Thursday, July 7, 2016

Reverse Reading

Zestful Blog Post #168

Hi! I’m always so happy to see you. (I’ve never said that before in this blog, but it’s true. Everyone who reads my blog is my friend, because I get about as intellectually intimate as it’s possible to get, here. As soon as I upload a post, I imagine you reading and thinking along with me.)

The other day I wanted something to read that would be pleasantly stimulating but require no heavy lifting, so I cracked open my old Sherlock Holmes collection at random and read “The Naval Treaty.” Reread it, actually, but it had been so long that I didn’t remember the plot. As all Holmes readers do, I tried to guess the solution to the mystery. [Spoiler alert from here on; I’ll be discussing plot specifics.] I was fairly lazy about it, but one early hint stuck in my mind, and lo and behold, yep, the criminal turned out to be the fiancée’s brother.

Sometimes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote stories with so few clues for the reader that you have to just wait until Holmes tells you what he was up to offscreen, so to speak. But this one actually revealed to the reader pretty much all the information Holmes was privy to. So I went back in one-page increments (roughly) from the end, noting specifically how Doyle constructed the plot and planted clues.


The setup: A trusted Foreign Office employee named Phelps is given the original of a pending naval treaty between Great Britain and France to copy over. In the midst of the job, he steps out of the room to get a cup of coffee, and the original is stolen. Phelps is in deep trouble, the British government could be screwed if the treaty ‘should fall into the wrong hands’ (love that trope), the police are stymied, and Phelps appeals to Holmes for help.

It would take many paragraphs to unpack and discuss all the complex facts and clues, including a nice red herring subplot involving the office charwoman, but here’s what grabbed my attention first: Holmes and Watson go to the unfortunate official’s house in Woking and are welcomed by his future brother-in-law, a guy named Harrison. Holmes remarks that the man is not a member of the family; Harrison looks down and sees that Holmes must have noticed his monogram, and says, “For a moment I thought you had done something clever.”

A most generous hint from Doyle! One who belittles the skills of Holmes usually pays a price. Going back further, I saw that Harrison was placed in London the night of the theft; Phelps had planned to ride the last train home to Woking together with him. Now that is an actual clue: a factual bit of business that twines into the plot. That thread is left lying through most of the rest of the story, though Holmes, we learn at the end, picked it up and made use of it immediately.

Then I read the story again from the beginning and noted all references to Harrison. Most were minor and offhanded, with the main sturm und drang involving the charwoman. I noted Harrison’s behaviors and figured out the timeline for him, and saw how Holmes would have zeroed in on him after excluding other possible thieves.

So: For learning good plotting skills, repeated close readings can be tremendously helpful. As a reader, you can pretty much figure that the shouting and arm-waving are often a smokescreen; the train tickets and bedroom assignments can tell the real tale. As a writer, take the time to read closely, reread if possible, and make notes, zeroing in on particular elements that catch your attention. Try reading out of sequence: backwards, as it were. Watching one key character all the way through a story can yield great insights. Short stories are wonderful for this, because you don’t have to invest a ton of time to learn valuable stuff. I don’t read everything so tremendously closely, but I do read slowly, and I like to reread books and stories I consider excellent.

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9 comments:

  1. Enjoyed your post. I'm working on a murder mystery now. I used to read Agatha Christi and enjoyed her characters and descriptions. Often though, I think she did not weave her clues so neatly into the story, but the stories always caught me off guard. That's important, misleading the reader and giving the surprise ending.

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  2. Hey Pat, thanks for stopping by and giving your thoughts. Best wishes on that mystery!

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  3. I *love* Holmes. It's not Doyle penned, but did you read "House of Silk"? I found it quite enjoyable.

    ABC aired "The Mole" and "Celebrity Mole" for a few years. Throughout the episodes of a season, clues were there as to who the mole was. After the reveal, they basically did a video version of a reverse reading. Showing the mole and all the clues that pointed their way. Watching those clips gave me the same feeling of "Oh, gosh! I can't believe I didn't see that!" as when I go back through a mystery after I finish reading one. When done correctly, those are the best bits.

    Milne's "The Red House Mystery" had a scene involving a bookshelf, a secret passage, and the books on that particular shelf. Reading it over the first go-round, I blew past it. Secret passage!?! YAY! Books on a shelf!?! Whatever. Reverse reading it was the "could have had a V8" moment.

    As always, THANK YOU for the timely Thursday post. It helps to keep me on track.

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  4. Boyd, great comments! Will have to check out the books you mentioned, esp. the Milne one. Sounds cool.

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  5. Fascinating! Just getting caught up on your blogs and this one is very timely. I'm plotting a mystery novel, as well, and your advice, as usual, is very helpful. I love Holmes also, and once was privileged to take a semester class about 30 years ago on Sherlock Holmes books. I was hooked on mysteries and how they are written. I have nothing but admiration for those who write them well. Attempting to write one only makes me admire them more.
    Thanks again for another great post!

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  6. You're welcome and thanks as always for contributing your thoughts/experiences, BJ.

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  7. Thanks for this post. Interesting thing about reading back to front. I have been doing this lately, not for any particular strategy but found myself zeroed in on the end of articles and stories from a visual standpoint with newspaper articles, junk mail, everything. I'm not dyslexic but have been noticing more "dyslexic types" of errors in my writing and the transposing of phone numbers, addresses, etc.

    Not sure where it's coming from but it enhances my work as an editor and proofreader in that it's a helpful tool to be very thorough with copy and text and coming at it from different angles. Not totally related, but it reminds me of Barbara Kingsolvers's The Poisonwood Bible and the one character Adah, who spoke and wrote in palindrome (Kingsolver wrote her chapters in palindrome), which I find fascinating. Thanks.

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  8. Hey Jennifer, thanks for stopping in and sharing your ideas! I agree that going backwards in the edit process, especially in proofing, is valuable. I think many of us have problems with the fragmentation of our attention as we move from one piece of information on line to the next, whether it's email, the web, whatever.

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