Secret Prey — Behind the Scenes

Mysteries and Thrillers

Mysteries and thrillers are very different types of stories, and they do not need to be related. You can have a thriller without any mystery elements, and you can have a mystery that doesn't have any thrills. At least, in principle [1].
And while there are often differences in tone between the two, they're not part of the definition. Mysteries tend to be slower, but they don't need to be. They also tend to have enough clues that the reader can figure out the identity of the villain before the hero does, but that's more of a concession to fairness. There are some mysteries that do not play fair. Conversely, thrillers tend to be fast and action-packed, with few unknowns, leaping from exciting set piece to exciting set piece. But it's possible to have suspense unfold slowly, yet still be gripping [2].
The truth is that most novels that get classified into the mystery or thriller genres don't fit neatly into just one category. It's hard to find a mystery that doesn't contain some element of suspense or action. It's substantially easier to find a thriller that doesn't contain any elements of mystery [3].
The big dividing line between them — a big, hazy line that is so blurry that in some cases it may as well not even exist — has nothing to do with tone, or writing style, or what the characters are like, or crime. It's all about information. Specifically, the information the characters have, versus the information that the audience has. If the audience has all of the information, then it's not a mystery, regardless of whether or not the protagonist knows anything. It's a thriller. On the flip side of things, if there is any information that is being withheld from the audience, then there's an undeniable mystery element [4].
The Prey novels fall heavily on the thriller side of the line. A few of them contain no mystery element at all: in Rules of Prey, we know everything the Maddog is doing, at the same time we know everything Lucas is doing. The characters don't have all that information, so for Lucas, there's a mystery. But for we, the audience, there is not. We're watching Lucas trying to unravel clues, making mistakes, turning left when he should go right, yelling at him when he screwed up through no real fault of his own. There's a lot of suspense, but there's no mystery.
Alfred Hitchcock said once that suspense was when the audience knew there was a bomb under a table, but the characters did not, and had a perfectly ordinary conversation, unknowing, right next to it [5].
The Prey novels are thrillers, and are suspenseful. Most of the time we see everything that's going on, from every side of the equation. There's nothing the audience doesn't see. In a few cases, the audience sees things that literally nobody in the book sees. We learn the fate of people who are never found, we learn what happened to this bit of evidence or how some clue came to be, and it's information that nobody could possibly know. So there are no mysteries.
Except sometimes.
The first book that had a mystery element was Winter Prey, and it revolved, as most of these things do, around the identity of the villain [6]. He was called the Iceman — a term used by nobody in the book, but used by the author to identify the villain to the audience — so the author could still show thrilling action sequences involving him, without letting the audience know who he really is.
This book, Secret Prey is the second Prey book that has a real mystery, and it unfolds about the same way. In Winter Prey, the big reveal, when the police and the audience finally learn who the killer is, happens in the last quarter of the book. Here, it's more around the halfway point, and it's a bit of a shock, because it's not who the audience suspects. Well, fair enough: most mysteries have apparent villains who turn out not to be that, clues that go nowhere, facts that look sinister while in truth being mundane. But in this case, it's not just a twist that's meant to surprise the audience. It's a twist that surprised the author, because it wasn't what he planned, but it worked so much better.
I'm going to have a lot of spoilers now, so if you haven't read the book, and still want the mystery, stop reading now. Otherwise you'll learn that the Titanic sinks, that Darth Vader is Luke's father, that Thelma and Louise actually survived [7], and that Lucas converts to Mormonism in Temple Prey [8].
Okay. In the book, the most obvious suspect — and thus least likely, thanks to mystery tropes saying that the bad guy is never the one you expect — is Wilson McDonald. He's a bully, he's got anger issues, he's strong, he abuses his wife terribly [9], he's kind of dim, and his career has been helped by a number of tragedies that the police only find out about later.
But the problem is not just that he's obvious, but that, well, he's kind of dim. A lot of the killings took more than just the act of doing it. They took serious planning, and serious caution, both things that are alien to McDonald's mindset. He's too direct. He's too linear. He's too stupid everyone thinks, to have actually done it.
That's a valid approach, but it misses an important thing: if you don't know what the bad guy has planned, it's possible to mistake being luck for skill. And that's what McDonald was: violent, driven by rage, kind of dim, and extremely lucky. He's not thinking the crimes out particularly far in advance — he may be carrying out some of them while literally drunk — but so far it's worked. For whatever reason, the fates have smiled.
That might not be satisfactory for mystery readers, because they're expecting certain conventions to be followed. Having someone get away with things through luck is not good form in mysteries. It's cheating.
But it's completely acceptable in thrillers [10].
This would come back to haunt the author in Easy Prey, because he sets up a classic mystery form, and then breaks all the rules. He absolutely does not play fair. That pisses off mystery readers, or regular readers who at least are playing along with the conventions of mystery stories. But, again, does it work as a thriller? Absolutely.
But about halfway through, the author realized that he had overlooked the main villain. It wasn't Wilson McDonald at all. It was his terribly-abused wife. Not only did she make for a more complex villain — she's more cunning, more driven, more manipulative by far, and she has a horrible and tragic backstory that Lucas can spend a few chapters uncovering — but she was also right there the whole time. To the reader, she's the more obvious villain, and the one the police simply don't know about. If Wilson McDonald had died at some point, everyone would just pin the crime on him and the wife would get away. Nobody would even know.
So he went that way. He changed the killer's point-of-view sections, but it didn't take much — they were already deliberately vague to enhance the mystery element — and he changed a few other crucial bits of dialogue, and the timing of a few events, but otherwise the book continued as written. Just not as he had planned.
It also gave the two things it was missing before: a big twist and a solid third act.
It also gave the book something that hadn't been in the series at all: a main villain who was a woman. She's as crazy as the Maddog, as driven as the Crows. She's a classic Prey villain, but she's the first one who's a woman [11].
She would not be the last.

