#235: Fair-Play Detective Fiction 101 – What Are the Essential Texts?

Fair play

Of late, I have done a moderate amount of pontificating here on The Invisible Event about topics related to fair-play detective fiction: first talking about rules, and then trying to explain how I see the idea of disclosure.  Partly this was because it’s the sort of thing I’m happy to do for fun — hello, I’m a nerd — but, in truth, there was a larger intention behind it providing no-one could see any massive flaws in my thinking.

See, I’m fascinated by the idea of fair-play in detective fiction, and got to wondering if we — you, us, the readers of GAD mysteries where this concept was born and often best exemplified — couldn’t come to some sort of consensus on the books that demonstrate it best.

Forget ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Magical Snake Whistle’ (which is what that story should be called) or Agatha Christie’s Oh Dear Did I Forget to Mention a Key Thing About the Murder of Roger Ackroyd…is there a list of accepted fair-play detection novels that legitimately declare everything, and if so could they be cobbled together into some sort of list — maybe a Top Ten — as a primer for anyone who doesn’t know about it, or who wanted to see it in action?

So here’s my plan: this week, declare any fair-play mysteries you wish to be considered in the comments below — novels first, perhaps short stories will come later; next week, we have a vote on the titles selected; two weeks from today, I unveil a list of the Ten Most Fairest-Play Detective Fiction Works and then everyone tears it to shreds.  How does that sound?


Awww, thanks, guys; you’re the best.

Shall we have some rules?  Let’s have some rules.

The Rules

1) You can name as many novels as you like; five seems about right to keep a sensible limit on it, but I’m not going to insist.

2) You are welcome to repeat a title already mentioned, and so heighten its kudos, or equally to rubbish one, and so lessen it.  We’re here for the sharing of perspectives, after all.

3) The novels can be from any era, so long as detection is a major element of the plot and they play fair in their declaration of clues to the reader.

4) Ideally these novels will be currently easily available to buy — people have to vote on it, after all — but if there’s some obscure classic you simply have to mention then feel free.

5) Titles must also be available in English; English-language blog, y’see, and Ho-Ling is always teasing me with awesome Japanese stories that I’m going to spend the rest of my life yearning for.  Well, not on my watch!

If nothing else, it may be interesting to see if there’s any disagreement over what actually constitutes a fair-play mystery.

I’ll get the ball rolling with:

The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) by Anthony Berkeley

The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen

The Four False Weapons (1937) by John Dickson Carr

Evil Under the Sun (1941) by Agatha Christie

Death of Jezebel (1948) by Christianna Brand

Pitch in below, and here’s hoping we get enough titles to make a vote next week worthwhile…


Murder on the WayWow, it’s Interaction Week here, eh?  Don’t forget that there’s still time to win a copy of Murder on the Way! by Theodore Roscoe, too…no catches, no complications, no entry fee: I’m a simple man and I run simple competitions.  I’ll post it to you for free and everything.  Yup, I’m that good.  You have until midnight on Monday to enter, and all you need to do is…well, it’s very simple.  Click the purple text above to find out.

128 thoughts on “#235: Fair-Play Detective Fiction 101 – What Are the Essential Texts?

  1. How could one resist. I tend to think Dame Agatha rarely played fair, so I’m not including her at all. OK, I’ll play fair, with these:

    Ellery Queen: THE SIAMESE TWIN MYSTERY (or GREEK COFFIN, which i love)
    John Dickson Carr: THE EMPEROR’S SNUFFBOX
    Margery Allingham: DEATH OF A GHOST
    Philip MacDonald: THE MAZE (aka PERSONS UNKNOWN) [only available cheap on Kindle]


    • As it happens, The Maze is now also available as a printed book, too, so worry not. Great selection, Sergio, many thanks, though Brad’ll be after you for those Chrisite comments…so keep your wits about you 😛

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think Agatha Christie did play fair a lot more than what you give her credit for. When you read the solution to the mystery, you’ll find that the clues always there from the get-go. The thing she was so skillful at deceiving her readers and by not having the readers get the solution right a lot of the time just goes to show how clever she was at plotting.


        • I fear that the aspect of both Queen’s and Carr’s writing that makes you think that, Sergio, is precisely why Christie is read worldwide today and Queen and Carr are not. We all gather here, a parliament of nerd boys, and we recognize the technical superiority of both these male authors. Christie combines plot with something warmer and is ineffably more readable. AND she is fair enough!


            • I would never put a Marple book on this list – not even the brilliant A Murder Is Announced – for that very reason. But I would argue that the Christie’s I have mentioned play quite fair with the reader.


            • AMiA is an odd one from fair play, because if I remmeber correctly (and I may not) it misses out something that would be helpful without giving the game away and includes something that’s so unsubtle you can’t possibly miss it, and there’s actually no need for it. Maybe Christie was over-compensating?

              Liked by 1 person

            • “…includes something that’s so unsubtle you can’t possibly miss it,…”
              Yes, I agree completely. In fact, it was this clue that revealed the culprit to me.


            • It’s a shame, because to that point I was hugely enjoying myself in confusion; then it just became a giant arrow going “THIS IS THE GUILTY PERSON” and a lot of the fun went out of it for me…


        • Can’t help but agree with both you and Brad here. My experience of Queen is that their clewing is typicaly awesome, but they lack heart in their schemes; Carr is equally fantastic and has heart, but he’s so much the purist’s detective writer that your average Joe Bloe isn’t going to persevere greatly (the fool!).

          Christie lacks for nouse, shall we say, but leads you along by the nose so effortlessly that you actually find yourself wanting to be ignorant of the pointers along the way…and this means that at times she’s about to get away without putting them there. Death on the Nile, for instance, doesn’t strike me as fair play at all, since it fails to unquestionably dismiss several suspects who could equally be guilty, yet TomCat (who more than knows his stuff, and is to be trusted in virtually every regard) thinks it’s a masterpiece.

          If Carr or Queen leave such a thread hanging, we jump all over them; Christioe we’re happy to overlook such follies, mainly because we had such a jolly time. Not saying either one is better per se, but it’s an interesting point you’ve raised and I’m simply expanding on it.


          • Death on the Nile doesn’t strike you as fair play at all? What the hell is wrong with you, JJ? The book is a gem of plot-construction and fair play! I used to recommend people to read the book twice, back-to-back, to admire all the carefully planted clues on the second read.

            One of the beauties of the book is the ridiculous plan the murderer(s) cooked up, which begins to disintegrate the moment the trigger is pulled and evidence begins to pile up. Not all of the characters may have been individually dismissed as potential murderers, but they’re cleared by the simple fact that, when combined, all of the clues, sequence of events, etc., are only applicable to the guilty party. It’s more than fair.

            Now go find a ball-peen hammer and break the infidel fingers that wrote such blasphemy!

            Liked by 1 person

            • As I said in the look at it a few weeks ago, what gets me is that there’s no rigorous dismissal of innocent suspects — Poirot simply decress them innocent, confronts the ‘guilty’ person who goes “Yup, it was me all along! Mwah-hahahhahahahhaha!!” and then we’re done. There’s no hiding of clues — and, yes, this is done fairly, but even to the point that the clues make sense as clues even if not as something that someone committing a murder would leave behind — but I disagree: the solution doesn’t come from these clues joining to lead you to one inevitable conclusion. It is heavily implied, but not ever proven to my way of thinking.

              To go with my joke analogy from the other week — and anyone who hasn’t checked that out yet really should, it’s a great read — Christie throws a lot of setups and punchlines at you, but doesn’t really pair them up enough for any of it to be truly funny.

              Ach, dammit, are we going to have to do another go through that book? 🙂


          • >Death on the Nile, for instance, doesn’t strike me as fair play at all, since it fails to unquestionably dismiss several suspects who could equally be guilty

            I disagree. The biggest clue in that book, Louise Bourget’s words, really point to one and only one culprit.

