In GAD We Trust – Episode 25: Fair Play and the Nomenclature of Golden Age Detective Fiction [w’ Scott K. Ratner]

Gutsy of me to suggest, on my site dedicated to the discussion of Golden Age detective fiction, that a lot of the terminology used to talk about these stories is incorrect, eh? Well, thankfully I’m not the one trying to convince you; that job falls to Mr. Scott K. Ratner.

Those of you who know Scott from the Golden Age Detection Facebook group, or remember his previous appearance on the podcast, will know how intelligently he dissects the subgenre, and this is no exception. For a number of years now, he’s been working tirelessly to promote the idea that talking about “fair play” in GAD is a fool’s errand — detective stories aren’t games codified by objective standards, and so the idea of being “fair” in the doling out of evidence and clues doesn’t really apply.

And, y’know, he’s got a point.

You’ll doubtless be aghast at such apostasy, but, well, that’s why there’s some 80 minutes of discussion ready for your listening pleasure below. I admit that I’m one to use this terminology, and this discussion helped me clarify some of Scott’s opposition to the phrases and nomenclature we’ve come to adopt so easily down the years (this is why he should start a blog, see, so we could have all this sort of stuff in one easy-to-find place). And, let’s be clear: this is no attack on detective fiction itself, but instead simply an invitation to consider that using the terms we do might — just might — be to the detriment of the form.

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

Thanks of course go to Scott, who got up so early to record this that I’m not sure he even bothered going to sleep first, to Jonny Berliner for the music, and to all of you at home listening along and justifying this endeavour. The relatively paltry list of tags below is because I’ve been hit with the quandary of precisely what we do discuss that might crop up elsewhere and so be worth tagging: I’ve gone with the authors we cite directly and a few general topics, but if you think anything in particular needs highlighting, let me know.

More podcast in a fortnight, stay safe in the meantime.


All episodes of In GAD We Trust can be found on the blog by clicking here.

26 thoughts on “In GAD We Trust – Episode 25: Fair Play and the Nomenclature of Golden Age Detective Fiction [w’ Scott K. Ratner]

  1. Well, fair enough … had to be said 😆 I agree with Scott that the game aspect is more of a narrative construct or conceit than a real battle of wits. But part of the appeal in those books is that one enjoys the possibility of competing and winning but hoping to lose to the author. But it is clear some authors, such as Carr play more fairly than others (such as Christie).


    • I fear I’ve failed to make myself clear once again. My point is that “fairness” is universally conceived as an objective standard; a precise threshold, so to speak— even if it is beyond our human capacity to precisely measure and delineate— which is either met or not met. Thus, even if fairness were applicable to detective fiction— which I adamantly insist it is not— no work of detective fiction could be more or less fairly clued than any other, just as no soldier killed in a battle can be more or less dead than any of the others. A detective story can be more satisfyingly-clued than another, or more richly-clued, certainly. Or even closer to the threshold (analogous to a highly injured soldier). But that is a very different thing (especially as this theoretical threshold can not be precisely delineated).

      Also, it is difficult to see how anyone could try to “compete and win” against anyone else with any enthusiasm or true effort if they are at the same time “hoping to lose.” I can best (and admittedly, most lazily) explain this seemingly contradictory behavior by quoting myself from an earlier article on the subject:

      “…if the author can surprise me with a richly-clued solution I had not foreseen’ despite my best (and frankly, ‘seasoned’) efforts to anticipate it, my regard for his skill will be all the greater, and my pleasurable experience of ‘sudden retrospective illumination’ all the more intense and powerful. Thus, I’m employing my own ‘puzzle solving’ prowess as a measure by which I judge the quality of the work. And this I would characterize far more as an act of ‘art appreciation’ than of ‘games playing’.”

      That is, we are not playing to win, we are kicking the tires.


      • I understood you just fine Scott. Just not agreeing with you on that side of it. I would venture most readers want to feel they have been given a sporting chance but want to be surprised at the end, which means they want to lose. Right?

        Liked by 2 people

        • It’s that “sporting chance” that I’d say is at issue. A cavalierly vague term that nonetheless really means nothing if it is not intended to reflect a theoretically precise standard.

          Also, while I quite agree that most people want to be surprised by the solution of a mystery, that could only be considered losing if they are playing a competitive game.. which they are not. The terminology would be correct if the paradigm were, but I maintain that it is not.


