If you enjoy reading whodunnits like I do, it might be because the puzzle of trying to guess the identity of the murderer has you completely hooked. A well-plotted mystery by a talented writer can have you up all night, turning the pages, demanding to know – who is it? Who is the killer? Will the author thwart you and pull the wool over your eyes? Lead you down the garden path with red herrings and misdirection only to shock you with a startling twist? The suspense is killing us all!
I’ve read (and watched) a lot of murder mysteries and have developed a list of characters you should watch out for if you want to correctly guess the murderer before the big reveal. But if you prefer to be surprised, don’t read on!
The “Really, Really Nice Person”
Who does the main character trust the most? Which characters are they closest to? Think best friends or favourite aunties. The person that the main character calls first when they need help. Someone they tell all their deepest, darkest secrets to. Or sometimes it’s a person who’s well-liked by everyone, the cornerstone of the community. The person who goes out of their way to be helpful with a friendly ear, a cup of tea and a pat on the back. Look out for this character. There’s a good chance that towards the end of the novel, they’ll use those secrets against our protagonist, lace their tea with arsenic or pat them on the back with a dagger.
The “Why Are You Here?”
Mystery writers are clever. Every character in the story has been deliberately included because they serve a specific purpose in driving the plot forward. So if there’s someone in the story who appears in several scenes but you’re halfway through and you think the story would be the same without this character – be suspicious. For example, I recently read a book where the main character’s daughter had a boyfriend. He kept cropping up in scenes. He had dialogue. But he was just there. He didn’t do much. But the point is exactly that – he was there. You get me? He was totally the murderer. Got ya.
The “Sure You Have An Alibi”
If a character has a rock solid alibi and couldn’t possibly have been at the scene of the crime at the time of the murder, then you should be giving them a massive raised eyebrow. If they’re telling you they were out of the country on business for two weeks around 3 January 2018 then I’m telling you they are LYING. Or if four potential suspects can confirm they didn’t leave a locked room all night when Mrs Winterbottom was thrown off the cruise ship, you can be certain that one of them is the killer. In short, if the author is trying to convince you it was physically impossible for it to have been them, then it was totally them.
The “Most Unlikely”
The least likely person is always the most shocking, which makes a great ‘what-the?!’ moment for readers who will be super impressed with the author’s plot twist wizardry. Think – children. I’ve read several murder mysteries where the culprit has been a child. The murderer is a child in my favourite Agatha Christie and in my favourite Victoria Holt. These characters behave as though they’re all sweetness and light and all the other characters are saying, “oh little Mary-Jane, you’re so cute, go and play with your dolls!” But as a reader, you’re getting the major creeps. That’s because you know Mary-Jane is really using human teeth to tile the floor of her doll’s house (yeah, you know what book I’m talking about).
Sometimes it’s easier to guess whodunnit when you become familiar with an author’s writing style. If they write several stories in the same genre, you might notice they stick to a similar formula with their mysteries. Or if you read a series of books with the same sleuth, you might start to recognise a pattern. Have you read any books where you were way off track with who you thought the killer was going to be? What’s been your favourite plot twist? Are there any ‘usual suspects’ I’ve forgotten to mention? Let me know in the comments below.