In “Indian Camp,” the first story in Hemingway’s first book, In Our Time, a boy and his father paddle out on a lake to an island where a pregnant Native American woman is having a hard labor. The boy is shocked both by her suffering and by the general poverty of the camp. He waits as his father, a doctor, helps deliver the baby; the boy doesn’t pay attention—nor do we—to the woman’s husband lying on a nearby bunk. Unable to endure the sound of his wife’s birth pains or his certainty of the new child’s miserable prospects, the man slits his own throat. But the author only lets us see this late in the tale; most of the way we think the story is about the boy and his father. All along, without our even noticing, another more pressing series of events has been unfolding right under our eyes.
In literary terminology this kind of manipulation of our attention is aptly named “misdirection.” The term describes a technique of prestidigitation, or sleight of hand: a skillful pickpocket might distract a victim by knocking against her shoulder, directing her attention there and away from the pants pocket. A magician draws attention to his sleeves—Look! Nothing up my sleeves!—so the audience doesn’t look at the real hiding place of his next prop. But it’s just as common in narratives, found in mysteries and TV cop shows and all manner of stories, short and long.
In Somerset Maugham’s classic short story “Rain,” for example, we follow the state of a prostitute’s soul, wondering whether the zealous missionary will succeed in “saving” her from her sins. Only at the very end do we realize that the person whose moral fortitude has been on the line all along is not the prostitute but the missionary; he, not she, is the one we should have had our eye on. This is one of the pleasures of narrative misdirection: the discovery that the information we needed was right before us, yet we didn’t see it. It can give a story a satisfying sense of both inevitability and surprise. To find that our attention was in the wrong place adds another dimension to the sense of reality evoked by the narrative. The writer invites our attention to a foreground, but something is also moving in the background. When we see that, our perspective shifts and expands, and that feels good. There is a rightness to it, like the tumblers inside a lock falling into place, allowing it to open.
For a mystery writer, misdirection is as essential a tool as a hammer for a carpenter. In one of the early classics of the form, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes disappears for a long stretch, leaving an outmatched Dr. Watson on his own with the likely murderer. Only later on, at a moment of high tension, do we discover, with terrific relief, that the gardener of the household where Watson has been sequestered was none other than Holmes himself in disguise. He has been there—once again—all along.
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