I’ve been looking for interesting books lately to help with my writing, particularly plotting. I found a great one not too long ago: The Official C.I.A. Manual of Trickery and Deception, by Keith Melton and Robert Wallace (though most of the text is by professional magician John Mulholland) Basically, back in the 1950s, the CIA had a program called MKULTRA, which revolved around the use of pharmaceuticals for mind control. Those famous experiments with LSD fall under this heading.
Well, what’s not as well known is that they not only investigated the drugs themselves. They also investigated the means of administering them, and asked John Mulholland to write about how a magician’s tricks can be used to slip drugs in various forms to people, and how to surreptitiously remove objects, secret them about one’s person, and send signals. It’s a fascinating book so far, and promises to continue to be (I just finished the section on slipping people drugs)
I had originally just thought that it would be an interesting book with some tips that I can have my characters use (one story on back burner has a poisoning plot). It’s turning out, however, to be an excellent source of inspiration and instruction for writing mysteries in general.
Mulholland talks about how being sneaky never works: people notice furtive behavior because it sticks out — it’s unusual, and there’s usually no obvious explanation. The brain has a habit of filing away information it doesn’t need. Cousin Albert reached across the dinner table. Why? Oh, to pick up the salt shaker. Cousin Albert shakes the shaker over his food, looks puzzled. Must be clogged. He shakes some into his left hand, pinches out of it and sprinkles over his food with the right. Salting accomplished, back goes the shaker. Forgotten! Back to the discussion of Great Aunt Margaret’s hemorrhoids. Nobody remembers it later, at best the thought is, “Cousin Albert put salt on his food.” If, a minute later, he puts his hand to his pocket and adjusts his handkerchief, that too has a natural explanation and there’s no reason to connect the two acts — and thus Cousin Albert manages to put a healthy teaspoon of salt into his pocket in full view of the whole table with nobody thinking twice about it.
So, a weird, noticeable action is hidden by carving it up into its smaller constituent actions with enough time to forget in between. This works for the mystery writer on two levels: the more concrete one is simply to describe Cousin Albert’s individual actions without ascribing motive to them, with lots of irrelevant (possibly horrifying) details and dialogue in between to confound the reader’s perception of flow. On a higher level, think of your detective pursuing multiple leads at once. Say, getting at a character’s expertise in poisons. She can ask a slew of questions on that topic all in a row, first interviewing a doctor, then a poison specialist, then the suspect’s chemistry professor. The reader gets a very clear idea that this is what the detective has in mind, and starts to focus on that. But if there’s a bunch of other things that could be going on (following up another lead, having crazy sexual-tension angst, showing off your 1337 world-building) then this can be broken up, kept short, or put into the context of longer questioning on other subjects.
The other thing he talks about is using large things to carry small things. Handling a pill requires certain pinching movements, some concentration. These things can attract attention, or distract you when trying to keep up your end of a conversation. If, however, you attach it carefully to the underside of a matchbook, then you can grab it with easier, more effortless motions — and also have a convenient prop. Your target takes out a cigarette? Well, being companionable, you take out your matchbook, hold it over his drink, and strike a match to light his cigarette for him. How nice of you.
Big noticeable actions carry smaller ones in the same way. That questioning about an innocent suspect’s poison expertise can be just as easily a way of giving the chemistry professor the opportunity to let something slip (“Gosh, I don’t remember ever telling you that he was poisoned with tiberium, Doc…”) or to list a meaningful clue in with a character’s nervous ticks (like Poirot’s famous tidying up of a certain crime scene that should not have needed tidying)
The last point was of the need to practice, because all of these things need to be smooth and unremarkable. If you suddenly have a look of intense concentration while lighting that match, your target will pay much closer attention to what’s going on with your hands and matchbook. Practicing enables you to remain calm, to act fluidly and naturally. If Agatha Christie had changed her style to be suddenly more descriptive when Poirot was acting, the action would have jumped out at us. If she had not primed us for this kind of fastidious behavior ahead of time, even the smoothest description would draw the reader’s attention.
Of course, with this last point, there’s a more direct application, that someone who has to do something tricky may need to practice in private. But I might keep some of the mystery story repercussions of that under my hat for a little while 😉