Ultimately, as well all know, a good murder mystery is a contest between writer and reader; the former cryptically paying out the clues, the latter striving to piece them together before that final reveal. But it is equally true that, as with any competition, the result is only going to be meaningful if it’s a balanced contest, between two well-matched adversaries. Think Wile E Coyote vs. Roadrunner, Churchill vs. Lady Astor, England vs. Australia in any number of test matches (well, some!).
For the writer, victory comes in the form of grudging acknowledgement that the outcome was, after all, plausible. Well, I suppose that makes sense, when you think about it. Or foreshadowed. You know, I did wonder about him, her, them, it. But the ultimate prize, the lift-the–trophy-and-sip-champagne-from-it moment, comes when a reader emits an anguished cry and laments, How could I have missed it? It’s so obvious, now it’s been pointed out. All that left for the writer after this is a quick lap of honour, and then it’s on to the next book.
For the reader, the ‘win’, of course, is getting there early, painstakingly assembling the clues that tell you who dun it before the writer does. There’s an undeniable satisfaction to be drawn from the knowledge that your finely-honed powers of perception have won the day, that your superior wisdom and intellect have enabled you to outwit your adversary.
It can never be an entirely even contest when it is so much within the writer’s power to influence the outcome. A guaranteed win, for instance. Ah ha! The killer was a hithertofore unmentioned evil twin, whose existence has never even been so much as hinted at. Cue books flying through the air and the writer permanently struck off the reader’s list; a pyrrhic victory if ever there was one. The other end of the spectrum, what I call The Spoonfeeder, is equally unsatisfying. Hero and victim and one other major character in the story. I wonder who the villain will turn out to be! Cue more flying books, and the same sad fate for any writer unwise enough to offer up such feeble fare.
I enjoy competition, but I don’t mind being beaten by a worthy opponent, and I have learned to accept defeat gracefully. Therefore, in A Siege of Bitterns I have tried to create as level a playing field as possible. With a subtitle like A Birder Murder Mystery, you might imagine birders would have the inside track for solving the puzzles in this story; that they might be in a slightly better position to note those shimmers of inconsistency, those faint, angel’s-breath clues that will eventually lead readers to the correct solution. Fear not. While birds and birding provide a background theme for the story, no special knowledge of either is required. This is a murder mystery in which both birders and non-birders occupy the landscape, and thus are equally as likely to be a) villains, b) victims or c) astute enough to solve the crime. In the end, finding the answer is going to come down to the usual suite of skills displayed by successful crime solvers; intelligence, attention to detail, and an acute insight into the human condition. And if you need extra help, I can tell you here (spoiler alert) there are no hithertofore unmentioned twins in the story, evil or otherwise.
A Siege of Bitterns by Steve Burrows is published by Oneworld, paperback, £7.99