          • I’m afraid that a bit too rigid for me Scott. As you say, tgar it us a battle of wits between reader and author, while a limited a construct or device, is what is often being attempted. The characters don’t have to deep, the murder methods outlandish and alibi methods much too likely to fail, but it’s an intellectual game all the same. Or rather, the impression of one. The reader enjoys feeling they are playing – doesn’t matter if they are not actually playing. As with so many card games, if no bluffing is allowed, then you can only play what you were dealt. And sometimes you are dummy. But you still enjoy the game. Same here. If Carr didn’t mention the vacuum cleaner I’d feel he was not pkating fairly. But I still want him to win. The crowd for me as a reader is that I need genuine clues but also accept red herring. Otherwise the game is not fun. “Fairness” is a construct here and not an absolute.


            • I’m just saying that a detective story is not a battle of wits between the author and reader, and it’s not a competitive match. It is a narrative fiction that inherently invites a self-directed and self-arbitrated intellectual challenge— a monumentally different thing— that has been confused (due to superficial and largely inessential similarities) for a competitive match. And like the plastic hamburger toy confused for the real thing, it is neither made of the same stuff nor serves the same purpose.

              No worry about the typos.


  2. Well, I find myself in agreement with Cavershamragu. I can’t quite agree with the thesis laid out in the episode. But it was very thought provoking.
    I fact just above, they laid out almost exactly what I came here to say:
    No, detective fiction is not a game as we know it (btw: your definition of game is rather strict! many video games are ruled out!). It’s more like a simulation of one – similar to but more subtle than the way the novel might also prompt us to imagine things like the play of light on water, or the anger of a wife at a husband’s betrayal. For me, peak “game simulation” is reached when the author has predicted my thoughts and theories so well that they may as well be watching over my shoulder as I read the book.
    And the simulation has the effect of testing the mental sharpness etc of the reader, much like a real game would.
    Of course, I don’t think every golden age detective story reaches this or aims for this. It’s just a particluar kind of pleasure.

    As for fair play – is this not always the caveat with any criticism? Any sensible reader of a review will go in expecting subjectivity. The use of a term like “fairness”, which could be considered “objective” in other contexts, I don’t think does lead the reader to expect the same level of authority as say, describing the book’s page count.
    Perhaps I have misunderstood your point, as seems to be common.

    I’m interested in JJ’s theories about Gricean maxims! I vaguely remember hearing those in English class but I’m intrigued and I think I’ll look them up again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think my explanation of the concept of fairness is best illustrated by the “business deal” example I offered, but is the same as our earliest use of the terminology as a child. The child who cries “It’s not fair!” is making a clear distinction from the cry of “I want ______!”— the distinction being that the standard claimed lies outside himself (I.e. objective rather than subjective). Admittedly, the child may actually only be expressing his subjective desires, but expressing himself in a manner that appeals to an external standard. Even at that early age, he is aware that there is something about this standard of “fair” (whatever it is) that somehow commands more respect, attention, and assent than a mere expression of what he wants.

      And this distinction continues into adulthood. After all, if the standard of fairness does not lie outside ourselves, what is to distinguish it from mere subjective desire and satisfaction? And as such, rules of a game stand as human-created strictures designed to reflect and ensure alignment with this abstract, objective standard, much as society’s laws are designed to reflect and ensure alignment with the abstract, objective standard of “justice” (though finding the distinction between fairness and justice is a trickier proposition). Further, the language of the mystery reader clearly indicates a belief that there is a objective standard at stake. Otherwise, the general complaint would be “the clueing isn’t sufficient for my satisfaction” (subjective), rather than “the clues weren’t all there” or “it wasn’t fairly clued” (clearly objective).

      As for a definition of “game,” I offered none. I did offer the example of a competitive match— the specific type of game that has always been used in analogy with detective fiction— in order to illustrate the fundamental distinctions between the two. And I further claimed that nearly all—if not all— of the distinctions I made apply to all competitive games or matches. Because, for the most part, no one much cares about the distinction between subjective satisfaction and fairness in a non-competitive match. And if they do— and this is a key point— they are once again appealing to an objective standard.


    • I’m intrigued here by the idea of applying the video game idiom — there’s an element of response in video games (c.f. you walk over that part of the floor and it collapses) but equally something like Tetris — yes, I’m showing my age — doesn’t respond to your actions in quite the same way (there’s one rule — “Make a continuous line across the screen and it disappears” and, really, nothing else, which is sort of the charm). My video game experiences ended in about 1999, but this is an interesting point, and one that’s going to give me much to mull over despite being in a position of nearly a quarter of a century out of relevance.

