In GAD We Trust – Episode 11: The Tropes of Detective Fiction [w’ James Scott Byrnside]

The time has come again for some nerdy Golden Age Detection podcasting, and James Scott Byrnside is here to oblige with a discussion about some of the tropes we know and love from GAD fiction

After all, if you’re gonna have a discussion about tropes in detective fiction, you might as well have it with someone who has used them and so has an additional perspective on the why of tropes. Since James has already published two books — here are my thoughts on Goodnight Irene (2018) and The Opening Night Murders (2019) — and his third The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020) is due out in the next week, and since all three are predicated on a firm love of the building blocks of classic era detection, he’s probably picked the perfect topic, hein?

So, prepare for…well, I’d hate to spoil any of the surprises, but, much like a classic novel of detection, you can certainly count on a few topics of conversation where James and I are involved: why Christianna Brand is so great, the joy of impossible crimes, the variable quality of Ellery Queen, shade being thrown at G.K. Chesterton…all this and more awaits! And are we back on the In GAD We Trust streak of references to the movies of Alfred Hitchcock? Roll up, roll up and see.

You can listen to the podcast on iTunes here, on Spotify here, or on Stitcher here, or by using the player below. 

My thanks to James for his time and insight, to Jonny Berliner for the music, and to you for listening and playing along at home. These are always fun to record, and it’s lovely to be back having nerdy conversations about this kind of thing again. That someone else might also listen to it and get some enjoyment out of it is really something of a bonus. All I need to do now is find a way for this to pay my rent and I’m set for life…

Here, as promised, is Noah’s Golden Age of Detection Drinking Game. I have a feeling I may also have promised links to something else, too, so remind me of what that was if I did. It’s been a long week.

I know we shouldn’t judge books this way, but. c’mon…

More podcast in a fortnight, when Moira, Brad, and I shall engage in a spoiler-filled discussion about The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) by Agatha Christie. So get it read and get ready for some…let’s be honest, gentle agreement. Tea and scones at twelve paces, everyone.

Stay safe!

23 thoughts on “In GAD We Trust – Episode 11: The Tropes of Detective Fiction [w’ James Scott Byrnside]

  1. Ninety + minutes, eh? Dropped it at my bedtime, huh? Well, then, you’ll have to do with a multi-part response since I’ve had to divide my listening into multiple parts. I got through the song/rhyme pattern, the “I’ll tell you tomorrow” trope, and the dying message. Like you, I can think of good and bad examples of all three (although I do think it’s hardest to ruin the “I’ll tell you tomorrow” trope.) As you’ve noted, the success of each depends on how well the author rationalizes its use. The most problematic of these is the dying message. When I was a kid, I loved the cleverness of it, (“The Adventure of the Three Blind Mice” – oh yeah!), but now that I see the world through a modicum of logic and intelligence (most of the time), I cannot buy the murder victim who revels in throwing out a puzzle rather than simply coming out and saying, “Joe killed me.” Like, Scott, I cringe at the baroque excesses of the dying message in The Last Woman in His Life. That Johnny’s brain would work in such a complex way as realizes he has seconds to croak out some information to Ellery on the phone defies the logic of human existence. The message in Face to Face is equally ridiculous: even if a victim has a need to hide the message from the killer, if you make it as hard to figure out as Glory Guild does, what’s the point? (And now that I’ve trashed Ellery Queen for you, I want to point out that sometimes he gets it right. The example in The Fourth Side of the Triangle isn’t exactly a dying message, per se, but it’s incredibly clever: the victim has a perfectly logical reason for leaving it, and the truth behind it works on the level of character as well as plot.)

    Regarding songs or rhymes, there is a difference between the author who fancies crafting a novel that works around the rhyme, which almost never enhances a novel (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, Hickory Dickory Dock) but sometimes adds charm (There Was an Old Woman) and the character who is obsessed with the verse, usually a madman. So it works in ATTWN and The Mousetrap. I would argue that it works better in A Pocketful of Rye than your conversation suggests because the murderer has a logical reason for patterning their killings after the rhyme. I will add that I have had a copy of Death’s Old Sweet Song sitting on my shelf unread for several years and have now moved it to my nightstand. So you better know whereof you speak, Scott!!!

