My wife likes mysteries on British TV. I’ll occasionally watch as well, but I was just reminded why I don’t watch TV more often.

We were watching a show with the usual female and male co-leads that seems to be required of most all crime/mystery shows nowadays. I have to admit the show has possibilities. The writers did a decent job of creating a mystery puzzle with lots of questions hanging out there for us to wonder about. It was interesting enough to overlook the unreal dialogue and acting. But after building the good suspense, the phone call came. The leads were standing on the sidewalk, overwhelmed with problems. Then her phone rang and her is what followed:

She listened a second and then said, “He was an actor too?”

Male lead: “Maybe they were all actors. Maybe that’s the key.”

Female lead on phone: “He was in Bolivia?”

Male lead: “They were all from Bolivia! Ah!”

Female lead: “He died of an allergy and the epinephrine did not work?”

Male lead: “Maybe the epinephrine was contaminated with something.”

Female lead: “She got sick after taking her insulin?”

Male lead: “Maybe someone is tampering with their medications.”

And I was done. After pulling me into a fairly decent story, the writers stepped-in and answered all of the questions with one phone call…about as unrealistic and un-engaging as it could get. I figure they either ran out of time or out of ideas for how to solve the mystery in a more authentic way. My hunch is that it’s pretty rare a detective gets that one phone call that ties all the pieces together and let’s them get home to read about it on the evening news.

In my view as a storyteller, this is cheating.

In comparison, if you’ve not seen them before, I suggest checking out these two
The Ellery Queen TV show from a few years back. Watch all the way to the end to see how the writers and Jim Hutton keep us involved.
The older Ellery Queen radio broadcasts. Again, stories designed to make us do some thinking and not let the writers have all the fun.

Setting up a decent mystery story is not easy, but it is the easier part of the entire process. The challenge is to determine how to give the reader the information they need to figure things out, but give it to them in a way they don’t realize it is important…until later. I like to give my reader little pieces of things that seem like filler, and then watch as they have that “AHA!” moment several chapters later as they discover what is actually going on.

In my view, one of the most difficult things for a writer to do, whether in books, TV, movies…whatever, is to stay out of the way and trust the story and reader.