May 23 – 29: “What is the best clue you’ve inserted into a novel?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Clues foreshadow how plots unfold and characters react. This week we ask ITW Members Susana CalkinsJean Heller, Jean Harrington and Lisa Preston what is the best clue you’ve inserted into a novel?



hellerMost of Jean Heller’s career was as an investigative and projects reporter and editor in New York City, Washington, D.C. and St. Petersburg Florida. Her career as a novelist began in the 1990s with the publication of the thrillers, Maximum Impact and Handyman by St. Martin’s Press. Then life intervened and postponed her new book, The Someday File, to publication in late 2014. Jean has won the Worth Bingham Prize, the Polk Award, and is an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.



death alongSusanna Calkins writes the Lucy Campion mysteries, set in 17th century England. Her books have been nominated for several awards; her third—The Masque of a Murderer (Minotaur Books, 2015)—was shortlisted for the Mary Higgins Clark Award, the Agatha for Best Historical Mystery, and the Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award. Her fourth book—A Death Along the River Fleet—was released April 12, 2016. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she lives outside Chicago now with her husband and two sons.



OrchidsLisa Preston turned to writing after careers as a fire department paramedic and a city police officer. Experience in her earlier professions enhance the medical and legal passages of her fiction and non-fiction. Her debut novel, Orchids and Stone, was released by Thomas & Mercer in April 2016, and has been described both as a thriller and as domestic noir. Her published work includes non-fiction books and articles on animals, particularly the care and training of dogs and horses. Away from her desk, she spends hours on backcountry trails as a runner and rider, sometimes combining her two outdoor pursuits via the obscure sport of Ride and Tie.


Design_is_Murder_cover_SJean Harrington swears she ingested ink as an infant, for words are in her blood. Her first job was writing advertising copy for Reed & Barton, Silversmiths, and Jean claims she has the spoons to prove it. Then for 17 years, she taught English literature at Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts. After moving to Naples, she began dreaming of murder—and the award winning Murders by Design Mystery Series is the result. Currently working on a new series, Jean is up to her knees in dead bodies and loving every minute of it.



  1. I think the very best clue I ever put into a mystery or thriller was in the first few pages of my very first book, MAXIMUM IMPACT (Forge) in 1993. The key to the story’s resolution was in the Prologue, and I was so certain that nobody would guess it, I offered hardcover buyers a double refund of the $23 cover price if they guessed what the Prologue meant before they got to the end of the story.

    I operated on the honor system, yet despite that, plus outstanding reviews, good sales numbers, and a great deal of marketing –meaning a lot of people read the book and could have guessed correctly or cheated – no one did.

    A number of people wrote to me or told me in person that all the while they were reading, they kept wondering about the significance of the Prologue, but the truth never occurred to them.

    An updated version of MAXIMUM IMPACT will be released next fall, and I’m toying with the idea of making the refund offer again.

    The line between a mystery and a thriller is sometimes blurry. I’ve heard as many definitions of the two as there are people espousing them. But in either case, if the perpetrator is unknown, then part of the fun for the reader is trying to guess who the bad guy is before the author reveals it. I have read some authors who don’t understand the concept of giving the reader a chance to unravel the case along with the protagonist.

    The shorthand version of this lecture is: Don’t end the book by disclosing that the butler did it if there’s never been a butler in the story. That’s not only an anti-clue, it is unsatisfying storytelling. But this is a principle of writing I’m sure everyone on this week’s panel knows already.

  2. The clue I had the most fun creating occurs in the opening scene of The Design Is Murder, book #5 in the Murders by Design series. From his prison cell, Mike Hammerjack, a convicted felon, writes the following letter,

    To Mrs. Deva Dunne,

    My name is Number 24601. I’m also known as Mike Hammerjack,
    a guest of Florida State Prison. I’m in for embezzlement, 10 to 20,
    with time off for good behavior. After a few detours you don’t want
    to hear about, I’m trying to do my best. That’s why I’m writing to ask
    a favor, not for me, for my fellow inmates. Like me, most of these guys
    don’t belong behind bars, but that’s another story.

