The Power Of The Question Mark

By Helen Currie Foster

Why do we mystery readers read the next line? Turn to the next page?

Some writers have the knack of persuading us–for example, Tony Hillerman. His mysteries feature Navajo police Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito. Never forget that Hillerman was a journalist before he wrote mysteries. I’m betting he excelled at attention-catching ledes that made you read his news articles. An early example of his getting us to turn to the next page occurs in The Dark Wind (1982), page 1:

“The Flute Clan boy was the first to see it. He stopped and stared. ‘Someone lost a boot,’ he said. Even from where he stood, at least fifteen yards farther down the trail, Albert Lomatewa could see that nobody had lost the boot. The boot had been placed, not dropped. It rested upright, squarely in the middle of the path, its pointed toe aimed toward them…”

Come on, you’ll turn the page, right?

For me, the same holds true for poetry. Untangling a new poem demands commitment. I confess the combination of the title and first lines can draw me right in. Masters of such trickery include Robert Frost and Billy Collins. Take for instance Frost’s “Mending Wall,” from North of Boston (1914): “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” Well, I want to know what. Or “After Apple Picking”: “My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree/ Toward heaven still…” I won’t leave that ladder quite yet.

Billy Collins simply uses a one-two punch: first his title, then the first lines, and you’re hooked. From Aimless Love (2013), titled “Hell”: “I have a feeling that it is much worse/ Than shopping for a mattress at a mall…”

When that combination–title plus opening lines–arouses my curiosity, it’s because I feel I’m experiencing along with the poet. Where’s the poet going? I’ll follow to find out (and Collins’s self-deprecating humor keeps me reading).

Okay, we’re curious animals. We’ve been asking “WHY?” at least since we were two. Theories abound. Is it because we’re responding to our outside world? Or is it innate–instinctual? Genetic? Do we get a dopamine rush from capturing new information? “Drive theory” calls curiosity a naturally-occurring urge we have to satisfy–a reason we read mysteries and work crossword puzzles. Alternatively, “incongruity theory” suggests we tend to see the world as orderly and predictable, but we become curious when an external event doesn’t fit our perceived order. Do mystery readers experience curiosity falling within each category? We want to find missing information (Clues!)–drive theory. And maybe we want a satisfying conclusion (justice served, the murderer punished, motives revealed) –incongruity theory.

Scientists are currently wildly curious (sorry) about human and animal curiosity.https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/evolution/curiosity.htm.

https://www.psypost.org/2022/o7/new-psychology-research-reveals-a-dark-side-of-curiosity-63583

I suspect readers are like Leonardo da Vinci. Mario Livio asks, in Why: What Makes Us Curious (2017), what distinguished Leonardo from his predecessor anatomists, hydraulicists, botanists? “Leonardo had an unquenchable curiosity which he attempted to satisfy directly through his own observations rather than by relying on statements by figures of authority.”

Just like mystery readers. We insist on discovering each clue for ourselves. Woe betide the writer who cheats us–hides a clue, or packs the last chapter with explanations we had no chance to discover directly through our own observations. Not only cheatsy, but contrary to a key provision in the original Detection Club rules. https://murder-mayhem.com/the-detection-club-rules. A violation of our beloved genre!

We need for the sleuth to ask the right questions. An Austin detective recently gave an absolutely riveting presentation to our Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime chapter, describing how to conduct an interview of a potential suspect (not under arrest) who’s been asked to talk to the police. He said the interviewer needs to be likable–should give the suspect no reason to dislike him. The initial greeting should create a sense of reciprocity but also mention the sleuth’s authority. The detective begins the interview in a calm, low voice, giving the suspect autonomy and building rapport: “Is it okay if I call you Alec?” “Tell me a little bit about yourself.” He elicits the suspect’s story, then goes over it, watching for nonverbal indications of uncomfortable areas (the suspect changes posture, etc.). He watches for signs of deception–easy to detect if the suspect lies, harder to detect if the suspect fails to answer the question completely or directly, or restates the question to avoid having to answer the actual query, During the interview, the sleuth must keep a neutral face even if the suspect confesses something disgusting or shocking: “The second the suspect senses judgment on your part, they won’t talk to you.”

