How to Guess Whodunnit in a Murder Mystery

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.

Mystery of the Month – In the Clearing

Amy is a young girl who has grown up in the Clearing with her family. She will do anything to please her mother, who has great plans for Amy and her brothers and sisters. But when Amy’s new sister joins their special family, her protestations and resistance cause Amy to question everything she has been taught about the outside world. Who can she trust when her own family encourages acts of depravity and violence?

Freya and her son, Billy, live in the bush in a home installed with electric roller shutters and panic buttons. Freya is paranoid that someone is watching her and plotting to abduct her son. It soon becomes clear that Freya was right to be afraid – Billy has gone missing. But who took him? Her ex? A dangerous man from her past? Or could Freya herself be somehow responsible?

Eventually Amy and Freya will unite but it won’t be in the way that you expected. From the chilling first chapter where Amy and her family plot to kidnap a young girl (their new ‘sister’), the story alternates between both viewpoints, and uses excerpts from Amy’s journal to describe horrific episodes of life within the Clearing. They are both unreliable narrators – Freya openly tells the reader that she has learned to wear a mask to appear normal, and Amy is battling what she calls ‘deviant thoughts’. As the novel progresses, we learn more about the secrets they’re hiding, and wonder if what they tell us about themselves and other characters is the truth.

Just like his debut bestseller Call Me Evie, J.P. Pomare has again written a story that will have you scratching your head, demanding to know “what on earth is going on here?” The answer to that question will have you turning page after page after page. A significant reveal occurs around the midpoint that will cause you to re-think everything you’ve just read, and then the twists continue until the very end – just when you think it’s safe to take your hand off the panic switch.

J.P. Pomare has a polished writing style – every sentence feels like it’s been carefully constructed and considered, but without leaving the reader feeling bogged down in description. In the Clearing is an all-consuming read that explores the sinister goings-on of life within a cult, using themes of paranoia, identity, manipulation, loyalty, trust, forgiveness, control and fear to create a truly dark and chilling tale – made even more so by the fact that the events were inspired by a true story.

In the Clearing by J.P. Pomare is published by Hachette.

Standout Simile:

I have a meanness in me, something black and rotten that swells like a lymph node. That’s how I imagine it, as a growth you could cut out.

Taking My Writing Goals Into A New Decade

As I’m planning my new writing goals, I thought I’d go back and reflect upon my original writing goal, which was to write a really good mystery novel – something I could be proud to say I authored. Something my friends could read and say they enjoyed, a real page-turner.

While I’ve now written a mystery novel, and I’m proud of that achievement, I’m not sure I can say it’s a really good mystery novel yet. There’s more work to do. The plan for 2020 will be how we are going to get there.

I’ve got four main things I’m keeping in mind:

  1. Feedback. This year, I received positive feedback on my manuscript from a professional agent. Mere weeks later I received negative feedback on the exact same piece of writing from a different professional – an editor. While I could have chosen to ruminate on the negative feedback, repeatedly visualising the way the editor sat in front of me and kept turning over the pages of my manuscript as though it were soiled toilet paper (okay, maybe I did ruminate too much), I instead sought advice from a third professional, another editor. I wrote a blog post about my experience. It was the best thing that happened to my writing all year and it’s this advice that I will be taking on board to make my manuscript the really good mystery that I set out to write at the start of this journey.
  2. Time management. I’m not good at it. To be fair, I’ve got a child and he’s just started walking but also to be fair, there’s only one of him. Plenty of writers have several walking children and still manage to churn out bestselling fiction. So instead of spending my free time searching for things I’ve misplaced, marvelling at the magical unicorn qualities of mummy bloggers on Instagram, or fretting about the amount of cat hair on the furniture, I need to use my tiny pieces of free time to focus on writing.
  3. Writing colleagues. The online writing community has been a wonderful support from the moment I commenced my writing journey. One of the best things that happened in 2019 was finally meeting some of these jolly good folks in person – my very first online writing pal Natalie Hennekam and my simile friend Sarah Fiddelaers. I also met some lovely writers at a writers retreat and again at a conference (hi Inda!), was honoured to be invited to attend a lady writers lunch, and was asked to join a writing group. I hope to continue meeting with fellow writers in the new year. Who wants to meet me? When’s the next cool hang? Are they called cool hangs?
  4. Continuous learning. I’m ending 2019 by going back to basics. Husband bought me two books (at the recommendation of writer pal Kali Napier) – James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Thriller and How to Write a Damn Good Mystery. Aptly titled novels to help me achieve my goal of writing a really good mystery novel! Frey recommends doing several exercises before you start writing your novel, which I didn’t do at the time because I was too cool and just wanted to start writing the book. But now, as I’m doing rewrites, I’ve decided it’s never uncool to keep learning – so why not give these exercises a go? Hopefully I’ll be spending the rest of the summer character journalling to get into the psyche of my murderer. Happy times.

