#287: The Equivocation of the Fiend That Lies Like Truth – Colloquialisms, Idioms, and Fair Play


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.


Damn, the mere existence of this film makes me so happy.

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.


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…


21 thoughts on “#287: The Equivocation of the Fiend That Lies Like Truth – Colloquialisms, Idioms, and Fair Play

  1. This is what I get for checking my e-mail just before bed! Achhh!

    My head is fuggy, but it occurs to me that one place where you might possibly see the use of idiom, etc., is in the use of the dying message. People scrawl something that comes out of a special place in their dying consciousness, something that reminds them specifically of their killer. And it is our job to misinterpret it for as along as possible. I think that often that misinterpretation involves looking at a word or phrase or symbol too literally when it represents an idiomatic meaning in the victim’s mind. Ellery Queen did this tons,. I won’t spoil anything, but an example is found in the novel The Scarlet Letters. And though I won’t spoil The Last Woman in His Life for you – I want you to read it and give it hell because it’s so awful for many reasons – I will say this: I have never understood why the victim’s dying message did not represent any of several common slang terms, which would have been much more in keeping with the victim’s point of view than what he did end up saying. Am I right, Noah Stewart?

    Sorry to be so oblique. I’m sure that when I return as the 73rd or 74th comment, this conversation will have advanced. Have a good day, Mr. Popularity! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly, Brad, and thanks for prompting me to reply. I emphatically agree that Last Woman in His Life is an awful novel for many reasons and the one you mention is one of them. I suspect that the reason that the non-use of any of those pejorative terms for a specific minority group is that the EQ cousins were trying to be supportive of that group and not perpetuate those words (for much the same reason as the title changes to the Agatha Christie novel now known as And Then There Were None. They failed miserably, for many reasons, but as you note, if they had allowed the use of one of those terms as a dying message, the book would have been over at page 35 or so. And yes, use of those terms would have been much more appropriate to the character of the victim as presented. But nothing could have saved that ghastly book.
      I’ve never cared much for “dying clue” stories — I don’t think I’ve ever heard of one in real life. There’s one in a John Sandford novel that is gruesome but believable (the victim is being tortured and scratches a name into his own skin), but the rest mostly don’t make it past my suspension of disbelief.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Not to keep bringing up this one example (as I think I did the last time we all discussed dying clues), but there is a famous case involving a dying clue (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omar_Raddad_Affair).

        I’m quite fond of them myself, but then again I write detective stories and include them, so I’m biased a priori here. But I don’t think they’re as irrational or unrealistic as many claim.

        JJ, as for your larger point, I think it’s entirely fair for a witness not to tell the truth but also not to know he or she is lying. Mason’s The House of the Arrow, one of the greatest pre-Golden Age detective novels (pure porto-Carr, as Nick Fuller has pointed out), is a grand example of this, as is Ellery Queen’s (very) similar trick in “The Mad Tea Party” (in which EQ himself is that witness). Indeed, much of detective fiction, especially impossible crimes, is built around the concept of the witness’s misconstruction of what he saw.

        The difference between these examples and yours, JJ, is that in both of these cases the murderer purposely misdirected the witness to tell an untruth or, more properly, false statement (I’m loath to write “lie,” because lying seems by its very definition to require intent). In your example, the secretary bases her untruth not on some deliberate action of the villain’s but rather on her perception of events, and she is limited by colloquial expressions in this matter. To some degree, this turn of events seems remarkably close to Chesterton’s “The Invisible Man” [SPOILERS, naturally], in which the witnesses say that no one entered the house when someone, whom they could never-ever suspect, did indeed enter the house.

        My problem with “The Invisible Man” as a puzzle-plot–as a puzzle, I hasten to add, for its storytelling qualities are impeccable in my opinion (I know you don’t like Chesterton, JJ)–is not that I find this action psychologically unconvincing, as many readers do (I’ve noticed people who act in exactly such a fashion; they “block out” people who could not possibly be the individuals to whom you’re referring), but simply they would eventually realize the inaccuracy of their statement. That is to say, they may say, “No one entered this room, sir,” but then later follow it up with “well, yes, the postman, sir, but you can’t mean Old Charlie.”