    I think the easiest of the three tropes to get right is the “I’ll tell you tomorrow” cue for the second murder. It works so beautifully in Green for Danger because Nurse Bates is so hurt and angry and wants to strike back. Another way it can work is when the victim has to work out the significance of the information he has and takes too long, like Donald Ross in Lord Edgware Dies (Christie was a master of this trope!)

    I’ll listen to the rest tomorrow and get back to you guys. How dare you have all this fun without me?????

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    • See, if I was able to think on my feet, I would have made some clever comment about you splitting this reply into two parts in the manner of a “I’ll tell you tomorrow” trope. What if you’d died in the night?!

      You’re doubtless correct about APoR, but something about that whole setup rings false to my (dodgy) recall, and it’s the one Nursery Crime of Agatha’s that I remember feeling was the most tenuous in that loose set.

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    • I feel no responsibility for your possible disappointment in DOSS. A lot of people aren’t crazy about it and I was careful to mention that. It’s definitely MY taste. That being said, if there’s isn’t a part of you that gets a thrill from the idea of madman terrorizing an entire town with a maelstrom of murder based on a song, we’ll never see eye to eye on certain matters.

      Liked by 1 person

      • if there’s isn’t a part of you that gets a thrill from the idea of madman terrorizing an entire town with a maelstrom of murder based on a song, we’ll never see eye to eye on certain matters

        Or, indeed, on anything 😆

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      • On the contrary, it seems right up my (dark, creepy) alley! And here’s a fair warning: I’m going to hold your own dying message to a very high standard, don’t think I’m not! You WILL hear about this from me . . . . . mwaaahhh haaaahhh haaaahhhh!

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  2. Part II – Good morning! You only touched indirectly on a trope that fascinates me, so the three of us will have to talk about it one of these days: disguise. That, and false identity, cover such a range of success – or lack of it – from the brilliant shock of Tour de Force to the ludicrous farce of Murder in Mesopotamia.

    As for seances, I will always love the simplicity of The Sittaford Mystery. I’d say we bloggers should all get together and have a seance, but we might bring back the ghost of Brian Flynn, and then I’d be lost . . . A very cool variation on the seance comes in the TV-movie Daughter of the Mind, which is based on Paul Gallico’s The Hand of Mary Constable. It modernizes the whole conceit to good effect.

    I really enjoyed the final fifteen minutes of your talk about the sense of continuity that comes from GAD tropes and what happens when those books are not available. Also, Scott actually gave me some new perspective on the dreaded “writes like Agatha Christie” review. I think the Queen of Crime is too important in my life to excuse this comparison, but looking at it as a sort of signpost to non-mystery readers is understandable. Perhaps the most devastating thing I read in Mark Aldrich’s book about Agatha’s film and TV adaptations is that the great majority of modern citizens will probably only connect with her through such work and never read the actual books. I bemoan this sad fact, my friends, I really do!

    See you next week, Jim. Scott, I am looking forward very much to becoming acquainted with the Barrington Hills vampire. Hopefully, it will take the bad taste out of my mouth from the Helen McCloy I’m currently reading. That is the challenge for THIS reader!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember reading about the Agatha Christie festival for the first time yeeeears ago, and whoever was interviewed saying something like “Well, whether you know her work from the TV shows or from the books, it doesn’t really make any difference” — I was taken aback, to say the least. Imagine if you considered yourself a fan of Leonardo da Vinci because you’d read The Da Vinci Code. Yes, it’s not the same thing, but c’mon. Being a fan of someone else’s interprtation of a third person’s work is a very different thing. There’s an episode in this, I feel. Hmmm…

      Happy to talk about disguise at some point. I think I have an opening sometime in 2024.

      I regret not mentioning — in the Challenge to the Reader section — Edgar Wallace’s challenge upon the serialisation of The Four Just Men. It’s such a wonderful story of hubris and ruination that I keep it close to my heart and bring it out whenever I can (I talked about it for Shedunnit, but it didn’t make the cut, and I should have remembered it here where I’m the one with editorial control.

      Also, who’s Scott?

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      • I suspect Brad was referring to Mr. Byrnside, whose middle name is Scott (only the servants call him Hugh, right?). Unfortunately, when Mr. Byrnside kills Mr. Friedman, and he scratched out the letters Sco—, myself, Mr. Wallace Baker, and Scooby Doo will be brought under suspicion (though maybe our SCOTUS will as well, which would almost make it worth it for me.

