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The “Meta” Mystery Approach…

I’ve always been fascinated by mysteries in fiction. That said, I will concede I’ve never really been particularly good at picking up on the hints within the work itself designed to point towards a particular perpetrator. I haven’t necessarily got the skills to pick up on what tiny little detail mentioned in dialogue or the tiniest little action that supports a particular conclusion – it’s just not how my mind works. Instead, perhaps as a direct result of watching far too many movies, I find it more relevent to look at factors outside the fictional world where the mystery is set in order to reach a conclusion – I’m more likely to identify the culprit by reference to the film itself than the clues on hand.

A few years back, I formulated what I term “the CSI approach” – it’s my own personal theory that the perpetrator is as likely to be the third person the team talk to in a given episode as he is to be anyone else. Applying that particular method, I’ve actually got a pretty solid track record at deducing the killer-of-the-week, at least as measured against the family members I watch the show with. I think it serves as an illustration of how crime and investigation in fiction tends to work, at least contrasted against real life.

In many real life cases, as any police officer will attest, it’s most frequently the person with the strongest and the most apparent motive who committed the crime. In fact, quite a few law enforcement officers would argue that finding enough evidence and securing a conviction are – in most cases – far more difficult than identifying the culprit. It’s a variation on Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation is usually the most accurate. So the best thing you can do is to ask who could have committed the crime and who would have motive to do so.

On the other hand, fiction doesn’t resemble real life in this regard. It’s funny to imagine how any law enforcement official reacts to the police procedurals that flood our screens, but I reckon that quite a few staticians end up crying themselves to sleep, when it seems that every murder case is resolved in the least predictable manner possible. After all, the word “predictable” is used as a criticism when applied to a movie or television show, so you can understand why writers are less interested in reflecting real-world logic and observations within their fictional construct. That’s not a bad thing – it keeps things interesting.

Still, it explains why I am reluctant to try to work out a given mystery using in-universe logic, because it’s so often constructed to be counter-intuitive. The evidence flows one direction, but that’s far too obvious to be followed. “Red herrings” are everywhere in fiction, even though you suspect they are far less frequent in real life. Because fictional mysteries are the product of human imagination rather than cold hard fact, they obviously far more refined and carefully structured. So I find it fascinating to look at the structure of that mystery, rather than the contents thrown at us.

Various aspects of the production are more likely to suggest the solution than the actual details of the story. I’ve found you can glean more of the author’s intent from the way the story is told than from the story itself. It’s details that don’t exist to the detective working to solve the case in the story, but are presented to the viewer at home. Is there, for example, a disproportionately large actor in your ensemble who has been given little or nothing to do by the half-way point? Big actors don’t come cheap, so odds are he’ll be doing some scenery-chewing later.

Is there a character in the group who hasn’t been targeted, but about whom we know relatively little? If he hasn’t been given any characteristics or even been floated by the movie or show as a red herring, it might be that the writer is hoping to sneak the character by unnoticed, for some purpose later on. That way the character can be explained at the climax of the story, and it seems like less of a cop-out because they were physically present all along, even if the audience was never given any reason to notice them.

Was a character given a few lines that they really didn’t need to have? Particularly if they were a relatively minor character, like a hotel receptionist, or a staff member at the scene of a crime? Actors cost money, after all, even ones with a handful of lines. Quite a few CSI episodes have been resolved by simply spotting the guy who wouldn’t have had lines in any other episode.

However, perhaps the greatest “meta” tool I apply to fictional mysteries is to ask who would seem to be the least likely candid? There’s no point having a twist everyone can guess, so it’s tempting to do the exact opposite. So, in a movie or a show, I’ll typically be skeptical of the one person the lead happens to trust. If the script goes out of its way to insist that somebody is above suspicion, it’s usually a fairly significant warning sign, right there.

So what do you think? What outside-the-box approaches do you take to solving mysteries?

2 Responses

  1. I guess I’ve never given it as much thought as you. I usually work instinctively at trying to deduce who the culprit is. But my problem is if I see a well-known actor with few lines or who is the best- trusted- friend, I always thinks that’s too obvious. And I end up going another way.

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