The day before Thanksgiving is not really a good one to go on a tirade. And yet my poor assistant (who, mark my words, will some day be a superb editor) just had to listen to me rant and rave about a manuscript that was absolutely stellar for its first 175 pages, and then went downhill rapidly, horrifically, and tragically. Why?
Because a very suspenseful mystery story -- unique, intriguingly told, peopled with quirky and enigmatic characters -- turned into a completely banal detective story in which the protagonist began following her "hunches."
I think I've written in the past about my belief that writers can do anything as long as they do them well. But I'm going to make an exception in the case of hunches.
"Hunches" on which a plot turns, or on which the resolution of the mystery depends, are quite simply the result of poor, lazy writing. Period.
This is one of those areas where reality and fiction diverge. I think it's true that, in life, regular people as well as cops have hunches/intuitions/whatever you want to call them about a situation, and the hunch may be quite accurate. Perhaps a wife has a hunch that her husband is committing infidelities, or a boss has a hunch that an employee is embezzling. A cop may feel in his/her gut that a witness is lying or covering up for someone. I have hunches of my own all the time, and some of them do turn out to be pretty accurate.
But in too many mysteries, hunches are a crutch, a magical plot device that helps a lazy writer continue to move a story along. A good hunch simply eliminates all the hard work of plotting, laying clues, and placing red herrings. The story seems to have hit a dead end, and you still have 100 pages to write? Throw in a hunch and, shazam! The story is moving again.
I don't want to imply that intuition or hunches have no place in mystery fiction. My point is that I want these hunches fully explained or rationalized based on experience or research. For example, there is a good deal of research into the body language and communication style of liars: They fiddle with a piece of paper, they evade questions, they speak more hesitatingly than they do while speaking the truth. To go back to my earlier examples: The wife who suspects her husband of cheating probably has seen subtle evidence to back her hunch: he comes home late, has unexplained charges on his credit card bill, and so forth. The employer suspects the employee of embezzling because it follows a pattern he's seen in the past: The embezzler works later than everyone else, is at the office first thing in the morning, and never takes a vacation.
So when I'm reading a manucript, I want to know exactly what informs these "hunches" that cause the P.I to veer off wildly in a different direction. What evidence does the sleuth have (based on experience, or background, or discussions with colleagues) to change her thinking so drastically? I'm quite happy to let the basis for the hunch be explained a bit later on, after some brilliant sleuthing has been done, as long as the explanation is in there somewhere. But please! None of these amazingly accurate hunches that come out of nowhere, formed like Athena fully sprung from the head of Zeus with no explanation regarding the conception.