        In the same way, your secretary may say, “Inspector, I was only gone for thirty seconds,” but Inspector Plodder would later ask her for specificity (if not, he’s simply bad at his job), and she would probably say, “Well, it certainly felt like thirty seconds, Inspector, but I suppose I wasn’t watching the clock.” Even if Insp. Plodder were a terrible cop and didn’t ask here, it is likely it would come out in normal conversation later. An example of this is Anthony Boucher and Dennis Green’s radio play for “The Headless Monk” in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes [SPOILERS, but it’s no great impossible crime anyway]: a witness swears that no one entered the room, but in later conversation, he means no human entered the room. (He thought it was a ghost–yeah, full Scooby Doo here.)

        Well, what does this all say about fairness? I don’t think any of this is unfair–witnesses say wacky and often incorrect things all the time–but I think it’s unsatisfying, which is a big difference. Let’s say there were an impossible crime in which the solution involved a secret passage. Let’s say there were a number of brilliant clues which point to said passage’s existence but which come as a shocking surprise at the end. Remarkably fair–but you still wouldn’t be satisfied, just because it is a secret passage. (I’m feeling a bit like I’m telling the clock-teaspoon-mask puzzle that Bencolin tells in The Four False Weapons.)

        Hoping that somewhere in this far-too-long mini-essay I’ve made some sense, JJ… 🙂


        Liked by 2 people

        • Well, I appear to’ve psychologically blocked ‘The Invisible Man’ from consdieration, so there’s evidence of what you’re talking about 🙂

          I suppose this post is a spiritual sequel to my earlier one about how realistic the GAD universe was: we know people lie, or at least say misleading things, but inside the formal construction of a novel where the expectation is that people either tell the exact truth or provide opportunities for their statements to be shown as false, I just wonder how much scope there is for this sort of realisitc behaviour.

          IIRC, ‘The invisible Man’ is resolved because someone says something that draws the same comparison but is equally stupid — something along the lines of being given an object when there’s no-one stading nearby: now, that’s not just accidental misleading of your audience, that’s an outirhgt falsehood on which Brown jumps pretty darn quick (again, I could be misremembering). When there’s no-one esle to dispute this sort of thing, how can it be dealt with in such empirical terms? Can a GAD plot hige on non-empirical evidence on account of the detective’s say-so.

          If there’s one false note in the Crofts I’ve read of late, it’s his tendency to go “French realised that such-and-such had happened” in relation to minor pot points but with no follow-up to establish that this conclusion is correct (sometimes the guilty party spontaneously confesses this at the end, but that aside there’d be no way to establish its veracity. Where there’s no chance to challenge a perception that proves crucial…how do we deal with that?

          Though, to be fair, the novel I hint at in the post does it very well, but even then that doesn’t seal the accepted version of events come the end in amber: the detective <icould still be wrong in their surmise of events…

          And Chesterton is a damn fine storyteller, for the record, just a horrible writer…!


    • There has already been discussion of TLWiHL enough to give away the direction that dyig clue is supposed to point, and I understand there’s another mystery novel from the same era that conflates the two same issues under consideration (I’ll not name it lest a) it spoil anything and b) my surmise is incorrect).

      The dying message — and I, like Noah, am not really a fan — is however a great use for this idea. Or, at the very least, the “The guilty person is present and I need to get you thinking of them wihtout making it obvious I am” message. It’s the one case where I think this idea could really be used wihtout any complaint…usually because those sorts of things are so ridiculous to begin with.

      Dying messages usually remind me of the pizza parlour scene in Men in Black 2. I’ll leave it to the reader to check this out and come ot their own conclusions…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Apologies for not contributing any examples to the debate (memory of a stunned goldfish) but you have made me wonder about the difficulties of translation when an important plot point hinges on an idiom or any sort of wordplay. Agatha Christie, for example, much translated and definitely fond of misleading phrases. Do translators manage to find a workable alternative, skim over it and cross their fingers, or curse in despair and rewrite the whole damn plot?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know that there’s at least one Paul Halter story that hasn’t been translated into English because the crux of the mystery depends on a French pun, or something like that.


    • I remember reading something recently about the gut who translated Agatha Christie into (I think) Icelandic and how he really struggled for ages — like, a number of years — with one clue in one novel.

      The only example I’m aware of that relies on this sort of principle (it’s not exactly the same) is The Seven Wonders of Crime by Paul Halter. I’ll not spoil anything, but there are repeated aspects within that book that would have required som rewording, and it’s handled very smoothly. As for others — well, there’s Ho-Ling’s superb example below, which really gets the mind working.


