#561: Thinking Too Precisely on th’ Event – Clued and Unclued Detective Fiction, or: The Active and the Passive Detective-Reader

Clew

August is my summer holiday, and I’m contributing to the slow death of the planet by taking a few breaks here and there, so might not be as hot in the comments as usual.  But the nature of what we mean when we say “GAD” has been on my mind for a while, so here goes nothing.

For the uninitiated, GAD is an acronym for Golden Age Detection, used as a catch-all term for the school of mystery writing that emerged in what Martin Edwards has termed ‘the Golden Age of Murder‘ between the two world wars.  The precise book-ending dates are open to debate, but the Golden Age essentially marks a period of unparalleled fecundity in the ingenuity and diversity of plots, misdirection, red herrings, surprise culprits, and the concept of “fair play” wherein the reader is given the clues necessary to solve the crime.  It’s an era which gave us such convention-creating, -challenging, and -bound luminaries as Anthony Berkeley, John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, Edmund Crispin, Freeman Wills Crofts, Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell, John Rhode, Dorothy L. Sayers, and a host of others — really, far more names than could reasonably be listed here — a range of authors working to such high standards and in such proximity to each other as to positively overflow the banks of the detective novel.

Of course, the novels produced in this genre fell into a broad type — conventionally there was a crime, then there was an investigation, and then the detective character would reveal their startling solution (and, if the detective was Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham, the author would then reveal the correct solution afterwards) which normally relied on some obscure reasoning to join two distinct points.  There were sets of expectations — some people might call them rules, and in recent times these have, of course, become thoroughly misunderstood by modern writers keen to show how much more switched on they are than were these old-time fuddy duddies — as to what the novel could do, with various people and groups all trying to suggest, with various amounts of tongue wedged in cheek, what was permissible in a “proper” detective novel.  Importantly, a key principle, arguably the key principle, was that of ‘playing fair’; your detective must not suddenly whip out a surprise shoe size, Mrs. Christie, or an unexplained scientific phenomenon, Mr. Rhode, that they’ve known about for seventeen chapters without the reader being told.  Tut-tut.  No more of that, please.

It’s really through a combination of the Van Dine and Knox rules linked above, plus a general sense of detection forming part of the narrative, that novels and stories under the GAD banner distinguish themselves from what came before.  Sherlock Holmes, Lattimer Shrive, Martin Hewitt, Max Carrados — these preceded set a pattern of sorts: a professional detective, or at least a keen and insightful amateur (competence was key; even though Berkeley upset the apple cart by making his detective a buffoon, the novels themselves displayed a keenness for the mystery to be resolved in as logical a way as possible) who would solve baffling cases, but in those early cases the detective was able to simply decree, or the proximity of the warehouse under which a tunnel was being dug to the diamond merchants they were planning to burglarise need not be made clear, so as to better preserve the shock of the finale.  This, arguably, was a carry-over from the Victorian novel of sensation, which took a step — I’d suggest a very tentative and reluctant one, given what the genre was to become — towards detection with the likes of The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins.

The key principle of GAD, that of declaration, made the game harder to play for authors.  Now there was an expectation that proximity of, say, relevant buildings or rooms in a house be made clear to the reader, and so a prevalence of wonderful crime scene diagrams poured onto the pages of books (indeed, the crime scene diagram became almost a trope in itself, given the number of GAD books which feature them unnecessarily…).  Or the victim’s previous life as a sword-swallower must be made known at the earliest opportunity, or their shoe size be communicated so that we might better understand, say, what footprints are found on a path leading to a murdered body.  This can be no better exemplified than Inspector Burnley in Freeman Wills Crofts’ seminal debut The Cask (1920), one of the earliest examples of this new rigorous detection, being presented with this footprint:

Cask footprint

…and drawing from it a conclusion that the reader, having seen precisely what he sees, could have had a moderate swing at deducing.  Theoretically, if the writer is able to do this with every single clue then, well, the reader has been given just as much of a chance to solve the case at the detective.  No more the sudden, Victorian-hangover, shocking declaration; if GAD authors wanted to surprise their readers, it was with the reader’s ignorance at having been shown everything and yet still not strung together the necessary links to come to the correct conclusion.  In a perfect world, the author has not merely obfuscated the real solution but also led the reader by the nose into a thoroughly false one, all the while making the reader believe they’re on the right track — surely the peak achievement of this new, game-playing idiom.

See, there is a good reason so many of us obsess over this stuff to the degree that we do.  I’m not wasting my life, Mum.

And so, with that throat-clearing out of the way, here’s the thing that’s been on my mind of late ( yes, this is going to be a long one, I’m afraid — feel free to just chuck me a “like” at the bottom of this and not read the remainder; I’m aware that we live in an age that hardly glories in long-winded discussion): ‘fair play’ is misunderstood.  Or, possibly, I have been misunderstanding fair play for the duration of my awareness of the concept; I shall explain further, and we’ll find out which…

The concept of fair play is a hotly-debated one, not least on account of how difficult it made things for authors who wanted to write these sorts of books.  In some cases, the challenge of hiding clues was too great, and an author fails to appropriately surprise us come the end, giving rise to that uncomfortable mixture of smugness and disappointment that comes from solving a case ahead of time.  Some authors simply got around this by not playing fair, which kicks that smugness over the obligation of adhering to the rules into a cocked hat (or something) and examples can be cited from all over, both by giving you titles of novels and in the opinions of popular mouthpieces from the era: Raymond Chandler, often wheeled out in theses cases despite not exactly having the best handle on the puzzles represented by the upswing in GAD on account of their ‘falseness’ (Chandler was a firm believer in the novel being true to life, and thus would have disdained thoroughly 90% of all fiction published in his lifetime — imagine living through the Golden Age of GAD and SF and having no interest in any of it…) famously said that “the solution, once revealed, must seem to have been inevitable. At least half of all the mystery novels published violate this law”.  Rex Stout, of questionable vintage where laying clues is concerned but nevertheless a notable presence in the broader Mystery genre, wrote in 1950 that:

The most frequently repeated rule, generally assented to, is the most nonsensical.  It says, “You must play fair with the reader,” meaning that in the course of the narrative the reader must see and hear everything that the detective sees and hears. I don’t know why people like S. S. Van Dine and R. Austin Freeman and Dorothy Sayers have insisted on it, since every good writer of detective stories, including them, has violated it over and over again.

Notice that neither of these quotes condemn fair play, they merely claim that it’s not possible to sustain it — that not every GAD novel displays fair play in its clewing.  Now, the precise nature of what fair play represents (call them ‘the rules of the game’ if you will…it’s not an analogy I think I’d use, but it may help to think like that) is not something I want to get into here — I’ve written about the importance of declaring clues before, probably most tellingly here, so go and read that if you’re interested (I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written, tbh).  What I’m interested in is an examination of what ‘fair play’ means in the context of GAD and how there’s a chance it’s been misunderstood, and almost certainly misrepresented, within the readership.

Country House

Take the following example, it’s not GAD but will suffice: I recently read Louise Heal Kawai’s translation of Murder in the Crooked House (1982, tr. 2019) by Soji Shimada, in which several impossible murders take place in the eponymous, leaning mansion.  At a certain point there is a prolonged discussion which goes into such minute and specific descriptions of certain unusual things, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that it was revealing how the central murder in the narrative was committed.  This is an example of clewing which, in its desire to be scrupulously fair — in trying to leave no interpretation about the method employed —  reveals the hand of the author far too soon, and could be taken as an example of ‘playing fair’.  Upon the explanation of the crime, had this section had been excised from the book, people would rightly throw it down in disgust on account of how key it is to the working of the crime.  To go more Golden Age, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) could equally have had a certain passage excised — indeed, some might argue that it already does — which would throw the working of the murder even more out of left-field than it currently comes.

This is typically what we talk about when we talk about fair play.  The author provides in advance all the clues necessary for the reader to have been sufficiently directed to the solution.  Whether you believe this to be possible — and if you’ve had the benefit of reading Scott Ratner’s thoughts on the notion of fair play you’ll know that there’s certainly a valid argument against it — there’s nevertheless an aspect of retrospective inevitability where you can see how the breadcrumbs lead backwards from the solution to the initial problem, and how the route was mapped out as if inevitable (please notice the phrasing, Scott…!) by laying certain pointers along the way.  Shimada is one of a legion of authors who see fit to goad their readers with a challenge to solve the mystery now that all the clues have been provided — cf. Ellery Queen, Evelyn Elder, Rupert Penny, the recently-republished E. & M.A. Radford, etc — and we can frequently see how the conclusion reached is a possible interpretation of the information provided.

Just as I was in the nascent stages of structuring this essay in my head, Scott posted a comment on the Facebook Golden Age Detection group on a post which linked to a list of books compiled by a new author as part of the marketing strategy for their new book, with one of the books being described as having “all the clues [the reader needs] to solve the mystery”.  With Scott’s consent, I replicate his comment below:

Of course, I’m probably just as annoyed by yet another use of the phrase “all the clues they need to solve the mystery…,” likely the most ill-defined, vague, and unquestioned phrase used to reference the genre, and among the most common.

This got me thinking.   See, S.S. van Dine’s declaration on the nature of clues is simply that the reader “must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described” and Monsignor Knox, in the shortened form which has become popular (see above re: long discussion), simplifies this by saying that the detective “must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader”.  As discussed, this is the central tenet of ‘fair play’, the reader being given everything to enable them to come to the conclusion — which, as Scott contends far more eloquently than I ever could (we really need to get that man blogging, it would be so wonderful to have his thoughts collected in one place), isn’t necessarily the only conclusion possible — intended at the end of the book.

