#342: Highs & Lows – Tremendous Tricks and Terrible Tropes

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…

verycutepomeranianpuppiespics

“Well, it sounds fine to me…”

Thumb DownIf 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?

Thumb Up“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…

Thumb DownEgads! 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.

Thumb Up“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.

Thumb DownAnd 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.

Thumb UpThe 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.

Thumb Down“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.

Thumb UpBack 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…

Thumb DownThe 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.

Thumb Up“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!

104 thoughts on “#342: Highs & Lows – Tremendous Tricks and Terrible Tropes

    • Yeah, I read it a few years ago in the grip of a massive book hangover from Grass by Sherri S. Tepper — a condition in which virtually nothing would have made a good impression, and as such I remember not especially enjoying it. I’ve recently seen adverts for a TV show based on the novel, though, so it may be a good time to revisit it…

      • I’d say 3 or 3.5/5 stars, not mandatory at all, but since you like locked room mysteries I thought to bring it up. I don’t know if you should revisit it. Depends on how much time you have left to spare. I reviewed it on my blog, that might help. Maybe just watch the show, but then again, I have zero hope for that.

        • I can believe they’ll have a hard time getting the world on-screen, but then I’ve seen very few TV adaptations that really capture what makes the book notable. I won’t even countenance the idea of The Expanse series from the James SA Corey books — there’s no way they’ve done justice to my vision of those characters!

          Still, I had (and still have) forgotten that Altered Carbon was an impossible crime, so curiosity on that front alone may be enough for me to check it out again; much appreciated.

  1. How about the “I know who the killer is, but don’t have that last piece of evidence so I’ll keep my super sleuth gob shut while he kills more people”? Poirot does it at least once and The Stingaree Murders is an even worse example of it…

  2. There is nothing I love more than the ‘big reveal’ at the end of a GAD novel. As you say, it is peculiar to the genre and would perhaps be ridiculous used elsewhere, but that is what makes it all the more special. And I have to agree with ‘Back in the day…’ It is of constant annoyance to me that I didn’t live through the 20s and 30s.

    • Even better is ‘the false solution’ when done right, because you kind of get multiple ‘big reveals’. My favorite example is the false solution midway through the John Rhode / Carter Dickson collaboration Fatal Descent. The solution was so clever that they could have just ended the book right there and made it a novella.

        • The most annoying thing about flase solutions is that I dont really feel it’s fair to tell people they’re coming — some of the best surprises spring from watching a water-tight case build inexrably around someone only to have it spin round and the trpa suddenyl snap closed on an entirely different party. It’s marvellous and you want to scream and shout about it, but, dude, imagine taking that moment of discovery away from someone else…just doesn’t see right.

          Ditto for late-on twists or sudden changes in focus. I seem to remember Puzzle Doctor posting about this a whiel back, and how disclosing the mere presence of a twist is in many ways a spoiler. That’s part of why I started those Spoiler Warning posts — so we can talk about the fun bits with impunity!

        • Replying to JJ’s comment – WordPress has an annoying feature regarding comment thread depth.

          I think it’s slightly fair to call out a false solution when it occurs midway through the book, because, well, obviously it has to be false – there’s too much book left. Although, one could counter that the story could possibly take a different direction, so fair point.

          It is more problematic to call out a false solution that occurs close to the end of a story. There’s an incredibly famous Carr story (that you’re now making me feel too guilty to cite) that features a one-two punch of false and true solution. I believe I read this one with the knowledge that a false solution would occur, and still enjoyed it, but I can imagine the joy of being baffled as the first solution is suddenly discarded.

          Darn it, I’m actually just now writing up a review of a book that is very famous for its false solutions (not The Poisoned Chocolates Case) and your making me second guess the analogies that I make to work by other authors…

          • Crikey, don’t start paying attention to anything I say…that way madness lies. Just write your thing, it’ll be fine. Or it won’t and everyone will judge you. And the internet has a loooooong memory, don’t forget.

            So, yeah, y’know, do whatevs.

  3. i have been protesting the Birlstone Gambit for years! I have written my Congresswoman and staged three separate rallies! No progress! Hopefully, your blog post will get things done!!!

