Sunday, July 12, 2009

Let's Twist Again by Hank Phillippi Ryan

Award-winning investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan is currently on the air at Boston's NBC affiliate, where she's broken big stories for the past 22 years. Her stories have resulted in new laws, people sent to prison, homes removed from foreclosure, and millions of dollars in refunds and restitution for consumers.

Along with her 26 EMMYs, Hank’s won also won dozens of other journalism honors. She's been a legislative aide in the United States Senate (working on the Freedom of Information Act) and at Rolling Stone Magazine (working with Hunter S. Thompson).

Her first mysteries, Prime Time (which won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel, was a double RITA nominee for Best First Book and Best
Romantic Suspense Novel, a DAPHNE finalist and a Reviewers' Choice Award Winner) and Face Time (Book Sense Notable Book), were best sellers. They were re-issued this June and July from MIRA Books. The next in the series are Air Time (MIRA/August 25, 2009) (Sue Grafton says: "Sassy, fast-paced and appealing. This is first-class entertainment.") and Drive Time (MIRA February 2010.)

Her website is

Let’s Twist Again

by Hank Phillippi Ryan

Here’s the scene you’ve got to imagine. Me, and my dear husband, side by side on the couch. (He looks a bit like Donald Sutherland, if that helps. Not scary-spooky Donald Sutherland, but nice Donald.) We have wine. Some little snacks. And a movie.

Jonathan clicks the remote to ‘play’. The mystery thriller—you pick the movie--whirrs into life. Opening credits, big opening scene, setting the stage and introducing the characters. About five minutes in, a woman enters the plot.

“Dead,” I say.

Jonathan pushes pause. “What?”

“Nothing, nothing,” I say, taking the remote and pushing play. “I’m just saying, she’s toast.”

Four minutes later: KABLAM. Jonathan takes a sip of wine. “Anyone could have predicted that,” he says. “Plus, you guessed.”

I shrug.

Soon after, someone who is someone’s friend/lover/teacher/husband/neighborhood cop arrives into our plot. “I like him for it,” I say. “Guilty Guilty Guilty.”

Jonathan, who I might add is a criminal defense attorney and more used to real-life murder than any of us, is not happy. Pauses the video again. “Can’t you just watch the movie? Can’t you just wait and see what happens?”

I push play. Of course, the answer is no. For the rest of the movie, I—mostly—keep my suspicions and guessing to myself. Unless I just can’t stand it.

“I’m…,” the almost-heroine says.

“Pregnant!” I yell.

“Pregnant,” she says.

“Ha!” I say, raising a victory fist. “The twist.”

Jonathan’s face is some combination of annoyed, impressed and affectionate. He’s married an investigative reporter turned mystery writer, and we can’t stand not to predict what’s going to happen. Or think of a way that it could happen better. Or happen more interestingly.

It may have started with Perry Mason. When I was a little girl, with a lawyer for a step-father, when Perry was on, there were rules. Like: total and absolute silence. My little sister and I were not allowed to ask things like—who’s that guy? What’s embezzlement? Why is she crying? If we wanted to watch Perry on our 17th inch Philco (or whatever it was) we had to be very, very quiet.

Even my dad was quiet. But my 12-year-old brain began to figure things out. Like—the pattern. Of course, you had a head start with Perry. His client, except for that one famous time (what was the name of the case he lost? Anyone?) was not guilty. And the most obvious second choice didn’t do it either. The twist was--it was always the third person, kind of the guy who was not in the forefront until abut two-thirds of the way in. And soon, I could always guess. And I was always right. Of course, I was never allowed to say it out loud.

((“Foreshadowing!” I say, all grown up now and on my own couch. “See the river in the background? Someone’s going to drown.”))

Figuring out Nancy Drew was a snap, even though I loved her. Sherlock Holmes? Yeah, even Arthur Conan Doyle had a pattern. I realized that after devouring every Holmes story I could find. It was kind of—a rhythm you could tap in to and figure out the end. Like Law and Order, right? They’re fun to watch. But get the rhythm, and you get the bad guy. (Tum TUM)

And when I read now, I still can’t just let go and let the author take me away. I do try. Try not to think ahead, nail the foreshadowing, find the clues, figure out whodunit before the author tells me. I always, always fail. (But that’s also why I don’t read mysteries while I’m writing. I can’t. I only want my story in my head. I don’t want to be trying to solve someone else’s puzzle.)

Of course, I don’t always guess the bad guy. And it doesn’t really matter. If I do, that’s okay. If the author has written a careful, fair and clever book, I give them props for that.

When I don’t, though, that’s just great. I go back through; looking for the clues I missed, seeing if it was fair. And when it is, when I’m fooled and deceived and misled, that’s the best.

Presumed Innocent, of course. And Roger Ackroyd. And movies the Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects.

