I’ve spoken a lot about fair play in detective fiction. I defined it, I defended it (twice, in fact), we voted for the books that best exemplify it, and here we are again. See, the idea of presentation and declaration (which, yes, I’ve also spoken about before) occurred to me in a new way, and this blog operates on a sort of “Hey, I wonder what people would think about this thing I just thought of?” principle — so here we go…
If you’ve not seen the The Shawshank Redemption, well, firstly you need to seriously look at the life choices you’ve been making but also be aware that HUGE, RUINOUS SPOILERS linger in the following paragraphs. Skip ahead, friend, and schedule that movie into your life soon.
Arguably the key development in Shawshank is when Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufrense asks Morgan Freeman’s Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding to get him a rock hammer to help with the shaping of rocks into chess pieces. Demurring on the basis that Andy may use it to attack another inmate or “tunnel under the wall, maybe”, Red’s fears are disregarded by Andy’s confident assertion that “You’ll understand when you see the rock hammer”. Sure enough, the hammer arrives, Red smirks and tells us via voiceover that “It would take a man 600 years” to tunnel through the wall with something so small, and we move on.
Come the end, it’s revealed that Andy does in fact tunnel out of the prison with the hammer in “less than 20 [years]”, but so casual is Red’s dismissal of this possibility when it first arrives we, the audience, had equally dismissed the possibility. It’s a brilliant twist, and all the better for the way the colloquialism of It Would Take A Very Long Time standing in for It Can Never Be Done automatically precludes any suspicion on our part that this is ever going to happen. Freeman’s character is wrong, and we’re told something that is false without it explicitly being a lie because the colloquialism is engaged to hide this…and I’d be amazed if anyone was at all bothered by this come the end of the film.
SPOILERS FOR SHAWSHANK END
I got to thinking about this recently in light of two events that followed hard upon each other. The first was someone remarking that my London flat was particularly well-located because “it’s 30 seconds from the common”. It’s not, it’s about five and a half minutes from the common, but the idea of “something being nearby” generally being accepted by the colloquial use of “it’s 30 seconds away” lodged in my brain. The second was that at a key moment in an episode of The Mentalist someone uses the expression “She died in the gutter” to refer to the murder of a woman in a hit-and-run…and, because she was literally in the gutter at the side of the road when she died, this is the evidence used to determine that person’s guilt (er, spoilers…but, really, I’m saving you time here).
And because my every waking moment is an opportunity to reflect on GAD, I got to thinking: would it be considered fair play to present incorrect information to the reader through the use of idioms or colloquialisms?
I propose the following theoretical example:
Let’s say someone is found murdered in their office, the room ransacked in such a way that would have a) made a huge amount of noise and b) taken several minutes. The only entrance to the office is reached by walking past the deceased’s secretary who was sat in place typing letters all morning, and who insists “I was never away from my desk for more than 30 seconds” and that no-one went in and no tumult overheard. This can then be played one of two ways — either the secretary comes under suspicion, or the crime itself takes on an impossible hue. Then, at the end, it’s revealed that the secretary was in fact away for five and a half minutes — an escalation from perception to reality which I have witnessed myself in the last two weeks — and so there was in fact a massive window when the crime could (and did) take place.
Sure, this example falls down under the slightest scrutiny — account for the secretary’s precise movements and it’s blown out the water — but you get the idea. But imagine there’s some way of obfuscating that, how would you feel at this sort of development? Is it fair for the information given to the reader to be believed accurate by the witness but not actually true?
This isn’t as speculative as you might expect. Examples abound, but I’ll cite the GAD novel — and I’d ask you not to name it below if you recognise it from the following description — where two witnesses are able to confirm that someone was alive and spoke to them, and then without anyone else approaching this person they are found (I believed) stabbed to death. Now, by a quirk of narrative, one of those witnesses is lying and is not aware they’re lying. To those of us conversant in the games this genre plays that turn of events will be perfectly possible, but it remains debatable precisely how fair this is. If someone lies without knowing it…well, we’re still being lied to. It’s interesting to see something like The Hollow Man (1935) open with a series of “okay, these are the things that are definitely, indisputably true” statements because we need to know what we can trust. But then, by implication, there may be follies of behaviour or circumstance that we can’t trust — have we been prepared for this?
There is a John Dickson Carr novel in which a key witness hides in a wardrobe and is able to confirm a series of events that secure certain details of the central situation. If, in a different narrative, a character so engaged were to be homosexual and keen to obscure this, but someone later says “Well, I knew so-and-so was in the closet…” is the onus on the reader to pick up on this? The issues here is less one of colloquial speech and more one of interpretation, but it’s a sliding scale: this, to me, would be perfectly valid where the “I was never away from my desk for 30 seconds” would probably irritate the hell out of me (it’s difficult to know until you read it, of course — context is everything), and the “she died in the gutter” example seems to be over-reaching itself in what it actually tells us.
With just a little thought, I have devised a series of situations in which the turns of phrase “wet behind the ears”, “I gave him six of the best”, “I was stabbed in the back” and “he had me on the carpet” could all be deployed both idiomatically and accurately to convey the exact, literal information that points to a guilty party. Idioms, I think, lend themselves to this more fairly. What I’m curious about is those instances where there’s a deliberate self-blinding to what is being said and what is actually meant — “I’ll only be thirty seconds”, “He wouldn’t hurt a fly”, “I wouldn’t do that for a million pounds”. I imagine the range of responses to this will be pretty broad, but how explicit do you require your fair play declaration to be? Is it enough to look back and go “Oh, sure, they were speaking generally and loosely, and it’s my fault — and the fault of the detective — not to’ve required a follow up to that; ha, well played” as in our secretary above, or does the exactness of what’s said matter?
Examples may well abound, but please as ever be mindful of spoilers below. I get that there’s no individual perspective on this, but given the range of tricks employed by the emissaries of our shared obsession I’ve no doubt this is something we might have come across at some point, to varying degrees of annoyance, and I’m interested in how other people see this. And, incidentally, if you’re keen to see more of this and are a fan of the idiomatic approach, the short stories of Edmund Crispin collected in Beware of the Trains (1953) will give you much delight.
Okay, over to you…