If there’s one thing that really annoys readers of mysteries, it’s being able to guess who the villain is by page 30. This happens for a variety of reasons, including:
- the author being so determined to ‘play fair’ that she makes it too obvious who the villain is
- the character being the only one who is even remotely likely to commit the crime
- the character being too ‘saintly’ to be true
- heavy-handed clues
- too much emphasis on why the hero thinks the villain couldn’t be the perpetrator
Then there’s the flip side of this: the villain who seems to finally become a suspect in the last chapter – for no good reason that the reader can see, other than the sleuth having some sort of psychic flash that makes them consider this person.
We all know that one of the ‘rules’ of mystery writing is that the villain (a) has to appear in the book reasonably early, and then (b) has to make at least a couple of appearances before the sleuth finally works out who it is. And yes – YOU, as the author, do need to make the sleuth work at this. It’s okay to allow your sleuth to miss a few early clues, and then have things come together down the track – but the reader needs to be able to see the connection and agree that the sleuth has connected the dots in a logical way.
One of the best ways to see how it all works is to analyze a published book that works well. You can learn just as much by ‘reading like a writer’ as you can from poring over half a dozen ‘how to’ books on writing. So that’s what we’re going to do here: show you how one author introduced the villain early in the book, kept him ‘on stage’ for much of the time, provided clues for the sleuth and then brought it all together at the end.
Warning: spoiler coming up! The book I’m going to be using as an example is LOSING YOU by Nicci French (Penguin Books 2006). If you want to read this book without knowing the ending, stop reading now. Come back to this after you’ve read the book. On the other hand… you may find that it’s just as intriguing to read the book knowing ‘whodunit’ from page 1, and studying the text to see how Nicci French ‘hides’ the villain in plain sight.
Setup: To let you know what the story is about, I’ll simply quote the back-cover blurb:
“Nina Landry’s birthday will be full of surprises – not all of them welcome. Nina is supposed to be taking her two children on holiday today with her new boyfriend. But the road away from the isolated winter bleakness of Sandling Island seems to be littered in obstacles, frustrating her plans at every turn.
Most pressingly of all, her fifteen-year-old daughter, Charlie, has yet to return from a night out… Minute by minute, as Nina’s unease builds to worry and then panic, every mother’s worst nightmare begins to unravel. Has Charlie run away? Or has something more sinister happened to her? And why will nobody take her disappearance seriously?
As day turns to night on the island and a series of half-buried secrets lead Nina Landry from sickening suspicion to deadly certainty, the question becomes less whether she and her daughter will leave the island for Christmas – and more whether they’ll ever leave it again.”
The action of the book takes place in less than 24 hours: the day of Nina’s 40th birthday. This is also the day that she and her children (her daughter Charlie and her son Jackson) are supposed to fly off for a holiday. All plans have to be cancelled when Charlie fails to come home.
Nina knows that something terrible must have happened to Charlie, because she was looking forward to going on this trip – but she can’t get the police to believe her and take action (“how long has she been missing? A couple of hours? And she’s fifteen? I’d really give it a bit longer than that…”).
As the day wears on Nina, searching for her daughter herself because she knows how crucial the first few hours of an investigation are, digs out facts that spur the police into action. Now let’s move on to how Nicci French introduces the villain and the clues that enable Nina to put it all together (a lot faster than the police!) The villain, Rick, is introduced on the very first page. To be specific, in the second paragraph. Rick, is fixing Nina’s car.
Rick is one of Charlie’s teachers at the school. Nina likes him, and knows him well enough to ask him to help her with the car. Thus the reader is disarmed, and Nina has no suspicions of Rick whatsoever. In fact, as the book progresses she even leaves Jackson, her son, with Rick when she has to follow up her suspicions about someone else. As you can imagine, Rick shows up regularly as the plot unfolds, and it is only through unraveling the threads of Charlie’s life that Nina is led slowly but surely to a certainty of Rick’s involvement. This is how Rick is brought on the scene on the first page:
Sometimes I still felt that I had fetched up on the edge of the world. The wintry light slanting on to the flat, colorless landscape; the moan of the wind, the shriek of sea-birds and the melancholy boom of the foghorn far out at sea all sent a shiver through me. But I stamped my feet on the ground to warm them and told myself that in a few hours I would be far away. Rick dropped the spanner and straightened up from the open bonnet of the car. My car. He rubbed his grazed knuckle. His unshaven face was raw from the cold north-easterly that whipped over us, carrying the first drops of rain, and his pale blue eyes were watering. His curls were damp and lay flat on his head so I could see the shape of his skull.
