A good magician will never tell you the secrets behind their tricks. Like a good 3 Card Monte dealer, it can be their patter, talking away to make it more difficult to find the lady and win the money.
Mystery authors do the same thing. But sometimes, we might drop a hint or two to give you a clue.
Last week someone asked me about such clues. I gave the example of a character’s name. When I’m developing a character, it’s not uncommon to start out with a basic name as a placeholder. Then as more traits are identified, that will lead me to research a name that fits and may give the readers a clue.
One of my favorite characters of all time was Travis McGee, the protagonist in 21 mystery novels by John D. MacDonald. Depending on the source, Travis means traveler, or someone at a crossroads. Good name for someone looking for the next adventure, as was so often the case with McGee.
But misdirection can be more than a name. It can be something that appears in the story that the characters pay a lot of attention to but has little bearing in the actual case. Or it can be a subplot that gets your attention going one way, when the real action takes place elsewhere.
I explained all this while answering the question about clues. But apparently my response wasn’t specific enough. The young lady listened closely, nodding all the time then asked, “So are you a gambler or a con-man?”
“I’m a storyteller, so that would be closer to a con-man.”
Here’s an excerpt from Fleeing Beauty. In this scene, Jamie and her friend Ian are cleaning her late father’s studio. It’s been more than twenty years since he passed and Jamie is slowly discovering more about the man he was. At Ian’s insistence, she is ready to come to terms with items stored in his roll top desk.
It was a square box, wrapped in the type of paper you’d use for a child’s party. The paper was faded, yet you could still see the images of colorful balloons floating around a white script that read “Happy Birthday”. With trembling fingers, I picked it up and turned it around, looking at each side as if expecting a clue to the contents.
“Aren’t you going to open it?”
I gulped to get my voice back. “It might not be for me.”
He reached into the cupboard and pulled out a small envelope that had been beneath the package. My name was written across the front of it. I set the box down and worked a fingernail beneath the flap of the envelope. The front of the card was an explosion of colors, like a fireworks display. Inside was a simple message. “May all your birthday wishes come true. You are the sparkle in my eye, the warmth of my smile, the glow in my heart. Love always, Daddy.”
Ian had stepped back to let me read the message in private. I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand and passed him the note. From the center drawer I pulled a letter opener. Carefully I slit the tape around the wrapping paper. Inside was a cardboard box. I pried open the lid and slid the contents out.
“It’s a wooden box,” Ian said, peering over my shoulder.
“Not just any box. This is a puzzle box. I used to love to put puzzles together when I was small. Peter would sometimes help me.” I handed it to him.
He tried to open it without success. He shook the box lightly and we could hear something rattle inside. “So how do you open it?”
“That’s the trick. Some of these boxes require a number of pieces being moved in the right order before the lid slides off. This may take some time.”
“I’m curious what will be inside.”
“Yeah, I’m wondering too.”
Here's a musical interlude that seems appropriate from the band Blondie.