The key idea here — and, yes, I’m finally getting to it — is in including the reader as an active participant in the detection.  We feel cheated if that discussion is excised from the Shimada novel because we go in with the expectation of being given the opportunity to solve it.  The clues are presented, the conclusion shows how we should have used them, and Shimada is so convinced in his declaration of everything needed that he takes the time to poke us with a stick in order to get us thinking at what he determines to be the ‘right’ point in the story.  This, then, is an example of clewing and fair play used for what I have started to think of as Active Detection.  You, dear reader, play along at home, you make a mental (or possibly physical) note of the information as relayed, and you determine your own answer to the riddles which hopefully takes in as much as possible and is hopefully as wrong as possible so that the solution comes as that Victorian-hangover surprise.

Amateur

But the book doesn’t need you to solve it.  It doesn’t even really need you to pay attention.  It’s a better experience for you if you do, but in-universe the case is solved, the guilty named and (usually) led out to face Justice, and things resolve whether you remember the house-keeper’s ominous remark on page 138 or not.  The philosophical implication of the player and the game is not something I intend to get into here — the case is solve whether you read the book or not, hein? — but rather I wish to consider the contrast between the active and the passive reader experience and how are both, in fact, detection, and both also ‘fair play’.

Playing fair, remember, is simply the declaration of the clues.  So long as we’re being shown the detective happening upon each clue and development as it occurs — as long as we can follow the progress of the investigation  from development to development, from clue to clue — we’re experiencing fair play in classic detective fiction.  The ‘challenge to the reader’ is a fun part of the game if an author is able to put it in, but if our detective happens upon the final, fatal clue on page 338 of 340, technically what we’ve been reading has played fair, right?  And this is where the passive detective reader experience comes in, as a second string of fair play.

In contrast to Murder in the Crooked House, consider The Sea Mystery (1928) by Freeman Wills Crofts.  Starting with a body found in a crate submerged out at sea, and from there following Inspector Joseph French as he deduces from the presence of holes in the container and the possibilities of tide times the point from which the crate found its way into the water in the first place, we’re privy to everything French comes across and, perhaps more tellingly, every dead end he runs into along the way.  When he chases down a certain make of truck, the reader is fully aware of why it’s that truck he’s after; when he finds the truck, we’re able to determine how he knows it’s probable that he has the correct one…at no stage is a conclusion reached, or a hunch followed, without us being made aware of the reason.  Come the end, we’re in no doubt as to how we’ve ended up there and how the guilty party has been identified.  And yet I get the impression that this isn’t the sort of plotting many would consider fair play when talking about the principle.

Crofts, unlike Shimada, Penny, Queen, etc, is never likely to be able to include a challenge to the reader, because the nature of his plots depend very much on the developments made using information that the reader does not get to see — the poring over of tide tables, for instance, or the scouring of addresses for witnesses.  Instead, the reader is told the conclusions reached from such actions, which is just as good as van Dine’s “equal opportunity with the detective” and, in Knox’s case, everything French learns is “instantly produced for the inspection of the reader”.  There’s definitively a breadcrumb trail to follow, and we can work backwards from the conclusion to see how the answer relates to the question…but due to there being no instant moment of clue-brandishing brinkmanship, of each clue as it emerges progressing us only to the next chapter and no further, how many of you would consider this sort of detection to be fair?

This, lacking as it does the instant where you can jump ahead of the investigator, is where your ability to deduce from the provided information any further ahead than the next chapter’s clue, is what I’d consider the more passive experience.  In the Shimada, if you pay close enough attention, you are an active participant in reaching the conclusion ahead of time.  With Crofts, you sometimes don’t even know the culprit exists until close towards the latter end of the book, so the ability to make the jumps that will lead you to their door is robbed from you and the reader must simply wait to be told the next part of the increasingly-complex puzzle.  This waiting to be told still falls into fair play — right? — even if it’s a different beast to the more clue-heavy, play-along-at-home puzzles offered elsewhere.

I’m 3,000 words deep now — testing, I’m sure, even the patience of those of you who’ve stuck it out for this long, and possibly wasting your time in the process on account of everyone else in the GADniverse being perfectly happy to look at Crofts’ style as an equal proponent of fair play as Carr, Christie, and others who plied their trades here.   So let’s wrap up with three questions:

1) Am I the only one who didn’t consider fair play to apply equally in both these cases?

2) Do we need to distinguish between what I’ve deemed Active and Passive clue declaration?  The terminology might not be the best, but is the principle sound?

3) How’s the weather where you are?

Thanks for your patience, and apologies again if any conversation results and I’m less than proactive in the comments.  It’s usually only when I have the time to slow down and think that such complicated concepts occur to me in the first place…!

57 thoughts on “#561: Thinking Too Precisely on th’ Event – Clued and Unclued Detective Fiction, or: The Active and the Passive Detective-Reader

  1. Wow. Really thoughtful exploration of fair play and I think you make some fine points. In fact this topic had been on my mind today because of my frustration with a much more modern novel where information and theories are not shared with the reader.

    My feeling is that the expectation of fair play arises from the structure of the novel. If the structure is suggestive of a puzzle or game played with the reader then I think the expectation is that the reader can solve it.

    If the story adopts the style of a thriller or adventure tale then you expect to be surprised by developments. In that case it is about the journey rather than the destination.

    Done well the fair play puzzle can engage the reader and pull them deep into the text. Unfortunately there are plenty of examples of books where the construction shows, drawing attention to the key clues and elements. Your example of Shimada illustrates that perfectly.

    What impresses me most is when an author plays fair by basically presenting you with information that answers a question the reader didn’t even know to ask. The Decagon House mystery is a perfect example of this as it gives the reader everything they need but plays off the readers’ likely suppositions and expectations, subverting them very cleverly.

    My final point would be that for me it is not just about the solution to the story. I agree that Crofts stories are not exactly what most would consider fair play in the typical sense. Certainly the big solutions are rarely predictable. However what he does do is structure his story as a progression of smaller mysteries. You are right to say that even those are often not really ones that the reader can solve for themselves but what they can do is use their skills to predict where the investigation will lead and to piece together the elements. I think that care to involve the reader is one of the reasons I find his stories so interesting.

    Oh, and it’s a bit drizzly here with occasional bursts of sunshine… 😁

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    • The nature of the story is the key idea here, I agree, and this is where I started thinking on these grounds. The label of “GAD” isn’t necessarily all that helpful given how broad a church it is — essentially, the style of stories produced in what we call GAD is so staggeringly wide that GAD as a label becomes almost meaningless, doesn’t it? We might as well talk about the publication date, since that’s really all these books have in common…

      i love that idea of answering a question the reader never knew to ask, you’re absolutely right there. That’s probably even more fun than having some obscure observation swung under your nose and knowing it’s the solution to something that you can’t see. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy Carr’s The Eight of Swords so much, actually, so thanks for helping me come to that realisation.

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  2. I think the key terms would be puzzle or game. Your Crofts example is something I’d first relate to simple internal logic of a narrative, rather than ‘fair play in a puzzle/game setting’. French needs to have a reason to do this or that action, and that is true whether we’re talking about a detective story, or even a comedy. He follows trail X because of clue C and finds clue Q because story dictates so. Compare to Columbo, which more often not IS a fair play mystery even if it follows the same one small mystery (contradiction) after another, as often the contradiction is also noticable by the viewer. The Ace Attorney games in fact are built around this principle, of multiple smaller contradictions stringed after another, and show how they really work as a ‘fair game’.

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    • Interestingly, I’d thought of Columbo when writing this, but I’m not well-versed enough on it overall to know how good the logic is. Part of me wonders how much we see his conclusions are correct because we already know the answer; Scott would explore this better, I’m sure, but it would be interesting to look at the line of reasoning Columbo follows in an episode without knowing the guilty part =y and seeing if it holds up.

      The question about games and puzzles then becomes: is there a different type of fair play for each? Do we need to know what type of fair play we’re getting before we go into a story, since broadly talking about GAD or fair play is’t accurate enough? Maybe it doesn’t matter, but the definitions of declaration to the reader struck me as being very differently observed in both, say, The Cask and The Mysterious Affair at Styles…yet they still both essentially declare everything and give the reader a fair chance of keeping up with the detective.

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  3. The reader is in some ways always passive as we can’t influence the investigation. We may pick up on a particular clue but we can’t ask further questions about it, only put it aside for future consideration. However even in a police procedural such as Crofts, the reader can make deductions about a clue before the detective does. Certainly in “Starvel Hollow Tragedy” I picked a line of reasoning that lead to part of the solution much earlier than Inspector French did.

    In addition, in the words of Dr Fell, the reader knows that they are “in a detective story”. French as a policeman has to investigate the most likely course of events first, whereas the reader can jump ahead and identify the least likely suspect or whether the Birlstone Gambit is being played etc. We can do what Sherlock Holmes says we shouldn’t and “theorise without facts” because we know the type of things that are going to happen.

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    • Countering this, though, is the expectation on the reader’s part that the author has anticipated the sorts of conclusions the reader will jump to, and so that aspect can’t be denied. Anthony Boucher’s The Case of the Solid Key has a wonderful time playing around with the Birlstone Gambit because we know he’s more savvy in the genre and so won’t use it…except, well, doesn’t that then give him the negative space o use it because he knows we’re expecting him not to?