He blew on his whitened fingers and tried to flash me his boyish smile, but I could see that it was an effort. “Rick,” I said, “It’s kind of you, but you don’t need to do this. It was just a rattle in the engine and I thought something had come loose. I would never have called you otherwise. I can take it to the garage when we get back from holiday.”
On page 4, we find out a little more about Rick and his place in the community when he tries to start the car and fails: “Rick pulled a face that was a caricature of confusion, anxiety and distress. This was what he did in life. He helped people, he fixed things; he was unflappably, charmingly capable. People turned to him, just as I had this morning.”
Rick keeps working on the car, and on page 7 we find out even more about him – and about Charlie. (In the excerpt below, “Karen” is Rick’s wife)
“I’ve been wanting to ask,” Rick moved closer to me and spoke in a low tone, “how’s Charlie doing now, Nina? Are things better?”
“I think so,” I said cautiously. “You can’t really tell. At least, I can’t with Charlie. She’s quite private, you know.”
“She’s a teenager,” said Rick. “Teenagers are meant to be private. Especially with parents. Look at Eamonn, for Christ’s sake.”
“What’s this?” asked Karen, moving in closer, a flicker of interest in her eyes.
“Charlie’s had a rough time at school,” I said. I didn’t want to talk about this because it was Charlie’s story, not mine. I didn’t want to discuss it lightly, give it a trite meaning. I imagined Charlie’s pale, truculent face, its look of withdrawal behind the turbulent fall of her reddish hair. “Rick found out about it. He talked to the girls who were bullying her, and to their parents. And to me. He was very helpful. As much as anyone can be.”
“Girls can be cruel,” said Karen, with a sweeping sympathy.
“She was at a sleepover at one of their houses last night,” I said. “Tam’s. Maybe that’s a breakthrough. I haven’t seen her yet. It would be a good way to end the term.”
“She’ll be fine, you know,” said Rick, putting down his mug, reluctantly picking up the spanner once more. “Being bullied is horrible. Sometimes I think we forget how horrible it can be, how undermining. Especially if we’re teachers, because we come to take it for granted, don’t you think? But Charlie’s a resilient young woman. Very bright, with a mind of her own and wide horizons. I always enjoy having her in my class. You should be proud of her.”
At the end of the book, we realize that even while Rick is having this conversation, he knows that Charlie is tied up in one of the pillboxes left over from the island’s defenses during the war. His words are intended to put Nina at ease and to remove all suspicion from himself – at a future date, Nina be able to testify that Rick was helping her with her car on the morning that Charlie disappeared.
How does Nina put two and two together to finally work out that Rick is involved? It’s a long, hard process. There are plenty of other suspects (her ex-husband, who phones her (drunk) by page 10 to abuse her for taking his children out of the country; the girls who continued to bully Charlie, even at the sleepover the night before she disappeared; Joel, the father of one of the bullying girls; Rick’s rebellious son, Eamonn; and Charlie’s secret boyfriend, Jay.
Nina starts by visiting the girls who were at the sleepover, and discovers that her daughter was still being bullied by these girls. A conversation with Charlie’s best friend, Ashleigh, leads her to Jay. She convinces Jay to tell her where he and Charlie used to go, and makes him take her there. They discover a body – but not Charlie’s; this one is of another girl who has been missing in another town. Nina discovers there is a link between her daughter and the dead girl – and eventually, that the common denominator is the teacher, Rick, who taught a windsurfing class that both girls attended.
None of this comes easily, and Nicci French is good at hiding clues. A tactic she uses is to bury the clue in a cluster of detail, so the reader misses it – but then, when they look back, the clue was there all the time.
