I’m on holiday and not doing a huge amount of reading as a result, and so may not have thought this out properly, but here’s an idea I just had.
The other week, Ho-Ling published this excellent piece on closed circle mysteries, examining the appeal of such a setup in the context of the detective or crime novel (while, as Ho-Ling is wont to do, also taunting us with some wonderful-sounding novels and stories not yet available in English). I have no desire to restate what has already been put so well, but the essential point I’d take from it would be this:
The reader is presented a specific setting with a certain number of identified characters, and no extra characters can enter this location, nor can anyone leave (alive that is). This helps the intellectual game of detective fiction, as the reader doesn’t have to worry about secret assassins coming from the outside world to commit the murder and leave, or evidence being shipped away to Duckburg.
The key phrase here is “the intellectual game of detective fiction” — the type of puzzle posed as a challenge between the reader and the author, hopefully with as much declaration of the clues as possible to render the solution attainable to the majority of attentive and intelligent readers (man, now I see why the two word phrase “fair play” is so popular…). The primary concern of the detective fiction is to allow the reader to play detective, and typically this was done in a closed circle setting: come the unmasking of Sir Driffield McMiffield — with 20 pages remaining to explain how he managed to kill his sister with the antique okapi head whilst simultaneously in the front row of the church for the christening of young Josephine McMosephine — it has most impact if we’ve been alongside him at least some of the way and encouraged to exclude him from consideration.
Early on in my reading of the crime genre, I encountered Postmortem (1990), the debut novel by Patricia Cornwell, in which — spoilers for Postmortem (1990) by Patricia Cornwell — the killer is some rando introduced for the first time when the police kick his door down and arrest him with eight pages remaining. Even back then, I was appalled. This would not do at all. If the killer can be anyone from outside the book to that point, there was nothing to prevent the preceding 380 pages from being simply a series of lazy feints before sudden convenient inspiration hit upon the correct place in which to look and, hey-presto, suddenly none of the foregoing mattered. The producers of House (2004-2012) may disagree, having wrung 177 variations out of this exact theme, but I hoped for a little more from my mysteries.
“I am so very, very rich.”
Crime fiction was what detective fiction turned into sometime around, er, the 1950s — the notion of an intellectual game ‘twixt wrangler and reader being passed over in favour of a more socially conscious milieu where the reader gets involved not just in the crime itself but in its wider context. And so the wider context, having largely been disregarded because it had no bearing on the mystery, drew more focus as crime fiction evolved. A simple example of this can be seen in that now detectives had wives who didn’t just crop up in Book 1 and warrant a quick mention in Book 5, but instead actually became recurring characters with internal lives of their own, complete with agency and jobs and friends; and those friends had agency and jobs of their own, and they ended up bring more life in with them, as the focus of the genre moved on from a laser-sighted single-mindedness concerned only with a crime and its immediate surroundings to consider wider communities (if not necessarily the impact that might be had there).
This was not all bad. For one thing, it encouraged the typically class-obsessed GAD to consider murder and theft from the perspectives outside the apocryphal Venetian vase and alley both, giving cultural space that birthed the like of Tony Hillerman’s books featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee (1970-2006), or the on-going work of Minette Walters, which uses a variety of societal considerations in showing the true breadth and depth of violence and charlatanism as the purview of not merely the upper and lower classes. In many regards, the crime novel forced a relevance upon the detective novel that the detective novel could not attain: starting with the psychological suspense movement perhaps erroneously attributed to a handful of female writers in the 1950s and 60s — it seems to me we always mention Margaret Millar or Helen McCloy or similar here, and I wonder if we’re Suspense Queen-ing the movement disingenuously as we’ve Crime Queen-ed GAD — and evolving into the full-blown social moment novels of today that sustain the ever-growing series put out, to my understanding, by the likes of Elizabeth George and Louise Penny (again with the female authors…!).
