Although that title is in Latin, it actually originated in ancient Greek drama. The term means “god from the machine,” and it was a technique used by the Greek playwrights to give an ending to a play by means of an unexpected intervention, usually a new character. It’s somewhat of a copout for the writer when he/she has been backed into a corner with no means of escape. In the Greek plays, when a play reached such a point, a big crane was wheeled onto the stage, and the new character (usually a god) would descend upon the scene, and “save the day.” A good example was Medea, where a god appears after Medea has killed her children, and whisks her away from her husband, Jason. The audience understood this technique, and they didn’t complain.
Later writers employed its use also, but by then, the reader didn’t always appreciate it. Think of Dickens’s Oliver Twist, where character coincidences appear, allowing Oliver to live with Mr. Brownlow. Golding’s Lord of the Flies saves the reader from encountering the inevitable conclusion with the boys by introducing the navy officer to save the kids. Even the bard, himself, Shakespeare, used it in several plays. Is there anything wrong with using deus ex machina in writing? Not really, but it reminds me of kids writing “…and then I woke up,” to end their stories. [BTW: I never allowed that type of ending in my writing classes.]
So why did I just give a mini-lesson in literary technique? It’s because I’ve been seeing it more and more in TV shows, and even some books. While I love Mary Higgins Clarke (a fellow Jerseyite!), I’ve seen her present the same type of feature in several of her books. The reader is led to believe that the antagonist is a particular character. Then, another character turns out to be the culprit, and it’s all explained by a string of events that disclose the true inner workings of the ‘bad guy.’ I don’t mind it, but sometimes I’m a little disappointed. I like all the facts upfront, and then I can draw my own conclusions.
I particularly see this occurring in the CSI series. The viewer can be led to see one character as the murderer, then more evidence arrives and the spotlight shifts to another (or two or three) and they become the main focus. Finally, a whole slew of information enters the scene, and the culprit is a totally different person. That’s why I enjoy really good murder mysteries (or any type of mystery.) I like to become a part of the story and investigate clues. I enjoy trying to put all the pieces together and coming up with a solution. Some may say that arriving at the right solution ruins the story, but I disagree. I really like using the clues that are presented and learning if I’m correct or not.
Are any of you mystery readers, or do enjoy a good mystery on TV? Do you try to figure out which suspect is guilty? Are you disappointed if a new character or situation is introduced to bring about a conclusion?