Here’s one example: Nina sees Rick coming downstairs in a heavy coat at her house. The house is full of people (invited by Charlie to celebrate Nina’s 40th birthday as a surprise) and because Rick’s wife Karen is on the stairs too, a bit tipsy, we are distracted from the clue. Here’s the excerpt:
“Back in the house, the party showed no sign of coming to a close. Karen was half-way up the stairs now, swaying gently and trying to open another bottle of wine. Beneath her, Renata was being introduced to Sludge by Jackson, who still had the camcorder slung around his neck. Only Rick, coming down the stairs with his thick coat on, was mercifully making his way to the door.
“Escaping to your boat at last?” I said to him. “I don’t blame you.”
“The light starts to fail so early,” he said. “This was a terrible idea of Charlie’s, wasn’t it?”
“Terrible. And she’s not even here.”
“If I see her, I’ll give her an earful.”
“Just tell her to come home. I’m going to chuck everyone out now.”
“That was a quick party!”
“I’ve got things to do, Rick. Pack. Find my daughter. Catch a plane.”
“Right. Well, then, I’ll say – ” He never got a chance to finish.
There was a yowl, and then a flying mass made up of black dog, a human figure or two and a terrible smashing of glass. Pieces fell and shattered on the hard floor. Sludge shot past me and up the stairs, a flash of whining black, and on the floor in front of us lay Karena and Renata, surrounded by a sudden silence. “Wow,” said Jackson, and started to pull the camcorder into position, until I slapped down his arm.”
This excerpt is significant for many reasons. Nina sees Rick on the stairs dressed in a heavy coat. At the time she sees this only as a sign that he’s leaving (a welcome sign, although she likes Rick, because she wants everyone out of the house so she can finish packing and track down Charlie).
Later, she when she starts to suspect Rick of being involved, she realizes that he is the one who has removed things from Charlie’s room – and hidden them under his coat – to give the impression that she’s run away (rather than being abducted) It is logical that he would be on the stairs because his wife Karen is a bit tipsy, and Rick would be trying to get her out of there.
The author has encouraged us to focus more on the fact that he was dressed to leave, ‘mercifully making his way to the door’, rather than the fact he was coming down the stairs. The author has immediately drawn attention away from Rick’s presence on the stairs to the accident, when his wife Karen falls and breaks her arm.
Rick has to take Karen to the hospital. It will turn out that he has been thwarted from getting back to his victim, Charlie, all day because of various events – Nina asking for his help with the car; the surprise birthday party that Charlie has arranged; the need to take Karen to the hospital and stay there for some time, and then Nina asks him to look after Jackson for a while. All of these things actually keep Charlie alive.
We see that Jackson has been using the camcorder all morning to record their holiday preparations. This provides one of the clues, because later Nina’s cousin, Renata, sees the footage and realizes that the things that Charlie was supposed to have taken are in full view on the camera – they were there before the party started, and gone when it ended. This later points to Rick.
Another example: Nina discovers that Joel, the father of one of the bullies and a man with whom she’d had a brief fling when he was separated from his wife, was one of those who had taught the windsurfing class. She immediately jumps to conclusions because he knew both girls, and she knows now that he’s a bit of a philanderer.
She races off to confront him – only to find that he was far from being the only person who had taught the windsurfing class – and he hadn’t even taught it the week that the girls had been there. Note that Rick is implicated here, but again the clue is nicely buried:
I turned on to the Saltings and drove past my house. A thought occurred to me. “If you weren’t teaching that week, who would have taught her?”
“It’s not like that,” said Joel. “In the summer there are dozens of people teaching sailing, kayaking, windsurfing. Some of them belong to the yacht club. Some are just students hired for the summer. Some instructors come with their groups. Then people from the island help out as well. Lots of us, even if it’s only for a day or so. Me, of course. Bill usually, but then boats are his business. Rick, though it’s become a bit of an issue that Eamonn always refuses to join in. Tom occasionally, and some of the kids think it’s a hoot when they find out he’s the vicar. Even Alix has been known to rig a dinghy or two on weekends off. If you want to find the one who taught this girl, I wouldn’t know where to start.”