      As to Grice and his maxims, rest assured that a vastly over-complicated examination of detective fiction through this window is brewing somewhere in my head. What it’ll look like if and when it appears is anyone’s guess at present, though.


  3. Ah, Scott, you never fail to not convince me.

    Nobody taught me how to read a classic crime story, but I knew instinctively when I switched from the Hardy Boys and Sherlock Holmes to Encyclopedia Brown, Alfred Hitchcock’s Solve-Them-Yourself-Mysteries and – FINALLY! – Agatha Christie, that I was being challenged to a game. As a young man reading Christie, Carr, Queen, Brand, and Marsh, I tried to win that game. A few times I did, and I understood that “winning” meant not guessing the culprit, but understanding the secrets of the murder plot.

    The fact that Carr and Queen often gave us false endings – so many people even prefer the false ending to, say, The Crooked Hinge – and then showed us how they couldn’t work suggests that the author is playing along with the reader. The fact that we have “Challenges to the Reader” and that marketing teams invite us to match wits with the killer and/or the detective suggests that we have all been indoctrinated into this idea of a game that is played fairly.

    I know you disagree with all this, and while I appreciate the depth of seriousness with which you argue your points, I know how my relationship with the genre works. Now that I am older and have chosen to read books differently, I don’t try so hard to play the game. I like “losing” the challenge because, as you yourself explained in the comments above, we enjoy the SRI of a good mystery so much more when we get it wrong, when we only succeed in “kicking the tires.”

    JJ’s point near the end that the creators of GAD probably never thought we would take all this so seriously is a good one. I don’t mind you taking your ideas seriously, but I think you push your strict application of vocabulary too hard here. I don’t think a great whodunnit is JUST a game because I like the characters and the social commentary and sometimes even the prose! But one major element of the genre is very much a game to me. I know the “rules” too, and they have nothing to do with Van Dine or Knox. They are all about the author laying all the facts out before me BEFORE the ending is revealed in such a way that, even if I never figure out the correct pattern, when that pattern is laid out before me, it meets with my approval.

    Go ahead, tell me I’ve misunderstood you! It won’t help! I appreciate your deep love of the genre, respect your opinion and your right to it . . . and I couldn’t disagree with you more.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. That was an intriguing podcast – but I don’t buy for a second the idea that fair play (or competitive games playing) is irrelevant to the detective story. That flies in the face of how writers, critics, and readers understood the genre, and how I read detective stories myself.

    I’ve come across arguments similar to Scott’s before; in the 1970s, Erik Routley, R.F. Stewart, and LeRoy Panek claimed that the detective story doesn’t play fair (and that it isn’t about the problem, writers didn’t intend their readers to solve the problem but to be surprised, and that readers didn’t try to solve the problem either). Similarly, George L. Scheper (Michael Innes, 1986) dismisses as absurd “the notion that interest in detective fiction has to do with competitive puzzle- solving … our interest is, finally, literary and lies in the pleasure of the text”. Which is largely Scott’s idea about the detective story as art, not game.

    But most readers do and have approached the detective story as a game – it is, of course, more than that – and want the clues to be fairly (or richly or satisfyingly, in Scott’s terminology) presented.

    Let’s take fair play first. It’s one of the defining features of the genre. The ‘Fair Play Rule’ was the most important principle of the modern detective story, Dorothy L. Sayers [*] proclaimed (Great Tales of Detection, 1936). (In 1928, she defined fair play as the modern method.) Van Dine makes fair play his first two Rules (1928); H. Douglas Thomson (1931) and Howard Haycraft (1941) insist on the importance of fair play; and John Dickson Carr requires the detective story to contain the quality of fair play in presenting the clues. Contemporary newspaper reviews discussed fair play; did the writer show the clues? Could the reader work out the answer based on the information given?

    [*] And Sayers credits Poe with its invention and application, so it’s there as early as the 1840s, but it doesn’t become prominent until Austin Freeman.

    Scott’s position (if I follow him) is that there are no degrees of fairness, but there are degrees of richness or satisfaction in clueing. (Fairness, he says, is an absolute, an objective standard; either something is fair or is not, with no in-betweens; there are no degrees of fairness.) I’d disagree with that. One detective story can be more fair than another; the writer can provide several clues to the same issue or only one, or clue some of their puzzle plot but not all of it. Carr talks about the primitive fair play of Carolyn Wells or Earl Derr Biggers – a couple of clues, technically fair, but barely so. Compare, say, Carr’s elaborate, bountiful but misleading clueing to Rex Stout.