            Liked by 1 person

            • No, they take on a particular significance because of the later interpretation put on them. They could have been intended in one of several ways, but because Christie decides that a certain person is guilty they’re retrospectively given significance in the way you mean.

              The exact same situation allows for a completely different interpretation and murderer, and the only reason this isn’t the answer in the book is because Papa Poirot says to the person in question “Well, you’re not the killer because instead you’re fulfilling Role X in this narrative”. It’s actually kinda meta in its own way — there’s an essay about authorial and sleuthly intervention and interference — but I’ll not get into that (not here, at least…).

              The guilt of the eventually guilty is heavily implied, and several times, but lots of implication does not equal proof, and Poirot shows this himself by demonstrating a strong late case against someone and then dismissing it again by going “But that’s not how this goes down”. DotN is fun, and vintage Christie in many ways, but I remain unconvinced by how the answers are reached.

              Please note: all quotes are paraphrasing.


  2. Really great idea as always! Hmm who to choose though that’s the question?
    I’d second your choice of The Poisoned Chocolates Case.
    I was wondering also if The Nine Wrong Answers by Carr is also fair play?
    I’d also suggest Cold Blood by Leo Bruce and also Dragon’s Cave by Clyde B Clason, as both incorporate elements which either pose a challenge to the reader saying they all the clue necessary to solve the case or they include maps and page references in the solution to show where the clues came from.
    I imagine something from Freeman Wills Crofts would be order in also, though not being a fan of his I will leave it to others to decide which titles.


    • Aaaah, yes, there must be a superbly thorough Crofts, surely (I don’t think Antidote to Venom quite qualifies). I’m a fan of clue-finders, too, though at times — C. Daly King’s Obelists Fly High, for instance — they’re kinda terrible because you realise how bad some people are at writing clues. Edmund Crispin does a similar thing in Holy Disorders, and there’s one in particular that makes me go “Really??!! You consider that to be a clue???!”


  3. Here’s my list :

    The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) by Anthony Berkeley
    Death on the Nile (1937) by Agatha Christie
    The Emperor’s Snuff Box (1942) by John Dickson Carr
    Whistle Up The Devil (1953) by Derek Howe Smith
    The Moai Island Puzzle (1989) by Alice Arisugawa


    • Delighted to see you include Whistle Up the Devil here; it was originally on my list, but I cut it to keep myself down to five titles. It was the last one to be cut, though — a great book, and beautifully fair (the final clue that tips Algy Lawrence to the identity of the murderer is so hilariously blatant, and it sailed right past me…)


      • I agree with you. I love the explanation that leads to the identity of the murderer, as you say so above. The way that clue leads to X, and that means Y, so therefore Z. Dang it! I’m a sucker for that kind of explanation!

        Liked by 1 person

        • The same is also true of Moai Island, too, and even more impressively so. And this is why I want to create this list — how cool to know you’re getting that kind of thing up front! Or at least have a good chance of it, since I think there’s going to be some slight variation in how we all define fair play here…


          • Well, actually I wouldn’t be reading any of those novels (except Death on the Niles) if I didn’t stumble on TomCat’s, Ho-Ling’s, and your blog! Before that, I’d only known Christie, Gardner, Doyle, and.. yup, that’s it.

            And speaking of how we define ‘fair play’, I once asked a friend of mine who’s also a fan of detective fiction. He said as that when all of the clues were laid out and it all fitted in the solution, even though the detective didn’t make a deduction to reach the conclusion (the explanation derived from a hindsight), it still counts as fair play. He explained it to me using The Bone Collector by Jeffery Deaver as an example, maybe you’ve read it.

            Well, his definition is debatable. On the one hand, all of the clues were there and it all fitted in the solution. On the other hand, there weren’t any reasoning done by the detective in order to reach the conclusion. Now this is where I differ from him.


            • A superb point, but then surely you’re not concentrating on “fair play” so much as “detective fiction” — I’d argue that a novel can be fair play without being detection: you don’t need the detective to solve it in the narative so long as the reader had the chance to do so.

              Deaver is an excellent example of this, actually. I seem to remember that a lot of his bad guys reveal themselves to the reader and then go and do something bad guy-ish, only for this action to then tip the detectives to th fact that this person is the bad guy (The Coffin Dancer is a perfect example of this). Deaver’s stuff is technically fair play, he just leads you astray with simple assumptions. It’s not detection, but I’d argue you have the chance to solve it if you’re looking at it the right way.

              Though, bear in mind that the last Deaver I read was possibly The Twelfth Card, so I can’t say whether he’s still writing that sort of book now.


            • Now that i think about it again. I’m starting to see your point. It seems like I saw ‘fair play’ and ‘detective fiction’ to be and inseparable concept. When I talked about one of them, at the same time i also talk about the other.

              Yup, the ending tends to be that way. The bad guys reveals themselves. I see the same pattern on Sue Grafton’s books. Though I only read three of ’em.

              Anyway, can’t wait to see the follow up of your post here.


            • Ha, yeah, Grafton was fond of doing that (I read about ten of ’em). These comments are giving me enough material for months to come, so I look forward to further discssion on this topic!


  4. Hmmmmm. Hmmmmmmmmmmm… One of each of my favourite authors might be the way to go?

    Agatha Christie, ‘After the Funeral’
    Rupert Penny, ‘Policeman’s Evidence’
    John Dickson Carr, ‘Problem of the Green Capsule’
    Paul Halter, ‘Seventh Hypothesis’
    Ellery Queen, ‘French Powder Mystery’
    Anthony Berkeley, ‘Poisoned Chocolates Case’


    • Haha, I thought people might start crying “foul” if I put Penny in…so thank-you; this was the one I selected, too, though actually all of the ones I’ve read so far qualify and are exemplary in their clues.


    • Yeah, good point, but then it takes apart the same information so rigorously that it shows how the interpretation of clues is so very important. I don’t recall anyone rushing in with a last-minute phone call, and all but the final solution overturn the ealier ones on a solid foundation, IIRC. So do multiple interpretations matter if we’re told everything along the way? Discuss…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I take Puzzle Doctor’s point that ‘The Poisoned Chocolates Case’, with multiple (false) solutions, tends towards the postmodern – and in fact the recent British Library release compounded this sense of pluralism with two further solutions that extend the overall subversiveness of the novel.

        But I still agree with JJ that insofar as fair play is concerned, the cheeky point of the novel is that each of the false solutions were nonetheless true in handling at least one clue. And the culprit in the final chapter is the one who ticks every single box. Part of the reason why I nominated this novel was precisely that I identified the culprit on the basis that he/ she/ they was/ were the only one(s) who explicitly fitted every clue. Even Brand’s alternative take on the solution, in some senses, rests precisely on that identification.


        • Don’t forget, too, that Martin Edwards’ solution isn’t canon — more just excellent fan fiction — and is only possible beause he gets Moresby to turn up and simply tel us that Berkeley’s final solution is wrong with no basis…


      • (Missed out my last paragraph…) So I think ‘Poisoned Chocolates Case’ is a fair-play novel because it’s solution – irrespective of whether or not it has to be the only solution – remains grounded in the details telegraphed in the preceding narrative. Unlike, say, a twenty-first century crime novel, the culprit is neither plucked out of nowhere, nor unveiled by the sleuth on the basis of clues/ evidence hidden from the reader.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Where to begin, where to begin? I’ll try to keep it at least under ten and throw in some that have not already been mentioned.

