What makes a Great Clue? Writing Lessons from Masters of Mystery

What makes a Great Clue? Writing Lessons from Masters of Mystery

Before I turned ten, I devoured The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes I read by myself but often I read out loud with my father, who loved Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and recited passages from memory with great dramatic flair.  His favorite, and mine, was “The Speckled Band.” My father died four years ago, so I can’t call him to chat about “The Speckled Band,” or about anything else for that matter. But I can still remember the rumble of his voice as he quoted Holmes’ grave musings, and the shrill tone he used to recite a terrified woman’s dying words: “Oh my God!…It was the band! The speckled band!”

 I still get a chill thinking about it, decades later.  

“The Speckled Band” was written in 1892 but it still holds modern readers in its thrall. One of the most brilliant aspects of that story is the clues: the disturbing, initially ambiguous, but finally terrifyingly clear combination of facts that together paint a picture of looming danger and deadly intent.  The title is the first clue, and one of the most effective. It works so well because it calls up a powerful image, but an incomplete one.  It remains ambiguous, even misleading, right until the story’s end.  More clues accumulate: the recently renovated room, the modern ventilator shaft, the unusually long bell pull, and finally, the bed bolted to the floor.  

“Why,” I can hear my father say in his best Holmes reading voice, an ominous whisper: “Why should a bed be bolted to the floor….?”  Why indeed?  Each occurrence, object, or fact alone may be innocuous; together they coalesce to generate dread, even when their meaning is not fully clear. At the end, the combination of these facts points to a terrifying, deadly answer—but will that answer come in time? That is the magic of great clues—they create a state of anxiety and hypervigilance. They put the reader on edge, searching for an answer, and inextricably engaged in the story. 

What Can Sherlock Holmes Teach you about Writing? It's all in the Clues...

I recently re-read “The Speckled Band” to see whether it held up to my vivid memories. In fact, it did better—or worse.  In a reverse mirror of my childhood experience, when I read my nine-year old son the story, he was so alarmed that he stayed up an hour past his bedtime, dreading nightmares and begging me to sit in his room until he could fall asleep. Decades after I first read it, and more than a century after it was written, the story and its clues are still doing their job.

How do you write an article about clues without spoiling their mysteries? Fortunately, it turns out that there’s plenty to say about clues without giving away too much. And that’s part of what makes a clue great.  The best clues reveal something, but not enough to give away the answer too soon. They give a partial view, enough to get a reader thinking and worrying. They create a partnership between reader and writer—the reader wonders what the clues mean while the writer creates a sense of wonder, or more negative emotions: anxiety, suspicion, or outright fear.

Sometimes clues, instead of pointing with increasing accuracy at a fearful conclusion, create uneasy confusion through excess. David Mamet, in his 1997 film The Spanish Prisoner, deliberately overuses clues to create a state of near constant heightened anxiety.  The camera focuses hard and long on far too many objects—an X-ray machine at a Caribbean airport, a 24-hour security video, a safe key, a used book about tennis, a throwaway camera, a seaplane, a bag of treats from the Sunshine Bakery, a Boy Scout pocket knife engraved with the motto “Be Prepared.”  As you watch the movie, the profusion of potentially important items becomes exhausting, but you can’t look away for fear of missing something important.  And not only your eyes but your ears are straining for the words that will untangle the knotted story, while Mamet’s almost poetic repeated phrases echo in your head— “You never know who anybody is…anybody could be anybody.”  

You never know anything—and as you watch, everything you think you know is turned inside out and backwards so many times that you begin to doubt you will ever be able to know anything, or trust anyone again.  I happen to have twins, and I decided to test the movie on both of my nine-year-olds—the son I’d terrified with “The Speckled Band,” and his twin sister. I’d bought a DVD of the film, and the twins curled up on the couch next to me to watch. I didn’t think it was a kid movie, but it turns out kids fall for great clues too—they were both entranced. After watching for a half hour my daughter said:

“The movie makes me so suspicious—of everything and everyone. It focuses on so many small things just to throw you off track, while maybe there’s something else you don’t notice that is even more important. Or maybe there’s nothing important at all, and there’s no answer to anything.” Bingo–she clearly got it.  (Meanwhile, our twelve year-old daughter sat in her room doing something with her iPhone. I think, had it not involved her two nine-year old siblings, she might have liked the movie too.) 

Sometimes a clue is misleading because it comes from an unreliable source, and the partial view is a result of a skewed perspective. Alain Robbe-Grillet, an experimental 20th century French novelist, titled one of his books La Jalousie, which in French means both jealousy and Venetian blinds.  The intended pun reflects on the dual meaning of jealousy: seen through the eyes of a jealous narrator peeking in at the object of his jealousy, the world is cut into horizontal strips, as seen through blinds, and those strips form an incomplete collage of a view. And because that view is incomplete, it is inescapably subjective and doomed to misinterpretation, like the perspective of one so consumed by jealousy that everything appears through a distorted, fractured lens. Clues in La Jalousie are incomplete hints at a picture not fully seen.

A clue may be dropped in by a writer to lead the reader astray on purpose, while other clues lead down the correct path. It is exactly that combination of “good” and “bad” clues, indistinguishably mixed, that makes a mystery even more compelling. And both “good” and “bad” clues can be great. A reader never knows which clues are which…until the end. 

The writer’s work of creating a great clue extends far beyond the mystery genre. Julie Mosow, a fantastic editor I’ve worked with, said something to me I’ve never forgotten: “Everything in a novel must do double or even triple duty.” She meant that every scene, every fact, every description of a setting, and every word of dialogue must come back at least once, ideally more than once, and must be critically important later—whether or not the reader knows it at the time.  

In any novel, mystery or not, a clue is recurrence that gives meaning.  The seeds of a marriage’s ending are in the first three heady months of love. A childhood memory that shapes a character’s view of the world comes back years later to haunt, or illuminate her life.  Things gain meaning in their repetition: a peculiarly shaped birthmark in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a single recurrent phrase from Marie-Helene Bertino’s 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas: “…The way you know on a flight, even with your eyes closed, that a plane is banking.”   It’s an essential part of a writer’s craft to place something with great care at the beginning of a story that will give power to its ending. It’s an act of writing that often cannot happen, or happen fully, until the book is nearly done. And it’s a reader’s work, and pleasure, whether the book is a traditional mystery or not, to find those early seeds and let them germinate and grow, twining and stretching, in the mind.

 What would my father say now?  I wish I could know. But now I’ve got my children to talk to instead—my younger daughter feeling suspicious, my son deliciously afraid, like I was at his age, wondering why the bed was bolted to the floor in the room in which a woman inexplicably had died.  When my son asked me what the clues meant, I said something to him–and maybe it’s what he will say to his child, someday—

“You’ve got to read it to find out.”

Melodie Winawer is a physician-scientist and Associate Professor of Neurology at Columbia University. A graduate of Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia University with degrees in biological psychology, medicine, and epidemiology, she has published over fifty nonfiction articles and book chapters. She is fluent in Spanish and French, literate in Latin, and has a passable knowledge of Italian. Dr. Winawer lives with her spouse and their three young children in Brooklyn, New York. The Scribe of Siena is her first novel.

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