I used to make fun of mystery novel climax scenes, where the killer has the sleuth trapped and, instead of shooting him and escaping, the bad guy explains the reasons for the murder, giving the sleuth time to capture him. This is clearly a device to inform readers rather than realistic bad guy behaviour. But when I wrote my first mystery novel, A Deadly Fall, I understood the value of this literary trope.
In murder mystery novels a lot of information must be withheld until the killer is identified, typically at the start of the climax scene. But once the bad guy is captured, at the scene’s end, all the tension drains out of the novel. Without tension, readers aren’t interested in hearing explanations. I even lost interest in my own story. We all want to wrap up a few final details and go home.
This short period between the killer revelation and capture creates a window for the writer to explain much of the when, where, what, and how of the murder while readers are still in the story’s grip. Hence the killer delay trope. Since the bad guy is the only story character who knows it all, the author makes him confess before shooting. The alternative of saving explanations for the novel’s denouement results in a dragged-out ending with not enough drama for modern tastes. Few contemporary mystery writers literally gather the suspects in the living room, like Hercule Poirot, to tell us what happened, but some novels I’ve read come close.
The best solution for this dilemma is to reveal as much information as possible before the climax begins.
This includes explanations related to the murder and resolving subplots that don’t depend on the outcome of the climax scene. In A Deadly Fall, I concluded secondary characters’ subplots before the climax, while my protagonist’s romantic and career decisions had to wait until she solved the crime.
Regarding the murder backstory, I realized that several suspects in A Deadly Fall had similar motives that I could portray in the chapters leading up to the climax scene without revealing who took the next step to kill. When readers finally learn whodunit, they understand the ‘why’ of the murder without the killer needing to pause his finger on the trigger to explain.
Despite multiple drafts spent shifting material, I had to withhold some details until the killer revealed himself. I decided getting the information out in the climax scene would be better than a prolonged ending if I could make the killer delay largely believable. You can do this by employing aspects of the bad guy’s personality—a tendency to hesitate, to boast; a desire to justify his terrible deed.
The sleuth’s personality contributes too. She can use her ingenuity, skills and courage to keep the killer talking until the police arrive. In my three mystery novels, other suspects barged into the scene with agendas that thwarted the killer’s ability to act. Credible events can play a role. You might insert a timely, yet foreshadowed, power failure.
I no longer ridicule the killer delay literary trope, now that I see its usefulness for mystery novels. I also think a delay that slightly stretches belief beats a dragged-out anticlimactic explanation. When done well, the killer delay packs a powerful punch of action, drama, and information. It builds on everything that’s happened in the novel to this point, and wraps up remaining details in a way that engages readers. Rather than bog down the ending with explanations, it gives the novel’s final pages space for your story’s emotional resolutions.
BY SUSAN CALDER
About Susan Calder-Arnold
Author of To Catch a Fox (BWL Publishing, 2019) and A Deadly Fall (BWL 2019), Ten Days in Summer (BWL 2017), and Winter’s Rage (BWL 2021), books 1, 2 & 3 of the Paula Savard mystery series.
BWL Author Page
“And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” – Lennon-McCartney