The mystery sleuth–professional or amateur–must recognize key questions. Take Anthony Horowitz’s Moonflower Murders–a follow-on to his Magpie Murders, featuring a contemporary murder mystery again wrapped around an earlier mystery involving the fictional detective Atticus Pund. Protagonist Susan Ryeland asks: why did the waiter at the posh club drop the plates? And why did her boss’s assistant quit her job at the publishing company? I’ll leave you to find out. Ryeland’s dogged pursuit of the answers to these key questions nearly gets her killed. But she solves the murder.

For an entirely different creative use of the question mark, with a twist: study (or just enjoy) Richard Osman. His often comic Thursday Murder Club mysteries revolve around a group of retirees in a comfortable retirement village. The club’s purpose? Solving cold cases. The disparate characters contribute varied personalities and talents–a Zen-focused psychiatrist (Ibrahim), a vivacious widowed nurse (Joyce), a burly ex-union organizer (Ron), and the mysterious former spy (Elizabeth. 

Osman brings these characters to life not by a predictable prosy description, but by the questions they ask and answer. In the club meeting on page 1 of The Man Who Died Twice, Joyce asks, “Do you think a dog might be good company?…I thought I might either get a dog or join Instagram.” Ibrahim: “I would advise against it.” The day’s topic is murder; but with such a Q and A, we begin to grasp the nature of this somewhat wacky group. We’re allowed to read Joyce’s diary, in which she comes across as convivial, a bit ditsy, and quite shrewd.

Osman extends this technique to other characters. When drug dealer Connie introduces herself to Chris and Donna, police officers who hope to engage in a sting and arrest her, we get this:

“What’s your eye shadow?” Connie asks Donna.

“Pat McGrath, Gold Standard,” says Donna.

“It’s lush,” says Connie.

Connie’s a murderous drug dealer. But hey! She’s also into fashion. And Donna? Same. 

Osman also uses those hanging questions as hooks. At the end of chapter 17, we’re eavesdropping on Joyce’s diary. The daily entry ends, “I wonder if anyone else is awake?” Now turn the page to chapter 18: “Ryan Baird is awake. He is currently playing Call of Duty online. He is spraying machine gun fire at full volume while his neighbors bang on the walls.”

You’ll be glad to know Ryan will get his, but the clever Q and A hooks us into the next chapter and expands Ryan’s character.

Osman’s Q and A also deepens the relationship between two unlikely friends, Joyce and Elizabeth:

“What do you and I talk about, Joyce?” asks Elizabeth.

Joyce thinks. “It’s been mainly murder, hasn’t it? Since we met?”

Thank you, Richard Osman. This is fun.

Just in case you’re wondering whether you (or your friends and relatives) ask enough questions, or ask the right or wrong questions, or have no clue how to keep a conversation going, or (heaven help us) don’t know how to ask questions of a group, here are 450 suggestions. Unfortunately, this collection didn’t include a list of “ideal questions for solving a murder.” https://www.scienceofpeople.com/questionos-to-ask-people

But, like Leonardo, we readers will discover those questions “directly through [our] own observations.”

My next book in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, Ghosted, will be out soon. Toward the end the protagonist, Alice, asks a key question. Watch for it! Happy Holidays!

Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, set in the Texas Hill Country. She lives north of Dripping Springs, loosely supervised by three burros. She’s active with Austin Shakespeare, Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime, and the Hays County Master Naturalists (still trying to learn those native grasses). Her most recent book, Ghost Daughter, was named Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Short List Finalist, as well as Finalist in the 2022 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and Finalist in the 16th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards.

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