        Delightful podcast! I look forward to reading Mr. Byrnside’s books. He clearly knows his stuff. A few thoughts on some of the ideas:

        Though the sudden cleverness of murder victims is indeed a credibility problem with dying message clues— as well as the coincidence that any particular dying clue has the ambiguous versatility to indicate multiple suspects in that particular case— for me, the bigger problem with them is the matter of believable motivational justification. The history of real life crime has clearly demonstrated that human beings will nearly unanimously choose to direct their last energies toward even a ridiculously-remote chance of remaining alive over a much higher chance of incriminating their killer. Certainly the desire to have one’s death avenged is real, but the instinct to survive is many times greater (and after all, the person who stays alive can have both). That is, for a dying clue to be entirely convincing, it must be established very clearly that the victim has exhausted all belief in any possibility of remaining alive. Rarely has this been sufficiently achieved, IMO (I can think of one Columbo episode that convinced me, and that’s about it).

        Also, I think it’s important to make the distinction between the victim who is actively attempting to hide their message in code, and one who is just trying to convey the truth of his murder, but whose straightforward message becomes cryptic through unintended circumstance (Knives Out is a good example of the latter, “Hellman” is a bad one). Although there is some justification for clever coding on the part of the victim (he wants it to be figured out by some brilliant detective, but he doesn’t want it so readily decodable that it’s likely to be obliterated if the culprit comes across it first). But even there— even we accept both the victim’s desire and ability to be clever— we still have to swallow the bigger pill of the victim choosing incrimination over even-unlikely self preservation. Ironically, in the famously horrible example of The Tragedy of X, Queen makes his best effort at justifying the motivationally dubious concept of intentionally clever dying messages:

        “He left the only clue to his murderer’s identity which was available to him in the brief interval before he died. So you see—there are no limits to which the human mind cannot soar in that unique, god-like instant before the end of life.”

        Thus, I actually find most post-Tragedy of X dying messages more offensive, for, although they are nearly all more intelligent, this truly uncharacteristic human behavior is taken as a matter of course in Queen. “Oh, he was holding a copy of Amish Ventriloquist’s Monthly? He must’ve been trying to tell us the name of the killer!” as if trying to identify one’s killer in code is any more likely than there being a periodical titled Amish Ventriloquist’s Monthly.

        And another irony is that— despite all the disdain heaped upon it by GAD readers— The Da Vinci Code offers what I consider among the most motivationally credible reasons for a dying message clue: not the mere desire to have ones life avenged, but to preserve knowledge of something the victim deems worth dying for.

        I disagree with the notion that Chesterton was not a good plotter— indeed I think he was a great one. But I readily concur that he almost never concerned himself with logistic details. He might write a story in which a giant monster following a man suddenly disappearing turns out to be a giant tree (silhouetted by the sun behind it) that was chopped down by a lumberjack at that moment. Can we believe it? No, but “conceptually” it works, and a more believable variation might show up in the novels of Carr or Christie. The Sign of the Broken Sword is the seed of The ABC Murders, The Blast of the Book is likewise that of Till Death Do Us Part, etc… the misinterpretation of the overheard words in The Disappearance of Mr. Glass shows up time and again in GAD fiction. I say Chesterton is a great plotter because he offers these brilliant concepts, but I’m the first to admit that he rarely takes time to “clean them up.”

        As for explaining the monumental success of Christie, certainly physical accessibility is today a factor, but she became the best selling novelist in the world against many others whose works were also widely available in stores. Som that alone can’t account for it. I think the overlooked factor is that of ease of reading. I’m not suggesting that she became #1 purely because she’s the easiest to read (there are probably others in other genres easier to read), but she is no doubt the author with puzzle plotting skills on the Carr, Brand, Berkeley level who is easiest to read. I think it’s the combination of those two elements that are the primary factors of her success.

        My thanks for the shout out (I shouted out to my girlfriend “do you hear that? I’m someone!”), though I still fear I’ve failed to make clear the reasons for my objections to the “fair play” terminology, and why I really think it’s of significant importance. But that’s for another time, I suppose.

        But thanks again for another truly wonderful podcast.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Oh, I’d hate to leave anyone with the impression that I’ve a accurately summarised your issues with the term “fair play” in the above, Scott, and apologies if that what it sounds like I think I’m doing. A combination of thinking on my feet, progressing the discussion, and the infelicities inherent in editing are doubtless responsible, and any misrepresentation entirely accidental.

