I don’t know about you, but I read detective fiction mainly because I find the game-playing fun. If we accept certain components like fair declaration of clues, the killer being someone with whom we are familiar, and the freedom of a genius amateur to wander round crime scenes as a given, there are aspects within this that cause me no end of delight when they occur. Indeed, the fact that I see them present so frequently is part of what keeps me coming back.
Equally, certain recurring habits of authors make my teeth itch, and can thoroughly dispel the warm glow kindled to life inside me by any demonstration of the aforementioned. Again, accepting certain negative aspects of the Golden Age as simply frustratingly given — a lack of gender politics, the ignorance with which matters of race are confronted, subservience to anyone with a title — there are tropes which have crept in that thoroughly upset the experience for me.
Today we shall look at examples of both. That clear enough? Right, let’s get on with it…
“Well, it sounds fine to me…”
If The Detective Fancies You, You’re Innocent — This came up in something I read recently, and reminded me just how much I abhor it. It’s simply a variation on the Least Likely Suspect, I’m aware, with a very attractive, unaccountably single woman in the mix to whom everything points and yet turns out to be innocent…but the simple abandonment of the central tenet of Suspect Everyone irks me no end. And, yes, I know there’s a famous novel where the detective fancies the woman who turns out to be guilty, but it’s hardly one of the GAD staples, is it?
“Actually, what I said was…” — There’s an Edmund Crispin story where the key clue is whether someone said “rode” or “rowed”, and countless novels where (say) Frances is really Francis, and the way this sidles on by, whistling suspiciously nearly every time is a source of both personal frustration and immense pleasure. The very nature of these puzzle-oriented plots is to slip things past you in a manner that’s as fair as possible, and I always enjoy a piece of etymological wrong-footing, usually because a) it takes a special sort of mind to work it out and b) I apparently do not possess that sort of mind…
Egads! This photograph solves the whole thing…! — The forthcoming He Wouldn’t Kill Patience (1944) is guilty of this, where a visual clue that cannot be communicated in print (because you’d have to say “it looked like a young Major Fortinbras”) unlocks the whole damn show, revealing a secret past as a carpenter or an apprentice thingummyjig working under the victim. I understand that people have to be linked together somehow to show complicity, and the photographs in real life do this, but it works so much better on the page when it can be communicated in, y’know, print, the medium chosen to tell the story.
“Good heavens! This makes no sense…!” — Carr was a master of this, where a situation contains too many contradictory details to be resolved sensibly. Think The Eight of Swords (1934) with its empty room with the lights on, the windows and doors open in a storm, plus a visitor who did not wish to be seen but still called at the front door rather than going up the outside staircase, plus countless other details…and it all resolves perfectly logically come the end. Sure, I’ll enjoy a man shot in his study with open windows and no flourishes, but this sort of nonsensical layering is where my heart really resides.
And Then I Suddenly Realised… — a.k.a. The Moment of Inspiration By Which the Detective Sees the Truth, running contrary to the spirit of clewing and ratiocination at the heart of GAD. Replacing ratiocination with retrodiction is simply a short-cut to resolution, and a story that has had no real clues is not the sort of thing that goes over well in my house. Worst of all is the spiralling anti-reasoning it promotes — “Because he was the killer, he had to ensure he had an alibi, but that lack of alibi means he’s the killer!” — which is simply bending the straight line of logical progression into all manner of eldritch shapes that don’t bear contemplating.
The Dying Message — They’re frequently ridiculous, but the ingenuity brought to leaving a clue after your murder and before your death is something that reached peak density with GAD. Sure, you could just as easily wander in aimless circles — “He’s written the number 3 in his own blood, and he has three children, and the third letter of ‘children’ is I…so, the killer is…himself!” — but I’ll never tire of watching the machinations that develop from this conceit (and, yes, I’m aware of the awful Ellery Queen one…). Detective fiction at its most nebulous and yet thrilling.
“Mr. Holmes, Could You Please Tie My Shoelaces?” — a.k.a. a detective so stupid you wonder how and why they (well, he) ever achieved the rank, especially within the might Metropolitan Police Force. Sure, I know your Genius Detective needs to appear super-smart, but surely it makes more sense to show their (well, his) capabilities against people of above-average intelligence. Holding up to ridicule the conclusions of someone who has leapt to conclusions no sane, intelligent human being would is…well, stupid. Surrounding a moderately smart man with idiots does not a genius make.
Back in the day… — One thread that unites my reading of GAD and SF is a delight with the details of the era, imagined or contemporary. With GAD I’ve picked up party telephone lines, cork-tipped cigarettes, entails, “the season”, the conduct of servants, poison registers, the novelty of air travel, soda syphons, social graces (and scandals), aspects of the legal profession, locomotive travel and sleeper cars, “Hairy Aaron!”, and too much else to even begin to write a comprehensive list here. It fascinates me no end, and I reckon I’d fare better socially in 1932 than I do in 2018…
The Birlstone Gambit — Lord Chumpywump is dead. We know this because his body is in his study, dressed in his clothes, sat at his desk, with its head blown off or its face battered in beyond all recognition. Also, a stable boy is missing. So that’s our suspect. Definitely. [200 pages pass]. Oh, good heavens! The body was that of the stable boy and Lord Chumpywump had faked his own death to escape his debtors?! Go drunk GAD, you’re home, no-one falls for this past about 1925; so the author who used it in their 1994 novel should be especially ashamed. I bloody loathe The Birlstone Gambit.
“Let Me Tell You a Story…” — Among Christie’s many innovations in the genre, the “gather everyone together and I’ll walk you through it” scene that closes a lot of GAD is something I always enjoy. Even if only to rant at how awful the clewing has been, that moment when we begin to walk through events in their true light is a glorious instance of anticipation for me, and not something you find in any other genre. Extra points for everyone suddenly realising that a certain person isn’t there, but points deducted if we then have to endure a chase scene. Have some dignity, man, it’s over.
There are naturally several more on both sides, but I’ll keep myself to five each because that seems sensible. What have I missed, what do you love or hate, or is there something above you wish to gainsay? Get involved below!