    As a reward for cooperation, some of us work in the carpenter shop,
    Making custom-designed furniture—chairs, benches, tables, desks
    —mostly out of pine, in different finishes.

    Here’s where you come in. Everything we make is up for sale at
    very reasonable prices with the money going to prisoners’ families.
    Little kids, exes, etc. I read an article about you in Design Magazine
    and hope you can use our pieces in some of your projects.

    If you’re interested, contact Warden Bill Finney here at
    Florida State, and he’ll send you pictures and info about our

    You won’t be sorry. Sincerely yours,
    Mike Hammerjack, President
    Help-a-Con Program

    Amateur sleuth Deva runs an interior design business, and Mike is convinced she can help him and his fellow cons sell their furniture. Without putting a spoiler in here, she’s a lot more help to him than he expects, and he’s a lot more trouble than she ever dreamed possible. She also has no idea that Mike’s prison number, 24601, is famous—it was Jean Valjean’s in Les Miserables.

    Though the Florida prison system doesn’t offer woodworking classes to its inmates, other states do, so using poetic license, I grafted that opportunity onto the Florida system. Otherwise, Deva would be clueless about receiving a letter from Mike Hammerjack, AKA,

    BTW, The Design Is Murder was a winner in the 2014 Florida Book Awards. You can find it on Amazon.

  3. This is fun. Foreshadowing is such terrific way to build up to revelations or conclusions in character or action that surprise, yet fit perfectly and satisfy the reader. In Orchids and Stone, the unarmed, petite female protagonist’s method of winning final physical confrontation with an armed man is foreshadowed by several different characters and settings: her boyfriend jokes about pushing the refrigerator over on a hostile person, she recalls an old man’s thrilled encouragement to his granddaughter playing co-ed T-ball, and when she began work as a roofer and was hauling bundles of shingles up a ladder, a co-worker told her to use her legs (as opposed to relying solely on upper body strength).
    Perhaps the best clue I’ve inserted is the underlying conflict in my novel The Measure of the Moon (coming 2017 from Thomas & Mercer) in which a traumatized child’s dilemma also serves as the gotcha for another character who becomes responsible for concealing or revealing a secret truth on the last page.

  4. These are such fun examples! I try to use a variety of unusual clues (murder ballads, miniature “eye portraits,” a scold’s bridle!) in my books. The clue that I put the most thought into–and was by far the hardest to create–was in my second book, FROM THE CHARRED REMAINS. This clue was in the form of a letter, found in a little bag that held the winnings of the last game of cards played at a pub before it was burned down by the Great Fire of London in 1666. The bag was discovered on the person of a murdered man. Every item in the bag contained clues to discovering both the identity of the victim, and his killer. So the letter was actually in verse, and contained both an acrostic and a series of anagrams. That clue took me about 2 months to get right! I must admit, I never tried to create a puzzle QUITE so ambitious after that!

  5. That does sound ambitious, Susanna. I think Jean H 1’s offer was bold and I love Jean H2’s use of Valjean’s convict number. It would be grand to hear from other writers about their clues. Maybe this could morph into a good discussion of foreshadowing technique. I love subtle hints. A friend set the scene of one sister arriving at another’s home with descriptions of a half-caned chair on the porch, pruning shears next to an overgrown rose and the like–she was showing us that the sisters had unfinished business.

    1. Yes, Lisa, if the clues are subtle and clever, they usually work–that is, intrigue and entertain, by the very nature that they’re not obvious.

  6. Jean Harrington, What a terrific premise! I’m intrigued enough to buy and find out now. 🙂
    The best clues I’ve inserted were in the prologue of my debut romantic suspense. Once you read the novel and go back and reread the prologue it’s a forehead slapping moment.

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