On the back of reading A Killing Kindness (1980) by Reginald Hill recently, it struck me that crime fiction hasn’t necessarily made the closed circle any larger or more complex. Indeed, it’s almost had the opposite effect, not least because of the false verisimilitude the crime novel brings to proceedings and the desire that still seeks to see the criminal as something Other. The concept of Othering fascinates me beyond all reasonable bounds — in real life as well as in fiction…do ask me about it sometime if we meet face-to-face and you have an hour or three to kill — and it’s perhaps at its most pure in the puzzle-dense detective story: the crime is committed, the perpetrator identified and removed, and we’re all surprised and delighted at the one bad apple has been removed from the barrel. Cue a gap of a year while we wait for our wrangler to repeat the feat in a slightly different setting, the detective always leaving behind a community or group that has been purged of the wrong ‘un at its heart, the murderer or thief who is easily identified as something not a part of that village or that amateur dramatic society…the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the Other who hid behind a facade amongst those who belonged.
“Seriously, I don’t need to work again. Ever.”
Crime fiction is equally as concerned with Othering as was detective fiction, and often makes its job harder as a result. Because plucking out the Other from a bunch of equally-likely sorts as part of an intellectual exercise is one thing entirely, but doing so when your novel is being used as a vehicle to cast light upon something little-observed — cultural heritage, knife crime, the plight of the homeless, transgender rights — can be fraught with complication. Witness, for one thing, the crazed religiously-motivated killer in Dan Brown’s seldom discussed indie work The Da Vinci Code (2003). The fact of his religious extremism is sufficient to cast him out as the Other on its own, but the fact that he’s also albino — and, in fairness, Brown does a semi-reasonable job of justifying this choice — resulted in the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH) raising concerns about the portrayal of someone with albinism in a piece of popular entertainment. There’s an element here of almost dual Othering — of making someone the killer because they’re outside the norm is some other, easily appreciable, respect — which leads to a sort of comedy of errors. “Hey,” say NOAH, “you can’t depict an albino man as a killer!” — er, well surely people with albinism are just as capable of murder as people without it, right? So is it as bad to exclude him from consideration as, say, a murder suspect on account of his albinism as it is to make him a killer because of it?
And from there, well, it gets only more complicated.
To take a step back and examine A Killing Kindness, there’s a section of the book given over to the heritage of Romany people and their diminished role in a modern society that seeks to benefit from aspects of that heritage while not really acknowledging the benefit its taking. And so, when a murder is committed on the fairground where these diminished, disregarded Romanys (Romanies?) are based, they inevitably come under consideration and, we know, are inevitably going to be cleared of all suspicion and complicity in the crime. The book itself is not set up to examine the complexities of such a debate by hanging a murder (or even a series of murders) around the neck of one such character. Can’t Romany people (Romens?) also be killers? Sure, sure they can, but in that book they’re already depicted as Other enough — and as suffering enough as a result — for Hill to want to Double Other them. We, the readers of detective fiction, know that crime fiction lacks the stones to do this — and we feel smug about it, because detective fiction did this kind of thing all the time (cf. The Crooked Hinge (1938) by John Dickson Carr) and frequently got away with it.
Please, now, let’s be clear: this is not another excursion into the land of A Middle Class White Man Complains About Political Correctness Gone Mad; far from it. I take these example because they’re nearest the top of my head and the easiest to call on. To move away from potentially contentious representations of minorities, consider the verisimilitude of the community depicted in your long-running series. There’s simply no way that someone who’s run a flower shop for fourteen books is going to turn out to be the killer in Book 15 — the grief and shock that would send through any real community would paralyse it beyond measure, and make Book 16 a bloody difficult prospect. Sure, someone doubtless did it at some point, but I’m willing to bet it didn’t work out very well for them. And so modern crime fiction places itself in the tricky position of not really being able to use anyone too Outside nor anyone too Inside as its patsy; what you end up with, then, is the staff at the engineering plant where the shift manager has been stabbed to death when the CCTV cameras were on the blink being the only viable suspects: that carefully isolated pool, never to be referred to again in any future investigation. Make them nice and normal and safe, and then Other one of them and move on. What you have, is a work of detective fiction, filled out by a lot of either core familiarity or fringe interest, and with consequently half the ideas needed to fill twice the number of pages.