      That’s what lacks in a lot of the Holmes, etc stories, and how the distinction between them and GAD comes about. You could theorise ahead — and I think you’ve made an excellent point in raising this — mainly because you knew how simple the stories were going to be. As the form progresses, false leads and a deliberate expectation of laying something just in view — so that it catches your eye and you start thinking how clever you are — feature more and more, and its up to the reader to determine how much they’re being told something useful (“fair play”) and how much they’re just being distracted with shiny things (both Crofts and Carr did this to me recently). And if it’s the second one, with no attempt to provide any clues to the actual solution, you can be invited to theorise without the author ever having played fair.

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  4. Really, JJ, do you have to get all intellectual on a Saturday?!? It’s no secret that my mind is at its laziest on the weekend! However, I read your post, and the message you put forth here: is loud and clear. So far, I tend to agree with the responses you’ve gotten, but I’d be happy to add my two cents.

    I think the term “fair play” was coined to focus on puzzle mysteries rather than procedurals. There’s an emphasis on the “play” aspect, as clue finders, challenges to the readers, Van Dine or Carr’s footnotes, and Dr. Fell’s meta-moments all create for the reader the nature of a game. Scott argues that the definition of a “game,” which can be played over and over, precludes any single novel from being a game, since you can only play it once. I would counter that the game involves the lifelong reading of countless novels, and that the re-reading of any single book is like watching a video replay of the football game you enjoyed a few years ago.

    This year is the ninetieth anniversary of the first GAD novel I ever read (more about this in November), and I make my assurances to you and everyone else here that it was the first “square” of a lifelong game that I’ve been playing ever since. What’s more, mega millions of people (including Scott Janice Ratner) have been playing along with me. The oddest thing about this game – at least when the emphasis is on the puzzle – is that we all have tons more fun when we LOSE the game!

    I consider Crofts more of a procedural writer than a puzzle crafter. (I’m not here to put Down procedurals, JJ, please Understand that – I read a great deal of Ed McBain years ago and enjoyed them thoroughly. But if I could Bring us back to your distinction of the “active” vs. the “passive” reader, for me the procedural inspires less of the active and more of the passive. I’m just following these guys around or hanging in the precinct, waiting for someone to come back with a clue. Part of this might be that the world of the procedural is much larger than that of a classic murder puzzle, with its mansions stuffed with a limited circle of suspects. Thus, while I think the word “fair” in a puzzle mystery means specifically that by the time the challenge is issued or the family has gathered in the library, the reader MUST have all the clues needed to solve the mystery in his possession. With a procedural, I think we’re dealing more with “fair” as logical and sound. In a way, the burden on the procedural writer is greater because it needs to be more realistic. However, I will grant you that both types of novel benefit from that sense of retrospective inevitability. I take no joy in a procedural where the climax comes out of nowhere.

    Those are my lazy thoughts on a Saturday morning. I have no doubt I will be tried in a kangaroo court of my peers. Frankly, I don’t care much! I love the banter between all of us, even when it gets heated. And I’m certainly not going to upbrad you for sneaking a pro-Crofts post on us in the guise of a more intellectual pursuit!!!

    It was very foggy when I woke up, but it has burned off and promises to be a beautiful day!!

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    • I take your point about the puzzle vs. procedural, and to a certain extent this is what I’m getting at. Do the Knox/Van Dine rules have to apply in procedurals, too, and if not are they a “relevant” part of the GAD firmament in the way we as a readership talk about it? Does “GAD” become a meaningless label that simply means “this is a crime story published between 192x and 194x”?

      Because, additionally, arguably it was the procedural approach of Crofts and R. Austin Freeman that progressed things on from the Victorian hangover of the Genius Detective’s Sudden Declaration and so resulted in Christie, Berkeley, Brand, etc laying these bear traps all over the place. And it’s in following these plodders through their paces, without being able to leap ahead of them as John talks about above, that the idea of showing the reader something that the detective doesn’t pick up on (as opposed to vice versa) became the clarion call of this new school of detective fiction, right?

      I’m not suggesting there are easy answers, or even necessarily any answers, but it’s fun to speculate. For me, at least 🙂

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  5. This post stirs something in me, and I fear I’m about to ramble on for a bit without really touching on the true points you’re trying to make. I’ll try my best to capture what went through my mind at points during the read.

    For me, a compelling mystery involves two key things, and they’re going to be incredibly obvious:
    1. A mystery that compels you enough to really want to know the solution. Impossible crimes are perfect for this because that create that need to know. Even a more mundane crime can be dressed up enough to be compelling. How did a body free of any identifying traits end up in a cask at the bottom of an inlet (The Sea Mystery)? Which family member was cruel enough to poison the matriarch and what happened to her will (The Mysterious Affair at Styles)?
    2. A solution that makes it all worthwhile. I mean aren’t we all there for the solution? Even in the most engaging of novels, I still find myself at the halfway point thinking that the answer can’t come fast enough. You want the solution to wow you and this is where I think the fair play comes…err.. into play.

    Many of the best solutions provide their wow moment when the author creates the sense that you should have seen the solution coming. It’s that moment where you mentally groan and realize that it all makes perfect sense. The detective, in providing the solution, triggers your mind to flash back to all of those passages that came before, and you’re suddenly able to see which of the details actually mattered.

    In order for that to work, you need an element of fair play. The clues must have been laid out openly enough to create that forehead slapping moment. It isn’t so much that you had a chance to solve the mystery, it’s that you need to feel retrospectively that you did.

    Take The Mad Hatter Mystery, Death Watch, or Hag’s Nook by John Dickson Carr. Each of these concludes with a very long explanation of what really happened, and there’s that joy in realizing that it all played out right before your eyes. And yet I can’t imagine that anyone could really piece all of that together. Even if you guessed one element, you’re never going to get the rest. And yet they feel perfectly fair.

    Compare that with a story that concludes with some villain or syndicate coming out of the blue. There may be some long engaging explanation of all of the plotting that was going on behind the scenes, and that may well make an interesting read, but it isn’t going to create that epiphany experience.

    So I don’t really see fair play as critical in terms of a game playing out between the author and the reader during the course of the novel, even thought that certainly is part of the reading experience. Rather, I see fair play as crucial to creating impact with the solution.

    The Sea Mystery is actually an interesting story to discuss in this sense. Although you experience every revelation and defeat along with Inspector French, there is still that great epiphany. In a sense, Crofts’ open style allows him to slip something right under your nose, and it was the “how did I not see that?” twist that still sticks with me.

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    • To me, @thegreencapsule gets it exactly. That’s what I feel when I’m reading.

      This saves me either from attempting a laborious and less good response, or from leaving a snarky reply like “1) Yes; 2) No ; 3) Hot.”

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      • Snarky is fine; snarky has its place. And, frankly, snarky is what I deserve after 3,000 words explaining something that Xavier Lechard would have put across in about 250!

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    • Interestingly, I’s say that what you’ve outlined here is probably what was intended with the notion of playing fair — authors would generally want their conclusions to be surprising — but it also doesn’t fit the Knox, van Dine, and whoever else rules used to talk about these principles and seen — to a greater or lesser extent — as guiding principles of the GAD school.

      the key point you make here is, I feel, that where the reader is “suddenly able to see which of the details actually mattered”. This is completely what I think we mean when we talk about GAD, and how the notion of detective fiction with the reader as a participant (active or passive) was conceived. But this works as much over the short game of seeing Joseph French pursue one point in a single chapter — seriously, this principle is used to brilliant effect in (I think) chapter 7 of The Hog’s Back Mystery, where he tries to track down someone witnessed once on a street several weeks ago — as it does to Handsome Alleyn laying out his case step-by-step following the Marsh dragging of chapters 4 to 23. Understanding the relevant points in the way you outline above is great for the long game of a novel-length mystery — which is what I think we think of when the term “fair play” is bandied around — but that’s by no means the only way it can be used while also falling within the (generally ignored…!) ‘rules’ of what we call Golden Age Detection.

      We can completely agree that the All-Knowing, All-Seeing, All-Doing syndicate of the spy thriller is thoroughly out of place in detection, however, even though I have a horrible premonition that someone clewed this beautifully at some point in the history of detective fiction.

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  6. In fair play, there is, I feel, a factor of the author making the reader think and reason, even if most of us want to be fooled in the end. Two TV series I loved as a kid were Perry Mason and Burke’s Law. Both of them were “whodunnit” shows: every episode introduced a closed circle of suspects (on Burke’s Law, they were all played by celebrities, which added to the fun), and in the end the hero (Mason/Burke) unmasked which of the circle was the killer. I loved these shows, but rarely did they even make the attempt at fair play. Rarely was there a clue that the audience was given and could grab onto in order to try and solve the case. You just waited to see who got unmasked.

    The short-lived Ellery Queen series also had a closed circle, along with the celebrity factor, but each week there was at least ONE clue that the audience could spot, along with a challenge to the viewer from Ellery himself. Ironically, the show wasn’t nearly as good as the two earlier ones, but I loved it for its “fair play” factor. Perhaps this long-winded example just goes to show that a lot of people are perfectly content with the form of a whodunnit without needing to be given the tools that would allow them to try and solve it. I know that, at least when I first started reading, I was all about the game. Ultimately, though, I think I simply experience the emotion that Ben described: that stirring in the pit as you turn the corner and head toward the climax: “Just tell me who did it already!!!” 🙂

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    • Ah, but doesn’t fair play, poorly-deployed, sometimes rob you of the surprise? I know we often want to be wrong, and to an extent I applaud authors who drop in too many clues because at least they’re playing the game for the game’s own sake, but given the commitment to providing the on page 23 something that unlocks the whole enterprise on page 320 isn’t there something to be said for that smaller-leap, “passive” experience in preserving surprise while also playing fair in accordance with whatever rule list one cares to cite?

