#230: Detective Fiction is a Joke…


Bear with me here, I want to tell you one of my all-time favourite jokes; remain calm, it is not rude (I’m too much the gentleman for that):

A man is out walking in the country one day when, about half-way across a field and more interested in the lovely views, he suddenly catches himself before stepping into a massive hole.

After getting over the initial shock, he looks into the hole and, since it becomes pitch black after about six feet, begins to wonder how deep it is.  Casting around on the floor, he finds a stone and throws it into the hole, bending down to listen for it hitting the bottom.  Alas, he hears nothing.  Clearly he needs a bigger stone.

He finds a bigger stone and repeats the dropping and listening, but hears nothing still.

Suddenly, glancing up across the field from where he’s standing, he catches sight of the biggest ram he’s ever seen hurtling towards him with its head down and its huge horns on display, and he turns and sprints as fast as he possibly can back to the edge of the field.  Glancing over his shoulder as he runs, he sees the ram approach the hole, notice it at the last minute, suddenly put out its feet in an attempt to stop but, with too much momentum, tumble over and disappear down the darkness with a despairing bleat.

Exhausted and shaken, the man begins to head back the way he came, and on the way meets the farmer who owns the land.  He mentions the hole, telling the farmer he should be careful in case anyone strays into the field and injures themselves.

“No, no, no,” says the farmer, “no-one’s going to go in that field; I’ve put my biggest, meanest ram in there to scare people away.”

The man cautiously ventures how he can be sure that the ram won’t fall down the hole.

“No, no, no,” says the farmer, “he won’t fall down the hole — I tied him to an old railway sleeper with a length of rope.”

That’s not funny, is it?  How can that be one of my favourite jokes?  What’s wrong with me?

Okay, now consider the following addition placed in the middle between the italicised parts which are already there:

He finds a bigger stone and repeats the dropping and listening, but hears nothing still.

Looking for something even bigger, he spies a large, thick piece of wood well over a metre long lying a little way from the hole and with a huge amount of effort drags it over — it’s far too heavy to carry — and tips it into the hole, bending down to listen as before.

Suddenly, glancing up across the field from where he’s standing…

Now, that, my friends, that is comedy gold.  You may take that to all of your upcoming soirées and be quite the hit of the season, without any awkward explanations required to your host’s children, and possibly only a overly-sensitive railway engineer likely to take offense (and he was only invited because his wife’s so lovely; I don’t know why she puts up with him…).


Pictured: Your life from this point on.

But it only becomes funny once you have all the necessary information — that first, abridged version is simply a story without a conclusion or purpose.  If you tell that first version and then go back to explain the missing information as I just modelled, it doesn’t go down nearly so well.


“Please leave our house.  And lives.”

Jokes are all about the setup provided paying off in the last line, and we can I’m sure cite many an example where someone forgot the key point that made it funny or, indeed, got to the end and failed to remember the punchline.  Equally, if the joke dwells on too many insignificant details, you can be left at the end thinking “Well, why did it matter that he was named Roger after his uncle in keeping with an old family tradition and, due to dissatisfaction at work stemming from the sense that he’d failed to live up to this natural ability, had started an affair with his secretary and was on this walk to work out how he was going to break the news to his wife?”.  Details relevant to the punchline must be included, enough context added to hopefully allow that punchline to be a surprise, and then the whole things needs to be couched in applicable and swift terms…job done.

And, guess what?  Pretty much the exact same thing is true of fair play detective fiction.

I’ll give you an example: I recently read a book in which a man was killed…hmmm, this is going to be complicated…in such a way that the only person who could have killed him must have had access to the office where he died.  Only one other person, who shared the office with the deceased, had a key, and since the killer wasn’t going to set up their death-trap with the intended victim present, clearly either someone stole this other key or the second dude who shared the office dunnit (it wasn’t suicide, and no-one could have taken the key from the dead man beforehand because…reasons).