    H.C. Bailey’s Shadow on the Wall (long time since I read it, but clearly remember it brimming with all kinds of clues)

    M.P.O. Books’ De laatste kans (not translated in English, but has one of those magnificent, all-revealing clues that makes you want to kick yourself for having missed it)

    Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger (a classic example of the Golden Age fairplay mystery)

    John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man (no explanation needed)

    Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile (the obvious suspect)

    Carter Dickson’s (a.k.a. John Dickson Carr) The Plague Court Murders (a murderer so well-hidden that’s almost cheating, but all the clues are there)

    Philip MacDonald’s The Maze (a pure exercise in detection)

    Kelley Roos’ The Frightened Stiff (a beautiful example of a comedic mystery playing absolutely fair with the reader)

    John Sladek’s Black Aura (one of the clues, concerning the levitation-trick, is gem by itself)

    Ellery Queen’s The Greek Coffin Mystery (need to re-read, but remember it being as great as it was fair)


    • M.P.O. Books’ De laatste kans (not translated in English, but has one of those magnificent, all-revealing clues that makes you want to kick yourself for having missed it)

      Dammit! Not another foreign-language book that’s amazing! Didn’t you read the rules?!

      Good call on the Sladek, though. I prefer Invisible Green as a book, but the clewing is (mostly) spot on in BA.


  6. That’s exciting as I’m reading Black Aura for the first time right now! When there’s two by an author I always start with the lesser renowned. That’s why I’ve read The Hangman’s Handyman but not Rim as of yet.

    I’d like to second The Nine Wrong Answers.


    • Well, don’t forget that there’s a spoiler-laden look at RIm of the Pit coming here in July, Brad…so now’s the perfect opportunity to think about cracking it open. Just sayin’… 😀


      • I know! I’m just torn because once I’ve read it, I’ve read it. But from all accounts it’s very, very good.


        • Buuut…once you’ve read it, you also have the joy of experiencing how good it was, plus the chance to discuss it with similarly-minded people…


  7. 1. GREEK COFFIN MYSTERY ( It does the multiple solutions bit in a more “fair play” fashion than Poisoned Chocolates. Berkeley is actually spoofing authorial influence there, and he has a point. In fact, it’s a point that usually brings Scott Ratner around to argue that there is no such thing as a “fair play” mystery, so whatever you do, NOBODY SHOW THIS POST TO SCOTT RATNER!!!
    2. AFTER THE FUNERAL by Agatha Christie
    3. TOWARD ZERO by Agatha Christie
    4. EVIL UNDER THE SUN by Agatha Christie
    5. GREEN FOR DANGER by Christianna Brand
    6. THE EMPEROR’S SNUFFBOX by John Dickson Carr (which I haven’t read so it gives me an excuse)
    7. THE PROBLEM OF THE GREEN CAPSULE by John Dickson Carr (which I read when I was 15 and can’t remember, so it gives me an excuse)
    8. FOG OF DOUBT by Christianna Brand
    9. THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN by Ellery Queen

    The last one is a pip! It should be on everyone’s reading list, but I’m not sure if it has been translated from the Italian yet . . . 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • It’s okay, you have to say Scott Ratner’s name three times to summon him, so you’re safe.

      Also, are you voting for a book that you haven’t atually read? How…how do we feel about this, people?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m voting so it gets in the list, then I can r ad it and “rip it apart,” right?

        BTW, I just stopped by one of the BEST used bookstores in San Francisco and picked up The Plague Court Murders and Death and the Gilded Man, as well as a book each by Delano Ames and the one and only Ronald Knox!! Set me back a pretty penny, too!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. The Corpse in the Waxworks by John Dickson Carr – Rereading the key chapter of this book, it shocked me to see just how brazenly the author dangles the clues in front of your face.

    She Died a Lady by Carter Dickson – Everything is laid out for you to solve the impossibility and to identify the killer. I did neither, although I caught on to a key aspect of the puzzle solution, but couldn’t make the pieces fit.

    My Late Wives by Carter Dickson – I deem this fair play because I solved it – not by intuition, but because I actually spotted the telltale clues as they were dropped, making the solution seem obvious. Of course, that kind of ruined the book for me, but others have commented that it is one of Carr’s best surprises.

    I’ll also add a vote for The Emperor’s Snuff Box. It certainly is fair play, but in a very different way than the titles mentioned above.


    • Carr and Queen are likely to be well-represented in the vote next week it seems; I don’t have a problem with that. At least no-one has mentioned Gladys Mitchell yet…


  9. I’m going to go with Queen’s The Greek Coffin Mystery, Cart er Dickson for The White Priory Murders, and I think Christie played fair with A Murder is Announced too. I’d need to think more for others.
    I’m quite intrigued by a couple of mentions for The Maze, which I’ve never read but wondered about. Is it generally recommended?


    • Colin,

      As a plot-oriented mystery reader, I found The Maze to be an interesting experiment for two reasons. One of them is that the story is pure, undiluted plot and that proved to be an unexpected stumbling block for me. I usually curl my upperlip and snarl at character-driven detective stories, but I was seriously handicapped by the lack of a human element in the story. And this was done on purpose in order to mislead the reader (especially readers like me). The motive was also noteworthy and decades ahead of its time.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll debate The White Priory Murders, because that’s the fun of all of this. One of the key aspects of a part of the solution hinges on what is possibly the most obscure clue in all of Carr’s catalog. A clue so obscure, that the author actually had to include a page reference so that you would even know what he was talking about. I suppose it is still fair play, but man, I guarantee know one has ever noticed that detail prior to the solution being unveiled.

      Of course, you could say the same of my choice of The Corpse in the Waxworks. In that case, Carr straight up dangles the solution in front of your face, but I would applaud anyone who actually noticed it. The difference is that upon a second reading of TCitW, you would slap yourself for how obvious the clue was. On a second reading of TWPM, you would think “how on earth would anyone notice that?”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I know the clue you’re referring to here, and I agree it is the kind of thing that one might be tempted to think of as nothing more than a decorative touch as opposed to a piece that brings the solution to the fore.
        However, I reckon it still plays fair in that it’s there, front and center actually, it’s not hidden and the fact the reader won’t pay a lot of attention to it is kind of beside the point, I think.


        • I think I know the clue Ben means, but I’m not 100%. And I can think of no way to hint at it. Hmmm, shall just have to live in suspense…


            • “It’s the…things that…someone finds in…that place where they…do something and it has…a follow-on which is…not great for…someone”. Yup, been there.

              Liked by 1 person

        • I don’t know what you boys are talking to as TWPM is still on my TBR pile. But this is the sort of tantalizing fanboy conversation that makes me thrilled to be here and a part of the whole GAD reading universe (AND makes me want to pick up TWPM immediately!!)

          Liked by 2 people

          • Put down that nordic crime novel this instant. Ok, now back away. Slowly. Keeping your hands where I can see them, reach to that bookshelf behind you. Ok, good. Now pick up The White Priory Murders. There you go.

            Seriously, this is what you need right now. Step back into GAD with a bang. You get classic era Merrivale, one of Carr’s most baffling crimes, and quite possibly his best solution. Plus, you’ll know what the clue is that all of the cool kids are talking about.

            Liked by 2 people

  10. The Maze by Philip MacDonald is a must in the list. I quote from the preface:
    In other words, you, the reader, and he, the detective, are upon an equal footing. You know just as much as and no more than he knows. He knows just as much as and no more than you. He finds out: could you have found out without his help?
    In this book I have striven to be absolutely fair to the reader. There is nothing—nothing at all—for the detective that the reader has not had. More, the reader has had his information in exactly the same form as the detective—that is, the verbatim report of evidence and question.


    • Aaah, but just because the author says it’s the case, doesn’t make it so. Murder in Black and White by Evelyn Elder (which I reviewed the other week) makes a similar assertion, and there’s no way in hell the reader can get the answer at the point it’s claimed. But The Maze certainly sounds like Macdonald has tried harder than the average bear to include this. Will be interesting to see how it does in the vote.


  11. For Christie, I’d go for Peril At End House. Yes, it’s very guessable if you’ve read too many of her books but it’s also perfectly clued.

    For Queen, any of the first few, but French Powder or Siamese Twin stand out.