    Regarding your thumbs down on the “And then I realized . . . ” moment – you and I may or may not be thinking of a different thing. I love the moment when the detective has a moment of enlightenment and says, “But how could I have been so stupid!” Granted, this can be dramatic yet deductively meaningless, as the scene of Poirot in church in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, or it can stem from an honest-to-God-clue-delivered-right-in-front-of-our-eyes, as Poirot’s Moment of Enlightenment in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.

    I thoroughly second the Puzzle Doctor’s suggestion! Imagine if the little old lady at the top of Murder Is Easy had said to Luke, “I’m going to Scotland Yard because my fellow villager Irving Kumquat has been killing people over and over,” rather than that delightful rigmarole about the crazy look. Four more people would be alive today!

    I will also offer something that I have always loved in mysteries. It’s the “checking in” chapters where the author flits from one suspect to another, “checking in” on what they’re doing and thinking. I love when books open with this (I know some people don’t), and I especially love knowing that one of the people I am meeting is the killer. A really good author can tease my suspicion in these sections, even hide some wonderful clues, and yet be equally obfuscating! The opening chapter of A Murder Is Announced does this beautifully.

    • I agree with your “checking in” chapters, Brad, though I want to amend it a little bit. I don’t like when the author dedicates one whole chapter to each character, because to me that smacks of time-wasting and an author who doesn’t have enough plot to fill a whole novel. However, one chapter with a number of short passages about each character, that works very nicely for me.

      • The short passage trope is very GAD, Christian. It’s when you get to the modern era and P.D. James and her ilk that you find those long chapters that are supposed to equal “deeper” characterization but can also feel like padding.

    • Sure, I don’t mean the “Oh, now that I’ve seen something there’s an analogy to the case I’m working on….” sort of revelation. I mean that without the analogy, the “Oh, good gravy, it’s suddenly so clear! How did I not see this before?!” without any inspiration other than all the clues have been deployed by the author. It’s typically more of a modern crime fiction thing — John Verdon does it in Think of a Number, which you may or may not remember me thoroughly detesting — but it occurs enough in GAD for me to comment on it here.

      And, yeah, I never understood Murder is Easy in that regard; you’d go “Jonathan Fitzelgiggle is killing people” and leave it written in about 15 places in case he then killed you, and then you’d go to Scotland Yard…

    • Christianna Brand may be the queen of the checking in chapters. She does this brilliantly in Green for Danger and Fog of Doubt, and there’s that definite excitement in knowing that one of the people you were just empathizing with is going to turn out to be the killer.

      • It can be played well, but it’s very much one of those Lord Edgware Dies conceits: you’ve got two possible soutions, so unless you play it carefully your readership will be split into the 50% who guessed it and the 50% who didn’t. I’ve seen it done very well indeed, or used as a minor instance in a bigger scheme, and it’s fine. But the murder on page 4 and the reveal on page 307 is unfortunately too much of a burden to put on such frail and dusty shoulders.

  4. I’ve seen so many good, and bad examples of most tropes that I don’t have anything against a trope per se, I think. Some authors and/or mediums are just better at using them. For example, your example of the photograph works only for traditional printed materials. I can recall at least two, three great examples from mystery games, but also gamebooks that did great things with that.

    The “And Then I Suddenly Realised…” trope also depends on the kind of mystery, I think. With Queen-like novels, you can very clearly point out the moment where the decisive clue comes (“it is only now that we learn that X couldn’t have known about that, which clears X, which means only Y could’ve done it”). Compare to Father Brown, where often there is no decisive clue, and the inspiration comes from recognizing situations that are mirrored (also often used by Christie). There is often no physical clue or word that set it off, just the whole situation being mirrored in different ways that allows the detective to guess what’s going on, and it works great for those kind of stories.

