In GAD We Trust – Episode 12: Appeal and Deception in Golden Age Detective Fiction [w’ Scott K. Ratner]

You thought this podcast was nerdy before? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Today we welcome the GADisphere’s own Scott K. Ratner, and things get taxonomical…

Scott is at the top of my list of GAD fans who I wish would start a blog so we could find all his writings in one place because, as those of you know him from the Golden Age Detection Facebook group and the vastly insightful comments he leaves on so many blogs, he’s one of the genre’s keenest critics and always has plenty to say. As such, the opportunity to get his thoughts on the reason detective stories are so appealing, and to examine the key precepts of deception in the genre, was not something I was going to pass, up.

And, when you’re done here, be sure to check out his play about a play you may’ve heard of, Kill a Better Mousetrap, and then see who can answer his question about the movie Death in High Heels (1947) adapted from the Christianna Brand novel of the same name. I say I’d edit his query out, but since I can’t help him I figured one of you probably could. And get ready for me preparing to set Scott loose on his favourite topic of all time — fair play — sometimes in 2021…

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

Thanks go, of course, to Scott for his time and insight, to you for listening and continuing to take an interest in this undertaking, and to Jonny Berliner for the music.

More trusting in GAD in two weeks, and make sure you’ve cast your vote to decide which Agatha Christie novel Brad, Moira, and I are going to be talking about in January — details here — because I’ll be closing the poll at some point in November [INSERT WITTY U.S. ELECTION ALLUSION HERE].

All previous episodes of the podcast can be found here; I’ll be back on Tuesday on the non-controversy of Ronald Knox’s ‘No Chinamen’ rule. In the meantime, stay safe, wash your hands, phone your mother.

19 thoughts on “In GAD We Trust – Episode 12: Appeal and Deception in Golden Age Detective Fiction [w’ Scott K. Ratner]

  1. I find myself thoroughly doused with Nerd Juice; how much of that squirted out from my Airpods and how much I secreted myself, I cannot say. You have inspired me with an idea for a post about Jane Austen, who absolutely fulfills the qualities of surprise and inevitability and wrote such great mysteries of the heart that I can only imagine what a terrific Crime Queen she would have made. I also want to give some added love for Christianna Brand who, along with Christie and Carr, forms the triumvirate of The Top Tier for me. I loved the point you made, JJ, about how Brand’s insistence of including EVERY suspect in our considerations may void some of that sense of traditional surprise. If I had read Christie as an adult the first time through, I probably would have sussed out her tendency to clear her murderer and started figuring out her solutions at a better rate. Brand doesn’t play this way . . . and yet there are always great surprises in her books precisely because of the way she plots. Sometimes the surprise is in the “who,” as in Tour de Force (which I love) and sometimes it’s in the “why,” as in Green for Danger (so heartbreaking), but she always manages to do something grand (except, maybe in London Particular/Fog of Doubt, which Brand herself ruined for me by crowing over her own cleverness in a preface she wrote to a re-release of the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brad, I never feel the inclusion of every suspect in our considerations need necessarily remove possibilities for surprise because of two reasons:

      1. As you suggest, there are always other avenues of surprise besides the question of who— most frequently the matter of why, but also how, when and where. In some cases— such as The Seven Dials Mystery— the surprise of culprit identity ultimately becomes a fun but small blip overshadowed by a larger surprise (in this case, the nature of The Seven Dials).

      2. Just because a character is considered as a possibility, doesn’t mean that their ultimate unmasking as the culprit won’t still be a great surprise. The essential point is how far removed from the reader’s suspicion that character is at the essential moment of revelation. I think Christie’s Cards on the Table is a good example of this. A considerable share of overt suspicion is placed upon the true culprit but— due to a combination of what I consider the congruity concealment principle, the deception expectation principle and (most significantly in this case) Chekhov’s limit— the revelation of the culprit still packs a wallop.

      Five Little Pigs is so often rightfully praised for its characterization, but I think underrapreciated for the subtlety of its deception in regards to the ideas we’re discussing. For, I feel several of the above principles of surprise are employed in conjunction: the culprit is overtly considered, though at a light level (the use of the deception expectation principle I referred to on the podcast as exoneration by mere acknowledgment of possibility) and just about as much as applied to the other characters (thus, less conspicuous due to the congruity concealment principle), yet the surprise of culprit identity is great because it accompanies a revolution of another aspect (the why— an incorrect acceptance of an underlying situation), and because (due I believe to Chekhov’s limit— ostensibly that possibility has been already dealt with, and thus mentally dismissed), the possibility of that characters guilt is furthest from the reader’s mind at the time of revelation.

      The examples I’ve given here are from Christie but yes, Brand is the true master of these techniques.


      • One thing I think I failed to make clear is the distinction between the principles and the devices which employ them. For instance, “exoneration by mere acknowledgment of a possibility” is not a principle, but merely a device which employs “the deception expectation principle” as the basis of its effectiveness.