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  7. Pingback: Does fair play translate to the screen? – The Green Capsule

  8. Good article.

    I see the key distinction as the point you made later in the article: when is the murderer known to us? Or to be more precise: when is the character who committed the murder(s) known to us. (The distinction here is that we may know the character early on but not know them as murderer until the last page)

    The discipline of shifting the focus of suspicion among among an existing cast of characters is completely different to the discipline of tracking down a character as yet unknown.

    The good examples of both disciplines will use fair clewing but what the reader is supposed to do with those clues is rather different.

    The former encourages the reader to work out WHO the murder is (i.e. the butler, the doctor, the retired military man), while latter could perhaps be described as working out WHAT the murderer is (i.e. an organised criminal, someone seeking revenge, maybe even an accident).

    The “howdunnit” of impossible crime also has this double discipline. We are either working out the explanation of circumstances known to us (How was the locked room entered? How were no footprints made?) or circumstances unknown to us (Why do people keep dying in that room? Why do people keep falling from that tower?)

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    • Hmmm. An excellent distinction. There’s a point in the podcast episodes due to be published here over the next couple of weekends when Brad talks about a scene in a book where we’re talked through exactly WHAT the murderer must be like and yet completely overlook WHO is being described, and I failed to consider those a separate aspects of the same problem.

      So, traditionally, we could say that ‘fair play’ has typically been considered as focusing on the “who” and the broader Croftian alternative I offer above is very much pointed at the “what”. Goddamn, this is a superbly perceptive point, Paul, I shall have to go and consider it some more. Many thanks!

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  9. I’m afraid I’m still hung up on the “agreed-upon standard of clue sufficiency” thing. It’s too bad, because I can easily get on board when it comes to nearly all the other aspects of what people refer to when they speak of puzzle plot fair play.

    For instance, I have no trouble with the requirement that the reader be granted (in advance of the denouement) all the data the detective bases his solution upon. Certainly that is a fairly straightforward measurable standard and, if such a thing as plot fairness does exist, it would no doubt demand at least such a requirement.

    And I also have no problem with the generally agreed-upon standard of what might be called “narrative integrity,” which I take to be as simple as Dorothy L. Sayers maxim: “Nothing in a detective story need be held to be true unless the author has vouched for it in his own person.” In other words, a third-person narrator may not make a false statement… but a first person narrator may, as may a character in the story, and certainly the author may use myriad other devices (including omission) to deceive. This is all rather more clean-cut than is generally thought, though even here there is admittedly a bit of gray area (for instance is it “fair” for a third person narrator to refer to a character who calls himself and is known to the community as Mr. Smith by that name, if he is ultimately revealed to be someone else? Though a name is usually thought of as purely a signifier— what I call myself— is a third-person narrator obligated to a different standard of truth on such issues? I leave that for others to battle out).

    However, there is a great difference between “the reader is granted all the clues afforded the detective” and “the reader is given all the clues necessary to solve the case,” and the former certainly doesn’t guarantee the latter. We’ve all read mysteries in which we were aware in advance of all the clues cited by the detective in his solving of the crime, but that collection of clues still strikes as unsufficient to “solve the case.”

    And that’s where all the problem really rests. For my difficulty with the concept of “all the clues necessary to solve the case” is really not so much that it is impossible to fulfill, but more that it is apparently impossible to satisfactorily define! For not only is the idea of what constitutes “all the clues necessary” not agreed upon, but neither is what it means to “solve the case.” (This always leads me back to the pseudo-Descartian hilarity of Robert Benchley’s: “Does the average man get enough sleep? What is ‘enough sleep’? What is ‘the average man’? What is ‘does’?”)

    “Solve the case” is surely not synonymous with simply “arrive at the solution.” For, if I’m presented with a possible set of five culprits (A thru E) and I accurately guess B based on no clues whatsoever, I have “arrived at the solution,” but I doubt that many would accept it as “solving the case”. But is it enough then that I arrive at the solution by following clues that indicate the solution? Is that truly “solving the case” either? Certainly that reflects the abductive chain that constitutes most GAD mystery solutions, but it does not require deductively eliminating all other possibilities (even if individual points in the abductive chain are arrived at deductively).

    And while a totally deductive provable solution would by definition satisfy any definition of “all the clues necessary to solve the case,” it neither reflects the novels that are cited as “fair play” (nor any mysteries ever written, to my knowledge) nor does it even guarantee the experience that I think most readers desire and require of a mystery solution. For true total deductive provability— and thus true logical inevitability— ironically enough does not guarantee a “sense” of inevitability, which is as Raymond Chandler (!) correctly pointed out, constitutes what readers recognize as fair.

    So “fairness” in terms of clue sufficiency denotes a level of clueing that provides that sense of inevitability— but that’s an immeasurable standard, IMO. And, how can we decide whether a work is fair if we can’t even delineate what constitutes fairness?

    And the other question is, why are we even concerning ourselves with questions of fairness? We don’t ask whether a romance novel is fair or a western or sci-fi story is fair. The reason is clearly that, as you pointed out, we’re looking upon a detective story literally as a competitive game (a terribly faulty concept, as I’ve written about ad nauseum), rather than accepting the metaphor as that and nothing more, and regarding the detective story (accurately, I believe) as merely a narrative fiction with ludic qualities which can admittedly be employed as a self-imposed challenge (thus, your “active” participant).

    I think it’s very possible for a mystery solution to be very surprising and yet seem tremendously inevitable retrospectively, so that we feel that the truth was before our eyes the whole time. That is the highest aim of the genre, and I feel its greatest practitioners (Carr, Christie, Brand, etc…) successfully delivered it on multiple occasions. But logically, it must be seen as a matter of reader satisfaction (a subjective matter) rather than “fairness” (an objective one).

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    • See, the way I understand “the reader is given all the clues necessary to solve the case” is essentially the same as “all aspects of the solution can be traced back to something we have been told in the foregoing narrative” — if the detective cites in his solution something undeclared in the book, that’s not playing the game. This is why the shorter form of Crofts declaration-by-chapter fulfils the requirement of “fair play” however we choose to interpret it.

      Whether the author has provided enough for the conclusion to be beyond question…well, that’s another matter. Berkeley deliberately didn’t, Brand played around with disclosure in the same way. So long as I’m not told that the detective had a conversation I didn’t see, I’m happy to consider the solution fair, and the matter of “fairness” and “exhaustively rigorous” are something to be explored separately, as I see it.

      Hmmm, perhaps someone should start a blog dedicated to this…

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  10. Gosh, Scott, I didn’t know you had opinions on these matters . . .

    We don’t ask whether a romance novel is fair or a western or sci-fi story is fair.

    Actually, we do; we just don’t call it by the same name. The logical inevitability of a romance novel is that the couple in question will get together. Ask my ex-sister-in-law who reads them, but the obstacles put in the couple’s way can be ludicrous as hell as long as they get together in the end.

    With westerns . . . oh gosh, who cares? The setting has to be right, okay? But westerns have evolved as our understanding of human decency has (hopefully) evolved, so heroes and villains are different.

    With sci-fi, the “fairness” is all about rationality and verisimilitude in the world-building because, let’s face it! It’s science-freaking-fiction, and you would think that folks would accept the possibility of anything happening. But it’s that relationship between “science” and “fiction” that gets a bad writer every time. And it’s the thing a reader looks for – and this goes for fantasy as well: that feeling that this world could exist or, at least, that there is a delicious logic about it that allows us to enter the fantasy without scoffing a bit.

    I think you put too much pressure on the word “fair” in your arguments. I think “fair” in GAD is the exact same feeling as the feeling I described above that the sci-fi reader needs to BELIEVE. And honestly, I think we’re not really arguing but agreeing; we’re just putting it differently. I’m reading some wonderful short stories now which I will review soon. Often I do exactly what you describe above: I just know who the killer is without reasoning the whole thing. That comes from reading this type of fiction for 117 years.

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    • But Brad, I’m saying the terminology is indeed important— because of the consequences of the terminology. If I called Death on the Nile a sonnet, people would judge the work by the standards of that form. It wouldn’t go well (as a sonnet, it kinda stinks). But at least we could properly judge it, because there is an agreed upon standard for what constitutes a sonnet.

      For the question is— if we really do think along the same conceptual lines with other genres as you suggest— why then do we use the term fair play for this genre and not with the others? If we mean the same thing, why is our treatment of the genres different? The reason, I’m convinced, is that— partly due to the use of this misleading terminology— readers come to believe that these works are actually subject to this precise standard of sufficiency. They certainly speak that way: “the clues weren’t all there”— as if there were indeed a specific set of clues necessary to make it qualify as “fair.” Because of the use of the term “fair,” readers largely assume that same function of the term as used elsewhere— to distinguish the standard from all subjective standards of sufficiency.

      When people say “play nice, play fair” they use both terms not as repetition of synonymous terms, but because they are understood to have distinct meanings. “He was a cruel man, but fair” (Monty Python), same thing.

