Thriller Guy has a writer pal who just got dinged in a review of his latest novel in Publisher’s Weekly. He’s well established, so it isn’t going to hurt him in any significant way, but still, any negative words cause a certain amount of pain. It’s an overall positive review, then kind of out of nowhere at the end the reviewer calls the author to task for revealing that the evildoer in this case was someone who everyone would guess before they got to the official reveal. Actually, TG saw a draft of this book before it went off to the publisher, and he was pretty sure the antagonist would have not been so easily guessed. Perhaps the reviewer is particularly astute, or perhaps he wasn’t particularly sold on the revelation. TG has his own pet peeve about reveals, which he calls the “suspect of least plausibility.” Yeah, kind of a clunky term, but what it means is when you’re reading a mystery and trying to figure out who did the crime you pick the one person who seems least likely to have done it. The librarian, maybe, or the kindly old cook. And when this guess turns out to be true, TG is annoyed. As a writer, he understands that it’s difficult to come up with a perfect reveal, and in many cases the writer isn’t even sure himself who the guilty party is going to be when he starts in on writing a book, but still, Least Likely is a lazy writer’s way of solving what can be an exceptionally thorny problem, one that takes a lot of concentrated brainpower to get exactly right.
TG allows that he’s OK at guessing perpetrators, though not nearly as expert as his wife (MTG) who is great at this and always figures out who the killer is, either in a movie or a book. And when he applies his Least Likely theory and is proven correct, the temptation to say so in a review is almost unbearable. Sometimes it’s relevant, after all, twisting plots are designed, at least in mysteries, to keep the reader guessing, which, again in mysteries, is a big part of the fun. So if it’s too easy, it’s not as much fun. And it’s legitimate to point this out.
But TG reviews mostly in the thriller genre, which throws another element into the equation.
Let us go back for a moment to TG’s definition of the differences between a mystery novel and a thriller. Veterans of this blog may remember many scintillating discussions of this over the last years, but for the moment we’ll pretend that newcomers here haven’t already read these riveting entries.
Mystery is when you have a crime and the reader watches as the “detective” (or whomever) figures out who committed the crime. Thriller is when there is going to be a crime, and the reader watches as the “detective” (or whomever) goes about thwarting the commission of that crime. What TG’s friend did, was to write in the thriller genre and at the same time include the mystery element of not divulging who the perpetrator was until the very end. This is not necessary to the genre, and in the end, at least in this case, was counter-productive. He could have identified who the perp was in the beginning and then allowed the reader to watch how the hero went about thwarting this fellow and it would have been enough. Did the hiding of the perp’s identity add enough juice to the plot to justify it? In this case, since the PW reviewer dinged him for it, probably not. But this brings up a side element that TG himself struggles with as a critic.
TG has reviewed more than 750 thrillers. Well, mostly thrillers, some of the reviews in the early days were mysteries with a few other genres thrown in. The point is, TG has become pretty damn good at figuring out perpetrators. And would assume that whomever the reviewer who dinged his pal was, as a professional reviewer, he/she is also pretty good at figuring these things out. As such, should this reviewer then use his special, knowledge and expertise gained from years of professional reading that “regular” readers may not possess, to criticize an author? After all, who does a writer write for? Critics? Well, maybe a bit, but one’s work should be aimed at readers who pick up a novel for pleasure, not because someone is paying them to read it. TG doesn’t have an answer for this, other than to say that he no longer mentions it in a review when he figures out a mystery long before the Big Reveal comes, unless it’s so egregious that it must be mentioned.
What’s the takeaway here? TG suggests that thriller writers should adhere to the general TG-supplied-thriller-formula and not bother to hide the identity of the perpetrator. That the dynamic of having the reader know the identity of the evildoer, and the difficulties of the hero not knowing, makes for more reader fun than trying to fool both the reader and the hero. And this is not to forget those thrillers where the writer makes clear who the perpetrator is to both the reader and the hero, but just not how to stop him.
TG spent some time trying to come up with examples of each of these various scenarios, and while it was easy to come up with those books where the evildoer is identified from the beginning – Silence of the Lambs, James Bond and others, he couldn’t readily come up with examples of where the villain isn‘t revealed until the very end. Perhaps this speaks more to TG’s martini consumption while he pounds out these blogs than to his normal state of intelligence, but perhaps TG’s astute readers might weigh in here with some examples of their own.
When you’re planning your next thriller, make sure you incorporate this into your considerations. If you’re in the middle of the writing, make sure you fulfill all the demands of whichever way you’ve decided to go. If you’ve finished your book and you’ve gone with the Big Reveal, pray to whatever publishing Gods there be that you’ve made it so perfect, and so astonishing that no one could have guessed it beforehand. And when you do reveal it, the reader (and the critic) will feel that you’ve got it exactly, wonderfully, right.