The Pinking Shears Incident

There are two distant background sub-plots in this book. One involves an opium ring made up entirely of old ladies. They grow opium poppies themselves, to mix into their tea. It's played for laughs, a recurring joke.
The other is that there are a few references to Del and the pinking shears. Few facts are known, but it gets mentioned a few times. Other than the fact that a woman evidently did something to him and pinking shears were involved, we know nothing about it. The rest of the cops, who know the whole story, think it's the most hilarious and crazy thing ever. Del is mostly just pissed off [12].
It's not a true literary mystery — it's too small, and most of the people involved know exactly what happened — so it's more like a joke/surprise sort of mystery. When someone tells a joke, the punchline is the mystery. So it's just a matter of waiting for the punchline.
It never arrived.
The author never explained the pinking shears incident. It was never meant to be a big deal. It was a small bit of idle cop banter about something mildly embarrassing that happened between Sudden Prey and this novel.
The fans would not — could not — accept that. They demanded an explanation. What happened with Del and the pinking shears?
So he inserted another reference to it into the next book. And the next one. And the next. The fans anticipated this, but wanted the punchline. They wanted to know what had happened. Some assumed that they must have missed a book, the one with the pinking shears incident. They hadn't. There was no such book, and there was no punchline.
And there never will be.
Decades ago, in the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes there are occasional references to "the noodle incident". We, the audience, never learn what it was about, except that evidently it was horrible, was entirely Calvin's fault, and (presumably) involved noodles. Whenever it is mentioned, Calvin's immediate response is to yell "That wasn't my fault!"
The noodle incident was never explained. It doesn't need to be. It's funnier without the explanation. Similarly, the pinking shears incident never has been explained, and it never will be. It's funnier that way.
And, honestly, the theories the fans come up with are way more interesting than any mundane reality the author could set as canon.