Much of the investigation, therefore, centres around this other man with the only other key, and we know early on — and the investigators establish after a little while — that there was no way anyone else could have taken his key, so therefore by implication he has to be guilty.  So far, so good.  Then — punchline — it turns out their boss was the killer, and he’d been able to set up the deathtrap because he has a master-key for the whole building.


Suffice to say, it is not a very good book; so much effort goes into trying to string out this thin premise and hide this extra key, that at times you wade through chapters of inconsequential this-is-how-he-got-his-name padding before the railway sleeper of the master-key is dropped out of nowhere.  And we’ve all read books where this happens: the detective suddenly reveals the contents of a phone call, or the victim’s shoe size is mentioned in the final chapter to prove that the footprints were too big and therefore…bleurgh, whatever.  When the body of the story is not connected to the punchline of the ending in a way that shows a retrospectively clear and obvious path, you are not writing fair play detection.  For all of last week’s discussion about rules, this is the one that emerged immutable .

Now, let’s go one better.

I didn’t just tell you a joke up top, I (eventually) told you one of my all-time favourite jokes.  What I especially like about this joke is that it also makes the listeners feel clever when they get it.  For one thing, I have learned just what proportion of many people don’t know what a railway sleeper is, but a lot of the time when I tell it there’s a brief pause at the end while people have to think back over the details, and suddenly figure out why it matters that the block of wood was especially awkward to lug over to the hole (sometimes I’ll act this out, to make it stick better in the mind), or catch the detail of the ram tripping over its own feet because of the momentum in fact having nothing to do with momentum…suddenly the pieces connect, and there’s an element of Wow, I figured that out as they laugh.

As clever as we like to feel when we get to the end of a detective plot and are correct in our surmise over the who/how/why/when/whatever, as readers there is an additional joy from having been trusted to piece it together whether we were successful or not.  I’ve started a cycle of rereading books — not least for these Spoiler Warning posts, about which another announcement at the weekend — and it’s fascinating and delightful to watch the way authors throw dust in your eyes when tucking the key ideas in plain sight but still out of view…particularly as now that I know they’re doing that at a specific moment (hell, it’s the thing I named this blog after, so I obviously enjoy it).  The best authors do this time and again, though perhaps none more brazenly than Christianna Brand in Death of Jezebel (1948), and any author wishing to write a great piece of detective fiction has to let maybe 15% of their readers figure it out so that the remaining 85% can be treated intelligently.  You will not always surprise everyone, but you actually can make everyone happy — fair clewing is the way to the detective fiction reader’s heart.


You’ll notice that I haven’t limited myself purely to talking about Golden Age detective fiction here, and I’ve been very careful to talk about detective fiction rather than crime writing, which is a very, very different beast.  To that end, one extra qualification is needed.

Detective fiction is a joke, but there are also different types of jokes, and they manage to throw new light on different aspects of genre writing.  Consider one of the most famous and most widely-told jokes in the world:

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: The get to the other side.

That’s still a joke, and the information in the setup is still used in to become funny in the punchline, but here the humour comes in the absurdity of confounded expectations: the fact that it’s a chicken crossing the road is the expected hook — why would a chicken cross a road? — but then the expectation is turned back on itself in a sort of Well, duh moment: why does anything cross a road, idiot?  The joke’s on you.  It’s no less clever — if anything, this sort of meta-humour is far too subtle and powerful to be handed out to young children as freely as this is, since I’m imagining we’d all heard this joke by the age of six or seven — but the root and outlet of the humour are completely different.

What we have here — and I will fight to the death anyone who disagrees — isn’t purely the preserve of detective fiction, but it is a key facet of successful crime and detective writing: the twist.  In order to sneak a twist by you, an author shows you something that you look at in one way and the later shows you that you were looking at it completely wrong and up-ends your expectations.  It’s a great way of sneaking clues past, obviously, but does not have to be limited strictly to clues; The Usual Suspects (1995) contains one of the most brilliant twists in film history, but there’s nothing in the lead-up to it that — if you stopped the movie just short of that moment of amazing reversal — enables you to put it together in advance.  Once you know it, you can look back and see how it was used, but you don’t stand a hope of figuring it out ahead of time.