      Lately, I’ve even seen people criticize a work because it breaks “Van Dine’s rule #2”— somehow giving Van Dine authority over the definition and rules of the genre for the mere fact that he decided to write those rules and people read them. And note that none of the self-appointed rule makers of the era ever wrote “from this day forward it is unacceptable to…” No, they were imposing rules upon a genre that already existed. And being non-contemplative— but loving the idea that the genre presented an intellectual game— readers were happy to shift their feelings of subjective satisfaction (“there weren’t enough clues to satisfy me”) to an undefined but non-subjective standard (“the clues weren’t all there). And such a non-subjective standard requires a specifically non-subjective umbrella term, “fair play.” And that is indeed why it’s used for this genre and no other.

      If it were just a different use of terms, I really wouldn’t care. I agree that you and I agree on what satisfies in puzzle plotting (and our tastes are pretty similar in that regard, I think). But the use— the mid-use of this terminology (as well as the game metaphor taken literally) has clearly led many people to actually believe that certain works reach an objective standard and others don’t. And rather ludicrously, in my opinion, they also feel they can determine which do and which don’t based on their intuitive sense. Of course, they have to rely on that instinctive sense, because ask any of them to actually delineate the border between sufficiently-clueing and insufficiently clueing, and they become universally silent.

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    • You made me laugh there at the end Brad.

      I think Scott’s final paragraph most closely aligns with what I perceive as fair play – the aspects of a story that will generally lead up to a surprising solution that retrospectively feels inevitable.

      The part of his post that’s stirring my mind at the moment is what constitutes “solving the case”. I think this varies in a way. You could take the extreme view that unless you can, like the detective, present evidence that results in a conviction (or perhaps triggers a confession, although that’s a rat hole), you haven’t truly solved the case. But, I mean, come on – have any of us ever really done that?

      Instead I think it comes down to being able to provide answers to the key mysteries, but not necessarily wrap up all of the loose ends. Is it enough to merely identify the killer? Do you also need to describe motive? Do you also need to be able to explain how the crime was accomplished? Here are some examples (purposely free of details in case I accidentally hint at a spoiler) where I touch on which elements need to be explained to claim to have solved it.
      The Judas Window – how and who
      Death on the Nile – who and how
      The Tragedy of Y – who and motive
      The White Priory Murders – how
      Crooked House – who
      The Greek Coffin Mystery – thirty page thesis linking together every last clue

      Of course I’ve over simplified things, but I suspect most people can understand where I’m going. The “who” of The White Priory Murders matters very much matters, as does the “how” of The Tragedy of Y, yet I don’t see them as being key to considering yourself to have solved the case. And of course, you could interpret my statement about Crooked House to mean that simply guessing the character constitutes solving it, when really I think you need to have certainty in that respect.

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      • But again, if we say something is fair, we’re not discussing if something is sufficient for you or sufficient for me, we are saying something is existentially sufficient. Otherwise we are talking about subjective satisfaction. But what level of indication qualifies as non-subjectively sufficient?

        Though the “special” peculiarity of the culprit in The Crooked Hinge is indicated, it does not strike me as sufficiently indicated (it offers me little sense of retrospective inevitability— there are too many other possible explanations for the indications that are not eliminated). But if I am to argue it is thus not fair, we are not arguing whether it is sufficient for me or for them, but that it is simply sufficient or insufficient, independent of our personal judgment. We are actually agreeing that one of us must be objectively wrong.

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        • Crooked Hinge is a great example of an insufficiency of clewing to conclusively reach the required conclusion — but then when Carr says “Well, because of X we can see that he has [that peculiarity”…no, I don’t think it’s enough. An additional indication could be provided — I’ve said myself that the marks in the sand could have provided something very interesting indeed — and it’s a case of an author coming up short. But this isn’t to say it can’t be done — just that it’s frequently harder than not, which is psrt of the thrill of the genre, no?

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          • But can’t you see that NO OTHER use of the word “fair” references a subjective standard? The whole point of using the word “fair” is to reference an objective threshold outside of our own opinion. Even someone referring to a business deal saying “that seems fair to me” is not saying “that’s what I want,” “that satisfies me,” or “I’ll settle for that,” but rather, “I recognize that there exists a threshold of fairness (abstract but objective), and I believe (subjectively) that this threshold has been met”— just as saying “he seems taller than six feet to me” doesn’t mean that the height “six feet” is subjective, merely that our estimation judgment is. It’s a subjective assessment of an objective concept.

            Evening the vague, casual use of the term “in the spirit of fair play” is ultimately a reference to actions that are in accordance with a perceived (again abstract and objective) standard. We are saying that “fair play,” like “justice,” exists outside or desires and judgment, and that “in the spirit of fair play” is an effort to align our actions with that standard.

            Yes, one can say it’s getting hung up on terminology, but so is calling a “closed circle mystery” a “locked room mystery”— or even calling an “accidental death” a “murder.” They are conceptually different things, and it does matter, because it has consequences. The problem with using a term to mean something differently than it means in all other uses (“I was misunderstood here, when I called him that I was using the non-derogatory mean of the ‘n-word’…”) is that it shapes people’s understanding of concepts. And it has here. People complain that “the clues weren’t all there,” not even pausing to realize that there is no measurable standard to define what is meant by “all the clues necessary.” They’re not saying “it’s not enough for me,” they’re saying “it’s not enough” as if there were a fixed set of clues that would constitute “all the clues necessary.”

            It’s fine for us to complain that the solution to The Crooked Hinge is not sufficiently clued to satisfy us (that’s the way I personally feel), but what’s the point of arguing whether it’s “fairly” clued unless we have some way of assessing what level of sufficiency is required to make something fair? The person who says that The Crooked Hinge is entirely “fair”— or any other other whodunit story— has just a strong an argument, and (here’s the key point) on a matter which our terminology recognizes to have right and wrong answers.

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          • But can’t you see that NO OTHER use of the word “fair” references a subjective standard? The whole point of using the word “fair” is to reference an objective threshold outside of our own opinion. Even someone referring to a business deal saying “that seems fair to me” is not saying “that’s what I want,” “that satisfies me,” or “I’ll settle for that,” but rather, “I recognize that there exists a threshold of fairness (abstract but objective), and I believe (subjectively) that this threshold has been met”— just as saying “he seems taller than six feet to me” doesn’t mean that the height “six feet” is subjective, merely that our estimation judgment is. It’s a subjective assessment of an objective concept.

            Evening the vague, casual use of the term “in the spirit of fair play” is ultimately a reference to actions that are in accordance with a perceived (again abstract and objective) standard. We are saying that “fair play,” like “justice,” exists outside our desires and judgment, and that “in the spirit of fair play” is an effort to align our actions with that standard.

            Yes, one can say it’s getting hung up on terminology, but so is calling a “closed circle mystery” a “locked room mystery”— or even calling an “accidental death” a “murder.” They are conceptually different things, and it does matter, because it has consequences. The problem with using a term to mean something differently than it means in all other uses (“I was misunderstood here— when I called him that I was using the non-derogatory mean of the ‘n-word’…”) is that it shapes people’s understanding of concepts. And it has here. People complain that “the clues weren’t all there,” not even pausing to realize that there is no measurable standard to define what is meant by “all the clues necessary.” They’re not saying “it’s not enough for me,” they’re saying “it’s not enough” as if there were a fixed set of clues that would constitute “all the clues necessary.”

            It’s fine for us to complain that the solution to The Crooked Hinge is not sufficiently clued to satisfy us (that’s the way I personally feel), but what’s the point of arguing whether it’s “fairly” clued unless we have some way of assessing what level of sufficiency is required to make something fair? The person who says that The Crooked Hinge is entirely “fair”— or any other other whodunit story— has just a strong an argument, and (here’s the key point) on a matter which our terminology recognizes to have right and wrong answers.

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            • The key point on which we diverge, Scott, is that of fairness having to be objective. The experience of reading something is, as we’ve agreed, an inherently subjective thing, and so whether someone feels there to be a sufficient deployment of clues or not is, to my mind, equally as subjective.

              Does saying something is “fair” always means it’s objective? I wouldn’t say it does. Is it fair that a drugs cheat in professional sport can serve a ban and be allowed back in to compete? According to whatever body makes that decision, they’ve served a suspension or paid a fine — never objectively established, let’s be honest, since there’s no clear conversion rate — and so it’s “fair” that they’re allowed back in to compete. But for everyone who plays alongside them, and everyone else who hasn’t cheated, their readmission won’t be “fair” for a whole host of subjective interpretations.

              So, for me, the notion of fairness, while objective in the sense of rules where the actions are predetermined by the construction of situations surrounding them — the false setting of a game, where it’s unfair to refuse someone £200 for passing “Go” in Monopoly because that’s what the created rule says must happen — is the only real time when a right and wrong result can be established as thus judged. As soon as greyer situations creep in — it wan’t fair of my partner to cheat on me, it wasn’t fair of that driver not to stop and see if I was injured — the objectivity from which you argue dissipates in my view of things,

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            • SHIT. I WISH I KNEW HOW TO NAVIGATE WORDPRESS

              “So, for me, the notion of fairness, while objective in the sense of rules where the actions are predetermined by the construction of situations surrounding them….is the only real time when a right and wrong result can be established as thus judged. As soon as greyer situations creep in — it wasn’t fair of my partner to cheat on me, it wasn’t fair of that driver not to stop and see if I was injured — the objectivity from which you argue dissipates in my view of things.”

