Q: How many mystery writers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Two: One to screw it almost all the way in and the other to give it a surprising twist at the end.
Last year, my panel at the Killer Nashville mystery conference was on beginnings and endings. As someone once said, “A great first sentence will make someone buy your book. A great last sentence will make them buy your next book.”
No arguing with that. We all know how important the perfect beginning is. Personally, if my first sentence isn’t perfect, I can’t move on. It’s what sets the tone for the whole book for me, and if I don’t have that, I can’t get the rest right.
Equally important, of course, is ending on the right note, with that little zinger as you finish up. Something that makes the reader think, “Oh, darn, I wish there was more!” and then go out looking for something else you’ve written.
Twists, though, are a different animal than beginnings and endings.
And I’m not talking about the obvious twist that all good mysteries should have: the one where the person you pegged for the murderer isn’t the murderer after all, it’s someone else. That twist sort of goes without saying. No, this is the other twist, the one no one sees coming. And it isn’t always related to the mystery.
That particular Killer Nashville was in August 2008, a few months after the fantastic Julia Spencer-Fleming had published ALL MORTAL FLESH, book five in her award winning series about Reverend Clare Fergusson and Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne. If you haven’t read Julia’s books, you need to get yourself to a bookstore today, and max out the credit card if you have to. I’d suggest the library, but just do yourself a favor and go directly to the bookstore: once you’ve read these, you’ll want to own them.
Anyway, for purposes of our beginnings and endings panel, ALL MORTAL FLESH became the example of a perfectly executed surprise twist.
I'm gonna put in a spoiler space here, just in case some of you haven’t read the series. If you haven’t, you’re gonna wanna stop reading right
A little background: the Reverend and the Police Chief met in the first book in the series, called IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER, and very quietly, very subtly, very unnoticeably fell in love. (No, I didn’t see it coming.) This happened in spite of the fact that he had a wife and wasn’t about to cheat on her. By the time ALL MORTAL FLESH came out, they’d been dancing around this fact for four books. At the end of the previous book, Russ had told Clare he was going to tell his wife Linda the truth, and at the beginning of ALL MORTAL FLESH, he has moved in with his mother while Linda is staying in their shared house. And then Linda is found murdered, and both Clare and Russ come under suspicion. Of course, we know it isn’t either of them, but the state police don’t, and things get difficult. Then it turns out that Linda isn’t dead after all, it’s someone else, and everything seems fine. Or not fine exactly, seeing as Russ and Clare are still in love with one another, but at least Linda isn’t dead. She shows up, having spent the week in St. Barts, and she and Russ decide to give their marriage another try. Until Clare gets into trouble and Russ leaves Linda to go help her. Linda gets pissed, naturally, and gets in the car with her sister Debbie. Russ and Clare save the day, kill the bad guy, etc., Russ tells her he’s committed to trying again with Linda, blah blah blah... and they start driving back to town, only to discover that Debbie’s car has driven off the road and wrapped itself around a telephone pole, and Linda is dead, for real this time.
YOU CAN START READING AGAIN NOW.
And that’s the surprise twist. It spurred some strong feelings, let me tell you. A lot of people were pretty seriously angry. When you read the book, if you haven't already, you'll understand why.
The moderator at my panel back then asked whether we thought a twist at the end of a book is necessary. The general consensus was that it isn’t, but it sure can’t hurt. I’ve never managed to pull off a twist quite like that one, though, and I doubt I ever will.
So what do you think? Is a twist at the end of a book necessary? Have you ever used one? Know any good ones that someone else has used? And if you’ve read ALL MORTAL FLESH, what did you think of that particular twist?