“Why are you still using this photo?”
My point? To be honest, I’m not really sure — but it does feel good to get this out of my head. As awareness of a variety of fringe groups is raised by their being used in fiction — and in popular fiction, too, that people are actually going to read — it’s to be hoped that a degree of acceptance of the importance of story will supersede any over-cautious objections that the alarmists among us may raise. It’s to be hoped that no-one read The Da Vinci Code and came away with the impression that all people with albinism are violent, self-flagellating killers, in the same way that transgender rights have survived the now hideously dated portrayals in the likes of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) or the almost entirely immaterial revelation of a transgender killer in a book from 1995. The impact such portrayals have is, arguably, limited, but at the same time one can understand the need to advise caution where the contentious comes into contact with those who seek contention.
Me? I just want a baffling mystery with a surprising revelation at the end…
25 thoughts on “#570: Squaring the Circle – Suspects, the Other, and the Difficulties Faced by Crime Fiction”
I have so much to say about this and here you are, in the middle of your Transylvanian shopping/tanning spree, and unavailable for comment! Damn you, sir, on so many levels. Oh well, here we go . . .
1. Your subject matter: This is uncanny because I am – as we speak – in the midst of writing a piece about the closed circle of suspects!!! Complete with funny names even!!! (So much for using Josephine McMosephine. Damn you, sir!) My jaw actually dropped as I started to read this. Can we possibly be psychic twins? We can’t blame Ho-Ling for this because despite the fact that I am subscribed to his blog, I NEVER get notifications that he has written anything so I rarely get over to his place. As you admitted yourself, his constant mention of fabulous mysteries that I can never read is . . . well, it’s a bit disheartening for this fan. But I will get over there and read his piece. Will I discover that we three are psychic . . . triplets?
2. I’ve been pondering the concept of otherness myself quite a bit because it has hit so many aspects of my life lately. Here’s just a few:
a. we all find ourselves as cogs on a disturbing world stage where otherness is villainized by world leaders for political purposes. It’s possible that Trump and Boris and the leader of Poland, et.al., are all racists, but they could also be demonizing people of color, immigrants, LGBT folk, for political reasons – just like Sir Puffin McMuffin calls attention to the Romany people encamped down the lane to draw away suspicion from the fact that he painted each thorn on his wife’s beloved rose garden with poison and waited for her next moment of carelessness to be her last (in Rupert Callingway’s 1936 semi-classic, A Fatal Prick.)
b. One of my other interests, as readers of my blog will know, (at least those 17 readers who bothered to read that one) is the TV-show Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. I’ve been thinking a lot about it because I found a cool podcast, hosted by a charming lesbian married couple, called Buffering the Vampire Slayer (does anyone get that pun??? Help me, please.) One of their main contentions (and I totally agree with it) about the success of that series is how Joss Whedon used the supernatural elements to tell stories of otherness: of how isolated Buffy the Slayer and Willow the witch and Angel, the NICE vampire feel and how that’s all a metaphor for how all teenagers and LGBT people feel. These “others” are put front and center as the heroes of the story, making fantasy the inverse of GAD mystery fiction. In both genres, the others disrupt the fabric of “normal” society, but in Buffy (and the X-Men comics/movies, for that matter), they also save society, without much appreciation from the saved.
There’s a deep streak of conservatism in the classic mystery, where the “other” has upset the balance of society, and the forces of law and order put it to rights. But one cannot dismiss mysteries outright as bastions of conservatism. For every Alleyn, French and Cockrill (all proper bastions of the law) who goes after the bad guy, there are the Poirots, Fells, Marples, Vances – all of them outsiders themselves – who become the hero of the story by solving the puzzle. And if the killer is an outsider for resorting to violent extremes to solve a problem, let’s consider the victim. By resorting to any outrageous means to maintain his power over other, is Lord Humpty McTrumpty the ultimate insider – making a bad name of normalcy and thus needing to be eliminated? Or are the victims outsiders themselves because, by their bad behavior, they disrupt their closed society to the point that they inspire equally bad behavior in the cause of removing their stain?