              I feel the same way, but here you’re speaking of the inability to judge fairness in the real world. And that’s quite true— we can’t. Because we don’t experience “fairness” in the real world. Or “justice.” These are pure concepts that the impure realities of our world can’t touch. Oh sure, some games can get fairly close to true fairness with their precise and artificial rules, as you say, but even they can’t eliminate all possibilities of inequity. As for justice, we do our best to approach it via making sure juries are uninterested parties, thorough jury selection, complex legal regulations, etc… but what achieved is a heartfelt attempt at justice, not justice itself. An effort to approach the ideal.

              And detective fiction is far further removed than games from the concept of fairness, with no precise regulations, only dodgy, incomplete and pompous rules from authors who weren’t even so hot at writing mysteries themselves (“the relationship between puzzle and solution should be non-arbitrary, and shopworn devices should be avoided”— there, that was everything of lasting value from Van Dine).

              However, our inability to determine how our real life realities correspond to these ideal concepts doesn’t reflect upon purity, precision, or objectivity of these ideal concepts — only on our muddy, subjective understanding of how our world relates to them. They stand as our pristine ideal, the limit to approach and never reach.

              But why do we even attempt to match detective fiction to an objective ideal of fairness our subjective minds can’t even comprehend (and we do— our language clearly references the light switches of objectivity: not more richly-clued, thinly clued, more satisfying, or less-satisfying, but fair or unfair)? Probably because some idiots started making analogies to games that by their very nature are better equipped to approach fairness. But the fact is we shouldn’t at all. We should make our detective stories as richly clued and surprising as we can, and appreciate them on subjective terms, just as we do the most decadent and delicious of desserts.

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          • But the point that I seem to need to repeat is that I’m not insisting upon the need for total objective inescapability (or probability), and I never have. I’m just insisting upon SOME measurable standard, or else we should be using terminology that reflects what we’re really dealing with, levels of subjective satisfaction.

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            • But subjective satisfaction is precisely what I think people mean when they talk about fairness, be that in 70 year-old detective fiction or otherwise. As I said in another reply, it’s only really in an entirely created and false setting — in a situation that only explicitly comes about because of a game and game setting, not simply a story parsed in terms of a game, which terminology I’ve never been especially comfortable with — where an objective standard exists.

              Saying that because fairness can be determined objectively in some settings and must therefore be objectively determined in all applications of the word is the path to madness — akin to saying that “I’ll be back in a minute” must absolutely imply a passage of precisely 60 seconds, or that people saying “basically” before relaying information must absolutely be giving you a simplified version of events. It’s just not how language works, and it’s not how people en masse are ever going to use it.

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            • I disagree. I fully recognize that words are merely symbols of meaning— and slippery symbols at that. Most words have several meanings, and those meanings can change over time and in different contexts. However, there are often common meanings that govern related uses of words. For instance, the word reveal has several meanings, including to declare, to unmask, to expose, to display, to exhibit, or even as a noun the act of revealing. Unmasking and declaration are certainly not the same thing, but both entail exhibition and disclosure.

              The word fair has even a wider array of meanings, from light-hued, to neither excellent nor poor, to ample, to pleasing in appearance, to a festival, and more.

              Now you write that, “it’s only really in an entirely created and false setting — in a situation that only explicitly comes about because of a game and game setting, not simply a story parsed in terms of a game, which terminology I’ve never been especially comfortable with — where an objective standard exists.”

              Although, as you probably know, I’m
              also very uncomfortable with the game analogy, your last assertion is what I’m primarily in disagreement with. I’m thoroughly convinced that nearly all (if not all) of those uses of the term “fair” which relate to equity and justice (of which “fair play” is one) share in common a recognition of an objective standard, which we intuitively accept as such, even if our relationship to that standard is eternally subjective. I seriously doubt that there are uses of “fair,” “fairness,” “fair play,” etc… that actually convey subjectivity. I believe that the reason people might consider such uses of fair to be subjective is due to a confusion between an objective concept and the subjective understanding of an objective concept.

              I believe that our intuitive acceptance of fairness as an objective concept begins at a surprisingly early age, and continues throughout our life. I often cite our earliest encounters with the concept because they are particularly illustrative, and also because they demonstrate a rather astounding (to me, at least) if limited grasp of a rather sophisticated abstract concept.

              Something desired is withheld from a child— let us say candy— and he cries: “It’s not fair!”

              But why does he cry “It’s not fair!” and not simply “I want the candy!”? After all, his mission is to get the candy— isn’t the mere statement of his desire the most direct approach to achieving his goal?

              The answer is that he has already learned that appealing to fairness has more authority, more “leverage,” indeed greater credibility than merely expressing his desires. If he can convince his parent that it is indeed fair that he gets the candy, that approach is clearly much more likely to get him the treats than merely expressing that he wants them.

              But WHY does fairness have greater credibility, and what is it, anyway? This fairness thing is not something he can see, hear, or touch. It’s an abstract concept, probably one of the earliest ones he has come in contact with (I know very little about child development, so that last is admittedly only a guess on my part).

              One thing is for certain, though, this fairness is not shaped by his desires. He has already learned this fact from his earliest exposures to the concept, in which fairness was cited as the reason he was not granted his desires (“If I gave you all the toys, that would not be fair to all the other children, would it?”).

              Nor is it determined by the judgment of his parent, either, for if it were, he wouldn’t have to be convincing said parent to give him the candy.

              No, it’s clearly something that lies outside the judgment and desires of both of them, and is not subject to them. The point is that— even at this early age— the child recognizes this standard to be independent of our subjective perception of it. ****Things are not fair because we believe them to be, but rather we believe them to be fair because they are.**** “Fair is fair,” as the saying goes.

              Now, as I mentioned, though we intuitively understand it to be an objective concept, our understanding of that concept is quite subjective (as is our understanding of all other concepts). For a child, fairness may be equated with equality (“Since Paul and Ellie each get two pieces of candy, it is fair that I get two as well”). A naively unreflective child may even convince himself that fairness is entirely aligned with his own desires: “It is fair that I get all the candy”… but this child soon finds that he has difficulty answering some very basic questions justifying his view: “Why do you feel it is fair that you get all the candy?”

              The concept of fairness lying outside of and independent of our judgment continues into adulthood. Take the instance of the Ratner family fortune.

              My father’s immense fortune (probably upward of $1,000!) will presumably eventually be bequeathed to his three children: myself, my brother and my sister. I am the middle child and the best looking.

              Now, my perception of a fair distribution of the fortune is that I receive 80% of the money, and that my brother and sister each receive 10%, because I have done the bulk of the family work, and because they are both lazy idiots. And I’m the best looking.

              My sister sees it differently. “I should receive 80% of the money,” she says, ”and my two brothers should each receive 10%, because I have done the bulk of the family work, and because they are both lazy idiots. And I’m the best looking.”

              I’ll leave you to guess what my brother’s assessment of the situation is.

              The point is that none of us believe that there are three valid, fair scenarios regarding this issue— there couldn’t be. No, we all agree that there’s only one truly fair distribution of the Ratner family fortune… we just disagree about what that distribution is. Thus, our differing subjective viewpoints of what we recognize as an objective standard (true fairness). And again, we don’t believe our own viewpoint is fair because we think it so, we believe that we think it so because our viewpoint is fair.

              Such disagreements create the necessity for independent arbitrators, who are hired to decide what’s fair. Their judgment is subjective too, but, being apparently uninterested parties, their decisions are presumed to be likely more aligned with actual truth of fairness. The same is true of juries and their relationship to justice. It is rather unlikely that a jury’s decision can ever entirely match true justice (another abstract, objective concept), but their apparently uninterested status is presumed to produce the closest approximation to justice possible. And while “justice” is a more regal sounding word, reflection upon it and “fairness” actually reveals them to be nearly synonymous. It is difficult to find the distinctions in their meanings.

              Likewise, it is difficult to find a use of “fair,” “fairness,” or “fair play” that doesn’t indicate a recognition of its status as an objective concept, and sometimes even of our subjective perception of an objective concept.
              I disagree. I fully recognize that words are merely symbols of meaning— and slippery symbols at that. Most words have several meanings, and those meanings can change over time and in different contexts. However, there are often common meanings that govern related uses of words. For instance, the word reveal has several meanings, including to declare, to unmask, to expose, to display, to exhibit, or even as a noun the act of revealing. Unmasking and declaration are certainly not the same thing, but both entail exhibition and disclosure.

              The word fair has even a wider array of meanings, from light-hued, to neither excellent nor poor, to ample, to pleasing in appearance, to a festival, and more.

              Now you write that, “it’s only really in an entirely created and false setting — in a situation that only explicitly comes about because of a game and game setting, not simply a story parsed in terms of a game, which terminology I’ve never been especially comfortable with — where an objective standard exists.”

              Although, as you probably know, I’m
              also very uncomfortable with the game analogy, that assertion is what I’m primarily in disagreement with. I’m thoroughly convinced that nearly all (if not all) of those uses of the term “fair” which relate to equity and justice (of which “fair play” is one) share in common a recognition of an objective standard, which we intuitively accept as such, even if our relationship to that standard is eternally subjective. I seriously doubt that there are uses of “fair,” “fairness,” “fair play,” etc… that actually convey subjectivity. I believe that the reason people might consider such uses of fair to be subjective is due to a confusion between an objective concept and the subjective understanding of an objective concept.

              I believe that our intuitive acceptance of fairness as an objective concept begins at a surprisingly early age, and continues throughout our life. I often cite our earliest encounters with the concept because they are particularly illustrative, and also because they demonstrate a rather astounding (to me, at least) if limited grasp of a rather sophisticated abstract concept.

