Hidden in Plain Sight – John Bayliss
You know the situation. You can’t find your keys. You look everywhere for them: in drawers, in cupboards, in the pockets of the jacket you were wearing three days ago, in the cat basket, at the bottom of the waste paper basket. Then your spouse points to the table.
There they are, on the table top, exactly where you left them.
Edgar Allan Poe’s 1844 story ‘The Purloined Letter’ sets the Paris Police Force the task of locating a stolen letter (containing compromising information) believed to be in the possession of an unscrupulous government minister (and suspected blackmailer). The police seek out every possible hiding place they can think of, including under the carpets and behind the wallpaper, and even examine the table tops with microscopes (although how that helps them find something as large as a letter, I have no idea). Poe’s detective, Monsieur Dupin, pays a visit on the government minister and almost immediately lays his hand upon the purloined letter. How? Because it wasn’t hidden at all, but left in a card rack hanging from a ribbon over the fireplace—in plain sight of anyone caring to look.
Dupin knows where to look because he’s clever enough to anticipate the government minister’s duplicity; the Paris Police, apparently, are not (although they really should have been).
The crime writer must forever navigate a narrow path between, on one hand, giving too much away, and on the other, not telling enough. Give too much away and you make the mystery too easy to solve; tell not enough and when the solution is finally revealed, the reader could feel cheated because vital information was kept from them. So the crime writer (who needs to be more devious than even the most devious of criminal masterminds) must take particular care when laying the clues.
There are several ways of disguising clues: misdirection (or ‘red herrings’) is one; another is to present the reader with an (apparently) inexplicable puzzle, one that is only resolved as new information is revealed. The most satisfying way of setting a clue, however, is to leave it there in plain sight, a mere passing detail that seems unconnected to any significant aspect of the story yet revealed. Sometimes the author might add a witty line or some dramatic action to distract the reader from the actual clue; or it might be something so banal that the reader barely gives it credence. However, if that particular detail does lodge somewhere in their memory it will spring to attention and reveal itself as the missing link as soon as the final facts of the case are disclosed.
So when you read a crime novel, remember that you don’t necessarily have to dig deep to find those ever so elusive clues. They might be there, right in front of your eyes.