So that’s how I will be going into 2020 – keeping in mind professional advice, managing my time, making meaningful connections with like-minded writers and going back to basics by doing more writing exercises. I’m also going to do a copywriting course because I think that’d be really neat. Happy New Year!

Mystery of the Month – The Strangers We Know

Charlie’s seemingly perfect life comes to a devastating halt when she discovers her husband, Oliver, has a profile on a dating app. Instead of confronting him, Charlie creates a fake profile on the same app to catch him out. But then something unthinkable happens and suddenly the police want to speak to Charlie. Oliver isn’t the man she thought he was at all; turns out he’s involved with some very dangerous people. Charlie must now find the evidence that will prove her innocence before the real perpetrator catches up to her. But who can she trust?

What follows is a suspenseful pursuit around South West London as Charlie breaks into buildings, downloads secret documents and evades the police, until she ultimately finds herself right in the middle of the danger she has been trying to avoid.

The story is told in an easy, conversational first person narrative from Charlie’s point of view, which is witty and sardonic, and despite her rich and beautiful lifestyle (she’s an actress who works in a vintage clothing store in Notting Hill) has insecurities that make her relatable, ensuring the reader remains invested in her story.

Pip Drysdale, author of the bestselling thriller The Sunday Girl, takes the reader on a journey of cleverly placed cliffhangers as Charlie’s life gets increasingly worse. The writing is imaginative and colourful. Charlie, who thinks in movies and tv, describes her life as though she is playing a role on screen, where everyone you meet is the star of their own film and you’re just an extra. As she tries to act like the heroine of her own story, Charlie soon realises her life has become more crime thriller than romantic comedy.

A riveting roller coaster of relationships gone wrong and what ordinary people do when they’re placed in extraordinary situations, The Strangers We Know is a gripping thriller that you will read in a day and then recommend to all of your friends.

The Strangers We Know by Pip Drysdale is published by Simon and Schuster.

Standout Simile:

And in that moment, my life seemed like one of those tapestries Mum used to do when I was little: beautiful and neat on the front, but a knotted, tangled mess at the back.

Rewriting Your Story In A Different Genre

I’ve spent quite a few years writing, rewriting, editing and finally finishing my first manuscript, a cosy mystery. But after receiving some professional advice that The Princess Murders might work better as a psychological thriller, I’ve had to make a decision. Keep the story the way it is, as a cosy mystery, or rework it as a thriller. And now, after a lot of thinking, some procrastinating, a few wines, and some more thinking, I’ve decided to give it a go.

How does one rework a story into a different genre? I wouldn’t have a clue. While there are loads of courses about how to write a novel, there aren’t so many courses about how to edit, rewrite or restructure your novel after you’ve written it. Luckily, a cosy mystery and a psychological thriller both fall under the umbrella of crime fiction, which minimises some of the trickiness. I imagine it would be far more difficult to rewrite a horror story into a traditional romance, for example.

Here’s how it’s been so far. It’s like I put an explosive device underneath my manuscript and pressed a button to blow it up. Then all the pieces – plot points, characters, and setting descriptions – broke up and exploded into the air. I waited for them to settle before I sifted through the remains, trying to determine what I could salvage out of the rubble. The opening scenes? Burnt to a crisp. A subplot and its associated characters are lost forever. But from the ashes has risen a character who was mentioned in name only, and who will now play a bigger role.

Then comes the process of trying to put the story back together – like a jigsaw but with loads of missing pieces. Some pieces no longer fit because the edges have broken off, so I need to think of new plot points to join the scenes that have survived the explosion. The missing pieces will be replaced with new scenes that explore the psychological motivations of the main characters, and introduce some small town secrets. Eventually I’ll have a whole new ‘big picture’.

Some changes are obvious. The main character is no longer an amateur sleuth returning to her hometown to investigate someone as part of her private investigation business. That’s very much a cosy mystery set-up. This means her motivations have completely changed; she needs a different reason to return to her hometown – and it needs to be a strong hook. And whereas the main character in a cosy mystery is essentially a good person, in a psychological thriller the intentions of the main character are more ambiguous. While they still need to be ordinary and relatable, they usually have an inner conflict they need to overcome and perhaps a dark secret, so the reader isn’t sure what they are hiding. In this way, I feel like I’m getting to know my main character all over again!

When you’re building or rebuilding anything, it’s always useful to have a blueprint, or some kind of guide. I’ve found my original outline and have been amending it as I go. It’s been challenging because I’ve grown so accustomed to the order of the events being as they are (in the cosy mystery) and changing them has left me feeling like my head is swimming.

It’s hard work and sometimes it feels like it might take forever. But with the end goal being a stronger story, it will be worth the effort.

Mystery of the Month – The Wife and the Widow

What if the person you thought you knew better than anyone turned out to be a stranger? This terrifying concept is explored by Christian White in his latest psychological thriller The Wife and the Widow, the follow-up novel to his bestseller, The Nowhere Child.