              Something desired is withheld from a child— let us say candy— and he cries: “It’s not fair!”

              But why does he cry “It’s not fair!” and not simply “I want the candy!”? After all, his mission is to get the candy— isn’t the mere statement of his desire the most direct approach to achieving his goal?

              The answer is that he has already learned that appealing to fairness has more authority, more “leverage,” indeed greater credibility than merely expressing his desires. If he can convince his parent that it is indeed fair that he gets the candy, that approach is clearly much more likely to get him the treats than merely expressing that he wants them.

              But WHY does fairness have greater credibility, and what is it, anyway? This fairness thing is not something he can see, hear, or touch. It’s an abstract concept, probably one of the earliest ones he has come in contact with (I know very little about child development, so that last is admittedly only a guess on my part).

              One thing is for certain, though, this fairness is not shaped by his desires. He has already learned this fact from his earliest exposures to the concept, in which fairness was cited as the reason he was not granted his desires (“If I gave you all the toys, that would not be fair to all the other children, would it?”).

              Nor is it determined by the judgment of his parent, either, for if it were, he wouldn’t have to be convincing said parent to give him the candy.

              No, it’s clearly something that lies outside the judgment and desires of both of them, and is not subject to them. The point is that— even at this early age— the child recognizes this standard to be independent of our subjective perception of it. ****Things are not fair because we believe them to be, but rather we believe them to be fair because they are.**** “Fair is fair,” as the saying goes.

              Now, as I mentioned, though we intuitively understand it to be an objective concept, our understanding of that concept is quite subjective (as is our understanding of all other concepts). For a child, fairness may be equated with equality (“Since Paul and Ellie each get two pieces of candy, it is fair that I get two as well”). A naively unreflective child may even convince himself that fairness is entirely aligned with his own desires: “It is fair that I get all the candy”… but this child soon finds that he has difficulty answering some very basic questions justifying his view: “Why do you feel it is fair that you get all the candy?”

              The concept of fairness lying outside of and independent of our judgment continues into adulthood. Take the instance of the Ratner family fortune.

              My father’s immense fortune (probably upward of $1,000!) will presumably eventually be bequeathed to his three children: myself, my brother and my sister. I am the middle child and the best looking.

              Now, my perception of a fair distribution of the fortune is that I receive 80% of the money, and that my brother and sister each receive 10%, because I have done the bulk of the family work, and because they are both lazy idiots. And I’m the best looking.

              My sister sees it differently. “I should receive 80% of the money,” she says, ”and my two brothers should each receive 10%, because I have done the bulk of the family work, and because they are both lazy idiots. And I’m the best looking.”

              I’ll leave you to guess what my brother’s assessment of the situation is.

              The point is that none of us believe that there are three valid, fair scenarios regarding this issue— there couldn’t be. No, we all agree that there’s only one truly fair distribution of the Ratner family fortune… we just disagree about what that distribution is. Thus, our differing subjective viewpoints of what we recognize as an objective standard. And again, we don’t believe our viewpoint is fair because we think it so, we believe we think it so because our viewpoint is fair.

              Such disagreements create the necessity for independent arbitrators, who are hired to decide what’s fair. Their judgment is subjective too, but, being apparently uninterested parties, their decisions are presumed to be likely more aligned with actual truth of fairness. The same is true of juries and their relationship to justice. It is rather unlikely that a jury’s decision can ever entirely match true justice (another abstract, objective concept), but their apparently uninterested status is presumed to produce the closest approximation to justice possible. And while “justice” is a more regal sounding word, reflection upon it and “fairness” actually reveals them to be nearly synonymous. It is difficult to find the distinctions in their meanings.

              Likewise, it is difficult to find a use of “fair,” “fairness,” or “fair play” that doesn’t indicate a recognition of its status as an objective concept, and sometimes even of our subjective perception of an objective concept. An example of the latter is a reference to a “sense of fair play”— alluding to a sense (subjective) of what is fair and what is not (objective).

              I doubt I’ve convinced you here, but I ask you to consider why— if people really believe “fair play” is subjective— they complain that “all the clues weren’t there” or “they didn’t play fair” rather than the subjective “there weren’t enough clues to satisfy me”? And if the answer is because they were accepting the game analogy you don’t subscribe to, isn’t that the same thing I’m complaining about?

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      • There’s a distinction to be made, then, between the author’s solution and all possible solutions, right? If the question in a murder mystery is — usually — either whodunnit or howdunnit, I think you are correct that once the author has provided information that we can believe would have brought us to that answer (sorry, Scott, we have to get subjective at some point — this is why I don’t like Fog of Doubt and everyone else does) then the solution as intended has been reached. If another conclusion could be reached by the same information…well, that’s frequently the case, right?

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        • I have no problem with subjectivity— indeed, I think that’s what we’re dealing with here, and it’s fine. “Fog of Doubt” satisfies me and it doesn’t satisfy you. My problem is using objective terminology to make out subjective pronouncements. What point is arguing whether “Fog of Doubt” is “fair” unless we can agree upon a definition of “fair.” And the definitions offered have all been hopelessly inadequate. “All the clues necessary” means nothing unless we have a way of measuring what constitutes “all the clues necessary.” Otherwise, it’s just “all that was necessary for me”— which is fine to define a subjective threshold, but not an objective one (which is what fair denotes in all other uses).

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          • But Scott, ALL aesthetic evaluation is subjective. And I maintain that the level of “fairness” applied to GAD fiction – which has nothing to do with whether or not the cops have built a case that would stand up in a real court and everything to do with the author leading us to that sense of inevitability and rightness at the end. Some of Van Dine and Knox’ rules allow for a certain amount of leeway – and ALL of them have been broken without ruining the game or the sense of fair play. This all can’t be boiled down to single definitions or interpretations.

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            • Brad, I’m not talking about whether a case would stand up in court (the whole concept of that seems irrelevant to me). I’m talking about the concept of fairness and our use of the term. There are admittedly many uses and definitions of fairness, but NONE of them (outside of this bastard outlier of detective fiction) are in reference to a subjective standard. When we say that something is fair, we are not saying merely that it is “sufficient to me”— we have other ways of saying that: “that satisfies me,” “that’s enough for me,” “okay by me,” “I’ll settle for that.” No, when we say something is fair, we are saying “this is enough for me, and it should be enough for you, too— indeed, for everyone— because it reaches a standard of sufficiency which exists outside our personal judgment.”

              If you say that you like Clark Gable and I say that I hate Clark Gable, we are not disagreeing— we are agreeing on the truth value of two statements:

              1. Brad likes Clark Gable.
              2. Scott hates Clark Gable.

              Similarly, if I say that the level of clueing to the solution of The Crooked Hinge is not sufficient for my satisfaction, and you say it is sufficient for yours, we are not disagreeing. But, if I was to argue that that solution is not fair, and you were to argue that it is, we are indeed disagreeing, for while our understanding of both the novel and the concept is subjective, our use of the term fair demonstrates our recognition that we are arguing an objective point.

              Again, I ask for a single example of the use of the word “fair” which is intended to convey subjectivity. I know of none, and indeed most of the uses of it I know are intended to convey a distinction from subjective concepts.

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            • Brad, I’m not talking about whether a case would stand up in court (the whole concept of that seems irrelevant to me). I’m talking about the concept of fairness and our use of the term. There are admittedly many uses and definitions of fairness, but NONE of them (outside of this bastard outlier of detective fiction) are in reference to a subjective standard. When we say that something is fair, we are not saying merely that it is “sufficient to me”— we have other ways of saying that: “that satisfies me,” “that’s enough for me,” “okay by me,” “I’ll settle for that.” No, when we say something is fair, we are saying “this is enough for me, and it should be enough for you, too— indeed, for everyone— because it reaches a standard of sufficiency which exists outside our personal judgment.”

              If you say that you like Clark Gable and I say that I hate Clark Gable, we are not disagreeing— we are agreeing on the truth value of two statements:

              1. Brad likes Clark Gable.
              2. Scott hates Clark Gable.

              Similarly, if I say that the level of clueing to the solution of The Crooked Hinge is not sufficient for my satisfaction, and you say it is sufficient for yours, we are not disagreeing. But, if I was to argue that that solution is not fair, and you were to argue that it is, we are indeed disagreeing, for while our understanding of both the novel and the concept is subjective, our use of the term fair demonstrates our recognition that we are arguing an objective point.

              Again, I ask for a single example of the use of the word “fair” which is intended to convey subjectivity. I know of none, and indeed most of the uses of it I know are intended to convey a distinction from subjective concepts.

              BTW, I have no idea how this forum works. I post things having no idea where they’ll show up. I apologize for any confusion this may have caused.

              Like

            • In other words, if all aesthetic evaluation is subjective, let us use subjective terminology in our evaluation of aesthetics. “Fair” is not such terminology. Not only is it not used to convey subjectivity, is has indeed been consistently employed to expressly convey the non-subjectivity of an assertion.

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            • Yeah, nah, sorry, this is where we diverge — see my earlier responses. It’s, ahem, fair to say that you and I will always be on opposite sides of the fence, Scott — and long may that continue, because I very much enjoy these exchanges 🙂

              Like

  11. But Brad, I’m saying insisting that the terminology is indeed important, because of its consequences. If I called Death on the Nile a sonnet, people would judge the work by the standards of that form. It wouldn’t go well (as a sonnet, it kinda stinks). But at least we could then properly judge it, because there is an agreed upon standard for what constitutes a sonnet.