And I just want to point out that in Buffy, the cause of all of Angel’s problems turns out to be . . . the Romany people. If Angel hadn’t eaten that Romany princess, her father wouldn’t have put the curse of replacing his soul on the poor guy. And then of course, falling in love with Buffy resulted in the return of the Romany and the excision of Angel’s soul. (Second half of Season Two = TV greatness.)
3. You say: “There’s simply no way that someone who’s run a flower shop for fourteen books is going to turn out to be the killer in Book 15 . . . “ Well, no, probably not very often, but then in modern series mysteries, we find that the element of “whodunnit” is less and less important – and this applies to the series characters as well. So – and there are SPOILERS IN THIS SENTENCE – while Deborah in George’s Inpector Lynley series doesn’t kill anyone, she engages in some pretty awful behavior that nearly destroys her marriage. And in Penny’s Three Pines stories, the charming, funny, heroic Peter we meet in the first book is slowly destroyed by jealousy over his wife’s burgeoning artistic talent and is transformed to a point where ten or so books later, he himself is murdered. END SPOILERS
In other words, the relative conservatism of GAD dictates that the regular characters never change, for conservatives often seem, at least outwardly, all about CONSERVING the good old times that never existed in the first place. So while you can suggest that the modern crime writer is careful to the point of political correctness to avoid condemning “others” as bad, the classic authors, despite their casual racism, nearly ALWAYS played on their fellow citizen’s shared racing, employing “others” as red herrings.
4. I’m not going to say that reading The Da Vinci Code made me afraid of albino giants. (I was too bored.) But after reading both that book and The Girl Who Played with Fire, containing blond-haired, feel-no-pain giant Ronald Niedermann, I felt it safe to say that all tall, blond people are bad. I know this is true because I read a lot.
5. Finally, (yeah, finally, Bradley!) . . . you said, “. . . it does feel good to get this out of my head.” It made me think of that contraption in Dumbledore’s office where he pulls memories out of his head and keeps them in a bowl for later reference. The idea of getting that crowded stuff out of my memories has always always appealing, so while I apologize for the length of this response, consider your blog my personal Pensieve!
For every Alleyn, French and Cockrill (all proper bastions of the law) who goes after the bad guy, there are the Poirots, Fells, Marples, Vances – all of them outsiders themselves – who become the hero of the story by solving the puzzle.
To further add to the psychic spookiness, I have in the works a post which sort of takes this point of yours and expands it out over 2,000 words. The concept of solving the puzzle is one that I come back to again and again, and the interpretations that can be put on that are legion.
To take a safe example: SPOILERS FOR MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS a friend of mine read MoTOE nad is fixated on the idea of Poirot solving the case but the criminal(s) not facing justice, and as we’ve talked about this from time to time I keep coming back to the idea of truth vs. justice in GAD. Solving the problem is a given, but what’s done with that knowledge is a rich land of possibility that has so many twisty walkways one runs the risk of getting lost after a mere few steps. So I hope to eventually sort out my thinking and get round to writing that at some point. END SPOILERS, BUT SERIOUSLY HOW DO YOU NOT KNOW THE ENDING OF MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS??
Or are the victims outsiders themselves because, by their bad behavior, they disrupt their closed society to the point that they inspire equally bad behavior in the cause of removing their stain?
There’s a thesis on this alone: GAD and the New Normal. From this perspective, and given the motives demonstrated by certain killers in GAD over the years, the leap from straight detection to domestic suspense suddenly doesn’t seem to vast, does it?
