A Few Thought On Spoilers – Part Two – What Can Be Said

Last time, I intended to write about spoilers in general, in particular what I consider spoilers to be and hence what I try to avoid writing or reading about. And yes, please feel free to browse my back catalogue to find countless examples of me doing the complete opposite to what I’m saying here. Anyway, I ended up writing loads (for me) about the one great twist at the end and decided to leave that post there. So this time I’m going to focus on the classic mystery novel.

The thing is, no matter how careful one is when writing a review, it’s virtually impossible to avoid hints that the armchair sleuth is going to pick up on. Even when I try and say as little as possible, you readers are experts at doing the deductive equivalent of differential calculus and at times, may be able to find clues in what I write – I know of at least one such reader, so there’s probably more. So I’ll take a moment to wholeheartedly apologise if I’ve ever directed the reader in the right direction to solve a mystery novel. As you know, that’s never been the intention.

Anyway, the idea today is to look at various aspects of the mystery novel and discuss how much you would want to know in advance of reading the book. And for simplicities sake, I mean the classic whodunit type novel.

The Murderer

Obviously nobody wants to know the name of the murderer, but there are many books where there is more than one culprit. I try and never draw attention to this fact. The difficulty comes with something like The ABC Murders – and this ties into the previous post. Is it safe to say that this is more than just the tale of a random nutter (who we meet early in the book) working his way through the ABC Railway Guide? You’d expect that from Dame Agatha, but should it be mentioned? Even by just describing the book as a good mystery, this is heavily implied.

In fact there’s an additional issue here as sometimes authors in later books spoil the murderer in earlier books. Kerry Wilkinson and Nev Fountain are two authors that spring to mind, both pointing out the nonsense in detectives referring cryptically to previous cases, whilst Sharon Bolton makes real efforts to hide the ending of Now You See Me despite it having major repercussions for her heroine Lacey Flint in the rest of the books. Even Dame Agatha wasn’t immune, happily blowing Murder On The Orient Express wide open with an off-hand (and unnecessary) comment in Cards On The Table. Personally it annoys me, but that’s why I try to read books in order.

The Victim

You might think it’s fair game to name the victim, but if it happens well into the narrative (say, more than 30% in), should it be mentioned? I’d rather not if I can help it as, despite the blurb probably naming the victim, the author may not have intended it to be obvious. Personally, I’ll make a judgment call. I prefer my victims dead in the first chapter, to be honest. And as for future victims? Should the reviewer mention that there are more deaths, the names or even the number of future victims? I try and use phrases like “the murderer hasn’t finished their plan yet” to get round this, but even then – there are many classic mysteries where the murder happens and then Poirot talks to people until he works it out and in the meantime, the killer does nothing apart from wait, wishing he’d waited until Poirot had gone home… Would you want to know that it’s that sort of mystery (i.e. usually a dull one)? Or would referring to it as dull and uneventful give that away too?

The Plot

Again, if the crime occurs late in the book, should the nature of the crime be described? Any Carr locked room probably needs describing in the review but some of the impossibilities occur quite late. Again, I try and use the 30% rule but this can preclude a lot of information that is well known about the book. For example, should I not mention that Poirot is in The Clocks as he turns up pretty late in the day? Or Miss Marple in At Bertram’s Hotel? Of course not, they’re advertised as containing those sleuths, but there are plenty of developments in stories that the reader should discover for themselves.

Another difficulty here is when reviewing a later book in a series that carries on events from a previous one. By describing the beginning of this one, I may be hinting at the end of the previous one. I do try and take care with these, but it’s not always possible.

My Opinion

Which, of course, I can’t avoid. But some of you have read a lot of my reviews and know what I like. If I describe a book as clever, then it can have the same effect as the “it’s got a great twist” announcement. If I describe the book as using an old trick – even if I don’t say any more than that – you can probably guess what the trick is, especially if it’s Dame Agatha, who has a default trick that she uses over and over again when she’s not trying as hard as she can. If there’s something nonsensical – such as in a certain Poirot novel that I reviewed here – then it’s hard to mention my problem with it without hinting at details. In fact, re-reading that review, it’s chockful of hints. But in my defence, I wrote it three years ago. What is less acceptable is the idea that as I didn’t like it, I was probably less careful at observing my own nebulous rules.

Everyone’s got a different tolerance for what they want to know about a mystery novel, so there’s no pleasing all of the people all of the time. And it’s an impossible job to have hard and fast rules. But my personal guidelines are roughly as follows:

  1. Any event over 25% into the book is not mentioned in any detail.
  2. Try not to say anything spoiler-y in my summing up of the book.
  3. Apologise if I do spoil something.

Oh, and don’t show the covers to my copy of My Late Wives by Carter Dickson or The Crimson Fog by Paul Halter as they’ve got massive spoilers on them – the first for part of the solution to the mystery, the second for where the plot goes in the second part of the tale. And btw, those links go to the covers – you have been warned…


  1. Your rules sound very good. I don’t know if I always stick to them, but I try to keep anything that happens after the first quarter out of the review. And I agree a summing up is good if it avoids spoilers, because you can skip to that point if you are very sensitive to spoilers, and still get the general opinion of the reviewer.

    And it is hard sometimes to explain what you did not like without giving some details that might be spoilerish.

    Another great post.


  2. Wow. I didn’t click the Crimson Fog one because I’m hoping to read it, but that My Late Wives cover is… certainly a bold choice!

    Although actually I do think you can get away with very bold cluing on a cover. I rarely notice book covers beyond things I need to identify them when I’ve put them down (like colour, etc.). I didn’t notice that my cover of Appointment With Death reveals the solution to the mystery until long after I’d read it, for example. I quite like the idea of having the solution clued in plain sight like that.

    However, I think that only applies if the author personally designs (or approves) the cover…

    The ABC Murders is exactly the book I was thinking about earlier when I read your other posts. It’s presented as a certain type of mystery, but given that Dame Agatha NEVER wrote that kind of mystery, is it reasonable to infer there’s something else going on there? But what if it’s someone’s first Christie? But then what if any given book is someone’s first mystery?

    At some point you just need to pick a cut-off point of what level of mystery expertise you expect your baseline reader to have and then use that to infer what would constitute a spoiler. How on earth you decide that though, I don’t know. My way to circumvent that was to have only the most neutral description on the front page and then (potentially) full spoilers when people follow the link to the main post. That works well for criticism and analysis, but a lot less well for reviews.


  3. “In fact, re-reading that review, it’s chockful of hints.”
    Yes, on reading that review, I could easily make out what each SPOILER word stands for and which Ellery Queen novel you are referring to.


    • As a reviewer, I felt that I had to take issue with the notion that it is of that ilk – the Wikipedia entry at the time had it heralded as Agatha’s only attempt at it (which is of course blatantly wrong for two reasons). Maybe next time I’ll just edit Wikipedia.


  4. Regarding the cover of My Late Wives, I have the same copy (Berkley Medallion, 1967). It never conveyed anything to me till you specifically brought it to my attention !


  5. All the very good points. Overall, I think one should use spoiler warnings, and then spoil to the extent necessary, but only if you can’t make your point any other way. I have done it very rarely and I agree that it is a mistake to assume everybody will have read it before (that goes for Christie on CARDS ON THE TABLE too)


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