The Range Of Search: A Key to Understanding (and Writing) Mystery Fiction

by Joe Benevento

JosephBenevento (5 of 15)In Edgar Allan Poe’s third and final story featuring C. Auguste Dupin, “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin explains to the narrator why the police were unable to find the letter in question, even  though it was left in plain sight (though somewhat disguised) on the culprit’s desk: “Had the letter been deposited within the range of their search, these fellows would, beyond a question, have found it.”   The Paris police had undertaken a ludicrously exhaustive search of the Minister D’s premises and person, always seeking the stolen letter in the most ingenious of hidden nooks or hollowed out chair legs or other “secret hiding places” of that variety.  Since they could not themselves conceive of anyone being so stupid (or, in this case, so smart) as to place the precious letter right where anyone could see it, they were almost physically and certainly mentally disabled from seeing it.  However, because he knew what kind of thinker the Minister was (both Mathematician and Poet) and because he knew the Minister comprehended how the Police would approach uncovering the letter, Dupin was able to retrieve the letter without much complication.

Poe has often been rightly acknowledged as one of the creators of the mystery genre, and especially of the detective story.  Few have acknowledged, though, that his concept of a “range of search” may be among his most important contributions.  In almost every “whodunit” worth reading, there has to be a way for the detective to shine, to outthink the rest of the people trying to solve the crime, which most often includes the police (who are often bungling, as in Poe’s first fictions) and always the readers who are trying to “match wits.”  Time and again that outshining results from the detective’s ability to have a wider range of search.   Chesterton’s Father Brown owes almost all of his charm to a range of search failure on the part of all those he outsmarts, since time and again this unassuming priest is discounted as someone incapable of being a threat to the criminal.  In “The Invisible Man,” Chesterton tries to stretch the concept as far as he can by asking us to believe no one “saw” the postman as a suspect precisely because he was too normal a part of the day’s doings to be under suspicion.  Sherlock Holmes in “A Scandal in Bohemia” (a story that borrows heavily from “The Purloined Letter”) is for once outsmarted because it isn’t within his range of search to believe a woman could be smart enough at anticipating and parrying his stratagems.   Anyone who reads detective fiction can readily find examples of the “range of search” concept in action, since without it, how can the detective gain an advantage over foe and reader alike?

The consequences for writers of mystery fiction should be obvious.  In creating a mystery and in creating a detective to manage that mystery, a writer has to come to grips with how the plot will turn on the range of search superiority his or her hero has over the others trying to solve the case.  The detective is rarely merely blessed with a higher IQ or more advanced degrees, but rather is more able to suspect a wider range of people or think in a way that others are somehow blocked from thinking, one more free of prejudice or predisposition.   And this has to extend, of course, to the writer’s consideration of his or her readers.  Most readers of mystery want to try to figure out who the criminal is, and they generally prefer if that revelation is neither too obvious nor virtually impossible to attain.  The writer of detective fiction has to configure a situation that has a solution, but one that can only be gotten to by someone who is able to “see” in a way that isn’t easy or obvious.  While many new writers of mystery fiction might think coming up with a cunning plot is first priority or the creation of a unique and compelling detective is key, I believe those two elements come together best when the author is cognizant of the need to give the detective a range of search beyond that of anyone else in the novel, and just barely within the possible ken of his or her most astute and active readers.

The best mystery writer, then, has to be aware of the normal expectations of his or her readers in order to be able to thwart them, while still being able to entertain.  Agatha Christie has numerous “range of search” issues that are tied to her readers more than to her characters.  In one novel two people who initially confess to the murders, and then are cleared and looked at sympathetically by the readers, end up being the killers after all.  In another of her books all the suspects end up being guilty, and in yet another, our benevolent, likeable narrator is the stab- his- good –friend- in- the- back killer.  These endings are so memorable because they fool us by our lack of a range of search, by our too comfortable predispositions to assume that people arrested early on can’t end up being the murderers, that only one or two suspects, certainly not all, will be the killers and, perhaps most comfortably of all, that the benevolent, witty British narrator, a virtual Watson to Hercule Poirot’s Holmes, cannot have committed the crime.

Writers of mystery should read “The Purloined Letter” with care; it creates a blueprint for what is necessary to make a detective stand out, and what may be necessary to keep a reader from uncovering the real criminal too soon.  The writer with the widest range of search has the best chance to end up with a compelling plot and just the right detective to solve it.

 Monsignor'sWifeCoverJoe Benevento’s first mystery novel, and ninth book of poetry and fiction overall, The Monsignor’s Wife, came out in September of 2013 with Moonshine Cove Publishing.  For more information go to:  

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23 thoughts on “The Range Of Search: A Key to Understanding (and Writing) Mystery Fiction

  1. Hi Joe! Thanks for guest blogging today and for the food for thought. I’ve never thought of it that way…and so frequently in crime fiction, the focus is on the *clues*. This post reminds me that we can also provide mystery readers with a surprise ending through our sleuth’s out-of-the box thinking when it comes to suspects. As a mystery reader, I also have that readiness to dismiss suspects for various reasons…and that’s usually when I can’t figure out the killer. :)

    1. Dear Elizabeth,

      Thank you for giving me this opportunity to guest blog on your wonderful and popular site. I’ve already received seven comments and some really positive feedback. I hope to send you something worthwhile again sometime after the holidays. Meanwhile, Happy Holidays and continued success in the new year.
      Regards, Joe

  2. Elizabeth – Thanks for hosting Joe.

    Joe – Thanks for your thoughts on range of search. It’s all in manipulating readers’ expectations isn’t it for a whodunit kind of crime novel. If we make use of people’s natural expectations, it’s much easier to take things in a completely different direction.

    1. Dear Margot,

      Thanks for the added insight. Yes, I’m still finding it amazing, as I get to teach the mystery course here at Truman State, how many of the novels we cover do owe a debt to Poe’s “range of search.” Happy Holidays.

      Regards, Joe

  3. Joe:
    That was both insightful and intriguing. I even ordered your book. I’ll be interested in how religion plays a role in developing this “wider range of search.” That was part of what I was trying to do in my recently published mystery novel.

    1. Dear Jeanne,

      Thanks for the kind words and best of luck with the launch of your newest mystery title. Five Star is a great place to be published. Happy Holidays.

      Regards, Joe

  4. Fantastic post! Have never been presented with “range of search” before in any writing class/instructional and thank you for this new info/tool.

    1. Dear CA,

      Thanks. You know, I’ve been teaching this idea for many years and only recently realized it might be something that was not as familiar to the general public as I guess I assumed it was. After all, most people acknowledge Poe as one of the inventors of the detective story, so I thought there would be more of a natural acceptance of “The Purloined Letter” as key to the development of the genre. I’m glad this blog guest spot has allowed me to share that idea with people other than my Truman State students.

  5. Joe–Thanks for helping to explain what separates success from failure in mysteries–range of search. When the mystery was young, things were easier. But these days, mystery fans have had decades of exposure to the work of great pioneers. This means the bar has been raised for the rest of us. But as you make clear, today’s writers also have the advantage of drawing strength from that same work. Excellent post!

    1. Dear Barry,

      Thanks for the kind words. I guess it’s because I’m teaching a mystery course here at Truman State that I keep getting reminded of how much the first great wave of mystery writers were inspired by that first great detective, Poe’s Dupin. So why shouldn’t we still keep taking inspiration from that same great source?

    1. Thanks much, Ann. I hope to guest blog again on this wonderful site in the months ahead. I want to thank Elizabeth again for the opportunity and wish everyone a Happy New Year.

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