As a mystery writer, I’m intrigued by the notion of clues. The old “list of stuff in a scene” or, “what the butler saw” are clue-types I still enjoy. But to be honest, I often miss clues in mysteries, relying on my “gut feeling” to decide who the culprit of the crime is. To me, under the clues, deductive reasoning, observances and other detecting tools of the trade, is the story. And the story is what brings the reader along, even if I know that the person who seems the nicest is likely to be the killer.
So, last week I dove into the classic mystery by Wilkie Collins, “The Woman in White.” I hadn’t read it before, and wasn’t expecting much. After all, it was written in 1859 in the midst of the Victorian era. The sentences are long, the characters seldom get right to the point, and the niceties of the times could make the pace of the story seem beyond quaint, to nerve-wracking slow. I thought I’d have no problem discovering “who done it” by chapter two. Was I in for an education.
Collins’ language, though typical of the time, engaged me completely. He breaks all sorts of story rules by today’s standards, yet in doing so, enriches the reading experience completely.
The table of contents gives us seldom used concepts, like Epoch (a period in a person’s life marked by notable events), and a story started by one character and continued by another, based on the events. No mish-mash of multiple witnesses to the same event as we write today, but a continuous story told from the perspective of the best witness for that event. But every witness has a mystery of his or her own to resolve. Each was written in first person, but the personalities and their personal worries were so varied it was easy to keep them straight.
In the first paragraph of the tale, we are engaged with a question put forth in the form of a melodramatic statement: “This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.” Okay, I’ll bite.
There is no dead body in the first chapter. Or the second. In fact, no one dies for quite a while in this tale. Yet time and again, I was caught up in the tension of what might happen. And when, at last, we get to the death, it seems almost inconsequential to the tale. This isn’t much for detecting writers of today to pull from.
In fact, it wasn’t until the very end of the tale, that I understood a seldom used, but completely effective form of clue-setting—layering. With multiple perspectives, we have multiple stories pulled along not just by a theme, but by subplots, each with mysteries of their own. Why did Sir Percival insist on marrying Laura when she made it plain her heart rested elsewhere? Who is this enormous Fosco, and how does he maintain that Svengali hold over so many people? Who is this woman in white, and why does she look so much like Laura?
Every page seemed to introduce a new mystery, even as it revealed new evidence of evil intent. I’m reminded of the old Heinz ketchup commercial: anticipation. Layering.
And, I was truly grateful that not every mystery in the story was closed in the final pages of the book. Some mysteries were solved early and others late. The more you read the more you were rewarded in the puzzles and solutions before you.
In a way, The Woman in White reminds me of M.C. Escher’s lithograph of The Three Worlds. When you look at this picture of a pond with a fish in it, you’re tempted to walk by and say “so what?” But then Escher invites you in with the title of his work and you can see so much more because of the subtlety of laying he’s done with the fish in one world, the leaves in another, and the trees in a third world. Woman in White gives us at least that many layers.
So what’s the clue here? How do you plant it in your next story? Learning to layer here.