Finally, I’ve not read A Fatal Prick, but I did recently run to ground a copy of Callingway’s belated follow-up wherein a variety of dinner guests are poisoned by their cutlery, despite repeated changes being made to the set used and the increasingly desperate attempts by the police to keep the dinner accoutrements under surveillance at all times; yes, indeed, I have 1943’s Fork Me!, and you can expect a review at some point,
there was nothing to prevent the preceding 380 pages from being simply a series of lazy feints before sudden convenient inspiration hit upon the correct place in which to look and, hey-presto, suddenly none of the foregoing mattered.
Thank you for nailing with that simple statement what I was trying to get at a month or so ago during the discussion on fair play. To me, it’s not about some rules to a higher game between the author and the reader. It’s simply that in order for a mystery solution to satisfy in a particular way, you have to feel that the pages that came before weren’t wasted; that they contributed that “aha” moment to the solution rather than merely taking up your time.
“Fair play”, and the various ways in which we attempt to define it, are merely a set of guidelines that steer a mystery in the direction of a certain type of outcome – the feeling of “oh, I didn’t see that coming” mixed with an appreciation of “I should have seen that coming”. That isn’t the only possible type of satisfying conclusion for a story (as evidenced by sales in recent decades). Identifying and overcoming a culprit while resolving any threads of drama can satisfy, although I more associate that with thrillers. And so, given this spectrum of what “mystery” can be applied to, we end up with the term “fair play”.
the feeling of “oh, I didn’t see that coming” mixed with an appreciation of “I should have seen that coming”.
Yeah, you’ve nailed this. We now need a pithy way to refer to it, so that Fair Play and its associated baggage can be put to bed…
The Impossible Crime has become impossible in a contemporary setting, it is only possible in historical settings. Discuss.
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Mmmm, interesting idea, but surely the success of the likes of Jonathan Creek (back when it was successful — many of those ideas could still be applied today) and the ongoing likes of Case Closed show that there’s still much scope for the contemporary setting of impossibilities.
No doubt it’s easier to pull off in historical settings — or ever future ones, where the possibilities are open to even more interpretation — I can’t dispute that. And yet, there was a time when “historical” settings were the contemporary settings of the day, so why shouldn’t the same attitude be applied to modern, current technological advances? A genuinely brilliant modern impossible crime that accounts for all we now know is, I believe possible; we just need someone to have the insight to write it.
Which, I suppose, is a circular argument…
Too much technology. The disappearing house? Hologram. Sealed door? Nanotechnology. Or laparoscopic equipment through the keyhole. Or 3D printing of the key from a laser probe of the lock. Boring!
But think of the false solutions! It cold make The Poisoned Chocolates Case look like an amateur scrawl…
It will only get worse in the future. Imagine the closed circle of suspects …. all clones of each other.
Warning: Do not imagine all those clones being of Brad! This is a mystery not a horror story.
But — treating your suggestion in earnest for a moment — when everyone has the same DNA, the same fingerprints, the same physical appearance…that’s an amazing setup for a mystery, because it renders all the scientific jiggery-pokery of modern advancement redundant and forces us to fall back upon good old-fashioned detection and clues and the like. If a novel could truly exploit the possibilities of “one of these six clones is a killer” it would be a chance for the detection elements of GAD to firmly reassert themselves.
Honestly, I’m quite excited about that prospect; it’s the first time I’ll admit sharing TomCat’s belief in the potential for a new Golden Age of detective fiction. We’ve had signs of the odd practitioner coming out and doing something well, but the opportunities for the genre as a whole to be reinvented and practised en masse never seemed there for me. This, though, is sort of magnificent, even if it is still a long way off (we need sufficient numbers of authors to remember how to plot, mislead, and surprise first…).
Ever see Apollo 13? Remember the scene where the engineers have to solve the air filter problem, and the supervisor dumps all the stuff they have to work with on the table? That’s the essence of the impossible crime: all the stuff I need has to be there for me to tinker with. But with open ended technology that is no longer possible. The new technology I don’t know about is hidden.