    The Birlstone Gambit is something I’ve recently run into in an interesting way. This isn’t really a spoiler, but I recently reviewed the novel Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono (http://ho-lingnojikenbo.blogspot.nl/2018/01/attack-of-headless-horror.html), which is all about decapitations. Whether the Birlstone Gambit is actually employed in the novel, I’ll obviously not spoil, but at the very least, it’s mentioned extensively throughout the novel. Heck, the book even features a Decapitation Lecture, going through all the reasons why someone would decapitate a body, with the Birlstone Gambit as one of the main categories of course. I think it shows the trope can be used in various ways, so again, it’s more a ‘how it’s used’ rather than ‘it’s used’ matter to me.

  5. On another forum that i visit from time to time it was stated that the gathering together of suspects in detective dramas for the purposes of revealing the killer and detailing the deductive process could never happen in real life, being contrary to police procedure or some such banality. The mere fact such a trope runs contrary to what reality demands meant that it had to be classified as “A Bad Thing” and a cliche.
    I’ve no problem with the cliche part – almost every device will fall into that category sooner or later if it’s been at all successful – but the prosaic and joyless position that the fact of its removal from real life rendered a situation undesirable made my head hurt.

    • That’s quite a common view today, unfortunately. Everything has to be so “real”. Even though it’s generally not more real than anything else, it’s just a study in misery and bleakness.

      If you want real, then just go outside. Don’t read a book, don’t watch a movie or the TV. Reality is all around us in, you know, the real world.

      • Quite. I just seems somehow unfair to use it wouldn’t happen in real life as a stick to beat up on a piece of dramatic fiction – the gripe was in relation to TV ‘tec shows but I think the point still stands – when there’s no claim to be striving for realism or docudrama status in the first place. Oh well.

      • Hahaha, geez, have these people read any modern crime fiction? It’s all alcoholic and attractive amnesiacs seeing or not seeing things on train or in cabins or next door or upstairs, while worrying about their kidnapped daughter, unfaithful spouse, and fluctuating house price.

        • There was a hopeful review in a recent Entertainment Weekly magazine of two books of the “Girl Who . . . ” variety. While he liked one and liked the other less, the reviewer remarked on the growing tiredness of the sub-genre and pointed out that, in this #MeToo era, why are these protagonists, who are obviously women, always referred to as “girls?”

          The biggest problem for folks like us, of course, is that as long as books like this are trending, they’re what every wannabe writer is gonna write and what reviewers will refer to as “mysteries.” There is no puzzling out the solution in one of these – it’s just a waiting game until the reveal of how different reality is from the unfortunate protagonist’s perspective. (Yaaaawwwwwnnnn!!!)

          • Talking about “mysteries”, there’s a book out in April or ay called Guess Who (or, er something similar) that’sbeing billed as “from the new master of the loced room mystery” (or, er, something similar). Now firstly, no, not after one book you’re not, but also secondly I have a feeling it might be people locked in a room — so a one-setting closed-circle mystery…which is not a locked room mystery.

            Now, I could be wrong — it happens — but I also find it a real xhame that language is being repurposed in this way to sell something that is not what those words actually promise: “mystery” has been repurposed to mean, as you rightly say, anything but.

            I’m gonna advertise “Penny Black stamps for sale” and then send people who buy them coconuts just to prove a point. Not…not to anyone who cares, I’m just smug like that.

            Man, I have wasted my life.

            • I’m about to listen in the car to another book by a modern author billed as the 21st century Agatha Christie! This is what I call “picking at a scar”: causing myself pain in order to provoke artistry!

              And you say YOU’VE wasted you life . . .

            • Probably less “the 21st century Agatha Christie” and more “the 21st author inaccurately likened to Agatha Christie this century” — amIbloodyrightmate?

    • It’s true that “trope” has now come to mean “a bad thing”, but in fairness to the English language it typically just means something that is used or occurs commonly in a situation (hence why I specify ‘Terrible’ in my title — that, and alliteration). Rendering clichés as automatically bad isn’t necessarily fair, I agree — indeed, GAD is redolent with trope and clichés and features that help define the genre (as is any genre), and this doesn’t automatically make a bad read (it’s a trope to be talked through the detective’s reasoning, but we’re rightly furious when denied this…).

      So, yeah, I agree with you. Do your research, That Other Place.

  6. I’d like to nominate the annoying category “My Disguise is Better than Yours”, where it seems that any character can disguise themselves as whoever/whatever and no one can see through it.