But know what I’m wondering now? Is it fair to promise a “twist ending”? If I’m told there’s going to be a twist, I read the whole book differently. Looking for the twist. Which is somewhat distracting. Isn’t it twistier not to say so? All my promo material for Prime Time promises a twist ending. Which it does have. And people say they never guessed it. But I wonder—should I have left it a surprise? Or does promising a twist make it more of a challenge?

What do you think? Do you try to solve the puzzle as you read or watch? Or can you just—relax and get carried away? And if there’s a twist, do you want to know?


Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Hi all! How wonderful to be here...
Let's give away some books! (talk about suspense....)

Email me through "contact" on my website--put I LOVE KAYE BARLEY in the subject line--and I'll draw names for five winners of PRIME TIME! (If you've already read PT, bless you, and I'll send you FACE TIME!)

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

And if you've already read FACE TIME...sigh--how wonderful you are! Then I'll send you AIR TIME, as soon as my copies arrive!

Vicki Lane said...

Hey, Hank,

Great post! Yeah, one can always spot the dead meat character. It's a twist if the likeable, puppy dog of a buddy doesn't die.

You asked about reading preferences -- I start out always paying attention to clues etc. but, invariably, if the writing is really good, I give up and just let myself be swept along, enjoying the ride rather than holding myself outside of the story to analyze it.

But the writing has to be good.

Barbara Vey said...

I never want to know what's going to happen and obviously we could never watch a movie together. :)

I love twists, but I don't need to know they're coming. I want to be surprised so I walk around holding my hands over my ears saying, "Don't tell me!", a lot.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Vicki, that's great. Yup. You can often tell the characters with the targets on their backs.

Barbara, I just burst out laughing. I promise I wouldn't talk during the movie! And, my fellow journalist, if you keep your hands over your ears, how come you know EVERYTHING?

Helen K said...

I do like twists in a mystery but would not want the author to say read this book & look for the twist. A twist should be a surprise.

Anonymous said...

Make the twist a complete surprise. I laugh out loud when that happens. Pure delight, but only if I don't know it's coming.

Pat Browning

caryn said...

I like to try to solve the crime and I'm not disappointed if I get it figured out before it's solved in the book. I like twists, but I hate it when the twist is sort of thrown in to amke the solution work and doesn't play fair with the clues given!

Suzanne Adair said...

Fun post, Hank! My family hates watching a movie with me. Even if I keep my mouth shut and don't blurt out whodunit, the guys get an earful from me afterward: how the plot could have been improved or made more interesting.

Like you, I have a busy-bee mind that's always knitting the clues together. I've tried to just read or just watch, but I cannot quit making logical connections. Since I figure out whodunit most of the time, I now focus on figuring out "whydunit."

Suzanne Adair

Ken Lewis said...

My wife and I have "movie night" every Saturday night and I have just the opposite problem. JaNell seems to get confused a lot of the time and half way through a movie will frequently say things like, "OK, I don't get it. Is that friend of hers, who's the friend of that other guy he the one who killed her?" This, of course, is very annoying to me because not only have I figured out who the killer is at this point, I've also figured out how the script could have been written even better. So I usually answer her with something like, "No, it's the guy who was her guy friends' other friend's brother...the one who was wearing the Speedo? When they were all at that party, and his Speedo came off when he jumped in the pool to save that little kid?" My wife is a movie "interrupter." She's always leaving the movie to go to the bathroom, or let the dog outside, or answer the doorbell...that didn't ring. The look on her face will be priceless as she mulls it over for a minute, and then she'll say something like, "Hmmm. I don't even remember seeing that little kid. And when was this party?" And that, of course, is because he was never in the movie. And neither were there any Speedos, hehe.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Ken--I just burst out luaghing. I do wish I could watch a movie wiht you both.

Suzanne, I'm with you. Maybe we should "watch" movies together..and reading, well, that's a different deal. I can barely manage not to call some authors with my ideas of what they might have done. (I don't call, though...luckily for me. ANd them.)

Pat and Helen, yeah, exactly. If it's a twist, it should be a surprise. But remember how the movie trailers made a big deal about not telling the end of Sixth Sense? Even then, I didn't predict it. DId any of you?

L.J. Sellers said...

I'm with you. I try not to guess so I can enjoy the ride, but with movies it's so easy. And it's almost impossible not to blurt it out. My husband has not only learned to live with this, he now tries to get there first.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Absolutely, LJ. I mean--why not make it fun?

Camille Minichino said...

My husband and I also have tried to make it fun, since I can't stop myself!
One thing he's learned is that if a "guest star" is famous, or even just a regular on shows, he probably did it!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Ken--I meant "laughing." (It came out sounding like a party you'd go to in Hawaii. Sigh. Typos.) But I'm still laughing.

Oh, Camille--very wise!