    We should be given enough clues to solve the mystery the first time, even if we misinterpret or miss them; in retrospect (as J.J. suggests), we should be able to see the indicators. The writer shouldn’t lie to the reader, and shouldn’t hold back major clues or base the solution on evidence that is not shared with the reader. As Thomson wrote: “If the detective should calmly pocket a bullet that he found on the carpet without saying a word to a soul, and then calmly proceed to reconstruct the crime from the valuable clue, the irate reader feels bound to claim a penalty. For had he been there he might have found the clue himself… Vital evidence should be placed in the shop-window.”

    Scott disagrees with – disapproves of, even! – Carr (and other writers, too) that the detective story is competitive games playing. But it is the Grandest Game, a Challenge to the Reader, a puzzle to be solved – and readers treated it as such.

    Here for instance is Torquemada (The Observer), reviewing The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935): “Ellery Queen’s challenges to the deductive reader are always put in the right place, and I, for one, always take them seriously. In the set starting with The Roman Hat Mystery and ending with The Chinese Orange Mystery, eight games in all, Mr. Queen was three up. … When I got to the challenge on page 281 I took an hour off. Mr. Queen is now two up.”

    Here’s his colleague Ralph Partridge (The New Statesman), reviewing the same book, complaining Ellery Queen hasn’t been altogether fair: “Mr. Queen challenges the reader to spot the criminal, with the assurance that all the requisite data for the solution has been supplied. That is a game we expect and look forward to, but we do not expect to be played false. I should like Mr. Queen (and any scrupulous reader after finishing the book) to turn back to pages 17, 21, 108 and 126, and reconcile them with his conscience.”

    (Or Torquemada again, reviewing Appointment with Death: “I have to confess that I have just been beaten again by Agatha Christie. There was no excuse, I was feeling in particularly good form; and the worst of it is that she handicapped herself in the latest game with what in anyone else would be insolent severity.”)

    Note how both critics use the language of games?

    Now, Scott maintains that the detective story is NOT a game, because the reader and the writer are not doing the same thing, and the writer is probably dead anyway. That doesn’t follow. I think Scott’s definition of a game is too narrow; he compares it to board games like Cluedo. A better comparison would be to computer adventure games (the Infocom/Sierra/Lucasarts tradition), Fighting Fantasy-style gamebooks, or mystery games like Orient Express and Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, which are combinations of narrative and puzzle-solving. (Scott himself notes that the detective story is a “narrative fiction that inherently invites a self-directed and self-arbitrated intellectual challenge”.)

    The writer is the reader’s opponent; the writer has constructed a problem which he challenges the reader to solve, giving him all the clues necessary while also trying to mislead him; we try to match our wits against the writer; we try to solve the mystery (and sometimes succeed), while also hoping that the writer will outwit us. If we don’t play seriously, half the fun is gone.

    Or again, 40 years later, the Times Literary Supplement reviewing Curtain: “The Christie addict welcomes each new book as a personal challenge to a game which he hopes to lose, for the gratification of winning it must be tinged with disappointment.”

    Other thoughts

    One reason why we think fair play applies to Roger Ackroyd and not to Gatsby or Pooh is (very obviously) that the first is a detective story and the others are not problems or puzzles. The Red House Mystery is a detective story; The House at Pooh Corner isn’t.

    Cryptic crosswords – the caret clue is fair. There’s an obvious (but wrong) answer; the indicator tells you it starts with a ‘c’; and ‘sign’ suggests a written sign. (I was in kindergarten when I first heard the word ‘caret’. Is it used more in Australia than in the UK? But the more challenging cryptic crosswords were meant to be solved with encyclopedias, dictionaries of quotations, and atlases.)


    • This is a staggeringly brilliant and encyclopedic counter-point, Nick, and I’m delighted to think Scott’s provoked so much careful thought on this topic.

      I have, though, one selfish question on your final point: when you say “the indicator tells you it starts with a ‘c’” do you mean the anagram indicator violently, or simply the answer VICE from the other clue? As someone who is entirely self-taught in matters crypitc crossword, I’d love to know if it’s the former and what I’m missing.