    Of course, this depends on the definition of fair play. For example, how late in the book does the critical clue need to be given while still playing fair? And how complex does the mystery need to be? Could it be a single, well-hidden clue?


    • End House is a great call — the clewing is exemplary, probably among the very best Dame Agatha ever did.

      I think ‘fair play’ is anything where at the point of reveleation of whatever the mystery was you can legitimately trace back through the book to all the points that conclusively and exhausitvely point ot that conclusion. You the reader have been given everything. If that’s one single clue, so be it, so long as it is declared.

      Complexity is a matter of judgement, but I think a reasonable amount of obfuscation should be in place. The author must be simultaneously hiding something from you and laying breadcrumbs for you to pick up. But, hell, it’s all a matter of individual taste, that’s why I’m after the opinions of my betters!

      Liked by 1 person

      • In that case, I’ll add in the rather more modern Like This, For Ever by Sharon Bolton. Probably a single clue – maybe two – in a longish book, but hidden in plain sight.


      • C’mon JJ! Concerning your comment on Peril At End House and Christie’s clues in general– “the clewing is exemplary, probably among the very best Dame Agatha ever did.” EVER DID?? Give Christie some credit! She pulled some great punches and hid some excellent clues in a lot of her books. End House is just one of MANY Christie’s that had some clues cleverly hidden in plain sight.


        • Yeah, but I’m not say she never did it superbly anywhere else, merely that PaEH seems to me an especially good one. Plenty of others also qualify!


          • Oh yeah, I forgot that Evil Under The Sun seems to be one of your faves and one that you think had great clues hidden, right?


            • Oh, yes. In fact, Evil Under the Sun has such great clewing that I’m tempted to give it a wildcard entry into the draw!


  12. Here are the titles so far; don’t miss out a chance to add your favourite if it’s missing!

    Death of a Ghost (1934) by Margery Allingham

    The Moai Island Puzzle (1989) by Alice Arisugawa

    Shadow on the Wall (1934) by H.C. Bailey

    The Poisoned Chocolates Case. (1929) by Anthony Berkeley

    Green for Danger by (1944) Christianna Brand
    Death of Jezebel (1948) by Christianna Brand
    Fog of Doubt (1952) by Christianna Brand

    Cold Blood by (1952) by Leo Bruce

    The Corpse in the Waxworks (1932 by John Dickson Carr
    The Hollow Man (1935) by John Dickson Carr
    The Four False Weapons (1937) by John Dickson Carr
    The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939) by John Dickson Carr
    The Emperor’s Snuffbox (1942) by John Dickson Carr
    The Nine Wrong Answers (1952) by John Dickson Carr

    Peril at End House (1932) by Agatha Christie
    Death on the Nile (1937) by Agatha Christie
    Evil Under the Sun (1941) by Agatha Christie
    Toward Zero (1944) by Agatha Christie
    A Murder is Announced (1950) by Agatha Christie
    After the Funeral (1953) by Agatha Christie

    Dragon’s Cave (1939) by Clyde B. Clason

    The Plague Court Murders (1934) by Carter Dickson
    The White Priory Murders (1934) by Carter Dickson
    She Died a Lady (1943) by Carter Dickson
    My Late Wives (1946) by Carter Dickson

    The Seventh Hypothesis (1991) by Paul Halter

    The Maze (1932) by Philip MacDonald

    Policeman’s Evidence (1938) by Rupert Penny

    The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932) by Ellery Queen
    The French Powder Mystery (1930) by Ellery Queen
    The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen
    There Was an Old Woman (1943) by Ellery Queen

    The Frightened Stiff (1942) by Kelley Roos

    Black Aura (1974) by John Sladek

    Whistle Up the Devil (1953) by Derek Howe Smith

    The Bishop Murder Case (1928) by SS Van Dine


  13. Most of the novels I’d name have already been mentioned, including Queen’s The Greek Coffin Mystery (which shows perfectly how a solution should evolve from a clue) and Arisugawa’s The Moai Island Puzzle (which is a bit of self-advertising, I confess, but man, that tale is fair as heck. Even the Challenge to the Reader specifies that the only problem you need to focus on is the identity of the murderer, and not the locked room). For the Christie, I’d sooner go for Lord Edgware Dies though.

    And linking to an older post of mine about the clues in Queen-school novels (like Arisugawa) and why I think that this logic school as championed by those authors is the most fair to readers (should also give more explanation about why I consider the aforementioned Queen/Arisugawa books to be so fair): http://ho-lingnojikenbo.blogspot.nl/2015/08/a-clue-for-scooby-doo.html

    Liked by 1 person

    • A very interesting post, that, thanks for sharing it. I especially ike the line The reader could turn back the pages and go over everything again just to make sure. The Challenge to the Reader gave the reader a defined range and all the puzzle pieces and that relief of mind appears to me to be of more importance than knowing no Chinaman would appear — perfectly put, and made me laugh out loud.

      Have added Lord Edgware to the list, too.


  14. Man these comments are a lesson on themselves!

    I’m going to throw in a curveball and see how it plays with The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada, which has not one but two challenges to the reader, and second after an extra clued chapter to help you along.


  15. About Agatha and fair play: The weblog ONTOS has just posted about Christie’s “The Plymouth Express Affair” (the American title) and includes a Queenian Challenge to the Reader (which might not have been Agatha’s idea, IDK):

    (“It is suggested that the reader pause in his perusal of the story at this point, make
    his own solution of the mystery—and then see how close he comes to that of the author.
    — The Editors.”)

    The post is here: http://carrdickson.blogspot.com/2017/05/a-moment-later-cry-rang-out-into-night.html


    • Aaah, very nice. I still have that one to read — it’s in Poirot’s Early Cases, which I’ve not reached yet — so I look forward to discovering how fair it is. Anyone have any insight on this?


        • Agatha Christie didn’t care at all for The Mystery Of The Blue Train but like the professional she was, she got it written anyway and sent it off to her publisher. The Plymouth Express is a tad better but it was interesting to see Christie expanding the premise of the story to a novel, though this particular experiment didn’t come across as successful as other expansions of her shorter works. I think probably the pinnacle of her train mysteries would be Murder On The Orient Express.


  16. All of my potential candidates have already been mentioned, so I will merely ask a question that will probably ruin everyone’s day and create a great deal of anguished typing 😉 Quite simply — what are the books which PURPORT to be “fair play mysteries” but in actual fact are no such thing?

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I side with hg about DotN, JJ, even though I acknowledge your criticism that other “suspects” are more like satellites than wholly integrated into the plot. Forgive the length of this response, but this feels like the right place (rather than starting a whole argument over at my place.)

    Let’s imagine the situation from Poirot’s point of view before knowing the actual solution. As far as he and Colonel Race can tell, the following happened: Jackie drinks too much and lets her inner beast out, attacking Simon, first verbally and then, in a moment of madness, with her gun. She shoots him and drops the gun. Cornelia gets Bessner and Miss Bowers to take care of Jackie and Simon. During that fracas, somebody (we’ll call them X) realizes this at the spur of the moment is the opportunity to get rid of Linnet. They retrieve the gun from the lounge, either when Simon is in a delirium or when he is taken to his cabin, they run to Linnet’s room and shoot her, and then they toss the gun in the river. The motive is most likely the theft of the pearls (in which case, Linnet’s murder might almost be an afterthought, made necessary when she woke up), but as Poirot investigates, he realizes that Pennington has a huge motive, that Fergusson and Rosalie despised this rich spoiled princess, that someone feared she would expose him/her as a spy, that her interference in her maid’s private life has made the maid’s married boyfriend angry. The main point is that this is an unpremeditated murder.