          I agree with you on the different nature of dying messages, and the notion that a distinction should perhaps be drawn between those people who leave one purely by deign of trying to sustain their life and those who seem to know they’re in a detective novel and so must be complex and clever about it. The former irritate me far less than the latter…!

          And, yes, Christie’s ease of readability is — like her consistency — doubtless one of many factors that, alongside the availability of her books, contributed to her becoming the double-edged titan she is today. As I say, I think GAD would struggle to pick many if any better than Christie to stand for the genre…and that may also be a factor. Perhaps, were it possible to have a Venn diagram in some way representing the various crossover points of different authors, Christie would be the centre: sharing with Sayers and Carr elements that Carr and Sayers (and others, ad infinitum…almost) don’t share with each other. Perhaps Christie became seen as representative because she’s also the most representative. Who knows?

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          • Oh, I apologize if it sounded like I was suggesting you were misrepresenting my ideas— I was just pointing out that I’ve long felt I’ve failed to make them clear. Just a long felt regret that popped in my mind as I wrote that. No, you’ve been more than considerate to me in that regard, and I appreciate it.

            As for Christie, yes, most representative, and Christie probably would be in the center of that Venn. But I suspect the two key “circles” would be readability and ingenuity. That is, I really think more people would be wild about Carr and Brand if they were easier to read. I say this as a poor reader (low concentration) who often finds it difficult to get through Carr and Brand, but does so knowing that the payoff will probably be well worth it. That’s not to say that Christie’s characterization is not better than its often given credit for— I think it’s actually far better— but I still don’t think that’s among the primary factors.

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  3. Great podcast, that was very enjoyable! Though it made me feel guilty about my TBR list, since I had to skip around to avoid talk of the Brands I haven’t read yet.
    When Black Aura was brought up in relation to seances, I was sure it was going to be the second “seance”, which debunks the earlier one. It’s one of my favourite scenes, just because it’s so funny.
    Some similar mystery-debunking scenes happen in The Three Tiers of Fantasy, where I love it as well. Two instances is enough for a trope, right? The “farcical debunking” trope is my favourite detective fiction trope, then. If anyone knows any other examples, let me know…

    I love the idea of the false solution used to manage pace. It really is a versatile trope! The early false solution used to add to mystification, the late false solution used to increase tension right at the end. Both are excellent.

    I can think of lots of examples of a false solution followed immediately by a true one, but I wonder what the record is for the largest gap between false and true? Probably to name an example would be a huge spoiler, of course.

    The danger with the false solution, of course is that the reader prefers it to the approved one. In that way it seems like it’s a bit of a gamble.

    Well, now I suppose I should head off and fill the holes in my reading of Brand! Apart from Death of Jezebel. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read that one.

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    • The biggest gap might be The Poisoned Chocolates Case, perhaps: from solution 1 to solution 6 is quite a few pages 🙂 Equally, I suppose any novel that starts with someone wrongfully imprisoned for a crime might claim to have the entire book between the false and genuine solutions…

      Sorry, I get (more) facetious when I’m tired.

      I was mindful of people having not read some of the books we discuss, but I hoped we’d be forgiven since — perhaps Death in High Heels aside — we don’t really get into too many “Well, that ruined that book” details. The workings of tropes are always going to be difficult to discuss without a little bit of detail creeping in, and I thought a list up front of “these are the books we discuss” might prove off-putting since we get through a lot of books!

      Farcical debunking: hmmm, maybe Fell showing up the Bishop’s deductions about The Room in The Eight of Swords? Or the failure of the alternative suggested solution in The Problem of the Wire Cage? I’ll give this some thought and see what else I can drum out of my brain.

      Thanks for the kind words, too; always nice to know people are enjoying (and, indeed, listening to) this.

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      • Ah, I think I can clarify what I meant about false solution/true solution gap. What I actually meant was the gap between the false solution, and the false solution being revealed as false. The overturning of knowledge the reader believes is past relevance is very exciting and this would be one of the most extreme examples of it. Now that I’ve had some sleep myself I can think of an example, too: The ABC Murders. Of course, the book doesn’t explicitly state the false solution for quite a while, but it’s definitely present for most of the book.

