The writer’s contract

The writer’s contract

I’ve just finished reading a book with a maddening ending. It was a well-constructed mystery with quite a complicated storyline full of lots of twist and turns and I was really enjoying it until I came to the end and found that ALL the clues were essentially red herrings and that the truth was something entirely different.

I think that when you read a mystery you are entering into a kind of contract with the writer. They feed you clues (a few red herrings are ok) and you try to work out who the baddies are and why they committed the crime.

At the end of this book I felt like I’d been cheated. No-one was really who you thought they were, and everyone was lying except for the lead character who’d really just been duped by everyone else. I wouldn’t have guessed the ending in a million years (which is ok, I’m not a detective) but I like to be able to look back through the story and see that the clues were all there if you looked hard enough.

I won’t name the book as it got rave reviews and I admire and respect anyone who can actually write a whole book, but all the same, it was disappointing. I might read another book by the same author as I liked her style and the lead was pretty quirky and interesting. It could have just been me that missed the clues, but I really don’t think so…

By contrast, The Wife and the Widow by Christian White has a really satisfying ending which you don’t see coming (and I won’t give it away) but when you look back you can see that it all makes sense. I read a review that said you could see the ending a mile off, but me, I didn’t see it at all.

This got me wondering where the term “red herring” actually comes from. According to this article, red herrings (being very smelly) were commonly used to train animals (horses or dogs) to follow a scent, but the term was first used in a literary sense by the British journalist William Cobbett in an article about the press allowing itself to be misled by false information. I guess that would be called “false news” these days.

I don’t like too many red herrings in books unless they are explained later. It’s too easy to throw in random clues that have nothing to do with the storyline. I especially hate it when people are described as ‘suspicious’ and turn out to be perfectly normal. Why tell us that someone is suspicious if they aren’t? It’s breaking the writer’s contract. I expect the author to tell me the truth and keep their part of the bargain, otherwise I just get cross.

What about you? Is there anything that drives you crazy?