      As to the use of ‘caret’ — I might have vague memories of learning its name at some poiny, but they had defineitly faded and I couldn’t tell you if it was via a teacher or my own researches that I first encountered it. Certainly it’s not been in common usage in the English education system at any point that I was passing through.


    • Nick, I’ve never suggested that puzzle is anything less than monumentally relevant to detective fiction; indeed, I consider the dynamic between puzzle and solution to be the very essence of the genre. By positing that detective fiction is art, I was not insinuating that there is anything non-cerebral about it, or that it appeals more to the heart or soul than the mind— indeed, in the best detective stories I believe it is the very quality of intellectual ingenuity that makes them art.

      What I don’t believe is that the detective story has much at all to do with competitive games. That’s why I made a point of comparing the genre to Cluedo, a competitive (and truly “fair play”) game dressed as a detective story, just as some Ellery Queen novels are detective stories dressed up as games. The superficial similarities are apparent, but take them apart and it becomes clear that they are fundamentally dissimilar in both structure, use and purpose. I didn’t claim that “the detective story is not a game because the reader and the writer are not doing the same thing, and the writer is probably dead anyway.” Those were merely two minor points on a very long list— including lack of consist rules governing all players, lack of non-partisan arbiters of outcome, desired outcome, and appeal of activity— that reveals the fundamental dissimilarity between the detective story and specifically COMPETITIVE games (the type of games for which fair play is necessary and thus applicable). (I’m not familiar with many of those types of video games. But how many of those points are or not present on any single example of an activity you also deem a competitive game? I predict that any of them would align fairly closely with either Cluedo [a competitive game] or a detective story [an activity that is not a competitive game]).

      And yet it is from this (I claim) totally inappropriate competitive game model that the notion of “fair play” has been taken and improperly applied to detective fiction.

      I agree that Roger Ackroyd is a detective story (and a problem and a puzzle ) and that Gatsby and Pooh are not. But we don’t refer to Rodger Ackroyd as (possible) “fair play” because it’s a puzzle. When’s the last time you’ve seen something described as a “fair play” crossword puzzle? There are many puzzles we don’t refer to as fair play, although they undoubtedly entail expectations of sufficiency, rules and often clues .. Why? Because the use of the term is nearly entirely (with the significant exception of detective stories) limited to activities involving multiple interested parties, whether it be a competitive game, a business deal, or a war. Fairness comes into play in competitive games (and those other activities) because there is a need to ensure fairness TO someone… there is something at stake in the presence of equity. The solitary player of non-competitive puzzle is his own judge— there is no threat of inequity to anyone, so strictures of fair play become unnecessary.

      I ask for a cogent definition of “fair play” that is logically appropriate to detective stories. And if that definition entails any standard of sufficiency, an explanation of how it can be determined that that standard has been met (I.e. the same thing that is demanded and provided for competitive games). In other words, something more than a vague description of a vaguely understood concept— as it’s a concept that will be tested and debated in practice.

      Doesn’t the fact that people ask “is it fair play?” or state “all the clues are there” suggest to you that people believe that “fairness” is a precise standard? It is not I who insist that it does, but the many people who refer to it as such. “Is it fair play?” (Does it meet the standard of fairness?). “All the clues are there” (certain clues are necessary, and they are all present). “That’s more than fair.” (There is a threshold of fairness, and it has been exceeded).

      You state that “We should be given enough clues to solve the mystery the first time, even if we misinterpret or miss them; in retrospect (as J.J. suggests), we should be able to see the indicators.” But don’t you see the problem there? What does it mean to “solve the mystery?” Guess at the solution? Arrive at the solution via clues? Arrive at the solution via clues that suggest that the solution is likelier than other possibilities? Arrive at the solution via clues that deductively prove the truth of the solution (and thus logically eliminate the possibility of any other solution)? Where does the standard of sufficiency lie?

      To illustrate, I propose a thought experiment. Imagine an outline of the profile of the head of Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, pipe and all (I select that image because I believe it is fairly familiar and readily identifiable). Now replace the outline with a single line of closely spaced dots. Next imagine the same image with every other one of those dots removed. Next, an image with every other one of those dots removed. Continue this process until there are only three or four dots left. Surely, Basil Rathbone is not recognizable from this four-dot picture by anyone who wasn’t privy to the more densely-spotted images. And just as surely, he would be recognized by different people at different levels of “completeness.” What constitutes the point at which we “should be able to see the indicators”? Aren’t we suggesting that that is the threshold of fairness? But whose judgment determines where that threshold lies? This is the problem with such phrases as “all the clues necessary.” There is only one level of clue sufficiency inarguably sufficient, and beyond the fact that (to my knowledge) it has never been met, would we really want to disallow all those masterpieces of the genre we find so satisfying as unfair simply because they don’t meet it?