It would take too long to show all the twists and turns of the plot, and the various ways in which the author deflects attention from vital clues. Nicci French delivers plenty of plausible red herrings – including possessions of Charlie’s found in Nina’s ex-husband Rory’s car although he’d denied seeing her.
It’s well worth while reading the book to take note of how all this plays out. However, we’ll finish with the moment of realization when Nina finally puts together all the clues. This is a long excerpt, but I’ll reproduce it all here so you can see how the main character ‘joins the dots’:
I stood by the car with my back to the house, aware of Jackson still huddled inside, tired, hungry, wretched and scared. I gazed out at the sea, almost invisible in the dark, the frosty ground glinting beneath me, and smoking the cigarette. Olivia Mullen had come to see Charlie on the morning of Sunday, 12 September. I knew that from the date printed out on the photograph. I even knew the time: 11.07. According to the paper, that was the day she had gone missing. She had visited my daughter and then she had disappeared. And she had said she was going to ‘finish it’.
Then – I took a huge drag at the cigarette and, for a moment, felt dizzy and sick. A story about Olivia’s disappearance had been published this morning in the paper that Charlie was delivering, and Charlie had also disappeared. The two linked facts whirled in my brain: Olivia went missing after she’d visited Charlie. Charlie went missing when a story about her friend’s disappearance was published. What else did I know?
I knew Charlie had been bullied and yesterday night had her drinks spiked by her so-called friends. I knew that she had a boyfriend, but had kept it secret for months, creeping out to assignations with him on the hulks. I knew she’d had a fling with Eamonn and had feared, or maybe known, that she was pregnant. I knew that Eamonn had told his father. I knew that someone had come into my house while the abortive party had been going on and taken things that belonged to Charlie, but that it couldn’t have been Charlie. Why had they? This was after the bicycle had been abandoned half-way through the paper round. Could it have been as a decoy? To make it look as if Charlie had run away when she’d done no such thing?
Whoever had done it had only done it for show. They had only taken things that were visible, things whose absence would be noticed. I knew that Rory had been there this morning, secretly, and had met Charlie on her newspaper round, that he’d lied about it to me and then to the police, and only come clean when I’d discovered Charlie’s things in the back of his car. I knew that Olivia and Charlie had met in the summer on a course that Joel had taught on. But so had dozens of others. There had been hundreds of them down by the beach, sailing and windsurfing.
“Hang on,” I said under my breath, dropping the cigarette onto the ground where it glowed up at me, a winking red eye. “Wait.”
Something had crept into my brain, a tiny wisp, like fog. What? I stared at the darkly glinting sea and tried to catch it. Yes: something about so many people coming to the beach that it was hard to keep track. Who’d said that? Who’d just said that?
“I never said the beach,” I whispered aloud. “I never said Liv was connected to the beach.”
Think. Think. Joel had said that many people from the island taught kayaking and sailing in the summer: himself, Alix, Rick, Bill, Tom… I remembered Rick’s calm look, the sudden sense of composed purpose. Why would Rick be calm? What was his purpose? The waves licked at the shingle a few feet away from where I stood: a soft shucking sound. They gave me my answer: calm because the tide was rushing to the full flood and my time to find Charlie had all but run out. I opened the door and leaned in. “Jackson.”
“Mummy? Can I – “
“What did Rick get when you went out with him?”
“What?” “Tell me what he got. You said a booklet.”
I knew what he was going to say and he said it. “For the tides. When it’s high and low.”
I tore open the car’s front locker and pulled out a pile of maps, service records and yes, a tide table. I opened it and followed with a finger the tides for Saturday, 18 December. Low tide was at 1.0.40 a.m.; high tide was at 4.22 a.m. and 5.13 p.m. Beside the day’s times was a dotted black line, signifying that today’s was a relatively high one. I glanced at the screen of my mobile: 16.56. Rick had left Charlie just before low tide, and had spent the whole day – with Karen at the hospital, with Jackson, of all people – being hampered from getting back.
But now, when the tide was up and the waves were lapping on the shore, he had relaxed. There was only fifteen minutes to go before it was at its highest. And Rick had been calm, knowing that. I pulled out my mobile and punched in the number of the police station. A familiar voice answered.
“This is – ” I began, but then, with a start, I disconnected.
