Secrets in Mysteries

 by Frederick Weisel

Details at the end of this post on how to win a copy of Frederick's new book The Day He Left, and a link to purchase it from Amazon.

At the heart of every mystery are secrets. Without secrets, there would be no mystery. They are the hidden truths that lie behind a veil at the start of a story and the tiny guilty facts that a protagonist—usually a detective—uncovers bit by bit to dispel the mystery.

Secrets are so central to mysteries that many novels include the word in their title. Tana French’s mesmerizing novel The Secret Place is about the murder of a teenage boy on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school. The case goes unsolved for more than year. Then one day a new note suddenly appears on the girls’ school bulletin board, known as “the secret place,” where students post secrets. The note contains a photo of the victim and the words “I know who killed him.” The note initiates a new investigation that uncovers dozens of secrets. And with that, the story is launched.

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Donna Tartt’s The Secret History tells the story of a small, close knit group of classics students at an elite, remote New England college. As the title indicates, the novel is a history of the secrets held by the students—in this case, a gradual unfolding of the truth behind several murders.

Many of the best mystery writers knew how to write about secrets in their novels because they had them in their own personal lives. Agatha Christie famously disappeared for eleven days. One afternoon, after arguing with her husband, she drove away from their home in Berkshire. The next day her abandoned car, with suitcase and clothes, was found in the Surrey countryside above a quarry. A nationwide search was launched, and a reward was offered. Christie later turned up in a Yorkshire hotel 180 miles away disguised as a South African guest. She never explained why she’d done it.

Image Source Poisoned Pen Press

Under the pseudonym Ross Macdonald, Kenneth Millar wrote the Lew Archer private eye novels in the 1960s and 1970s, which the New York Times called the “finest series of detective novels ever written by an American.” In his biography of Millar, Tom Nolan wrote: “In a handful of autobiographical essays, Millar seemed to conceal as much as he told. Hiding things came second nature, to protect himself and spare his family. Like the people in his fiction, Millar had secrets, and he persuaded sympathetic journalists to collaborate in keeping them.”

But what, after all, is the point of secrets in mysteries? The word “secret” comes from the Latin “secretus,” which means set apart, withdrawn, private, hidden, concealed. So, the first role of secrets is to establish what is hidden and unknown. Often this secret is the identity of a killer. But that secret also typically contains a host of other hidden facts nested inside each other.

The holding of secrets creates a mystery’s tension and suspense. The seriousness of the secrets determines the lengths to which characters will go to maintain them. Some secrets we cannot bear to be exposed. Their revelation would destroy us. Lying is pretty much always necessary. Subterfuges may be required. If needed, further murders may be committed to shield the secrets. In Poor Richard’s Almanack, Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” 

The other role of secrets in mysteries is that their gradual revelation provides the unraveling of the mystery. How this happens creates the structure and shape of the novel. Secrets may be exposed suddenly or let loose in pieces over time.

My novel The Day He Left, which is set in Sonoma County, California, tells the story of  a schoolteacher who leaves for work one morning and never arrives at his school. He leaves behind a briefcase with his lesson plans, his phone, and a disturbing photograph. This opening scene immediately hints at secrets that the missing teacher has hidden from his family and colleagues. Meanwhile his wife, son, and daughter have their own secrets.

The novel explores the ways in which secrets—both in being held and being revealed—cause harm to others. The schoolteacher quotes Andre Malraux to his thirteen-year-old daughter: “Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides.” The daughter later tells a detective: “My dad said, as adults we need to decide what to reveal and what to keep to ourselves. Sometimes revealing a secret can cause harm to ourselves and the people close to us. Other times, keeping secrets can be more damaging…My dad said we should always try not to hurt other people with our secrets.”  

Secrets from those we love can be a betrayal of trust, an expression of dishonesty. In the novel, the need to hide secrets and the revelation of them destroy marriages, wreck businesses and reputations, cause the estrangement of children, and ultimately lead to murder. 

It is this juxtaposition of the hidden and the revealed that creates the appeal of mystery novels. In the beginning, readers are caught in a fog of unknowing, described in the best novels in a wonderfully haunting way. Later we see the layers of truth cleverly peeled away one by one. 

The pleasures of mystery novels are many, but perhaps one is that the unknowns are portrayed in a way that can be understood and enjoyed, and the revelations are assured—neither of which is true of many of life’s other mysteries outside of fiction.

To enter to win a copy of The Day He Left, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line "left,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen April 16, 2022. US residents only and you must be 18 or older to enter. If entering via email please include your mailing address in case you win. If entering via comment please include your email address so we can contact you. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section in Kings River Life and in our mystery category here on KRL News & Reviews. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. And check out our new mystery podcast which features mystery short stories and first chapters read by local actors! A new episode just went up.

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FREDERICK WEISEL has been a writer and editor for more than 30 years, and his articles have appeared in the Boston Globe, Washington Post, and Christian Science Monitor. He lives with his wife in Santa Rosa, CA, and shares a birthday with his favorite author, Raymond Chandler.

Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.


  1. Sounds intriguing. Hadn't thought much
    about secrets before. thanks

  2. Sounds interesting! Count me in!

  3. I'd like to be included!

  4. I love The Secret History and Agatha Christie books and this sounds like just as twisty of a read! I would live a chance to win!
    Claire.denning.11 at gmail

  5. Sounds interesting. Looking forward to reading the book.


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