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:
…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.
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.