A man is shot in a glass bubble.
Here are “solutions” that use open ended technology
1. Quantum transportation of the bullet
2. Self sealing glass that reassembles
If this technology becomes available and I publish before you learn of it, these solutions will “work”, but would still suck.
And just the fact that such technology is now available in some cases, like the hologram house I mentioned, taints any other solution.
Any solution that doesn’t dump everything I need on the table beforehand sucks, and it is no longer possible to really do that anymore.
Have you read Isaac Asimov’s future crime stories collection, Asimov’s Mysteries? Because he makes a great point in the prologue about how any technology used in the solution should be declared in order to render the mystery appropriate for a “past” current audience.
So while I don’t disagree with your essential point, I do disagree that the potential to do a lazy or poor job of such a thing means that it will inevitably be done badly — after all, this was true during the GAD heyday, and a bunch of quite magnificent books still came out of that. The challenge as more technology emerges is obviously to reduce the possibilities from a narrative perspective, in the same way that the closed circle of suspects must be reduced from, like, everyone on the planet at the time of the story’s setting (cf. The Chinese Orange Mystery…).
Yes, no doubt, an increased possible range of solutions means there’s more scope for something to be explained away lazily or poorly, or using s piece of equipment you didn’t know you had. But, to take your Apollo 13 example, the film doesn’t go to the effort of explaining to the viewer what every single piece of equipment dumped on the desk is and how it can be used…and as a viewer you still enjoy that principle of them having to work in restricted conditions. Impossible crimes, in any time period, can and should do the same thing: here’s what’s possible, here’s what appears to have happened impossibly (the impossibility, after all, results from us knowing what’s possible in the universe — it is after all “impossible” for two people to be heard speaking in a room but only one person present unless you know the universe contains, say, a mobile phone with a loudspeaker feature)…you work it out.
Once again: no, it won’t always be done well — it wasn’t in GAD, and probably never has been in every single example of an era of impossible crime — but that doesn’t mean it can’t be. That’s why excellent impossibilities in fiction are difficult to come across: it takes skill to write them well.
I’m inclined to agree with Ken. Obviously you could insert any golden age solution into a modern day mystery, and it could work, but would the reader be as tightly ensnared by the impossibility? Between tiny cameras, voice/video manipulation, drones, robotics – hell, simply the features of an ordinary smartphone – aren’t there too many outs nowadays for how a trick could have been pulled off? Yes, the true solution may not have relied upon them, but the reader must be convinced of that.
…and why can’t the reader be convinced? Write it well, limit the options, make it clear what can and can’t be done…why should any of them be unattainable just because there are a few more moving pieces to consider? Seems like you and Ken a remarkably keen to give up on the idea, just because it’s a little tricky; I never said it wold be easy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.
Hi JJ, have you read Ho-Ling’s most recent post regarding the use of technology and fantasy settings in detective stories? I agree with both of you that as long as the rules were stated clearly upfront, it can make for a fascinating and fair mystery stories. Ho-ling also provided several good examples of these in his post.
I haven’t yet gotten to Ho-Ling’s most recent post, no — I’ve been travelling quite a lot, and my internet has been sufficiently occasional for me to only really be able to dip in here and there to what others have been doing . However, I’m home soon, and shall attempt to catch up then, so thanks for bringing it to my attention.
And, yes, I agree: the rules simply need to be laid out, understood, and adhered to by the author, and everything flows easily from there.
You guys are proving my point. A historical setting “sets the rules”. The rules are life, just like they used to be. But there is really no sensible or *natural* way to “set rules” in a contemporary novel. “Notice: in this novel, which is about the modern world we live in, no-one uses electricity.” 🙄
…but in that case it’s not about the modern world we live in. And if someone is apparently electrocuted (to the reader’s eye) but there’s no such thing as electricity in the world of the book, being told that helps us appreciate the fact of the impossibility.
So, like, you’re proving my point now…
You are missing the point JJ. If you need a stipulation at all, the jig is up.