    But a series of CLUES makes this theory untenable. They include:

    1) Why would somebody drug Poirot’s wine? It indicates a PREMEDITATED crime, which blows the whole above theory out of the Nile waters.
    2) Shooting the gun through the fur stole would eliminate scorch marks. Yet there ARE scorch marks on Linnet’s forehead, and we know Jackie didn’t shoot Simon through the velvet stole. Hence – another UNKNOWN – shot! How do we account for that shot?
    3) the red ink in the nail polish bottle. Why on earth would someone need that? Its presence also indicates a premeditated crime.
    4) Louise’s remark in Simon’s cabin. This, to my mind, causes the whole thing to unravel. Poirot (correctly) interprets Louise’s suppositions as a message to somebody in the room, either Colonel Race or Simon. And if it’s Simon, then the question has to come up as to whether Simon COULD be the killer. Fake blood . . . missing shot . . . premeditation . . . the clues that have been floating around start to come together.
    5) Pennington is a red herring, and his attempt to murder Louise at the temple is a great block from our stumbling onto the truth. There is nothing about Pennington that would suggest any premeditation! He wanted to solve the matter by getting Linnet to sign the papers. When that didn’t work and Simon said “I would never bother reading the contracts,” he was inspired to attempt murder.
    6) Tim wants the pearls, so he fits the bill perfectly of the killer who took advantage of the situation to sneak into Linnet’s room. EXCEPT that he had already substituted the pearls, showing that he is an excellent thief and doesn’t need to kill.
    7) Miss Van Schuyler stole the pearls. But she doesn’t strike anyone as a killer. If she was, she would be the unpremeditated one, killing suddenly for self-protection.
    8) Fergusson and Rosalie may have a motive of sorts, but again their murder would be unpremeditated. Richetti is a terrorist, so he might plan Linnet’s murder, but he would plan differently. Plus, he is so disconnected to the rest of the characters, there is no evidence of his being aware enough of Jackie to frame her for murder.
    9) Since it is absolutely proven that Simon could not have killed Louise or Mrs. Otterbourne, Poirot either has to abandon his theory or add a confederate to the plot. And here the going is easier. Who instigated the ruse to distract the passengers AND supply Simon and herself with alibis? Who is a perfect shot, a fact she foolishly admitted to Poirot? Who showed up “out of breath” to dinner just before Louise’s body was found? (ANYBODY who shows up out of breath in a Christie needs to explain themselves!!!) These clues incriminate nobody but Jackie, but since we eliminated her many chapters ago, we just let them pile up and take no notice.

    You can argue all you want about how much you LIKE this one, but it is definitely a carefully thought out plot with clues woven in. I think Carr and Queen tend more toward the mousetrap type mystery (like the board game) where the clues are all cogs or pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, and you need to assemble the machine or put the puzzle together to see the face of the killer. Most of Christie’s novels are like a game of Janga: she piles the clues up higher and higher, but one clue buried near the bottom gets pulled and the whole plot comes unravelled. After the Funeral has lots of clues, but the whole thing comes unravelled because of a comment spoken during a post-dinner conversation about how to dispense Richard Abernathy’s property. Ditto Lord Edgware dies, which is far inferior but works the same way, where a casual comment about fashion turns the whole picture around and every other clue then MAKES SENSE.

    I think we’re arguing apples and oranges here because the basic structure of fair play isn’t one single template, and Christie works in a different manner from Carr or Queen. (And then they all work the same way and dash my theory to bits. But you know how that goes.) The point regarding NILE is: you’re wrong, you lose, give up now and we can go out for barbecue!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wow, that’s impressive even for someone with your well-documented recall and knowledge of Christie’s output, Brad, and I feel bad disagreeing with you after such an awesome riposte. I agree with about 85% of what you’ve written here, but there are key areas — like the asumption that everything involving Richetti has absolutely no connection to anything else, for one — that are never really dealth with besides having Race and Poirot declare them unrelated. Also, is it definitively established that Tim Allerton switched the peals prior to the murder? To honest, I don’t remember either way.

      Either way, I’m sure it would be possible to pull apart even te most sacred of cows if I wished, so I should just accept this, hey? Looks like I’ll have to pencil in DotN for another read sometime soon, and try to actually pay attention this time… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  18. I see this as a confusion of concepts. I regard many of the titles cited above as extremely satisfying because they are richly, densely clued and provide both surprise and a sense of inevitability– a combination which I refer to as sudden retrospective illumination. But this has nothing to do with “fairness.” Fairness, like justice, is an objective standard– there can be no such thing as “more fair” or “less fair,” any more than the number 1,000,000 is more infinite than 3.

    I can conceive of a whodunit solution being entirely deductively provable, though I’ve never come across one in my reading of Christie, Carr, Queen, or Berkeley. And I believe that solution could only consist of a single question answered, say, culprit identity (motive could not qualify in such a solution, for while one can easily prove a strong possible motive [i.e. disinheritance from a million dollar fortune] there is no way to deductively prove an actual motive, even in confession). Even the most thorough works I’ve come across have consisted of individual points proven deductively and linked together in a seemingly inevitable abductive chain which nonetheless can not be proven, and thus no closer to that objective standard.

    I continually (and perhaps annoyingly) return to the concept of sudden retrospective illumination because I believe it to be the defining feature of puzzle plot fiction– one which not only accounts for its central appeal, but also “unites” the genre– being present in both more thorough “technical” works as THE POISONED CHOCOLATES CASE and THE GREEK COFFIN MYSTERY and also those such as FIVE LITTLE PIGS and AND THEN THERE WERE NONE whose clues cannot be employed to deductively prove anything.


    • You raise an excellent point, Scott, but if we pursue it to its logical conclusion then there’s no way we as readers — external to the people involved in such a story — can ever solve a mystery because it is impossible to tell how someone will react in a given situation or to a given outside stimulus.

      Just because a greedy man has access to money, and just because he takes that money and the theft is discovered…well, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll commit murder to cover up that theft (the same thing goes for hiding his pas/protecting the honour of his true love/etc.). There’s always an element of uncertainty in these endeavours, which I guess is how the ‘psychological angle’ rose to prominence and was seen to put paid to purely clue-based deduction.

      But even in clue-based deductions — as Berkeley showed with The Poisoned Chocolates Case, or Queen with The Greek Coffin Mystery — it’s always possible to add one more pierce of information and overhaul everything. Such a piece of information not being declared doesn’t mean it couldn’t exist in-universe and so the eventual route the deductions take aren’t false…down the rabbit hole with you, and round and round and round we go!

      I guess the essential essence of fair play as I see it is having the clues laid out so that there’s the opportunity to put them together in the way the author does in their sleuth’s summation. If reference is made to the contents of a letter, I want to have read that letter; if something shocking is found in some records, I should be told about it at the discovery (or soon thereafter if the author wants a cliff-hanger). What shouldn’t happen is for the letter to change everything without the reader having been given the chance to read it purely so that a surprise can be spring on the reader — that’s the kind of fourth-wall nonsense (with an implicit understanding that there is some unseen observer to be surprised at this reveal known all along to the character the observer has been following…whoa, rabbit holes again) that has no place in fair play detective fiction.


      • JJ, I have two difficulties with the assertion that fair play consists of “having the clues laid out so that there’s the opportunity to put them together in the way the author does in their sleuth’s summation.” The first regards the reader’s access to all information given to the detective. I concur that it is unacceptable to grant the detective any evidence not also given to the reader, but even guaranteeing the reader equal access still defines fair play in terms of a common denominator which demands no minimum standard. For, according to that definition, if the detective solves the case based on minimal clueing, the story must be considered fair play just so long as the reader was also granted that same minimal clueing.

        My second objection is to the unspecified and imprecise concept of “the opportunity” to put the evidence together. What constitutes “the opportunity”? This is clearly a question of clue sufficiency– how much information is enough? And I’m convinced that there are only two measurable standards of clue sufficiency– “some” clueing (i.e. at least one indication of the truth) and total deductive provability. I’m pretty sure that no one would accept the first standard as sufficient, and I find two problems with the second:

        1) No works of detective fiction (to my knowledge) have fulfilled it.