Kate Keddie is at the airport with her 10-year-old daughter Mia. They’re eagerly awaiting the return of husband and father, John, who has spent the past two weeks at a work colloquium in London. But John never gets off the plane. As it happens, he never went to London and has been lying to Kate about his whereabouts. As Kate takes it upon herself to uncover the details of her husband’s secrets, her search leads her to Belport, a sleepy island town where they own a holiday home. It’s not long before Kate receives some devastating news – a body has been found and they think it’s John.

Abby Gilpin lives in Belport with her two teenaged children and her husband, Ray. They spend their days working hard to make ends meet – Ray as an island caretaker and Abby at the local supermarket. Belport is a bustling holiday town in the summer, but nothing much happens in the winter. Until now. One day, when Abby is out for a jog, she notices police at the beach. Someone has been murdered. Abby remembers finding Ray’s work clothes and boots in the rubbish and then she makes a shocking discovery in their garage. Could Ray be linked to the murder? Does she really knows her husband at all?

While these two women are independently investigating the secret lives of their husbands; how they ultimately connect will have you engrossed in the story, leading to the significant ‘a-ha’ moment where everything suddenly makes sense, before speeding towards a dramatic conclusion. The easy writing style and cliffhanger chapter endings will keep you reading well into the night – everyone I know who has read this book has finished it within a matter of days, if not hours, myself included. Familiar tropes of the isolated island setting, communities where everyone knows everyone, small town gossip, secrets and people who aren’t all they appear to be, are masterfully reshaped into a fresh and exciting story. In a genre where it’s becoming increasingly difficult for writers to think of original and creative twists, The Wife and the Widow has a real doozy that will leave you reeling.

I had the pleasure of meeting Christian White and listening to him speak about crime fiction writing at a recent event at Avid Reader in Brisbane. As a screenwriter, he has an excellent understanding of storytelling and how to create suspense, and he is also a very friendly person who is happy to share his wisdom and time with fellow writers and readers.

The Wife and the Widow by Christian White is published by Affirm Press.

Standout Simile:

‘John wouldn’t do that,’ Fisher said, but his words were like a backdrop in a Hollywood studio, held together by balsawood and coated in cheap paint.

Why You Need An Editor To Read Your Manuscript

After an unsuccessful one-on-one with a publisher at a recent literary conference, I decided to engage a professional editor to read my manuscript (a cosy-crime). Although I’ve previously had helpful feedback from mentors about sections of my novel, what I really wanted was to get a professional opinion on the entire manuscript. I found a great editor easily through the Freelance Editor’s Network. I read through each editor’s bio, and chose an editor that worked with books in the same/similar genre to my manuscript.

Editors offer a range of different services including structural and developmental edits, copywriting and proofreading. I chose to receive an editorial assessment comprising of an approximately 10-page report on my entire manuscript. The report took into consideration the plot, genre, structure, narrative and characters, and finished with some miscellaneous thoughts about consistency and plot holes. The feedback in this report has made me see my manuscript in a new light and now that I know how much it can be improved and reworked, I’m glad I decided to engage an editor before submitting to any more agents, publishers or competitions.

The editorial assessment has done two things. Firstly, it has confirmed that certain things I suspected needed work, do in fact need work, such as:

  • Those opening chapters! Previous feedback regarding my opening chapters was that they felt too rushed. It starts right in the action, but the reader doesn’t get to know the main character, or their motivations well enough first, and it’s confusing. There needs to be more information for the reader to be able to orientate themselves in the world of the story before getting into too much of the action.
  • Characters. I used to think the weakest part of my writing was scene setting, and while this is still an area that could use some work, the main thing I struggle with is demonstrating to the reader the motivations of my main characters.

Secondly, the editorial assessment has drawn my attention to things I didn’t realise needed work, such as:

  • More exploration of the psychological elements of the murder mystery plot, including the motive of the murderer. This will also assist in making the story a bit darker, which is something I’ve discussed wanting to do in an earlier blog post.
  • A greater sense of time moving to create more tension. Despite mapping out all of the dates and times of each scene, this isn’t clear to the reader.
  • Subplots that aren’t pulling their weight. I’ve got lots of subplots and some of them haven’t been explored enough to engage and maintain the reader’s interest.

As an unpublished writer, after my experience engaging a professional editor to read my manuscript, I would absolutely recommend this to any new writers looking to improve their writing skills and learn more about the craft. Yes, it’s an expensive exercise but it’s absolutely worth the money if you can afford it. The feedback I received is another step towards my ultimate goal, which is to make my manuscript the best possible manuscript it can be. I knew it wasn’t there yet and needed more work. The editorial assessment has shown me there is still a lot of work to do before I will feel confident to submit it again to agents and publishers.

Have you ever sought professional advice on your writing? Please let me know in the comments below.