker for all the impact it had on me.

Now, let me preface that by saying I don’t read straight mystery/suspense. I read romantic mystery/suspense, which may make a difference even though it shouldn’t.

Tonight I finished “Paradise County” by Karen Robards, a book that was very suspenseful, but at the end it was just, “Oh, okay sure. If you say so.” When I put the book down I thought I’d honestly have preferred it if I’d spotted the identity of the bad guy a mile away, or if he’d been named in his point of view chapters, instead of being referred to as “The Predator,” as if knowing or not knowing his identity made the slightest bit of difference to the ending.

The book, and other similar experiences, made me wonder if we’re so caught up on the idea of the surprise ending that we don’t correctly lay the foundation for that surprise, lest someone guess it. I figure that in a properly laid-out mystery, at least 10% of your readers (the ones who know how to pay attention) should guess it. And in a well-done romantic suspense, the fact that they guessed it shouldn’t diminish their enjoyment of the story.

So let me turn my original question over to you guys: Obvious or unguessable? In an imperfect world, where you can only have one or the other, which is better and why?

Posted in ChitChat, Tips for Writers.

One Comment

  1. I too am irritated when the ‘bad person’ isn’t foreshadowed in some way even if you can’t guess outright. I am also irritated when I guess early in the book… So I suppose I am difficult to please.

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