  5. I obviously take a broader view than Scott does when it comes to “games” and “fairness” in the form but I completely understand his take on it. There are consequences to not thinking things through and there is so much laziness around these days, especially online – and yes, nomenclature should be precise even as it evolves. Which is to say, thanks Scott for providing such stimulating food for though on JJ’s podcast. During lockdown listening to so many enthusiastic and knowledgeable people has made a real difference to me. Are there really only one or two more to go? Either way, thanks Jim.


  6. I do like the debate here. If we simply all agreed with each other on every book and every point, I wouldn’t enjoy the GAD blogoshpere as much as I do.

    The logic that Scott K shares seems correct to me (i.e., there is no objective measure for fair-play) and his posts and remarks are consistently articulate and mentally stimulating.

    Today though I agree with Brad, Sergio, Velleic. GAD doesn’t appeal to me because it conforms to a logic framework; I collect and read detective fiction for fun and entertainment. To that end, I am looking for the perfect GAD novel. There is no objective definition for perfect here either … but I will know it when I read it. A perfect book for me has a dazzling plot / puzzle, amazing reveals / reversals, hidden until the end culprit, interesting characters, no dragging or sagging in the middle, pacing that makes me want to keep reading, etc. It is one I could have solved if I had thought about it long enough … but probably didn’t. Closest I have ever found are Christie’s And Then There Were None and Carr’s Till Death Do Us Part.

    I respect others’ definition for perfect or examples of perfect books will be different from mine. My point though is we all read GAD for a range of reasons that make podcasts like this one from JJ and Scott K with the ensuing discussion thread all the more enjoyable. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My difficulty is with the widespread use of these terms (the bandying about, so to speak) without any diligent or concerted effort to clearly define them in terms of the genre. I readily grant that the members of the mystery writing-and-reading world have been speaking of the importance of fair play for well over a century— if not much longer than than that— and Nick Fuller cited several examples. However, I don’t see that as proving anything about the genre, merely about what they believe(d) about the genre (I’m not daunted by critical consensus — I’ve never understood the idea that the magnitude of subjective opinion has any impact on the validity of an objective truth). Yes, they’ve spoken widely about their belief in fair play, but what have they meant by it? In lieu of any clear definitions offered (which in itself I believe is highly suggestive of the problem) we must glean their meaning from the language they have used in speaking ABOUT “fairness” and “fair play.”

      I dwell on the aspect of clue sufficiency aspect of fair play, not because it is the only aspect (it certainly isn’t) but because it is the most problematic. It is the aspect that screws everything else up.

      How has clue sufficiency been defined?

      “All the clues are there.”

      Terrific! That’s as fine a “I intend to take no more time than I shall,” explanation as I’ve ever heard (if it conveyed just a little more it would probably mean nothing). I’m assuming that it is implied to mean:

      “All the clues necessary to solve the mystery are given.”

      That’s more like it. And to me it inarguably suggests the notion that there is a precise set of clues necessary to solve the mystery, and that those clues are are all given. And though that neither designates what constitutes that set, nor defines what it means to “solve the mystery,” it clearly asserts the notion of a precise threshold. One clue missing and the threshold has not been reached, all clues present and it has. What else could it mean?

      “…now, it may be argued, and reasonably, that the author here was playing perfectly fair. He was not compelled to repeat it, or even stress it. Thus when the whole solution of Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan Carries On is based on the single word ‘stuffy,’ or when Carolyn Wells in The Luminous Face argues guilt from the thesis that no gentleman would wear a wrist watch with evening clothes, these novels are at least technically within the rules.”

      I can think of no stronger assertion of the notion of a precise threshold than this quote (referenced above by Nick) from John Dickson Carr. Carr is not suggesting that these solutions from Biggers and Wells are in any way impressive or satisfying (indeed, I strongly believe he’s suggesting they are not). He’s just saying that they “made the cut” on a technicality. And for there to be a “cut,” for there to be a “technicality,” there must be a threshold beyond which works are technically fair. A precise threshold. Other, better works are thus not “more fair”— once you’ve made it into the club, you’re in— they are just more impressively, satisfyingly so (“not only is he merely dead, he is really most sincerely dead”). It’s the little bit pregnant concept. But perhaps I am muddying the water by even mentioning the “more fair” concept. The primary point is that he is clearly asserting the notion of a precise threshold at which sufficiency is reached, and at which works become “fair.”