        2) Even if a work of detection fiction could meet the standard of total deductive probability (a possibility I do accept), that would still not guarantee to provide the sensation desired by readers of puzzle plot detection– that is, sudden retrospective illumination.

        As an example, take a truly deductive puzzle:

        174x – 32 = 538

        The solution arrived at (through entirely logical means) provides neither surprise nor a sense of inevitability (though, ironically, it is truly, logically inevitable). Thus if that algebra problem were somehow fleshed out with characterization and atmosphere, it might truly qualify as a “fair” puzzle plot mystery, but its solution would still not satisfy in the way a Carr or Christie does, as it would neither surprise the reader not seem retrospectively inevitable– supplying neither the “Ah!” Nor the “Of course!” so to speak.

        Readers demand “enough” clueing– but what constitutes enough is subjective, even if there is some consensus as to which works provide a (subjectively held) sufficient supply of evidence. But “fairness,” on the other hand, is an objective concept, not in any way dependent upon what strikes us as sufficient. Thus, I find it inapplicable to the genre.

        And I consider the whole idea of “fair play” applied to detective fiction to be borne of mistaking the useful metaphor of comparing a detective story to a competitive match with the notion that it actually is one (which it is not).


        • Sufficiency falls somewhere between “I was given the chance to look up that information” and “all that information was provided directly to me”. A certain level of intelligence must be assumed, as must a working knowledge of things like the language the text is written in, but there’s still a gamut to run from, for example, Nuclear Fusion to the fact that rain is wet. You hope most clues are pitched around the middle — too close to the former is doubtless a lazy reliance on being able to slip a piece of specialist knowledge past an ignorant audience (something the TV show House relied on) and therefore likely to incite cries of “foul” if over-used.

          But, there’s nothing inherently unfair with relying on specialist knowledge, it’s just lazy writing and makes for a bad reading experience. Arguing fairness doesn’t exist because of subjectivity is tantamount to saying there’s no such thing as a good book for the sae reason: your fairness is not my fairness, but fairness still exists. It’s simply a matter of where it is done well (or poorly) that warrants exploring, and that’s part of the purpose of the undertaking these comments append.

          Hopefully we’re getting closer to figuring it out!

          Liked by 1 person

          • But I maintain that the term “fair” is always employed to reference an objective standard, and intuitively recognized as such, even if we are unable to define that standard. Otherwise we would not argue the point (subjective statements cannot be logically disputed) and would say things to the effect of “that was not sufficient for me” or “it did not satisfy me” or “I would require more”– all phrases denoting a subjective, inconstant standard. Even an apparently subjective phrase as “I consider it unfair” implies that “there is a constant, objective standard, and I do not believe this meets it.”

            Out of pure laziness (which I readily admit to) I will quote my own article on the subject:

            First, it should be noted that “fairness” is always treated as an objective concept, and always considered in reference to a presumed exact and objective standard. Our language renects this: we speak of “fairness” in binary, “lightswitch” terms: things are either “fair or “unfair . Moreover, the very fact that questions of fairness are disputed is evidence ofIts perceived objective status; subjective concepts cannot logically be disputed— one may argue the merits of a work, but a sincere subjective statement such as ‘I don’t like it” is inherently and inarguably true– the maker of the statement is the sole arbiter… he doesn’t like it!

            As with the concept of justice, we may not agree upon where the standard of fairness lies, but recognize that, if it indeed exists, it exists independent of our personal judgment. A phrase such as “that’s more than fair” further demonstrates a recognition of the exactitude of that standard, suggesting a level of generosity beyond it. Even such subjective statements as ‘that strikes me as unfair” or “it seems fair” to me do not imply a subjective standard, but rather indicate a subjective understanding of an objective standard; that is, they assert “the line of fairness exists and I believe this is where it lies.”

            This is an intuitively understood notion, and its value is realized even by the small child. The child cnes, “it’s unfair!”, and while he may be feeling merely that wants more of something or that he is unhappy with the treatment he is receiving, he appeals to this presumed objective standard, a threshold above which he is being treated fairly, and below which he is not (in many cases with children 一 and even with adults 一 this is equated with equal treatment: “you let Tommy do it!”). He realizes, even at this early age, that reference to this standard carries more persuasive weight than a mere expression of his desire; even if the grownup responds with “no, it’s no not,” in disagreeing where the standard lies, he is confirming the concept of the standard. and that it is a valid basis for decision. For many children, this is perhaps their earliest attempt to get their way via reason; realizing that while they can only express a desire, they can argue a point of fact (fair or unfair).

            The concept of “British Fair Play, which is most probably the direct source of its use in detective fiction, may seem more casual and inexact, based on a personal, subjective sense of “gentlemanly conduct——indeed, one might think I’m taking the whole matter too literally. But this use of the term is also integrally related to the others, and just as solidly tied to the concept of an objective standard. It is a reference to those standards of honour, whether implicit or explicit, demanded both in the British military and in British sports (“it’s not cricket!” ), which are in turn presumably based on the “real” (and presumably intuitively understood), objectlve standard of fairness. Thus, while our personal decision of what constitutes giving an enemy or opponent a “fair or “sportsman’s” chance may be entirely intuitive, that intuition is presumably based on what is truly fair, independent of our belief.

            The point of all this is not that there is necessarily an exact, objective standard of fairness
            (I don t really know if there is), but rather that the concept is always treated as such, and that every use of the term “fair”, “fairness”, or “fair play” implies and references such a standard, regardless of its actual existence.


            • See, I get the impression you wish to apply the idea of fairness in a very particular way, and that’s where we differ. To take your matematical analogy from before, it’s almost as if (and forgive me if I’m wrong here!) you say a coin is fair if it lands heads up half the time…so unless you get exactly 100 head from 200 flips it can’t be fair.

              I don’t think the idea of “fair” is as rigid as you make it, but then maybe I’m missing the point… 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

            • No, I’m merely saying that fairness is always employed to reference an objective standard that is independent of our judgment or desires. If two people are in a dispute, they cite fairness not as a matter of what A wants or what B wants, but as a independent ideal of equity (though not at all necessarily equality), a point of impartial justice. When we speak of something as “fair” or “unfair,” we may not agree upon where the standard lies, but we recognize that it is at any rate not subject to our opinion of it. We have other terms to refer to our subjective judgments.

              And the very fact that people argue the question of fairness in detective fiction demonstrates our recognition of that objective status. After all, what is the point of arguing that a work is “fair” or “unfair” unless we believe that the work truly is one of the two, regardless of our relationship with it? It is not our ability to solve a mystery that makes it fair or unfair– it retains its status in that regard irrespective of our ability. What does vary is our own relationship with a work. One person may maintain that “there were was not sufficient clueing for me to solve it” while another may say “there was sufficient clueing for me to solve it,” but they are not disagreeing about the fairness of the work, they are merely making statements about their relative skills and how those skills stack up against the level of clueing provided.

              Unfortunately, like the similar, intuitively recognized as objective concept of “Justice,” “fairness” is largely immeasurable. Thus, people will often cite different points as identifying the standard of fairness. But again, by doing so they are not suggesting that fairness itself is subjective, only that their own judgment of it is subjective and varies from person to person.

              However, since the only two measurable levels of clue sufficiency fairness– some clueing and total deductive provability– seem to be of little use in referring to works of detective fiction (one clearly being insufficient, the other too demanding to apply to any extant works), I believe that debate about fair play is useless. Phrases such as “all the clues necessary to solve the mystery” are bandied about as if they were objective and measurable (they are not), when people really mean “there was sufficient clueing to make the solution seem retrospectively inevitable to me.”