    Though perhaps even more annoying is the “Super Deceptive Beard” where a whole plot point is the fact that NN has a very distinct facial feature and it is enough for everyone who sees that facial feature on a character to believe that he/she is NN.

    • You beat me to the punch on this one. It’s somewhat a variation of the visual clue that JJ mentioned in the post. How on earth am I supposed to know that two characters look nearly identical? No description of a character in a book is going to allow the reader to determine how similar two characters look.

      Wouldn’t the characters in the book think, “boy, I sure know a lot of people who look exactly like Sir Bentley?” I mean, imagine trying to pull this off in a movie. Everyone in the audience would immediately realize that the same actor was playing three characters.

      And the worst is when the disguise gets revealed at the end, and the author works in a statement implying something like “remember, it was mentioned early on that Sir Bentley and Lord Rawdon both have blonde hair and a stout composition…”

      • I hate to say it about my favorite author, but Christie abused the disguise motif abominably. I won’t give away any titles here or even talk about it generally for fear of ruining anything for you, Ben, but let’s just say that I have been fascinated with the way certain of her books were filmed for TV or movies due to this fancy of hers that a person can walk amongst family and/or friends in disguise and not be recognized! Most of the time, it’s accomplished by simply not filming the person in disguise but – as in the novels – discussing it in retrospect. But once in a while, an actor takes on the challenge, and it’s hit or miss! One of these days, if you’re interested (and have read more AC) let’s talk about them!

        • Yes, without mentioning any titles, I read a Christie novel recently that featured some disguise business and had me thinking it was absolute piffle to expect something like that to work. A real Scooby Doo moment.

          • Anthony Horowitz’s second Sherlock Holmes-universe novel Moriarty has a superb riff on this; I’ll say no more for risk of spoilers, but it’s very clever and rather amusing.

      • Everyone in the audience would immediately realize that the same actor was playing three characters.

        There speaks a man who has clearly never seen an Eddie Murphy movie…

  7. Good list. One thing I don’t hugely enjoy is when the solution is mostly proven by the criminal confessing, as I prefer there to be a bit more other evidence outside of the criminal themselves, as otherwise it can just be a lot of hypothetical theorising by the sleuth, which then has to be corroborated by the criminal to be shown correct.
    But as to things I enjoy I like when documents are included in a text such as letters or diary entries and can also enjoy novel openings where the author shows you a panoramic view of the cast of characters, usually slipping in some subtle clues that I completely miss.

    • I have a gigantic bugbear with included documents where the it says something like:

      March 8th
      Went to the shops and saw G…he’s with his new wife, and they looked happy

      But who writes an ellipsis when they pause in writing? You just stop, lift up your pen, ruminate, and then continue, no dots needed. Gah! This irritates the hell out of me!

      • Can I just add here how much I hate when authors include documents that have a little tear in the corner? Or when a victim writes a three-page letter before she dies and the killer realizes that if they just remove page 2, the bottom of page 1 and the top of page 3 not only fit beautifully together but serve to incriminate an innocent dupe?!?

        (Alas, Mrs. Christie, you are guilty of both these sins . . . )

        • Someone else did this in a book I have reviewed on this blog and I…actually kinda liked it. Oddly, there’s a Chesterton story that uses the same sort of idea that really does not work for me — but I did enjoy it as a sort of callback in this book. Whichever one it was. I forget now.

          But, yeah, it’s total nonsense. Just fun nonsense. Also, Chritstie’s use of it (if we’re thinking of the same book) was pretty decent, thought.

          • In the title I’m thinking of, the solution is so obvious that the plot needs all the obfuscation it can get. And the letter here is about the best red herring one could find for a book that really has no other suspect but one.

            What Christie does MUCH better is provide documents that seem straightforward but the contents of which are misread, usually through manipulation by the murderer. One of the early 30’s classics does this brilliantly!! (I think it’s a title you admire, too!)

            • That early 30s one is what I’m thinking of — not sure about the other one, but don’t sweat it, I’ll either remember or I won’t. Or I haven’t read it. If it’s that bad, I may not have read it, ‘cos I think I’ve hit a pretty high average across Christie’s work so far.

