I wanted to ask your advice about that tricksiest of murder-mystery staples: The Parlour Scene. (In which, for the uninitiated, the sleuth traditionally sits down with all the suspects and essentially proves how clever he/she is, by revealing thought processes, discarded red-herrings, incidental guilty-parties, and - ultimately - the killer.) If you've ever read an Agatha Christie novel, or watched a classic detective mystery film, you know the drill.

And yet it's killing me.

I made a rod for my own back, slightly, by sculpting my novel around a "classic" model (to whit: a) six or seven eccentric characters bottled-up together in a single place, b) one is killed, c) summon the detective!). But I did so deliberately, planning to be a bit self-aware and self-referential about it: my burnt out P.I.-alike is constantly referring to what he "should" be doing according to sleuthing-tradition. It's therefore important that the Parlour Scene be played as straight and sincere as possible, if only so he can keep checking he's Doing It Right.

So. As far as I can see, having read a few classic mysteries, watched some movies, etc, the ideal way of playing this stuff goes like this:

1. The suspects are assembled at the request of the Sleuth.
2. The Sleuth welcomes them and - on the grounds of some conceit or other - proceeds to dissemble all his findings.
3. Red-herrings are traditionally presented as Genuine Solutions (often with a direct accusation towards a suspect) -- only for the Sleuth to reveal he/she wasn't fooled for an instant, and the accused is innocent after all.
4. The Sleuth eventually begins telling the "true" version of events. Even then, it's often insinuated until the VERY LAST INSTANT that the culprit is someone other than it really is.
5. The real killer is finally fingered. Generally there's an altercation, denial or tantrum before guilt is proven, often by the killer inadvertently shooting themselves in the foot by revealing some hitherto unknown detail in anger.
6. The killer soliloquises briefly - either to steal-back a fraction of the reader's sympathy, or simply to give a rendition of "and I woulda gotten away with it too, if not for you pesky kids..."

And that's that, bar the fat lady having a warble.

But, as I'm quickly discovering, the REAL horror of writing one of these bastards is the linkage between each of those points. How does the sleuth seamlessly glide from one red-herring to the next, without boring his listeners or making it sound like he's reading from a list? IThe whole thing has to be smooth; organic, yet without looking like twenty pages of solid block speech. It is, for want a better phrase, Doing My Nut. Earlier today I found myself unconsciously making one of the assembled suspects roll his eyes and tell the P.I. to get to the bloody point.

Worse, it was the murderer himself.

So I'm wondering if any of you fine righteous writernauts have any advice, anecdotes, or helpful methods of committing literary suicide. In other words:


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I avoid such scenes at all costs. Revelations come in bits and pieces, and sometimes in dialogue.
You could always write a "red herring" parlor scene. Very tongue-in-cheek. Keep your murderer's reaction. And let the screw-up be a lesson in humility for your protag!
I like Christa's suggestion; it would be pretty funny to have the sleuth screw up the logic, to have it untwisted and untangled by The Ingenue or Jeeves or an observant plumber on housecall who sees the significance of the cherry pits in the ashtray next to Major Cadwallader.

Many plot-makers work backwards, starting with the conclusion and diffusing the clues and Scarlet Smackerals as they retrace their steps to the start of the outline. All LAW & ORDER screenplays are done this way, I'm told.

But "avoiding such scenes at all costs" is the surest way to avoid their coincident pains.
Appreciate the suggestions, ta.

It's not so much the nuts-and-bolts of the Denoument itself - that's all been very carefully plotted for a long long time. And as much as I like the idea of the Sleuth buggering it all up, I'm afraid that won't work within the confines of the plot.

My problem is more about finding some convenient narrative conceit which allows him to move from explaining Red Herring #1, to Red Herring #2, and on to Genuine Solution #3, without it looking like a list being read out from a clipboard.

I think it's probably just one of those things I'll have to keep on chipping away at until it seems right.
Ah. Sorry.

How about; greatly-fraught character starts screaming about the danger s/he's in; protagonist says no; screaming continues about how could protag possibly know s/he's not in danger (other characters enter to see what screaming's about); quietly, protag quietly says s/he knows what happened and is now only waiting for The Authorities/dawn/phone repair/invention of steam car to arrest the guilty parties; screamer screams more, attracts still more/other characters to location, attacks protagonist as a liar; protagonist comes under considerable pressure to explain for the sake of the safety of the innocent (if there are any).

I'd want to play it for laughs, I think.
Hey - that could work. Or something like it... Cheers!
Feel free - I'll probably use it, too - including the plumber and the cherry pits.
You've set yourself quite a task. When done well, the parlour scene works beautifully. I'd only suggest that you throw in lots of alcohol. In the parlour aren't the suspects always having drinks. And the guilty person has too many. Or maybe the PI has too many! Anyway, have fun with it.
It just struck me - if you set the location as a House Of Ill Repute, it could be a genuine %$#@ing Parlour!
Heh - great suggestions, all.

Unfortunately the nature of this novel prevents me from deviating too far from the established tropes. Without giving too much away, the story is a 100% Traditional, Sticking-to-the-rules Agatha Christie stylee murder mystery, which happens to be set in...

Well. Somewhere very very odd. Which provides us with all the weirdosity and convention-breaking we need.

The idea has been to try and play it competely straight whilst stuck in a thoroughly bizarre scenario. Imagine Poirot trying to present his findings in a paleolithic swamp, or Miss Marple solving murders in hell. It's that sort of vibe: trying to play by the rules in the face of obvious oddity.

So I find myself forced to try and get the parlour scene absolutely right - in the traditional sense. I strongly suggest anyone tempted towards murder mysteries steers weeeeell clear. It's like pulling teeth.


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