              Sure, we can say the terms fair, fair play, or fairness mean something unique in regards to detective fiction, but to grant them a subjective definition they hold nowhere else is to needlessly confuse the issue. One might as well refer to the Philo Vance stories as “Rural Detective Stories,” on the basis that, in reference to detective stories, “rural means taking place in the big city.” Why employed language used elsewhere at all if only to give it meaning contradictory to its general meaning? And after all, the only reason we have to discuss how “fair” a detective story is because we are relating it to the concept of a competitive match, from which it is fundamentally distinct.


          • There are two missing clouding quotes in my last post, one following the term “British fair play” and the other following the term “gentlemanly.” I don’t wish to add confusion to an already complex and convoluted comment.


  19. The discussion of the definition of a “fair play mystery” made me think of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Justice Stewart (no relation) who in 1964 opined on the topic of pornography:
    “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description (“hard-core pornography”) and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it …”.
    I think the production of the “aha!” reaction, or what Scott calls “sudden retrospective illumination”, is subjective. Certainly I’ve had the experience of closing a mystery and thinking, “Well, okay, I guess that was fair but I don’t care, it was boring.” I’ve had the aha! reaction but instead of enjoying it, I just roll my eyes at the ceiling and move on. I agree with Scott that it’s not really useful to compare a mystery novel (or any other novel beyond a “choose your own adventure” book) to a game, and it can lead us into a misunderstanding of what mysteries are and what they’re supposed to do. At their best, though, they can provide us with the aha! reaction, and I find that very enjoyable. And to be completely honest, I usually don’t care at all if they’re “fair”. If I had a pleasant experience, as I define pleasure, that’s all I ask.


    • Oh, yeah, I’m not one to obsessover whether everything I read is fair — madness lies that way, along with dragons — but the deliberate withholding of something simple does frustrate me. Though, like yourself, it’s usually an eye-roll, a little sigh, and then onto the next one (it is difficult to troll someone on Twitter when they died in 1970).

      I don’t think the game analogy is completely off, though — there are many different games, and they’re played for different reasons and with different intents. While there’s commonality enough to differentiate between something that is a game and something that is not, I think describing this sort of undetaking as a game isn’t too wide of the mark: it can be viewed as a competition between the author and the reader, with the reader triung to spot the join when the author lays it out in front of them. If the reader spots it, they “win”, and if not the author is a good enough sport to show them what they missed.

      Maybe it’s more of a magic trick, though that’s inherently a game itself, and the terminology brings with it a series of connotations that I trust we all know can be dismissed…


      • Sherlock Holmes cried, “The game is afoot, Watson,” and, anticipating Scott’s argument, he wasn’t talking about the same kind of ruled game like Monopoly, or soccer, or Faro. (Is that a card game or a kind of noodle?) He was talking about the contest that a fictional criminal initiates when they commit a crime. Planned or unpremeditated, the culprit commits a series of acts that result in a loss of life or property or piece of mind, and the detective’s job is to locate that trail, examine any evidence found therein, and unmask and punish the criminal. The reader’s job is to follow the detective on the trail, and the “fair play author’s job is to brandish every piece of evidence needed to do the detective’s job before the reader on the off chance that the reader can accomplish the job quicker.

        Those are essentially the rules. The odd thing for ME here is how many of us actually DON’T want to win this game. That, for me, is where the “aha” factor comes in. If I figure out a mystery ahead of the end, I can see the “aha” factor when it appears, but my experience is different than if I miss the vital clue and smack my forehead in annoyance at my own ignorance. There’s pleasure to be had either way, but in terms of mysteries, I’d rather be fooled.

        That said, I want to be fooled fairly. I want every major clue to be taken into consideration and only one person to be the possible culprit WITHIN THE REASONING OF THIS NOVEL’S UNIVERSE. I keep coming back to AFTER THE FUNERAL (and I hope, JJ, that each mention of that novel counts as a vote!) Only one person could have perpetrated the plot that Christie conceived which lead to the death of Cora Abernethie. That doesn’t mean that one couldn’t come up with alternate theories. There WAS a psycho nun. Mr. Guthrie knew more about Cora’s paintings than he led on. The possibilities are endless for alternative endings, BUT NOT IN THIS PARTICULAR UNIVERSE. In that sense, ATF is totally fair play in my book.

        Let’s take one of the least respectable (but often most enjoyed) of clues: the dying message. Rarely in a novel does the dying message prove to be the be-all and end-all of clues. Several other factors – alibis, weapons, motives, etc. – figure into the plot. In fact, for a dying message to be truly effective, it should POSSIBLY apply to more than one suspect. A perfect example of this is Ellery Queen’s horrific THE LAST WOMAN IN HIS LIFE. The explanation of that dying message follows the mystery proper and is ridiculous in the extreme. But it applies to the killer.

        If I read a mystery where everything was resolved satisfactorily and then someone said, “But what about the dying message? How does that lead us to this killer?” and the detective replied, “Oh, it doesn’t, but then the victim was dying and delirious, so don’t pay any attention to that! WELL!!! In that case, no matter how airtight and true the proposed solution was, I would say that the mystery did NOT play fair and another, MORE correct solution better be forthcoming or I will toss the book against the wall in disgust.

        So says Comment #110! What fun I’m having! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, there many possible definitions of “game,” but there is only one type of game for which questions of “fairness” have any applicability: the competitive match. And a look at a list of features of nearly all (if not all) competitive matches reveals how poorly detective fiction matches with them:

        1) opponents are set against each other in demonstrations of
        identical or like skills

        The skills required to write a mystery are not nearly the same as those required to solve one, and neither the writer nor the reader is asked to prove their proficiency in the other’s skill.

        2) activity is governed by specific rules which all players must follow

        Some might cite the rules of Van Dine or Knox, silly as they are. But even if one were to accept them, nowhere are there explicit rules that the reader must follow in regards to his part of the “competition.”

        3) outcome of activity is decided by external arbiter or by mutual agreement of players, based on objective guidelines

        The only person who decides who “wins” a mystery story is the reader himself, and no other competitive game is arbited (is that a word?) by the judgment of one of its players.

        4) goal of activity for all participants is to win

        As Brad pointed out, many people read mysteries with the hope of not figuring it out– in the parlance of games, with a desire to “lose.” I’m among them.

        To my knowledge, all competitive games fulfill all four of these requirements, the detective story none of them. I think #4 alone– the distinction in the very nature of the enjoyment of the activity– is enough to prove that it is not a competitive match. And thus, even if we describe it with a broader definition of game, it is not of the type in which question of fairness would mean anything.

        It’s fine as a metaphor– and I believe that’s exactly what Carr meant by it.


    • I agree that “sudden retrospective illumination” is subjective. But “fairness”– like Justice Stewart’s statement about pornography– is understood to be an objective standard subjectively understood. That is, he was not suggesting that “pornography is in the eye of the beholder” but rather there is an exact, objective point at which something becomes pornography, and though he could not delineate or define that point, he believed he could instinctually know when it had been reached.


      • And I would assert that one man’s pornography is another man’s D.H. Lawrence. Erotica has different effects on different people. Some people are repulsed by what titillates others, and still other people find the same images artistic.

        And yet, in our hearts, we all know it’s porn. We also recognize the fair play mystery after we’ve read it. (Not necessarily before, although we can be fooled by the trappings of a book that advertises itself as such. That is what JJ meant by MURDER IN BLACK AND WHITE, which SAID it was fair play yet failed the test.)

        Again, we might accomplish more by looking at specific texts. I think we’ll realize then that we are actually arguing semantics about what the words mean.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, we are indeed arguing semantics. Fair does not mean “satisfying,” “richly clued,” or “retrospectively inevitable”– all subjective terms. It means, if it were to apply here, “objectively sufficient.” And just as a work can seem “satisfying” and “retrospectively inevitable” without being “objectively sufficient” (which is how I regard Death on the Nile), another can be “objectively sufficient” without seeming “satisfying” or “retrospectively inevitable” (which is how I regard the algebra problem I cited earlier).