The Big Name Error

I've talked about errors in books before. The inexplicable typos that make the author look like a moron. The strange brain glitches where he misplaces a word or two. The times he thinks a book-related fact is one thing, but it's really another.
Secret Prey contains one of the worst errors in the whole of the Prey series, but it's subtle enough that rather than look like a mistake, it makes the readers think they're having a stroke.
In chapter eight, Robles and Bonet are being interviewed about the killing of Kresge. But then, for three solid pages everyone uses the name McDonald instead of Kresge. At this point in the book, McDonald is still alive. He's still a major suspect. Why is everyone talking about the killing of McDonald?
This was another brain glitch, like some of the other errors, but on a much larger scale. He managed to get two character names confused in his head, and just wrote straight through, not questioning or thinking about it, not even noticing.
That nobody else — myself included — saw the mistake reflects badly on the editing skills of everyone involved. But remember, this kind of mistake is almost invisible. Typos are easy. Usually they're helpfully underlined with red squiggles. But this? Your brain actively does not want to see the mistake. It'll fill in the context and the proper names for you. You know as you're reading what the author means, so why bother with what the author actually says?
But when the book is published, when it's out in the wild, suddenly it's being read by a million new sets of eyes. Even if the mistake is caught by only one percent of readers, that's still ten thousand people out there, being confused by what was just one person's brain betraying them [13].
Worse, since McDonald does end up dead a few chapters later, it looks like the book may have been misassembled. The police are asking about a killing that hasn't happened yet.
There's nothing complex going on here. It's just another mistake — a stupid one — and it screwed things up. It wasn't corrected for the paperback edition, and I still don't know why not. It was fixed before the new paperbacks, so at least someone was aware of it.

The Office

When the author stopped writing for the Pioneer Press, he was newly divorced, living at home alone [14], and depressed. The basement of his house, where the office was, was dark and damp. A lot of the depression vibe from the early books comes from that, I think. He was writing in a depressing environment, and that seeped into everything.
Almost all of his friends, his social support group, worked for the newspaper, and he liked their company, so rather than work in the depressing office at home, he rented an office on the floor above the newspaper floors. It was a small office — literally a single room, fifteen feet square. It didn't even have a window. It was well-lit, with a few chairs and desk and a computer and filing cabinet in the corner. It served its purpose well.
A few years later he got a big, better house on the Saint Croix River, across from Hudson, Wisconsin. He got remarried to his ex-wife. The books were selling really well. He wasn't as depressed. But while the house was great, and the home office was larger than most people's living rooms and well-stocked with books, it was still isolated from everything [15]. So in 1997, he tasked me with finding an office we could both work in.
I don't usually like talking about myself in these pages, because they're meant to be about the author and the books [16]. But for eight years, from 1997 to 2005, we shared an office in downtown Saint Paul, in Gaultier Plaza. We could come in any time of day or night, and work, and everything we needed was right there. The Saint Paul downtown isn't as active as Minneapolis, but it's still got one of everything you need.
So he would come in and write, and I'd answer the fan mail and manage my websites and handle my other projects. But every couple of days we'd get together and talk about the books, about where the plot should go, about what happens next, about character names and timelines.
One tendency in the Camp family — he and I both have this — is that we want to work alone, and do everything by ourselves. We both hate having to ask for help. But people can't do everything alone, and help... well, it helps. He could delegate tasks he didn't have time for, and not feel self-conscious about it. I'd work up timelines if he needed me to. I did research trips to book locations to scout them for potential book events. We'd argue about the best way to phrase things.
I won't say that the books that came out of the Office phase of things were the best — everyone has their own personal favorite, after all — but every single one was solid. All of the parts fit into place, everything worked. Even the ones that fans don't like work: Easy Prey, one of the fan-least-favorites, has a timeline that's nailed down to the minute [17].
I haven't lived in Minnesota in more than a decade now, but sometimes I still miss that office. Or at least, that environment.

