Hamptons Whodunit: Chasing Red Herrings Down Rabbit Holes

John Searles will be in the Hamptons Mystery & Crime Festival, Hamptons Whodunit
John Searles
Thomas Caruso

A lot of whodunits share a common narrative arc. As a reader, you think you have things pretty much figured out. But then you run into a red herring that sends the story spinning off in an unpredictable new direction.

Of course, the unexpected is exactly what whodunit fans are expecting. It’s all very meta.

A featured session at this week’s Hamptons Mystery & Crime Festival will ask some salient questions about the nature of unexpected plot twists and red herrings.

“Plot Twists Versus Murder Mysteries: Telling Gripping Crime Stories” is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 15. According to its creator, Abby Endler, the session’s intent is to encourage panelists and attendees to deconstruct some of the classic conventions of the crime and mystery genre.

“There’s been so much discussion within the broad umbrella of the crime genre about how these stories are told,” says Endler, a crime and mystery blogger and one of the principal curators of the festival. “I think that books like (Gillian Flynn’s) Gone Girl, for example, have brought the plot twist front and center. Obviously, these aren’t new inventions. Agatha Christie had some incredible plot twists back in the day. But they’re elements which I think have become more top of mind for crime readers, especially in the past few years.”

Get a group of writers — particularly a group of crime and mystery writers — together on stage for an unscripted discussion centered around a relatively broad topic and you never know what might happen. But if Endler has her way, panelists Greer Hendricks, Clare Mackintosh, John Searles and Stacy Willingham will do their best to address the organizing question of the session.

“I really want to get these authors talking about the role that these plot twists play in their stories,” Endler emphasizes. “Is it something that they feel pressured to include while they’re crafting their books? Do they think that a great crime novel can exist without a plot twist? Is there still space in the genre for a traditional murder mystery?”

“To me, the idea of a ‘murder mystery’ covers the entire scope and genre of a certain kind of book, but ‘plot twists’ are how a writer keeps the reader hooked and compelled to turn the next page,” says session panelist John Searles. “Part of the fun of writing a mystery is creating false leads, then spinning the story around in unexpected moments so nothing is what it seems. I love it when a reader tells me that the plot twist in my book made their jaw drop.”

Of course, the big plot twist is only one weapon in the crime and mystery writer’s arsenal. In separate conversations, Searles and fellow panelist Stacy Willingham both mentioned the importance of setting in their work, emphasizing the idea that when and where the action takes place is a powerful storytelling tool in its own right.

“I always start with character, voice and place — and then the plot twists grow out of that,” says Searles.

Willingham also draws inspiration from settings, using the notion of place not only as a vital part of her stories, but also as something approaching a character unto itself.

“In my latest book, All the Dangerous Things, my protagonist, Isabelle, is a very haunted character,” says Willingham, who is participating in multiple sessions at the festival. “She’s haunted by past decisions that she regrets, she’s haunted by memories of her childhood she doesn’t fully understand … and I thought, what better place to put a character like that than in Savannah, Georgia, which is supposedly the most haunted city in America? I tried to use the setting to evoke ghosts hovering over Isabelle’s shoulder at any given second.”

Searles, who splits his time between Sag Harbor and Manhattan, points out that Her Last Affair, his most recent book, was inspired by an old abandoned drive-in theater in Rocky Point that he often passes on his drive west from Sag to the Port Jefferson Ferry.

“Whenever I pass it, I always wonder what it was like in its heyday,” he says. “The place is so eerie and evocative: the old sign, the old entrance tied up with a chain …”

His interest in drive-ins ultimately led Searles to stumble on a piece of Hamptons real estate history that East End locals of a certain age may remember.

“While writing the book, I discovered there used to be a drive-in right in Bridgehampton,” he says. “It opened on July 1, 1955 with Clark Gable in Soldier of Fortune and Greer Garson in Strange Lady in Town. It was demolished in the 1980s and the Bridgehampton Commons shopping center was built on the spot.“

Though Searles still owns a home in Manhattan’s West Village, he spends the lion’s share of his time in Sag Harbor these days — which arguably qualifies him as a fully vested Hamptons local, and almost certainly makes him the author with the shortest commute to the festival, where he’ll be participating in multiple panel discussions.

“There’s a long tradition of all sorts of writers gravitating to the Hamptons,” he notes, name-checking a small sample of literary lions with East End connections. “From John Steinbeck to Betty Friedan to Kurt Vonnegut to Truman Capote, it’s a lot of fun to have a festival with a focus on mystery and thriller writers gathering here.”

For tickets and more information, visit hamptonswhodunit.com.