The classic mystery reveal involves gathering all murder suspects and interested parties into one room and unmasking the criminal in their midst. This plot device allows the sleuth to expound upon every small piece of evidence they’ve gathered. It has also reached that level of campy-cliché that makes it a universally acceptable plot device for well-written mysteries.
In a genre that thrives on foiling the reader’s intuition, this predictable element is the narrative equivalent of throwing you a bone.
It’s Standard Procedure, Sir
You know the drill. The sleuth will run through suspects one after another, casting and then rescinding blame until it finally rests upon the true culprit. It’s a method that allows for comedy and drama both, depending on the tone of the story. Ideally, it’s a nail-biter of a scene, where the reader becomes a member of the gathering. You wait on the edge of your seat to see whether your suspicions were correct or completely off the mark…
And the unexpected variables that always crop up provide entertainment of their own.
If the mystery is well-written, that is. If it’s crap, this scene is the worst, most tedious business to slog through, but chances are you’ve abandoned the novel before you get to that point. (One would hope.)
Some fun examples (spoiler alert…?):
- Like, every Poirot mystery ever. Miss Marple too. Take your pick from the lot.
- The Thin Man (1934 film): Brilliant detective Nick Charles invites all his suspects to a dinner party to root out the killer. In one of the later films, his wife Nora points out the pattern of gathering people together, making accusations, uncovering the killer, and then hiding under the table during the ensuing shootout. Interestingly enough, Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same name (upon which this film franchise is based) does not have an all-parties-gathered reveal. Nora and Dorry hole up elsewhere during the fun.
- Death in Paradise (BBC Series): Used consistently by DI Poole. When DI Goodman replaces Poole in Season 3 only to have his assistant gather the suspects for the customary reveal, he asks a bewildered, “Why?” And then he enjoys it so much that he continues with the process thereafter.
This classic style of reveal works particularly well when combined with another plot device common to the mystery genre: the Closed Circle.
A Natural Limit on Suspects
Scene: A tropical island, isolated in its location The only way on or off is via ferry, but the last ferry has left for the night and a brewing storm will keep it from returning in the morning. Only five island residents remain to weather the storm, and one of them is about to die.
The Closed Circle occurs when players are cut off from contact with the outside world, usually because of inclement weather or mechanical malfunctions (such as the sci-fi version of a spaceship adrift in the great black void). There is, ostensibly, no way for anyone to come or go.
Meaning, the killer/monster/villain is either one of the stranded party or an unseen malevolence operating beyond their scope of observation.
High tension? Yes, please.
Some fun(-ish) examples:
- And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie: There’s actually nothing fun about this one. It is the perfect closed circle in all its gut-wrenching, anxiety-inducing glory. I still get a little queasy thinking about it, in fact.
- Clue (1985): Six dinner guests and a butler locked in a mansion with their murdered host; the closed circle here is imperfect, as the guests cannot leave, but new arrivals keep joining the party (and subsequently dying).
- “Remote Island Syndrome” by Nageru Tanigawa: This short story, found in The Boredom of Haruhi Suzumiya, pokes fun at the closed-circle scenario as the SOS Brigade gets stuck on a tropical island and Haruhi runs around trying to solve the murder of their host.
Usually, once someone dies, the circle has to remain closed until the reveal. Suspects will try to leave and fail, or else get killed themselves in the attempt. The Closed Circle allows for a tight cast of characters and some lovely boundaries to constrain the plot. It breeds distrust among even the closest of allies, and it makes the reader want to scream every time a character suggests splitting up to search the area.
If you’re ever in a closed circle, the first rule of survival is this: never split up.
There is no second rule. If you break the first, all bets are off.