The ‘chicken crossing the road’ setup does this perfectly: it has you looking at the chicken, where you should in fact be looking at the crossing of the road.  The chicken couldn’t be less relevant — change it to an antelope, a binturong, cicada, and apart from the specialist knowledge to know what those animals are (and here’s where the issue of access and making your audience feel intelligent comes in — chickens are near-universally known, hence the joke’s success in this form) it makes no difference.  Change the crossing of the road and, well, everything changes:

Q: Why did the chicken open the fridge?
A: To take something out of it.

Well, uh, yeah.   What’s the joke?  It’s the exact same set of rules as the joke in its ‘proper’ form, but the focus is, for reasons not worth embellishing here, very firmly on the wrong thing.  Obviously people cross a road to get to the other side, but the fact that it’s a chicken…what could be happening to the chicken, or what could the chicken have seen, that makes it want to cross?  For some reason, the sheer simplicity of it disarms you, which is often the case with the most audacious twists.  Think of your all-time favourite twist, be it in a movie or a book or a play or whatever.  I’m going to confidently assert that for an overwhelming majority of you there’s one simple idea at the heart of it which enables all the resulting shenanigans to build up to brilliant surprise that you’ve hugged close to your heart all these years.


Incidentally, this is a binturong.

“Why did the chicken cross the road?” could actually be — at a mere thirteen words from soup to nuts — the neatest setup and payoff for a twist ever written: it’s accessible, it’s succinct, it’s waving a massive flag that everyone’s staring at…and then it unloads with equal brutal efficiency: gotcha.  It’s quite a feat when a novel pays off this well, and they have thousands, tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands, of extra words to lead you astray.  Makes you wonder why they’re so difficult to write sometimes, doesn’t it?

This setup-payoff joke analogy also works for thrillers, too, but I run the risk of losing my point, and should really tie things up.  Essentially, the next time you’re trying to explain to someone who just doesn’t get it why you’re so irritated that an author failed to declare their clues, tell them a joke with a key part missing, insist that it is a great joke when you know everything, and then tell them what you were supposed to tell them first time around.  They may not share your enthusiasms, but that doesn’t mean they can’t also understand your pain.

10 thoughts on “#230: Detective Fiction is a Joke…

  1. Great post, you mustn’t get much sleep for all the ruminations you have over detective fiction. Great for us though. Also think I have a new favourite joke, with that sheep one. I expect you to give us a recital of the joke at the BL conference with actions.


  2. Um . . . WHAT is “Brad’s detective fiction workhouse”???

    My grandfather was the worst joke teller ever. Whenever I think of his attempts, i laugh just as hard as if he HAD successfully told a joke. He would say, “A man visits his wife’s grave. He gets down on one knee and . . . ” Then he would pause, sniff a few times, and add, “Oh, he brought his wedding ring. A man brings his wedding ring to his wife’s grave. He gets down on one knee and . . . ” More sniffing. “Did I tell you that this takes place in Budapest?” Looks down, more sniffing. “A man in Budapest gets down on one knee and opens the box containing his wedding ring.” Pause. Sniff. “Did I tell you he’s at his wife’s grave . . . ” Then he would stare into space and call for my grandmother. “Fay! Fay! What was that joke about the man at his wife’s grave?” And my grandmother would call from the other room, “Did you say something, Eddie?” And he would call out hoarsely, “What is that joke?!?” And my grandmother would say, “What joke?” And then he would mutter, “Forget about it,” and blame her for everything.

    That’s where I get my sense of humor . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: #235: Fair-Play Detective Fiction 101 – What Are the Essential Texts? | The Invisible Event

  4. Pingback: #464: The Wrong Stuff – Patience and the Detective Story via Station (2008) by Johanna Stokes and Leno Carvalho | The Invisible Event

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