          • Fair point; that’s always been my problem with the movie Se7en: the killer fessing up as the end-game of a plan he couldn’t know was going to pan out that way until pretty much the moment it did…so, uh, what now?

  8. Another dislike – where the sleuth is convinced they know who the killer is and spends most of the book investigating that one person. Either they did it – so no surprise reveal – or they didn’t and we wasted a chunk of book on an investigation that the reader knew was flawed.

    • A variation on this is where you have an obviously obnoxious detective who is convinced they have identified the killer early on, but it’s clear the far more affable, friendly, and reader-insert detective is going to be the one to unravel the case…so you spend ages watching someone investigate knowing their solution is going to be the wrong one. There’s one book I enjoyed that did this, and that alone stops me recommending it, because it’s too obvious a development for the surprise it is intended to be.

  9. Oh, and more of a modern cozy one, but a variation on Kate’s confession one. After deciding and being proved wrong as to who the killer is, our “sleuth” goes to see someone else who for no good reason decides to reveal all by trying to kill them…

  10. Could I just say that the unbelievably cute photo of the prancing apricot (yes, not just plain brown, but apricot) pomeranian is unbelievably distracting? I had lots to respond to this post, only for them to give way to an opening comment on the unbelievably cute prancing apricot (yes, not just plain brown… oh wait, I’m repeating myself) pomeranian. Could I just say…

    Anyway, “If the detective fancies you…” – I’ve been watching a tv series prequel to a set of post-GA mystery novels, and both the series and the novels seem to play up this trope. Given the marital status of the main sleuth, the seasoned mystery fan sniffs something afoul the moment a suitable paramour comes onto the scene. In fact, I think this has happened more than once. >_<

    Interestingly enough, I think the Birlstone Gambit has been used in a couple of popular or well-received GA novels. I'm thinking of one by Dean Street Press – or at least it plays on a variation of the Birlstone Gambit.

    I suspect we have the same Queen novel in mind, with that somewhat eye-rolling death message. What I find curious is that the novel – if we are thinking of the same novel – is actually one of Queen's better works. If we aren't thinking of the same novel, I blame the unbelievably cute prancing apricot (yes, not just…

    • Apricot? Are you sure?

      I said elsewhere that the Birlstone Gambit can be well-deployed — there are only so many ideas to go around after all — but it does feel a bit like the old “first person to break into a locked room is disguising the fact that the door’s not really locked”. Sure, go right ahead, but also give me something else to sustain me and your plot. Otherwise we are in for a difficult time.

      I have not read the Queen novel in question, since my chronological approach may delay it at least a little while (eh? eh?), but all I know about it is the clue and its resolution. I’ll get there. Probably. Via some more delaying tactics and a redefinition of the word “chronology”. You’ll see.

    • haha yes top marks for the cute dog picture, you do seem to favouring this breed in particular. Feel like you should get one now… (then you could bring it to the BL conference in June and I can cuddle it – no self-interest of here of course).

  11. Agree wholeheartedly that the gathering of suspects is a joyous thing.
    How about “Lying for Love” in which one or more characters very readily believes their loved one to be guilty of a heinous crime and, instead of looking into this further or deciding that a murderer isn’t exactly a catch, decides to pervert the course of justice instead.

  12. A variation of “If the detective fancies you…” is where a point of view character gets a free pass simply because, well, they’re kind of in the narrator role. Carr’s To Wake the Dead falls under this category, and I’m sure he has about 20 more examples if I thought about it long enough.

    “Good heavens! This makes no sense…!” – I haven’t read The Eight of Swords yet, but my favorite example so far is The Four False Weapons, which features the most bewildering crime scene ever. How it all comes together for the solution is simply beautiful.

    Back in the day… Well, we could all write like 30 posts on this topic. It’s the unintentional side effect that we get from reading the GA genre – we came for the puzzles and ended up swept up in the fascinating details of a world gone by. It was a cruel world, no doubt, but there’s something about experiencing it through the eyes of the upper crust that’s fascinating.

