The Game’s Afoot: The Case of the Mystery Genre’s Terrible Secret

If you’ve ever felt let down by the end of a mystery novel, there’s a good reason why. The biggest secret in crime fiction is that there are really only, like, four ways to tie up a mystery, and I’m going to show you all of them in 1,200 words. Get ready to have an entire genre irrevocably spoiled.

1. The Obvious Killer
“I know it was you, Ignatius Didit. I knew it when you shook my hand, and I saw something dark crusted under your fingernails. I knew it when I heard peculiar noises coming from your basement and decided not to investigate them for some contrived reason. I knew it when your alibi fell apart. I knew it by process of elimination, because everybody else who might have done it is dead. But, really, I knew it the first time I met you; when I visited you at your place of business, I saw that the sign above the door said: ‘I. Didit, Purveyor of Fine Hatchets, Cleavers, and Shovels.’ Your guilt couldn’t be more obvious. The only reason I thought it might not be you for a while is because it seemed too manifestly self-evident. But it’s apparently you. So, I’ve got to say, I’m pretty disappointed.”

2. The Tertiary Perpetrator:
A. The Forgettable Man
“Who is that? Oh, it’s you. Yes, I recognized you. It just took me a second, because I haven’t seen you for, like, 200 pages. And, to be honest, you didn’t really make much of an impression when we met. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have remembered you, except that somebody very pointedly and deliberately reminded me about you two chapters ago. I should have expected that you’d be showing up again. Otherwise, why would anyone even bother to mention you? What are you doing here? And why have you got that knife?”

B. A Little Too Friendly
“I swear, sometimes this detective job gets to me; drives me to the bottle. You want a swig? No? More for me then. Everybody’s so awful. I know most of them are innocent, at least of the murder, but they’re all so cagey. Everyone here seems to have some dark secret, and they’re so fast to lie or conceal things from me. It just shatters my faith in mankind. They’re so hopeless. All of them except you. You’ve really been a friend to me, these past few days. You’ve been so happy to divulge everything you know and to tell me all about the reclusive oddballs who live in this Norwegian fishing hamlet where the sun only rises for three hours a day. You’ve helped me keep track of the byzantine genealogies of the feuding local families, and you’ve offered your extensive local knowledge in service of my attempts to identify inconsistencies in their stories. I wouldn’t be anywhere without you, and I hope we will remain close friends when this is all over. Why are you laughing so sinisterly?”

C. He Mostly Kept To Himself
“Pardon me, I was just passing by on my way to accuse somebody else of being the brutal serial murderer who has terrorized this neighborhood for the past few months, and I happened to notice an odd stench coming from your apartment. Is everything okay in there? Do you mind if I have a look around? It seems like — OH GOD! OH GOD! OH GOD!”

D. Here Comes A New Challenger
“Who are you? Oh. You’re the victim’s ex-fiance. Isn’t it odd that I’ve been investigating the murder for the entire book, and we are just meeting now, for the first time, on page 320? I think someone told me about you, but I didn’t think much about it at the time. What? You say you eloped with her, and you were secretly married? I guess that explains the receipt for a plane ticket to Las Vegas that I found in her desk. But if you’re her husband, and the whole family is dead, then that means you’re the sole heir to the largest combination yarn store and kitten shelter in all of New Hampshire! That’s your motive, you conniving rapscallion! And you would have got away with it, too, if it weren’t for me, the Etsy detective and my associate, Mr. Mittens, the wiliest tomcat in New England!”

3. The Master Of Deduction Goes To Work
“Watson, you’ll notice from these footprints that the perpetrator wears one shoe in a size nine and-a-half, and another in a size 11.”

“That seems most convenient, Holmes.”

“Yes, I find things usually are. Now, if you examine the footprint more closely, what else do you see?”

“It looks to be the tread of a work-boot.”

“Perhaps I don’t tell you enough that you’re stupid, Watson. I mean, really, you have a special gift for pointing out the obvious. How did you become a surgeon anyway? What happens when you operate on someone? Do you saw open the poor man’s torso, and then notice that his chest seems to be full of organs?”

“What do you see, Holmes?”

“You can see that the boot print contains some red dirt. That’s brick dust. This is very fortuitous, because each clay-bed has dust of a unique color, so I can always tell where someone has come from, as long as they’ve wandered through a brickyard. And criminals are always wandering through brickyards, I guess.”

“That also seems awfully convenient.”

“It’s like I always say, Watson: When you eliminate all the inconvenient possibilities, what remains, however implausible, might as well be the truth.”

“Quite right.”

“Now, over here, we have a bit of pipe-ash. The leaf from every tobacco store in London is unique for some reason, and therefore identifiable by its ash. I can triangulate the area between the pipe-store where this tobacco came from and the brickyard where the dust came from, and then we have only a three block radius in which to look for the man with the mismatched feet!”


“And wait! What’s this? Why, it’s the pollen of the African violet, which I can identify on sight even though it’s practically microscopic and looks pretty much the same as any other pollen. There is only one window box in that neighborhood that contains African violets. By the way, I evidently know the location of every single weed or blade of grass in all of London. We have narrowed our search to but a single building, and now I know the name of the man we’re looking for!”

“How is that possible?”

“I don’t mean to be mysterious, my dear stupid Watson. I shall tell you everything, just as soon as I snort up all this cocaine.”