        I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve done very little Jane Austen reading (I’m relieved that I have a girlfriend, because otherwise I fear that these days that admission might significantly reduce my dating prospects). But I will note that Austen’s works are used extensively for illustration by Vera Tobin in “Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot”— the book that Noah Stewart sent me which I cited in the podcast. I suspect that— like the example I gave of Brief Encounter— Austen’s works might deliver far more of what I consider the core features of puzzle plotting than do many detective stories replete with gunshots, corpses, and fingerprints. And thus, another example of the point I made about the amorphous-ness and indefinability of genre boundaries.


  2. Indeed, JJ, it would be great if one could find Scott’s thoughts on GAD in a single place, like a blog. He often has unique and rigorously developed insights. For instance, he is to my knowledge the only member of the online GAD community who has pointed out that detection proceeds by abductive rather than deductive logic, which has implications for strength of evidence and “fair play”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Christophe!

      Jim, I don’t see how inductive reasoning would apply to t to he genre, unless we’re referring to something like a Miss Marple generalization (“Every time I’ve seen that type of behavior, it’s meant…”). And actually she never expresses her ideas in that form— it’s more of “That reminds of old Tommy Jessup, who always.”

      But abductive chains not only accurately describe the solutions ultimately presented in whodunits, but also the false scenarios that are eventually replaced by them.


  3. A very interesting episode, as always.

    I find myself agreeing with much of what was being said and enjoyed hearing these concepts clearly stated. One minor comment to one of Scott’s definitions of what a mystery is – here is where I find the Swedish name for this type of detective fiction much more useful than the English one (or rather, there really is no good Engllish word for this type of fiction).

    I’ve more than probably mentioned it before, but in Sweden we use the term “pusseldeckare” for the type of mystery which relies on fair play, cluing and some kind of solution being presented towards the end, preferably as a surprise to the reader. The term is a compound of the words “pussel”, which is “jigsaw puzzle” in Swedish, and “deckare” which is both the name of the job for someone who tries to solve mysteries AND an abbreviation of the Swedish name for the entire genre: “detektivroman”.

    This means that we don’t have to define what type of mystery we’re talking about every time we bring up this particular genre – it’s already there in the name. In English, there is a specific name for most other mystery subgenres – “crime novels”, “hard-boiled mysteries”, “psychological suspense”, “cozy”, etc, but there’s no agreed upon name for the fair play mystery with cluing, detection and dénouement. Very annoying.


    • Yes, Christian, that does sound like a much more appropriate term. I’m afraid I still complicate the matter, for (as Jim knows, and probably dreads my bringing up here), I rather militantly object to both the term and concept of “fair play” as applied to this type of fiction (I feel it’s inextricably linked with the competitive game concept of the genre, an analogy which I believe falls apart in almost all respects, and at very best serves as a vague metaphor— up there with life being just a bowl of cherries).

      But that’s a matter for a different day (we’ve already discussed usibg that as a subject for a future podcast episode), and I do still think we’re pretty much discussing the same basic thing here— a genre which centers on a dynamic between puzzle and solution, and which ideally results in a juxtaposition of surprise (due to some form of deception), and a sense retrospective inevitability (the product of clueing). I believe the Japanese terms honkaku and shin honkaku (the latter the neo- form of the former), pretty much describes that same notion as well. I think it’s interesting that Great Britain and the United States— which I believe were the foremost purveyors of this form at its height— have been the least successful in providing terminology that clearly conveys these important distinctions.


      • Oh, I understand that your definition differs a bit (and we’ll see, once you’ve recorded that episode, if I agree), but the thing is that when I say “fair play mystery” I use it as a synonym of “pusseldeckare”, because your language doesn’t have a good term that corresponds exactly to what I recognise as a certain type of novel.

        So, by necessity my description is imprecise. I can only hope that my main meaning can be understood.


        • Yes, I think your meaning is clearly understood, and your terminology seems to much more precisely describe the type of fiction we’re discussing. I sometimes use the term puzzle-plot fiction, which I believe does a better job than other English terms, but it still has its problems (one of them being that it isn’t familiar to “outsiders”— doesn’t offer an immediate if admittedly vague familiarity to those not versed in the genre. Saying “detective fiction” or “whodunit” at least gives most people a general, if imprecise, idea of the type of fiction you’re referring to).


    • Yes, but given the unholy chimera that is the English language, are you really surprised that we can’t define anything competently?

      Still, must be lovely to know you’re getting that kind of mystery in advance. Provided they’re not pulling the old “this is a locked room mystery” shit that we have to out up with here on account of those aforementioned definition problems.


      • Admittedly, I wonder if there’s been any novel published the last 30 years or so that has been called a “pusseldeckare” in Sweden…


      • I’m sure they’ve got a bit of that problem, too, but not nearly to the ridiculous level we do. We’re like the Eskimo culture that needs 50 words to describe snow, and only have one— and that one describes sludge.


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