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      • Facetious as you may have been, your point about a novel beginning with someone falsely imprisoned brings up a good point about what qualifies as a false solution. Whodunits abound with hypothetical solutions being posed, or suspicions leading in a certain direction. When do they begin to qualify as false solutions? I think the answer must lie in when they’re presented in such a way that they convince the reader that this is the genuine solution being offered, and that’s often a function of how late in a work it appears. Sometimes the physical bulk of remaining pages makes it too clear that what is being offered is going to be replaced (an advantage a whodunit film might have over a book).

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        • I dunno if it’s to do with lateness in the narrative per se. There are murder mysteries that present solutions as they go, and so a solution could be posited early on that might be the answer — and whether it’s overturned the page after it’s offered or 200 pages later, it’s still false.

          I’d go so far as to say that we’d prefer a false solution to come late and catch us out, but any legitimate attempt to suggest an answer by a character in the narrative that’s then undone by a consideration they’ve not taken into account is therefore a false one. Does that include people imprisoned at the start of a book? Yeah, if the case is laid before our sleuth on page 20 (allowing a few pages of them to be hired by a concerned relative, naturally) and then unpicked on page 350 — why not?

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          • Well, I’m always brought back to the hypotheses posed by Ustinov’s Poirot in the ‘78 Death on the Nile. Poirot basically accuses each suspect of the crime, accompanied by fanciful flashbacks which illustrate each hypothesis. But by the second or third of these, the audience is well aware that these are not the true solution, but merely explanations of how the murder MIGHT have occurred. Do these qualify as false solutions? If so, we must also count all instances of the detective (or even of other characters) posing a possibility— which occurs in far more works than just those we think of having false solutions.

            No, I’d say false solutions are limited to those in which there is a significant sense— or at least a significant effort to suggest the sense— that yes, we have arrived at the true solution… only to be subsequently overturned.

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            • But then you’re setting up a dichotomy, surely — the viewer might believe the first of these hypotheses, but then realise the later ones are false…so the first would be a false solution and the latter ones,on the assumption that more are to come, not, despite doing the exact same thing.

              Plus,to go back to my point above,why can’t a problem have its solution 35 minutes into a movie, or on page 85 of a novel? It usually comes at the end, sure, but it doesn’t have to — nothing about the crime being solved days it must be the final act of the book, play, whatever.

              We’re splitting hairs, I feel, but I find this interesting.

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            • Absolutely true, nothing says that the crime must be solved in the final act of the work. But if the revelation comes earlier, the reader’s expectations are not met, and that often leads to disappointment. The idea that there are actual genre rules is ludicrous, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t expectations upon which rest reader satisfaction.

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    • I feel the same way. Ultimately, weakness in whodunits solutions comes down to a matter of binary opposition— if a solution is flawed it is usually either because it is overly transparent or insufficiently indicated. For me, The Crooked Hinge definitely falls into the latter category— the final explanation offered was certainly surprising, but far too thinly clued to satisfy me.

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      • There is another perspective, though, when both options are equally flawed: which is more interesting. Accepting that both of the proposed solutions have insufficiencies in clewing — and I don’t deny that, elsewhere I’ve suggested a few minor improvements that would make it far more retrospectively clear what happened — the false solution here is the sort of OTT Heath Robinson contrivance that Carr knows he genre has grown out of…the whole thing is a gigantic wink at the audience. Whereas the real solution is a piece of macabre imagineering that to my mind is striking, memorable, and thrilling.

        It is, of course, entirely personal, and this is far from the only instance where Carr is guilty of insufficient rigour or explanation in his setups (off the top of my head you also have The Peacock Feather Murders, Death in Five Boxes, The Burning Court, She Died a Lady, The Red Widow Murders…), but if you can’t have what you want then find what’s good about what you’re given I says 🙂

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        • Well, as I often hammer into the ground, there’s no objective standard of sufficiency or insufficiency in regard to clueing (or, at least, no way for us to discern what that standard is, even if there were one), only subjective levels of sufficiency and satisfaction. Thus, I’m not suggesting that there are not objectively enough clues to the final explanation in The Crooked Hinge, because I’m convinced there is no such thing as objective clue sufficiency. But I do feel there’s not enough clueing to make that solution feel satisfyingly inescapable to me. That’s why I describe the novel as one in which I find the journey fun, but the destination a letdown.

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  4. Pingback: Third Book Release – James Scott Byrnside

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