4. The Big Twist
“Look! It is I! You thought I was dead, but I am not dead. I am still alive, and I tricked you. Also, I am not really a woman; I’m actually a man. I’m the brother of the boy who was hit by the train 20 years ago. I never disappeared. I’ve been here all along, in disguise. Also, are you ready to have your mind blown? You and I are actually the same person. That’s right. We’ve been the same person all along. If you think about it, it totally makes sense. Also, this isn’t really New York City. It’s actually purgatory. But it’s not really purgatory; it’s more like a computer simulation of purgatory. And the computer is a ghost, but it doesn’t know its dead.”

Image Credit: Wikipedia

is a graduate of the University of Maryland and NYU School of Law. He lives in New York City. His debut novel, Don't Ever Get Old, earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, and Booklist. He blogs here and tweets here.


  1. 2D is the worst. I read one of Patricia Cornwell’s novel, and at the end you find out that a janitor in the building, who you never have met during the course of the book, is the killer. This type of plot in a crime/mystery novel is just sheer lazyness on the part of the author.

  2. So few mysteries are what I think of as perfect: having given you enough clues to figure out who the murderer is, yet you don’t do it.

    It’s like Trollope: in retrospect, you say, It Was Inevitable.

  3. So why limit yourself to mysteries? From Gabriel Josipovici in “What Ever Happened to Modernism?” after considering a comment by Robbe-Grillet on why the realist novel is anything but: “The marquise went out at five o’clock, but why not at six or seven, and why a marquise and not a duchess? The classic novelist will reply: because in my story it’s a marquise and she goes out at five, not six or seven. But there is something a little disingenuous in this. It’s a marquise and not a duchess and she goes out at five and not six or seven because he has decided, for the purpose of his narrative, that this is how it will be. But the old question . . . still remains: What gives you the authority to decide that it will be this rather than that? No authority, the classic novelist will reply, but simply the requirements of realism, the requirements of my plot. But do these things have to do with anything other than ensuring that your novel is saleable?”

  4. I’m just finishing up a mystery (name withheld to protect “innocent”) in which 2D was employed. Very frustrating, but necessary; the mystery was set in contemporary time, but the crime was committed during the early years of WWII near Norwich, England. Most of the suspects were long dead, and the one still alive was in 91!

  5. Thank you for making me laugh out loud this Friday afternoon – I particularly loath 2a-2d. 1 can usually be teased out to make the story interesting, but I feel insulted by all of #2.

  6. There’s one Dick Francis (won’t mention which it is) where he did a brilliant sleight of hand on #1: he starts the story by telling who it is, and then somehow still maintains a mystery all the way through, and at the end you find out, yes—surprise—it was who he said it was.

  7. You forgot:

    They all did it.

    It was suicide, but the dead man wanted to incriminate his enemy.

    It was in fact an accident.

  8. The Big Twist is the ending I hate the most, especially when I’ve already been told that book has one. I end up skim reading the book to get to the twist which is inevitably disappointing. I have a soft spot number 3 (I blame all those Sherlock Holmes stories I read as a teenager).

  9. I don’t know if you’ve seen the film “Murder by Death” (Neil Simon wrote the screenplay), which involves five famous detectives (based on Charlie Chan, Miss Marple, Poirot, Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles) invited to a manor (with Truman Capote playing the host, no less) where a crime is going to be committed. The ending is the most savage dismissal of detective fiction, as each detective outdoes the others with increasingly outlandish solutions — until it is revealed that the most absurd one was also correct.

    Also, in addition to Toronto’s list, there is another one that is missing, and a favourite of Agatha Christie’s: the murderer is the person who couldn’t possibly have done it. If a crime is committed in a secluded country estate, the murderer was attending a reception in his honour more than 150 kilometers away, and was halfway through his speech when the gatekeeper heard the shots. It’s the kind of Christie technique which often made her books quite predictable — it was that, or she would go to the other extreme, i.e. the most obvious suspect who was too obvious to be the murderer but who turned out to be the murderer after all.

    I’d also like to see someone tackle technically flawless detective novels that come apart because the psychology seems all wrong; certainly my reaction when reading Gaston Leroux’s “Mystery of the Yellow Room”.

  10. Re: Agatha Christie mysteries – the killer is almost always the character I like the best and least want to be guilty of so heinous a crime. Bad judge of character I guess.

  11. An appropriate tip of the metaphorical hat should go the Stephen Leacock for his many decade old essay “The Great Detective”, which addresses the same issues and highlights many of the same solutions. For those who don’t know Leacock’s work, it is a wonderful introduction to his humor.

  12. I never bothered to try to second-guess the writer; trying to figure out the killer just ruins the pleasure of reading detective fiction, which is in the flow of information, the way it’s interpreted and how it’s withhold, apart from the digressions on several topics the author throws into the mix.

  13. Fun piece worthy of the New Yorker. What is a little scary is that the commentors seem to be taking it quite seriously. Is that what happens when you try to devour all of the 10,000 mysteries spewed out daily?

  14. Nope! You haven’t ruined the entire mystery genre for me! Though i’ve read many where one for two of the above instances have applied. I love ’em anyway. Right now i’m reading ‘The Dead of Winter’, by Rennie Airth. I’ll see if i can guess the culprit. Maybe.. maybe not. But it’s the journey; not the destination that’s so much fun. Especially in summertime.

  15. What twaddle. All this article really says is that the villain must be someone who appears in the book. Most obvious or least obvious or somewhere in between.

  16. Ron Smyth, exactly. This article hardly contains the devastating revelations about mystery fiction that its author suggested it would. Although somewhat humorous, it was disappointing. My first clue to that ending came early, however, with “only, like, four ways to tie up a mystery.” Like? Is it four ways or not? I will have to check out the Leacock piece.

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