Mysteries must be a difficult genre to write for. Whether it’s in literature, or for television, or movies, the same basic difficulties come into play. If you want to write a genius detective, you must be smart enough to write for a genius. If you want to stump a genius detective, you must perforce be smart enough to stump a genius. At the same time, however, the mystery must eventually be solved. And therein lies the big difficulty. You don’t want the solution to be something that the audience can figure out while the detective is still completely bewildered. But at the same time, if there aren’t enough clues for the audience to pick up on, it can lead to the audience feeling as though the detective only solves it because the writer has given the answer. They become like the SNL Celebrity Jeopardy version of Sean Connery, yelling “You wouldn’t be so smart if you didn’t have those cards to read from!” It’s small wonder that, especially in movies and television, writers often don’t even try. The typical mystery movie is more of an action movie with an unknown element; “solving” the mystery consists of the hero surviving long enough for the villain to reveal themselves.
And yet, there’s something very appealing about a genuine mystery story if done well. In the early 1900s, mystery writers — many of whom discussed storytelling techniques with each other — codified the concept of the “fair play mystery”. The idea is a mystery that plays fair with the audience by being solvable by the audience member — at least if the person is sufficiently alert, intelligent, and knowledgeable. The clues are there to be understood, and in sufficient number that the solution can be found. There is something immensely satisfying about figuring out a mystery mere moments before the Great Detective does. And even when the reader or viewer doesn’t figure things out until the Great Detective gives the summation of events, the fair play mystery still leaves them with the feeling that they haven’t been cheated. This is because a fair play mystery requires that the central mystery must, on some level, actually make sense. Continue reading