    My favorite “back in the day” novel may be The Witch of the Low Tide, where Carr reaches back to the era in which he was born to create somewhat of a mix between his historicals and his more standard work. It’s like the equivalent of a modern day 40 year old writing a story that takes place in the 1970s, and it enables Carr to liberally sprinkle in “historical” details that he must have experienced to some degree in all of the world around him while he was young. We get the benefits of a post-1930 writer setting a classic impossible crime plot in the first decade of the 1900s.

    • Ha, I had considered making the case with Four False Weapons as it happens, but EoS is fresher in my memory. But, yeah, that’s the exact thing. Also, Death-Watch does it to pitch perfection. but that’s an oddly unpopular book and so I didn’t want to pejudice people against it being a good thing.

      Fire, Burn! is, for my money, about the best example of how to enrich a setting with detail — it is almost faultless, and so utterly compelling for the history alone. Of course, Carr was doing that deliberately in the same way that every 1980s-set novel written now is full of shoulder pads and Duran Duran (er, probably). What I esecially enjoy about contemporary details is that they’re not in there to create some sense of nostalgia, they were just part of the furiture at the time and have become all the more impressive and telling with age. The accidental discovery within this is simply joyous.

  13. I agree with Ho-Ling that the tropes are not inherently bad, it is the way they are used.

    Aside from the unnecessary confession issue I mentioned in a previous response, the other thing that irks me are when detectives immediately discard someone who would otherwise be a top suspect because they have known each other a very long time. It happens in The French Powder Mystery and while that book hardly needs an extra suspect, I found Ellery’s complete lack of interest in entertaining the possibility odd.

    And it’s not a trope but there is no reason that anyone with an accent should have all of their speech written out phonetically. It is distracting, time consuming to decipher and adds very little to the experience because you either know what the accent being evoked is or you wonder what you are meant to do with all those extra ks and sh sounds.

    And that’s not even touching on the times dialect is combined with 1930s and 40s casual racism.

    • Am I alone in quite enjoying phonetic/dialectic speech? Crofts was a fan, and that’s good enough for me these days. There are times when it can be used to marvellous effect, c’mon…

      • I rather suspect I am the outlier on this one and I can handle short doses or characterful phrases but extended pages of it can really wear me down.

        • I’m not fond of it either, but in my case there’s the added problem that English is not my first language which makes it quite hard to decipher accents or dialects that are dissimilar to Standard English.

          On the other hand, I didn’t like it at all when the Swedish translator took the decision to translate the accents of Dalziel and his compatriots iinto some Swedish “dialect” in one of the Reginald Hill translations. (To make matters worse, he only did this in one book, so now the translations are different which annoys the anal me.)

          • There’s a fascinating study there in how dialects in one language can be translated across language barriers to the same effectin a different tongue. I mean, I don’t have the knowledge to a) conduct or b) understand it, but some multi-lingual etymological student just got the topic for their Masters thesis…

          • That is odd. Maybe he got horrible feedback and he decided against doing it again.

            I certainly can believe it would present an added obstacle for those not reading in their first language. I was actually from the area a book I read recently was set in and I found it an obstacle myself!

          • I have long believed that in order to increase my popularity as a blogger I should stop referring to myself as Brad and come up with a snappy nickname, like “The Passing Tramp” or “Cavershamragu” or “Al Sasha JhayJhay.” With your permission, Christian, I am going to start calling myself “The Anal Me.” It is the most apt description of myself I could ever come up with!

            • I agree. In fact, I told the same thing to John Norris and even suggested a nickname for him, but he was furious ! 🙂

            • Firstly…I’m ever so curious as to what you suggested; we don’t need to now, but I think the internet just shifted forward an inch in its chair at this news.

              Secondly…does not admitting your name up front really make any difference? I don’t avoid a blog because I see it’s by a Samuel or Alison or Rohan any more than I read one because it’s by DetecTonic or Ambletron (my apologies if anyone actually blogs under these names, they’re just collections of syllables my brain has thrown together). I’m clealrly one of those weirdos who goes by, y’know, the content of the blog itself…

    • “Aside from the unnecessary confession issue I mentioned in a previous response, the other thing that irks me are when detectives immediately discard someone who would otherwise be a top suspect because they have known each other a very long time. It happens in The French Powder Mystery and while that book hardly needs an extra suspect, I found Ellery’s complete lack of interest in entertaining the possibility odd.”