          • I realize I harp on the point that “fair” is an objective concept, but that is only because it we use it exclusively that way everywhere else in our lives. Why are we so insistent on using it here to describe a subjective standard? I believe it’s because we are working so hard to fit the detective story into the box of competitive games– a box in which it does not fit.


            • And I say we can use the term “fair” subjectively because 1) we acknowledge that some writers have set up a competition of sorts between the reader and the detective, and 2) because we as readers apply our own criteria and tastes to the concept of “fair,” resulting in highly enjoyable argument all around for specific texts. In terms of #1, authors DID set up rules and they DID create a sort of game board out of their texts, with each chapter or clue or incident equalling another square on that board, with the challenge to the reader (stated or implied) essentially laying out what the game is all about. (“You must at this point be able to same Sir Royland Farquhar’s killer AND explain how the culprit was able to drown the lord in a vat of tomato sauce despite the inability of the vat to fit through the library door and the general unavailability of tomatoes in December on the Dartmouth moors.”) You play the game, either by adding up the clues (the butler Jenkins had a spot of tomato sauce on his chin at dinner, Lady Farquhar was recently banting and thus knew how to make something big – herself – smaller, the secretary Mr. Chinley grew tomatoes at the orphanage in which he was raised, and so on) or by guessing. And then you read the solution and the game is over. That it differs from other games one plays matters not a jot to me. I will apply the same tactics to the next mystery I read about the nine members of a baseball team found clubbed to death in Mr. Covington’s attic (“Bats in the Belfry”) and play the game again.

              And number #2 doesn’t bother me at all because we all look at the rules differently. Observe the louts watching a baseball game (“He’s safe!” “What are you, nuts? He’s out!”). One guy wins at poker because he’s excellent at bluffing, while the other has the luck of the draw on his side. I think the word “fair” – like millions of other words – has a variety of meanings and refinements and that we can both be right.

              JJ, put on the hot water for tea! It’s gonna be a loooooong night!

              Liked by 1 person

  20. Harummph! Harrrruuummpphh!!!! Haaaaarrrrrruuummpppphhh!!!

    There are mysteries which are fair, and there are mysteries which are good. We all want to read the ones that combine both traits. So, of course, as Noah states, we have read “fair play” mysteries that suck as novels, and we have marveled at crime stories that either fall short on “fair play” or simply don’t even try. Those of us who read classic mysteries know exactly in our hearts what it means to encounter a “fair play” mystery, even if we argue and disagree over whether any specific book played fair. That’s where the subjectivity comes into it.

    Scott’s argument may be correct, casting doubt on the opinions held by thousands of readers and hundreds of writers and scholars for over one hundred years. But I totally disagree with it. You can reduce the theory to math all you want, but there IS such a thing as a “fair play” mystery. It has to do with an author conceiving a solution and then presenting to the reader all the evidence that leads the detective to that solution before the reveal so that the reader has a chance to figure things out. I know it exists because I’ve played that game hundreds of times with Christie, Queen, Carr and dozens more authors who challenged me to the game. It’s not tennis, it’s not math, it’s not perfection because we are incapable of that. But the game exists. The evidence is there in every “challenge to the reader” that was explicitly included or implicitly implied. You can argue that it’s not a good game or a fair game as long as you want. But it’s a GREAT game, imho, and when a student of murder mysteries says a book is “fair play,” I know exactly what they mean.

    Furthermore, we could challenge each other to a game of “dozens,” where I “prove” a mystery is fair play, and you “disprove” it. I’m happy to play that game since I am a mystery geek like many others in here. But we are not talking about a prism, or a snowflake, or the meaning of life. Nearly every theory and idea in the world can be “proven” or “disproven” by any Talmudic scholar. I think, however, that if we take a book like, say, Christie’s After the Funeral to play this game, we will find no proof that “fair play” doesn’t exist, but merely that we have different ideas of what “fair play” actually is!



    • But Brad, what does “the reader has a chance to figure things out” mean? Until someone could adequately define such a statement (or one such as “all the clues necessary”) I maintain that the concept of a “fair play mystery” is nonsense.


      • A child uses the term, “It’s not faaaaaiiirrr!” to cover all sorts of social ills. It’s not fair that the Dudleys have a new car but we don’t. In a Communist ideal, that might be true, but the fact is that our dad can’t afford a new car or likes his classic Mustang just fine, and the kid doesn’t understand. It’s not fair that Marty next door gets to have a puppy and I don’t” even though animal dander sends your little brother straight to the emergency room. It’s not fair that my sister stole a cookie and got reprimanded but I got a spanking. No, that is not fair, and good luck to you trying to prove that to your dad who administered the spanking AND acts as judge and jury on all adjudications.

        So this comparison is moot because it covers a wide range of things that cast varying meanings on the word “fair” AND are seen through the limited range of understanding of a selfish child.

        A mystery is generally governed by one idea of fairness: that the information presented is sufficient to explain/figure out a mystery. The book I’m finishing now – Camilla Lackberg’s The Ice Princess – is most definitely NOT fair play because the author withholds information from the reader, such as what the detective picked up at the murder scene that caused him to cry, “Aha!” This is the author’s way of generating suspense, and it seems to work with her fans. But anyone who wants to try his hand at solving the case needs to give up because that’s NOT the game Lackberg is playing.

        Christie IS playing that game. Her notebooks indicate how much thought she put into where she drops her clues and how she will bamboozle the reader. She is psychologically astute enough to realize that her readers will read the name “Lotty” the same way they see the name “Letty” – or that they will dismiss this as a typo. But one person in a thousand will go, “Hey, what are those sister’s full names again? Oh yeah, what if . . . ” And then putting it all together with the other clues – the exchanged lamp, the comment of the dead lesbian, the reaction to the broken pearls, the missing photographs – all of which can be misread if taken separately- creates a full picture of the one and only possible murderer.

        I have never suggested that anything we read in these books would stand up in court. Nor do I downplay, defend or snort at the sense of artifice that is the foundation of a classic detective story. It’s part of the fun, or I would wonder why Linnet Doyle simply didn’t get pushed off the top of a pyramid. But it’s still fair play in the sense that everyone has described fair play mysteries. And yes, it’s a game you can only play once, and any subsequent readings create a different experience entirely. And yes, JJ, Colin, TomCat and I might read the same novel and each have a contrasting opinion of its efficacy as a fair play novel. And that is where the fun in these blogs lies!!!!!!

        Now you go get some food and sleep! Then you come back and argue some more! 🙂


        • My point about the child’s use of fair is the fact that fairness is recognized even at that age as an objective standard. The child recognizes the difference between “that’s not fair” (the truth of which exists outside himself) and “I desire more” (the truth of which lies within himself).

          This too applies to your statement that “A mystery is generally governed by one idea of fairness: that the information presented is sufficient to explain/figure out a mystery.” The truth of “the information was sufficient for me to figure it out” lies within ourselves, but “the information is sufficient to explain/figure out the mystery” is referencing an objective standard. What is that standard?

          For works in which the solution is not indicated at all prior to it’s revelation, I’m sure we can all agree that it would have to be deemed unfair. For a solution that is entirely deductively provable (the likes of which I’ve never seen), I think no one could deem unfair. But for all points in between, while we can express our subjective of views of how “satisfying” or “well clued” something is, our arguments of fairness are meaningless. For they are merely disagreements on whether something meets a standard we have not defined.


  21. Pingback: #238: Fair-Play Detective Fiction 101 – The Vote! | The Invisible Event

  22. I began to read through all the comments for this, as I wasn’t able to keep up with the post – but thought it may be easier to ask where did this get to in the end? Did you do a follow up?


    • There was a vote, I think it’s linked above, and then a final list…I was letting it simmer awhile to achieve an air of respectability before chasing it around the park a few times and seeing what falls out when it collapses of exhaustion…


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