Because now I was thinking with complete clarity. I knew what would happen. The detectives would bring Rick in and would would spend hours giving a statement, admitting nothing. And all the while the sea would be doing his work and everything would be lost. There were few certainties, but I was nearly sure that to call the police would be finally to lose any chance of finding Charlie.
“No,” I said. I turned to Jackson. I took a breath and made my voice slow, calm, reassuring. “A change of plan, honey. You’re going to have to wait for me in the house.”
“No,” he said, in a wail.
“It’s important and I’m very proud of you, my darling.”
“No!” he shouted, his voice high with hysteria. “I won’t. I’ll run away. I’ll follow you. You can’t leave me again. It’s not fair.” For a desperate stupid moment, I thought of taking him with me. He could hide on the back seat. He could stay quiet. He might fall asleep. I was considering it, even though at the moment I had no time. Then, somewhere out of my reverie, I saw two figures walking down the road, an adult and a child. The adult was laden with shopping bags, shuffling toward me. I saw that they had come from the bus stop. And then I recognized them: Bonnie and Ryan.
“Bonnie,” I called, opening the door.
She recognized me and smiled. “We’re all done,” she said. “It took us five hours and we hardly had time to eat but we’ve got presents for everyone, haven’t we, Ryan? In fact we were so busy examining them we missed our stop.” Then her expression changed. “But weren’t you supposed to be on your way to Florida by now? Nina, you look terrible.”
“No time,” I said. “An emergency. The biggest emergency. You’ve got to take Jackson again. I’m so sorry. Charlie’s missing.”
“No time. Take Jackson. I’ll phone. Jackson, out. Quick.”
“But -” said Jackson.
“Great!” said Ryan.
“Right,” said Bonnie immediately, dragging Jackson out by his forearms. Then she looked at me. “Go.”
I sped away as she slammed the door, driving back from the direction I’d just come. When I was a few yards from Rick’s house, I drew to a halt. I switched off my headlights but kept the engine running. And I waited, praying that I wasn’t too late, praying that I hadn’t got it wrong, praying that I had and that in the nightmare of fear I had simply concocted a Gothic tale that had no roots in truth. This was my gamble, my one last throw of the dice. I was risking the life of my daughter on the chance I was right.
I knew now that Rick had taken Charlie. I believed that he had hidden her somewhere that would be covered by the tide, which was now almost at its height. And I was staking everything on the hope that he was still at his house and that he would now go to her and I would be able to follow and stop him. Such a frail vessel in which to place all my faith.
Rick does emerge from the house, Nina follows him and, after losing sight of his tail-lights for a short time, finally comes across his car. At this stage she DOES do the right thing and phones the police – which is a relief! Too many mysteries have been ruined by the main character not achieving the right balance between independent action and pure foolhardiness. Here is how this section of the novel plays out:
I switched off the engine and sat still. I looked round, expecting his face to appear at the window. There was no sign of any movement. Outside was just blackness.
I picked up my mobile and found the police-station number. When it was answered I didn’t ask to be put through to anyone. That would take too long. I just said, in a voice as calm as I could manage so they wouldn’t think I had flipped into a florid state of hysteria, “This is Nina Landry. I have found my daughter but she is in great danger. Come immediately to the end of Lost Road. Turn left where it meets the coastal road and drive as far as you can. Where the road ends, you’ll find two cars. We’re there. Come at once. Have you got that? End of Lost Road, turn north toward the causeway. It is urgent. Urgent. Life and death. Send an ambulance.” I ended the call. Was there anything in the car I could use?
The ending: Nina arms herself with the car jack, comes across Rick and hits him. She does find her daughter, who is almost under water, and even though Rick comes after her again, manages to save Charlie’s life – only just, because she is so wet and cold that life almost shuts down.
To Sum Up:
This article gives you an insight into how just one author went about introducing the villain, and how she planted clues so the heroine finally worked out who it was – and how she might, with one last desperate throw of the dice, get her daughter back. I can’t recommend strongly enough that you develop the habit of reading like a writer.
Every time you read a book that surprises and delights you with its plot twists and clever structure, take notes. Learn from the best teachers: writers who have made it work so well that you can’t put the book down.