  3. Yes, in Les Larmes de Sybil by Paul Halter, when a person says Cygne (swan), the other thinks he means Signe (sign). In French cygne and signe are pronounced exactly the same. Since it is not an important point of the plot, it can safely be excluded while translating. However, if it were an important point, how to translate ?


    • To transate it, just keep the character French — the old “as he died he reverted to his natural language” trick has been used before, and could allow for the mis-translation by a non-French audience. C’est simple!!


  4. I wrote a post some years ago on a related phenomena in Japanese mystery fiction, namely that in a high-context language (as opposed to low-context languages like many of the Western languages), many things are left unmentioned explicitly as they are assumed understood by the participants in a conversation (for example, subject/object, gender, singular/plural, verbs can all be left out of a sentence depending on context). Usually, a listener will automatically fill in the blanks (for example, the subject of a sentence is likely to be the same as in the sentence before it, unless specified otherwise), but this leaves room for a lot of shenanigans of course, because just because the listener assumes something, doesn’t mean it was actually what the speaker meant. There are also a lot of language markers in the Japanese language that are associated with specific genders (i.e. “boku” and “ore” are usually considered male 1st person personal pronouns), which will have the reader assume the speaker is a certain gender, even if in truth they’re something else (i.e. a female using ‘boku’).

    There are plenty of Japanese mystery novels that play with this, and because it’s so language-specific rather hard to translate.


    Liked by 3 people

    • Godammit, Ho-Ling, I want your life. Well, just the myster-aware parts of it. This is, like, one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard.

      I often feel the utalitarian anture of the English language lends itself to a more functional form, but when you miss out on this sort of shenanigans it’s almost worth building a time machine to go back to the 1500s and screaming at them to get a move on and formalise something far cooler. And also to not kill quite so many people overseas. That would also be good.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Christie has much fun playing with language and with our assumptions of language, and she makes these things central clues. She plays with names in Peril at End House, A Murder Is Announced and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, and in the second one, she has a blast with our assumptions about word choice, spelling and meaning. She shows how the omission of one word can change an innocent message into a (fake) suicide note. The whole falling apart of the murderer’s plot in Lord Edgware Dies hinges on double meanings, which might be as close as she comes to colloquialisms vs. classic references. I don’t recall her playing with puns as such, but nobody worked as hard to put the “utilitarian” English language to work for her!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Brad, you wrote, “She shows how the omission of one word can change an innocent message into a (fake) suicide note,” which reminds me of an example in Jonathan Creek. It was in a lousy episode, but I found this one part very clever, and it’s connected here:

      One small element causes a man to misinterpret something in a letter, and he ends up taking his own life in consequence.

      Quite ingenious, and (in my opinion) completely fair, even if it weren’t intentional on the part of the villain (as in my examples before). In that case, the fairness quotient rises, methinks, as there is no time for clarification. If JJ’s secretary said what she said, and then everyone’s attention were completely distracted (by, let’s say, a gunfight), I’d say that would increase even higher the fairness quotient for “thirty seconds,” even if–again–it may not be all that satisfying.


      • Visual media can get away with this more easily, because — as in that episode — they can show us the intended interpretation. Were it not a visual story, I don’t see the conclusion reached therein working anywhere near as well. Too much scope for alternatives!

        We’re back to the old Poisoned Chocolates Case arguement: once you’re shown something and told what it means, it occludes all other interpretations of that event.


  6. I”m torn. I know that your secretary example was a flippant one, but I think I would call that a cheat, especially if it was the linchpin of a novel-length story. Mainly because I think that someone would notice if they were away for five and a half minutes as opposed to thirty seconds.

    On the other hand there’s room for these kinds of clues, and ways to do them well (see: Christie, Ho-Ling’s post, etc.) I just think you have to be careful, because it’s easy for it to come off as unfair, especially if everything hinges on the misunderstanding.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Part of me doesn’t see it working in a classic novel of detection all the time, but the “real psychology” angle of it — someone making a mistake under the impression they were telling the truth — has been exploited rather well within GAD as the other comments attest.

      As Irfan has pointed out, you’d expect someone to notice the main clue in ‘The Invisible man’ by Chesterton, and I do consider that sort of oversight to be cheating. Thankfully that was only a short story — like you, I’d be furious if that was the resoltuion on page 317.


      • I think that the Chesterton story would have worked better if no one had been told to watch for someone. I think it would have been easier to swallow in that case. Other than that I agree, it would work well as the linchpin of a short story, or maybe as a smaller deduction.

        Liked by 1 person

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