Footnotes

1. I find that most of the mysteries that don't have any thrills are ones I deep down don't believe. The consulting detective who solves an entire crime by having it described to him. The murders that take place without any violence whatsoever, and in which the villain either dies quietly, or by his own hand, or simply surrenders. I don't buy it.

2. And occasionally you have have action take place slowly, and still be captivating. Two of my favorite chase scenes of all time are from the same movie: Kafka starring Jeremy Irons and directed by Steven Soderbergh. In one case, the main character is being chased by two men, but they're all climbing up a steep hill that is loose with debris, so they're losing almost as much ground as they're gaining. It's frantic, but their progress is measured in inches. Later, in the slowest chase scene that doesn't involve snails, two characters are on a huge, delicate glass floor... and I'll leave it at that. It's tense.

3. If it's a movie where a guy drives a car out through the window of a warehouse just as it's exploding, and then bails out of the car just before it explodes, and is propelled to safety by the force of the explosion by "surfing" the shockwave, it's probably safe to assume you're watching a thriller instead of a mystery.

4. And that's assuming that the author is playing fair. There's a recent trend in literature involving an unreliable narrator. The concept isn't new, but it's become popular in the past couple of decades. The Usual Suspects is a prime example. Life of Pi is another (albeit with a wildly different tone). Not only does the reader not have all the facts, they can't necessarily trust the facts they think they do have.

5. The complete Hitchcock quote:
There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise," and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!"
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

6. Well, this isn't really true. In Eyes of Prey the mystery of the identity of Loverboy is important, and in Silent Prey, the identity of the two initial killers — Thick and Thin — is obscured. But while those influence their respective books, they're not the core mystery everyone is pursuing

7. The fade to white at the end when the car goes over the rim of the Grand Canyon is actually the wormhole opening, transporting the titular heroes to a savage land full of dinosaurs and a fallen remnants of a formerly advanced race of lizard people.

8. Still a joke. Ha ha.

9. I think the violence in the abuse scenes may be a little too authentic. It's unpleasant to read.

10. You can still push it too far. In the big MI-5 Escape sequence in Skyfall, there is no way that the bad guy could have planned everything the way he did. At the same time, nobody is that lucky. I'm willing to suspend some disbelief — it's a James Bond film, after all — but Skyfall pushes it too far. After that chase scene, I could no longer believe anything that was happening. Maybe I'm getting old.

11. She's also one of the few who manage to survive everything and who is probably still alive in the Prey universe. In the state secure mental hospital in St. Peters, yes, but alive. We've thought a few times about what happens if or when she gets out...

12. Del spends a lot of his time pissed off. I think he needs to take a vacation, or switch to decaf, or something.

13. And if you follow the rule that only one out of every fifty people are motivated to even so much as write an email to complain about something like this, that means that the author can expect to receive two hundred emails about it shortly after the book comes out. Since I'm the guy who answers the email, I can say that, yes, that sounds about right.

14. I was off in college, but my sister lived with him the summer after her senior year. She says that the house was mostly a miserable gloom-fest. And then she went off to the University of Wisconsin, leaving him alone. Fun times.

15. The nearest grocery store was five miles away, about a ten minute drive where he was. The nearest store of any sort was a gas station convenience store that had a heavy markup on everything they sold on the grounds that there wasn't any other choice. That was about two miles away. True, it's not as isolated as being really out in the country, but it could get lonely out there.

16. And for those who somehow don't yet know, hello! I'm Ros, the son of the author. I'm the one who's been writing all these behind-the-scenes pages, and I hope you've enjoyed them. If you thought it was John Sandford writing them, I apologize for any disappointment, but the pages do all say "by Roswell Camp" at the top.

17. I'm not exaggerating. I drove every road to work out the timing of scenes, figured out travel time, had a huge chart showing when every character must have left place X and arrived at place Y. That sort of thing.