#351: Golden Age Detection 101 – The Clues


Given their importance to the understanding of the historical impact of the genre, I share here another section of ‘Everythyne I Know About Detectyve Fiction’ (1925) by Admiral Lord Sir Hugh J. Lee Boryng-Payne E.S.P Cantab.

This section — the third, following his treatises on the amateur detective and settings of GAD novels — concerns the utilisation of clues in puzzle plots, and again shows Boryng-Payne’s remarkable perspicacity coupled with his now somewhat dated attitudes on a raft of matters.


Clews are like women: necessary, regrettable, and best kept quiet.  When a chap settles down with a book, he wants to forget his worries and read a good old rollicking yarn with plenty of murder and maybe a surprise or two.  He doesn’t want to be shaken out of that by his wife or — hurrum — the lady he lives with talking about bonnets or houses.  And he doesn’t want to have his fun — probably the only peace he’s had all day, eh, what? — ruined by some nincompoop author who makes his clews stink the place up with French perfume that cost a bally arm and a leg and should only be worn on special–

Sorry, forgot myself.

Look, it’s not enough these days to find a red hair at a crime scene and then have the detective chap realise the blighter wot did the murder was the red-headed man who came to consult him in the first place.  Good heavens, we’re not Victorians, who should have spent more time writing their plots and subjugating their social inferiors and less starching their collars.  No.  We’re an entirely different and better breed.  These days, a chap reads about a red hair at a murder scene and within four or five minutes he’s thinking “Good heavens, that fellow Maybury had red hair — never trust a Norwegian”.  No, these days we’re made of sterner and more adventurous stuff — I saw a woman on a bicycle the other day, that’s how far we’ve come — and the average chap wants something a bit more adventurous in his fiction (and with the world going to pot around him, who can blame him?).

These days, a red-headed man called Maybury asks your detective to investigate a murder, your detective finds a red hair at the scene of the murder, as many as 30% of your readers are immediately going to think of Maybury’s red hair.  Sounds unlikely, I know, but it happens.  Now, you say, why not just not tell the reader that Maybury had red hair?  Makes it more of a surprise that way.  And I say get out, sir, get out!  That sort of lollygagging chicanery is what you’d expect the syphilitic sympathisers of mad King George to pull — good heavens, sir, you forget yourself!  That might wash in some places, but we’re British and we do things fairly, even when we lose.  Which we don’t often, and it only happens because the other fellows cheat within the rules.

Look, you mayn’t ike it, but here’s how it has to be: you must tell the reader Maybury’s a red-head — firstly so they know to watch his crafty Scandinavian tricks, and secondly because, well, you want to be fair.  When an Englishman isn’t fair, well, what does he have left besides charisma, sanguinity, breeding, fabulous hats, and the respect of all foreigners?  You have to tell the reader Maybury’s a wily ginger.  If you don’t like it, move to France.


So, look, it’s a clew, okay?  But it’s a clew in a new way.  Because your detective johnny finds this red hair at his crime scene, and instead of allowing your reader to think “Aha! I’ve got you there, m’lad!  It’s that crafty Irishman Maybury!” you have the detective immediately think the same thing — show the reader you’re ahead of him, what?  You’re not so biddable yourself, not like these Northerners.  So perhaps Maybury turns out to be bald, and he’s wearing a wig when we see him — nothing unfair about that, these wigs these days are something fabulous, I know a good man in Jermyn Street… [editor’s note: 2 paragraphs expunged] …and it wasn’t even a real penguin!!  Anyway, maybe the fella’s bald and uncomfortable about it, so he wears a wig to hide it, but you’re supposed to think of Maybury when you first encounter the hair even though it doesn’t point to him in the end.

I’m telling you, this sort of idea — this, well, this sort of Red Hair-ing — is going to be the thing.  Look, from now on, no more lazy straight lines.  I tell you, put an embargo on all simple deductions.  Never mind the dog not barking because it knew the fella who came in — that’s lazy writing, and not in the least bit curious.  Instead, the dog doesn’t bark because the master gave his coat away and some bounder bought it and so smells like the master approaching — much better.  Better yet, the dog didn’t bark because someone called by earlier and borrowed the dog for a spot of illicit rabbit-catching in the local landowner’s forest, the bounder, and doesn’t want to admit the dog wasn’t there just to save their own scrawny, ungrateful neck from any trouble.

Sounds difficult, but actually it gives a chap much more to work with.  Maybe the detective finds leaves at the crime scene the dog got caught on its fur, or there’s blood on his snout but none on the victim (might’a been coshed, see), or he hasn’t eaten his breakfast on account of all the illegal rabbits he ate the night before.  All you’ve got to do is think more than one step ahead.  Good grief, if Drake can win a battle at sea, the average Englishman should be able to plot a bit of a crime, what?


The most important thing is, it’s got to be subtle — wily, like the Welsh, but with panache, like the Spaniards.  You see a fella out in the garden in the middle of the night, running back and forth and jumping in the air like he’s dancing, you think he’s a bit cracked, what?  Turns out he’s trying to get a kite with a secret message attached to it down from a tree where’s it’s blown and got stuck because he’s some sort of treasonous spy — well, his days of threatening the Crown are good and numbered.  What you don’t want is him just stood below the tree with a stick, poking at the branches — no subtlety, see?  That sort of approach is very Scotch, see.  Simple people, can’t keep more than one thing in their head.  Look at Hadrian’s Wall, and then look at the Great Wall of China — no comparison, is there?

You’ve got to make sure your clews aren’t all shouty, remember.  They’re not trying to get the vote, or to expect anyone to care about education reform.  They want to creep up on the reader quietly, like an Italian in a heiress’ boudoir, sticking to the shadows and leaving a definite smell you don’t recognise until it’s too late.  Make ’em too loud and you ruin a chap’s after-dinner reading, frustrating him because in this enlightened age we deserve better than being made to feel clever by that idiot Watson (how that man ever qualified as a medical doctor, I don’t know — egads, most of his patients would have to tell him what was wrong with them).  The future of the genre lies in obscure and careful clewing, I tell you.

Or at least it will so long as women don’t start complaining about it.


Well, I think that speaks for itself.

Only one section of this pamphlet remains, and at present I’m having difficulty decoding precisely what it’s about because the paper is in such poor condition.  Tune in next week to find out where Boryng-Payne focuses his monocle for the final riposte.

16 thoughts on “#351: Golden Age Detection 101 – The Clues

  1. I don’t hold with all these sneaky, subtle clues, full of hell’s own trickery. A cigarette end, Turkish for preference, or a clear patterned footprint and a man knows where he is, gets the deductions out of the way by page ten and can skip the rest of the book and go shoot something fluffy. What I say is, you can have too much thinking but you can never have too many dead things in the living room. Hrrumph.


  2. Another great installment as always. Clewing can be a tricky one to balance. You don’t want the clues to be too obvious but equally I don’t like it when I get bogged down in too many clues especially of the alibi/howdunnit variety. I realise that this does put me worryingly on par with the writer somewhat, though I’d like to think I have more enlightened attitudes. At the end of these installments you do feel sorry for Mrs Admiral Lord Sir Hugh J. Lee Boryng-Payne E. S. P. Cantab – firstly because of the unweildy married name she inherits and secondly because she has to live with Hugh. Perhaps she takes the Mrs Collins approach to marriage? Be funny if she had written postscript to her husband’s literary endeavours…

    Liked by 2 people

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