But in any case, we have had a few good guys working the mineface of locked room and impossible crimes since Carr: Hoch and especially Halter. When do they set their novels? And this in rot13 will spoil a great book by Shimada
Fuvznqn’f oevyyvnag Gbxlb obbx pbyyncfrf jura nalbar grfgf QAN. Vg PNAABG or n pbagrzcbenel abiry.
Wait, what? If you’re told there’s no electricity and someone appears to have been electrocuted…youve been told there’s no electricity, so they can’t have been electrocuted. So when you, the hypothetical reader, think “Aha, it’s electrocution!” it can’t be because electricity doesn’t exist in that universe. Hence you know the limitels, hence that solution if off the table, hence impossible crime.
How…how does any such declaration give anything away?
And I’m not actually suggesting that the book start with a page-long declaration of the rules of the universe. That would be in the old “show, don’t tell” afage of picking it up in context and so understanding there is no electricity when none has been in evidence for the first 50 pages of the book until the murder.
Currently over international waters, so will check out your rot13 comments a bit later.
There’s another consideration here – part of what makes an impossible crime so fascinating is the reader’s (well, this reader anyway) feeling as they read that there’s no way of explaining the events at all; this is increased when the author goes for Carr-style supernatural trappings. It would seem so out of place to have a mystery in a modern setting and expect the reader to believe that the author could turn round and say “it’s ghosts!”. Unless the book is somehow able to fool the reader as to what genre it’s in… perhaps I overstate the modern reader’s reluctance to believe in ghosts, or rather, their reluctance to believe that the characters believe in ghosts.
On the other hand, the capabilities/commonness of holograms and nanotech are definitely overstated. 3D printing probably could do that – but still getting the shape of a key and printing it off would require rather a lot of specialized equipment. I would say – unless the average reader owns the technology, it can’t be expected to pop up as the solution unless it’s prepared for, the way a secret passage would be in a “fair-play” (as defined above) mystery.
Oftentimes, though, an impossible crime novel can present something that appears to have no explanation without immediately requiring us to believe in ghosts. The key thing, where I agree with Kenis that the reader must understand what’s possible in the universe so that the fact of an impossibility can be grasped as easily as possible.
Note that this doesn’t have to mean that the impossibility is recognised at the earliest opportunity (though I don’t deny that’s preferable). Come to Paddington Fair by Derek Smith spends a long time looking at possible routes and explanations before eventually settling on its impossible crime quite late on, and that’s done in the “real” world — so sometimes readers need to trust that an author will get there, which is fine so long as that trust is repaid…!
The perfect murder mystery has an ending which is surprising but when reached feels inevitable. Every part of what has gone before contributes to that inevitability, and illuminates an aspect of that particular ending. It is structured, composed, controlled, Apollonian, with a design not clearly evident until it is done, but providing a unity when it is finally seen.
In other words, the model for the perfect mystery is The Goldberg Variations by J. S. Bach.
There’s a parallel between writing prose and writing music, isn’t there? Nick Fuller would, I feel, be far better placed than I to comment on this, however…
As an insomniac, I read about twice as many books as any of my friends, I do find it interesting looking at the tolerance for otherness of 1930s to 50s authors, Moira Redmond of Clothes in Books is fascinating in relation to Angela Thirkell who seemed in the 30/40s had a surprisingly tolerant attitude to ladies in tweeds (and while despising did not seem to be overly disgusted by a BBC man who married for plausible deniability) while one of Agatha’s murders which made one feel angry was clearly (potential Spoiler)
that of one of a same sex couple. I also agree with her that Thirkell would have been better than Ngaio Marsh at juggling interrogations without losing the interest of the reader..
In some respects the recent biography of Brian Sewell and George Melly autobiographies Rum Bum and Concertina and Scouse Mouse suggest that sometimes male otherness in the 40s to 90s was equated with having more fun without consequences which accounted for some attitudes which nowadays seem intolerant.