      Heh, there’s a certain author who uses that against the unwary reader in many of his mysteries. To not spoil it too much I’ll just call him the alphabetical author.

  14. The back in the day trope which always amuses/amazes me is that banks would keep a record of the numbers of the notes paid in by customers and it was accepted as a matter of course that this would happen and that you could identify who had deposited the note and that the depositor would be able to identify when and sometimes who had paid them using that note. Whiles primarily I associate this with Inspector French it so far as I can recall in other novels from the 20s and 30s.
    On the dying message trope I was occasionally annoyed with some books where the dying message was cryptic, but to have left the identity of the murderer would have been as easy and certainly required less lateral thinking by the soon to be corpse. Great fun but interrupted the willing suspension of disbelief.
    A variant of the detective fancying you was that lovers are (almost) never guilty – certainly that is a reasonable assumption in the series of books where the detective wears a tippet and has prints of the Stag at Bay and Bubbles on the walls of their inner sanctum.

    • How weird is it that I didn’t even consider that registering of banknotes a thing — it’s something I absolutely know happened (from the reading of these books, as you say) but it had completely faded into the background of my awareness, a completely accepted fact because it seems like such a natural part of the universe.

      I remember a old TV show (like Quincy or similar) where the dying message was that the victim wrote his killer’s name in the dust, but the killer was called something like Helman and he only got as far as “H-E-L” before expiring. A surprising amount of time was devoted to the consideration that he was writing HELP…which even to my teenage brain seemed too stupid for words.

  15. EIGHTY-SEVEN COMMENTS?!?!? Alright, alright – I am calling a halt to this post effective immediately!!! Everyone will be too burnt out to comment on my upcoming post, “BAD HABIT: The Effects of Second Hand Smoke and Sweets in Classic GAD Fiction.” It will be an attention-grabber!!!!

    • Yes, we must chide JJ for morphing into the Buzzfeed of GAD blogs. He’s dropped several posts lately where I’ve read them and thought “good grief, I could spend 10 hours commenting on this. I have things to do today. It’s not fair!” The topics are practically socially engineered to get me to lay down at least eight comments. Pretty soon he’s start posting topics with click-bait titles like “You won’t believe what happened when she…”

      All kidding aside, keep them coming. These discussions have been a lot of fun and I enjoy them even more than the book reviews.

  16. I realize I should not add to the 88+ comments, but I can’t help it. The thing that bothers me most, I think, is any variation of a solution that relies on a visual solution that can’t be, or isn’t though it could be, described. As mentioned above, two people who look almost exactly alike, men disguised as women or vice versa and no one can tell. It’s not fair. I’m convinced that if I could see whatever it is for myself, I would not be fooled.

    • I completely agree, and I’ve talked about this elsewhere on this blog — one book in particular relies on this sort of principle and would not work in rela life, I don’t care what ahyone says, but at the same time I’m happy to accept it within the confines of the novel. There’s a separation in my mind between “that is too ridicuous for real life” and “that is too ridiculous even for fiction”. Perhaps my fondness fo impossible crimes plays a part.

      With disguises, I guess for me it’s a matter of how much, and how prominently, the plot relies on it. Someone diguises themsleves to follow another character around for a chapter — fine. Someone disguises themsleves to live within a particular commune for four months unsuspected — yeah, no. I’ve seen Mrs. Doubtfire, too, and I just don’t buy it.

      As for the old “Wow, we two look almost exactly alike…” — I’m just not a fan of that, full-stop. Norman Berrow used it moderately well in Murder in the Melody, but that aside it’s a trop I should probably have mentioned above because of how little good I think it brings to any story. But then we wouldn’t’ve got to have this chat, I suppose, so it was worth forgetting 😀

      Annd don’t worry about adding to the comments once they reach a particular number — we’re all here for a discussion, the more the merrier!

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