    For the question is— if we really do think along the same conceptual lines with other genres as you suggest— why then do we use the term fair play for this genre and not with the others? If we mean the same thing, why is our treatment of the genres different? The reason, I’m convinced, is that— partly due to the use of this misleading terminology— readers come to believe that these works are actually subject to a precise standard of sufficiency. They certainly speak that way: “the clues weren’t all there”— as if there were indeed a specific set of clues necessary to make it qualify as “fair.” Because of the use of the term “fair,” readers largely assume that same function of the term as used elsewhere— to distinguish the standard from all subjective standards of sufficiency.

    When people say “play nice, play fair” they use both terms not merely as repetition of synonymous terms, but because they are understood to have distinct meanings. “He was a cruel man, but fair” (Monty Python), same thing. Even the casual “he believed in fair play in all things” suggests that he lived his life in alignment with a standard not “nice,” not “kind,” not “sufficient to him,” but fair— as if there were such an existent standard in the universe.

    Lately, I’ve even seen people criticize a whodunit work because it breaks “Van Dine’s rule #2”— somehow giving Van Dine authority over the definition and rules of the genre for the mere fact that he decided to write those rules and people read them. And note that none of the self-appointed rule makers of the era ever wrote “from this day forward it is unacceptable to…” No, they were imposing rules upon a genre that already existed. And being non-contemplative— but loving the idea that the genre presented an intellectual game— readers were happy to shift their feelings of subjective satisfaction (“there weren’t enough clues to satisfy me”) to an undefined but non-subjective standard (“the clues weren’t all there). And such a non-subjective standard requires a specifically non-subjective umbrella term, “fair play.” And that is indeed why it’s used for this genre and no other.

    If it were just a different use of terms, I wouldn’t care. I agree that you and I have similar believes of what is and what is not satisfactory in detective fiction. But many other people clearly actually believe that certain works reach an objective standards and others don’t. And they also (rather ridiculously, in my opinion) firmly believe they can determine which do and which don’t reach that standard based on their intuitive sense. Of course, it’s a useful thing for them that they feel that way, for ask any of them to specifically delineate the border between sufficiently-clued and insufficiently clued, and they become universally silent.

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  12. JJ, you write:

    “The experience of reading something is, as we’ve agreed, an inherently subjective thing, and so whether someone feels there to be a sufficient deployment of clues or not is, to my mind, equally as subjective.”

    I entirely agree, but don’t you see, that’s not talking about fairness itself, that’s talking about someone’s opinion of a work’s relationship to fairness. Their opinion is indeed subjective, but it’s an opinion about a concept they are accepting as objective. The very language demonstrates this— not “there were not enough clues to satisfy me” (awareness of subjectivity), but “the clues weren’t all there” (indication of a belief in an objective truth value).

    Like

    • Ah, okay, I see your point. And I’m not sure there’s a way around that…so you’re looking for the personal experience to be highlighted over the universal standard. I suppose I’ve always imagined it as a personal standard, but have been unclear in my language expressing that. Fore me, any discussion about “fairness” has always been subjective, since I’ve been told something is fair when I didn’t find it to be…so I’ve just accepted the language used to be inherently flawed and always considered it such when using those terms. I’ll do my best to be much more clear in future.

      Like

  13. One last thing. Maybe (well, at least I’m keeping up the Columbo motif)

    I fully recognize that words are merely symbols of meaning— and slippery symbols at that. Most words have several meanings, and those meanings can change over time and in different contexts. However, there are often common meanings that govern related uses of words. For instance, the word reveal has several meanings, including to declare, to unmask, to expose, to display, to exhibit, or even as a noun the act of revealing. Unmasking and declaration are certainly not the same thing, but both entail exhibition and disclosure.

    The word fair has even a wider array of meanings, from light-hued, to neither excellent nor poor, to ample, to pleasing in appearance, to a festival, and more.

    However, I’m thoroughly convinced that nearly all (if not all) of those uses of the term “fair” which relate to equity and justice (of which “fair play” is one) share in common a recognition of an objective standard, which we intuitively accept as such, even if our relationship to that standard is eternally subjective. I seriously doubt that there are uses of “fair,” “fairness,” “fair play,” etc… that actually convey subjectivity. Indeed, they convey a distinction from subjectivity. I believe that the reason people might consider such uses of fair to be subjective is due to a confusion between an objective concept and the subjective understanding of an objective concept.

    I think a child’s earliest encounters with the concept are particularly illustrative, and also demonstrate a rather astounding (to me, at least) if limited grasp of a rather sophisticated abstract concept.

    Something desired is withheld from a child— let us say candy— and he cries: “It’s not fair!”

    But why does he cry “It’s not fair!” and not simply “I want the candy!”? After all, his mission is to get the candy— isn’t the mere statement of his desire the most direct approach to achieving his goal?

    The answer is that he has already learned that appealing to fairness has more authority, more “leverage,” indeed greater credibility than merely expressing his desires. If he can convince his parent that it is indeed fair that he gets the candy, that approach is clearly much more likely to get him the desired treats than merely expressing that he wants them.

    But WHY does fairness have greater credibility, and what is it, anyway? This fairness thing is not something he can see, hear, or touch. It’s an abstract concept, probably one of the earliest ones he has come in contact with (I know very little about child development, so that last is admittedly only a guess on my part).

    One thing is for certain, though, this fairness is not shaped by his desires. He has already learned this fact from his earliest exposures to the concept, in which fairness was cited as the reason he was not granted his desires (“If I gave you all the toys, that would not be fair to all the other children, would it?”).

    Nor is it determined by the judgment of his parent, either, for if it were, he wouldn’t have to or try to convince said parent to give him the candy.

    No, it’s clearly something that lies outside the judgment and desires of them both, and is not subject to them. The point is that— even at this early age— the child recognizes this standard to be independent of our subjective perception of it. We don’t believe that our concept of fairness shapes fairness, we believe that actual fairness shapes our concept of it. Fairness is what it is, and what we think of it won’t change things. “Fair is fair,” as the saying goes.

    Now keep in mind, I’m not for a moment suggesting that the child (or the parent) can ever understand the truth of fairness for, as I mentioned, though we intuitively understand it to be an objective concept, our understanding of that concept is quite subjective (as is our understanding of all other concepts). For a child, fairness may be equated with equality (“Since Paul and Ellie each get two pieces of candy, it is fair that I get two as well”). A naively unreflective child may even convince himself that fairness is entirely aligned with his own desires: “It is fair that I get all the candy”… but this child soon finds that he has difficulty answering some very basic questions justifying his view: “Why do you feel it is fair that you get all the candy?”

    The concept of fairness lying outside of and independent of our judgment continues into adulthood. Take the instance of the Ratner family fortune.

    My father’s immense fortune (probably upward of $1,000!) will presumably eventually be bequeathed to his three children: myself, my brother and my sister. I am the middle child and the best looking.

    Now, my perception of a fair distribution of the fortune is that I receive 80% of the money, and that my brother and sister each receive 10%, because I have done the bulk of the family work, and because they are both lazy idiots. And I’m the best looking.

    My sister sees it differently. “I should receive 80% of the money,” she says, ”and my two brothers should each receive 10%, because I have done the bulk of the family work, and because they are both lazy idiots. And I’m the best looking.”

    I’ll leave you to guess what my brother’s assessment of the situation is.

    The point is that none of us believe that there are three valid, fair scenarios regarding this issue— there couldn’t be. No, we all agree that there’s only one truly fair distribution of the Ratner family fortune… we just disagree about what that distribution is. Thus, our differing subjective viewpoints of what we recognize as an objective standard. And again, we don’t think our belief shapes our truth, we think the truth shapes our belief.

    I realize that one might argue that our use of “fair play” in reference to detective fiction is an exception to this pattern, that we are regarding this type of fairness as subjective. But our language certainly doesn’t indicate that. We don’t use terminology that indicates an awareness of our subjective judgment: “it didn’t have enough clues to satisfy me.” We don’t even generally use relative terms that could convey varied degrees of fairness: “it is richly-clued.” No, we use the light-switch terminology of objectivity: “The clues are all there.” “The author wasn’t playing fair.” We place the judgment totally on the work and the author, not on us. And why? I think the fact that we use a term (fair) that elsewhere consistently (and yes, I do believe outside the totally unrelated uses describing light-hued, neither excellent nor poor, pleasant looking, etc… consistently) references a
    perceived objective standard has a lot to do with it.

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  14. I have enjoyed reading the discussions above and it has crystalized for me that I set different standards of fair play for different authors or types of books. In relation to R Austin Freeman, I accept that without the specialist scientific knowledge it is not really possible to work out the solution, but provided that, in retrospect at least, I can see that the important point was lurking in plain sight for those with that knowledge, I feel that is fine. With Agatha Christie the fair play element is more important, and sometimes a misdirection I would accept without reservation from John Dickson Carr / Carter Dickson irritates me. With Gladys Mitchell fair play is irrelevant – one either enjoys the ride or one does not. In relation to Inspector French and other procedural stories, the fact that often until the final few pages the clue to the mystery is not revealed is not a problem for me – the important point is whether the journey is convincing. More generally I am happy if either the motive is not revealed until the end but the opportunity was in retrospect clear or vice versa.

    Like

    • I’m delighted to think that this has helped someone make sense of the genre and how they think about it. It’s helping me come to an accommodation about certain aspects, and I’m very lucky to have such perceptive commenters who are willing to engage in such a wide-ranging and intelligent discussion. Thanks, one and all!

      Like

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