Day 07 – Least favorite plot device employed by way too many books you actually enjoyed otherwise
Hm. That “actually enjoyed otherwise” makes this a tough one to answer. I guess I’ll go with one of my pet peeves, but it’s not a huge peeve, just a little one (which is why I forgive the book and enjoy it nonetheless): when mystery writers don’t give the reader a fair chance to solve it themselves. When the crucial clue isn’t revealed until the *final* reveal, if you know what I mean.
It’s kind of a hard device to avoid, in mystery books, and I get that. You don’t want to spill the beans before the end, or before the right time. That’s probably why I forgive it, and it’s a minor pet peeve rather than something that will make me put the book down completely. But I really love mysteries where I’m given all the same evidence as the character who solves the mystery, and I’m given a fair chance to solve it myself before the final reveal. I’ll admit that it’s more often the case that I can’t figure it out on my own, but I still appreciate being given the chance.
One of my favorite mysteries, therefore, is the first Dalgliesh book, by P. D. James: Cover Her Face. An ambitious maid is murdered, and the suspects are the family she worked for, the Maxies. The maid, Sally Jupp, liked to pull people’s strings. She’s married with a son, but passes herself as an unwed mother because her husband’s job would be jeopardized if he were known to be married; also, she likes playing with people. Sally manages to get the son of the family, Stephen Maxie, to propose to her, and his mother, Eleanor Maxie, strongly objects and kills Sally because of it.
Throughout the book, we’re privy to the characters’ thoughts, all of them. Moreso Adam Dalgliesh’s thoughts, since he is the protagonist, but we get Eleanor’s honest thoughts – including the ones where she’s thinking about the murder. P. D. James just includes those thoughts in a way that misdirects us – kind of like a magician would, getting us to focus our attention on part of a trick, when the real trick is occurring where we’re *not* focused.
People who don’t like miscommunication as a plot device (like Viva Love!, for instance) might not enjoy this book like I did, since it kind of relies on miscommunication between the book and the reader. Or at least misattribution on the reader’s part – we read Eleanor’s thoughts, and think they’re in the same context as the other thoughts and actions on the page, but really, she’s thinking about the murder almost constantly. The thoughts are constructed, the actual wordings, in such a way that they can be read into either context. I don’t have the book in front of me, but, for instance, there’s a moment where Eleanor thinks something pretty close to, if not exactly, “I hope [Stephen] isn’t too upset.” At that point in the story, you read it and assume she means she hopes Stephen isn’t too upset about the murder, since his betrothal to Sally was impulsive and short-lived; that he wasn’t actually deeply in love with her enough to be really depressed now that she’s dead. But really Eleanor’s hoping Stephen won’t be too upset when he finds out *his own mother* was the killer. Stuff like that, only done much more deftly than I can.