POV in Mystery Fiction

Like many people, I enjoy a good whodunnit.

Part of what is delightful to me about the sleuthing genre is how cheerfully it dispenses with realism in favor of presenting a fun puzzle to solve with stakes high enough to make it dramatic and compelling, but low enough that they never threat to ruin your quiet evening in.

All this must be achieved while also telling a good story, at the heart of which must be a clever mystery that the audience gets to try their hand at piecing together on their own. It takes a skillful hand to tell this story well, so when a good example comes along, it’s just that much delightful to experience.

One such experience is the recent Rian Johnson film, Knives Out.

I loved Knives Out. It was a fantastic movie that you should definitely see if you haven’t. If you haven’t, then this is fair warning that I am going to talk about it, and may touch on some spoilers.

I get highly anxious about spoilers, because I spend a lot of my time when watching fiction subconsciously analyzing the structure. So, I’m going to categorize this post into two sections. The first is the meta spoiler section. I will not be talking directly about the plot, but I will be covering things that have meaning in the context of the plot. This means that, if you are like me, and if you don’t want to be thinking about my thoughts on POV in mystery fiction and how they might relate to the film, maybe don’t read this post until after you’ve seen the movie.

If you’re not at all like that at all, or if you don’t mind thinking about what I had to say when you’re first watching a movie, or if you aren’t that invested in the film, then most of what you’re about to read will be just fine.

And, of course, at a certain point, I’m also going to give away some explicit plot spoilers, so at that point I’ll give a second warning.

Ready? Here we go.

I want to talk for a bit about the role the Point of View takes in mystery fiction, which I think is used cleverly in the genre, and especially cleverly in Knives Out.

POV is an especially important tool in mystery fiction—even more so than in other genres. In most genres, the author picks a POV based on the character they find most interesting, or the story they want to tell, or because the plot requires it to communicate something about a scene. But in mystery fiction, POV takes on added significance.

One of the greatest sins that a movie director/writer in the mystery genre can make is lying to the audience about what is going on, or deliberately withholding information that might clue them in on part of the mystery, with the intent of “tricking” the audience such that they are unable to solve the mystery. When the reveal comes, the audience should be able to see how they might have worked out the mystery with the clues they were given. They shouldn’t be left feeling cheated.

That said, a mystery is obviously full of unreliable narrators who are lying and withholding information, so how does the author keep these two things distinct?

The answer, of course, is through the narrator. There’s a reason basically every mystery series has a strong POV character whom the audience follows as they either try to solve the mystery themself, or as they observe the lead detective. Agatha Christie used Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Sir Arthur Conon Doyle used Watson. Dorothy Sayers used Lord Peter Wimsey. The purpose of these characters is to be the reliable narrator in a sea of unreliable ones. They have to keep the audience grounded in which facts are reliable, otherwise the audience gets lost.

This isn’t to say that the narrator can’t be mistaken or mislead. Watson, observing Sherlock Holmes, often falls behind. Similarly, Sayers often allowed Wimsey to be wrong or simply uncertain for much of the book. This is a way that the author can sometimes mislead the audience without being actually unfair, so long as some rules are followed.

For instance, if the narrator makes a mistake, states it to the audience, and then realizes the mistake, the author has to inform the audience that a mistake was made, but does not have to say what it was.

Eg: Holmes to Watson: I’ve been a fool all this time, I should have seen it from the beginning!
*runs off
Watson: I was left without explanation, wondering what could have alarmed my friend so thoroughly.

That’s all fair, so long as the audience still has enough information to be able to work everything out. Similarly, if the detective is the POV character, they have to disclose to the audience all clues they find, but they don’t have to say what they think about them. If Phyrne Fisher offers the same woman tea on two different days and that person claims to drink her tea black on day but uses several lumps of sugar the next, it’s not up to Phryne to draw the audience’s attention to the discrepancy. We’re expected to follow along and keep up.

In fact, it’s often against good mystery writing for the detective to fully reveal their thought process along the way. (You can do this, but you must be very careful.) Here’s why: mysteries are fun when the audience has a chance to try to work it out on their own. If the detective is telling the audience what every clue means, then it spoils the fun of trying to work it out on your own. The only way to maintain the game is for the detective to be wrong, but then the detective looks incompetent, and that’s less fun, too. The ideal is for the detective to be really clever, because then if the audience works it out on their own and finds that the detective came to the same conclusion, it means that they, too, are really clever.

In other words, a well-written mystery book will use POV to place the audience in a position where they can observe the mystery on equal footing with the lead detective. The detective can draw upon the clues shown in the novel and also upon an era-appropriate level of general knowledge to solve the case, and they can unveil independently-discovered evidence that supports their claim in the finale, but the author must still leave enough breadcrumbs for the audience to follow along.

Now let’s get back to Knives Out.

THIS IS THE POINT WHERE I GET INTO EXPLICIT PLOT SPOILERS, SO STOP HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT THEM.

The POV character of this story is Marta. This is a brilliant choice, in that we get to observe her observing Benoit Blanc as he tries to solve the mystery she ostensibly already knows the answer to.

Marta is the consummate reliable narrator. In fact, she’s so reliable, that it is established up-front that she cannot lie without throwing up. She is constitutionally incapable of knowingly telling a falsehood. (Note: The level to which they establish this should itself be a clue to the viewer that something is off with the way they are being presented information.)

Sure enough, as we discover at the end, the writers have used Marta to deliberately mislead the audience. Because Marta believes she has made a mistake with the medicine, and because she is the audience’s POV character, the audience instinct is to trust that the account Marta believes to be true and which the audience has seen her remember is the whole truth.

This comes very close to being an illegal lie, according to genre rules. However, there are still enough clues throughout to make it clear that this is not the case.

For instance:

  • Someone has asked Benoit Blanc to be on the case, therefore someone suspects something.
  • In the timeline of events, it is mentioned that Meg hears the dogs barking at 3am, a fact that does not enter into Marta’s account.
  • The grandmother saying “Ransom, are you back again already?”
  • The emergency medication missing from Marta’s bag.
  • The eventual disappearance of the bag.
  • The blackmailer obscuring the results of the toxicology report.
  • The arson of the medical examiner’s records.
  • The attack on the housekeeper and her final words, “You/Hugh did this.”

There’s also a big meta clue about Ransom: with every other member of the family, we are shown both their recollection about the truth of what happened the day of the party, and the false account they eventually give the police. This lets us see from the beginning that they are false narrators. But we don’t see this with Ransom, which is an obfuscation that should be a red flag for viewers that there is something about Ransom’s motives which are deliberately being hidden.

Using any other POV character would have resulted in a weaker story by either limiting the information that could be presented to the audience, or wrongfully misleading them about the accuracy of the information they did have. By choosing Marta as the reliable narrator, the storytellers get to provide a lot of inside information to the viewers without making Marta lie to the audience.

All told, I think it’s a brilliant case study in how to use POV to tell a compelling mystery without breaking the unspoken rules of the genre.

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