Mystery Factory


Creating Clues

Clues for the Clueless!

“At least half the mystery novels published violate the law that the solution, once revealed, must seem to be inevitable.”
– Raymond Chandler (1948)





Clues are the pieces of information that must fit together, like pieces of a puzzle, to arrive at the solution of the mystery.

In ‘fairplay’ mysteries, where the reader gets to work along side the protagonist, clues are the most vital part of your plot. You have to know what different kinds of clues there are, how to make them, what you need them for and how to present them in such a way as to distract your reader.

One very useful bit of information in creating clues is ‘Locard’s Exchange Principal‘. Edmond Locard, born in 1877 France, was a pioneer of forensic science. He was the originator of searching for ‘trace evidence’, stating “Every contact leaves a trace”. For the sake of a basic cluetrail, this means the villain always takes something way from the scene of the crime, and he/she also, always leaves something behind. (The funny thing about this picture of Locard, is that on the original, someone left a fingerprint on the negative and it got developed. You can see it just behind Locard’s head. Life has a sense of humour. Haha.)

Paul L. Kirk (1902 – 1970) the late chemist and forensic scientist says it like this:
“Wherever he steps, wherever he touches, whatever he leaves, even without consciousness, will serve as a silent witness against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibers from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches, the blood or semen he deposits or collects. All of these and more, bear mute witness against him. This is evidence that does not forget. It is not confused by the excitement of the moment. It is not absent because human witnesses are. It is factual evidence. Physical evidence cannot be wrong, it cannot perjure itself, it cannot be wholly absent. Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its value.” The above poster is from a 1947 article “Criminalists: Catching Criminals by a Hair” by Andrew Boone.

Trace Evidence is only one type of clue.

Clues can also be journals or emails, lies or alibis, photos or facebook posts. They can be information or lack of information. A person acting out of character is a clue. There are also false clues aka (also known as) Red Herrings.

Red Herrings

The phrase ‘Red Herring’ comes from Medieval Times when fugitives would drag a red herring (smoked mackeral) across their path to confuse or distract the hounds who were chasing them.

Now it refers to the device of misleading readers in mystery stories.

There are two elements to a Red Herring:

It must seem to provide a compelling information for the solution and then why it is not valid.
Remember that Red Herrings must also have a legitimate explanation. Loose ends in mysteries means you will lose readers or your audience because they will feel cheated on.


Around the time that the 1800s turned into the 1900s, fingerprints were beginning to be considered as a reliable means of identification. It was 1905 when they were first used as evidence in a major murder trial in England. Fingerprints can be used as clues as well as red herrings (false clues to mislead  investigators). The following two illustrations are advertisements for the Institute of Applied Sciences placed in Popular Mechanics magazines in the mid 1900s. Look closely at the large fingerprint. Can you find the words hidden there?


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