      But the question is not whether there is truly a precise threshold of fairness or clue sufficiency, but whether we conceive it as such. And we clearly do and have; time and again the genre is spoken of in such binary, “light switch” terms, and I can’t think of an example where it isn’t. Works are spoken of as being fair or unfair, fairly clued or unfairly clued, “all the necessary clues” or “not all the necessary clues,” “technically within the rules” or not— implying a clearly defined threshold (even if there is not one).

      But what does “fairness” even mean for our purposes— a meaning that would help us identify where that perceived threshold lies? The dictionary isn’t much help here. Fairness is “the state, condition, or quality of being fair.” Thanks tons! But both definitions of “fair” and “fairness”— and there are admittedly myriad definitions— repeatedly cite such notions “free from bias, prejudice, self-interest”… in other words, “objective.” That’s good… I’ve suggested all along that “fairness” is an objective standard. We cannot create the standard of fairness, we can only assess it.

      But there’s also one other term used, possibly more useful than the others for our purpose: “equity.” Not “equality,” the concept so often confused with equity by the small child: “Bobby got to go to the circus, it’s unfair that I don’t.” Equity, on the other hand, is the point at which what is given matches that which is deserved— a state in which circumstance, reward, and punishment are commensurate to merit. It’s a good, solid meaning of fairness that corresponds with our internal concept of the notion, whether we are the whining child, the businessman, or the game player. And again, it implies a precise threshold.

      And fair play describes the efforts taken to ensure that the threshold of fairness is reached (the standard of equity is met). In that respect it is comparable to the way laws of society that are designed to ensure that justice is met. And the rule that the author must not tell a falsehood (based, I believe, on the expectation that the solution must account for the entirety of the puzzle) is a clear-cut example of a safeguard designed ensure what is perceived as the standard of fairness.

      Unfortunately, our descriptions of clue sufficiency are of no help in determining if any standard has been met. “All the necessary clues must be given,” does nothing to indicate what constitutes all the necessary clues. It’s a bit like a law that states “all unjust acts are illegal.” It’s a nice notion, but what good does it do us if we have no way of identifying an unjust act?

      So, how do competitive games deal with such vagaries and ambiguities of fairness? Generally by substituting equality for equity— everyone has to demonstrate the same skills, everyone is subject to the same rules, everyone must abide to the same ruling of outcome (handicaps granted in certain games are provided to bridge the gap between equality and equity). And why is this exhaustive effort of equality not exercised with detective fiction? Because there’s no need for it. The author and reader will not argue over who was the “winner. “ The “winner” receives no title or award. And the reader himself gets to decide whether the clueing was sufficient, never having to concern himself whether there is an objective truth to the matter, only whether he feels he “should” have arrived at the solution.

      What you say about the perfect GAD novel you seek is exactly what I say about it— indeed, just about precisely my point. Can you arrive at the motive of Till Death Do Us Part through pure deductive reasoning? No, but it could only logically be deemed unfair if we could precisely define the level of clueing that would make it fair (and yes, I purposely chose the element of that novel that is most subject to that complaint). Is there a ladder of clues that inescapably leads to the solution of And Then There Were None? I doubt anyone would argue so. JJ suggested that it is not even “of the genre.” I say it is— the solution is both surprising and provides a sense of retrospective illumination. That’s what I say the genre is about. I also say the occupation of the culprit is a gigantic clue to the solution— but how could you possibly argue for its fairness? If someone wished to argue that it was not fair, what ammunition would either of you have other than your subjective senses of satisfaction or dissatisfaction? Nothing, as far as I can see. And that’s how it should be, IMO— And Then There Were None should be judged on how it thrills, and how it’s solution surprises and satisfies— not on the presumed precise, objective (and yet ironically immeasurable) standard of “fairness,” a quality necessary and suited for the likes of a deductively provable board game like Cluedo.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Incidentally, the combo of Till Death Do Us Part and And Then There Were None provide a rather wonderful illustration of the Sorites Paradox point I was making. A friend has complained that there is no indication of the murderer’s motive in Till Death, to which I disagree (though I admit it’s very slight, and would require leaps of reasoning to arrive at the specifics). On the other hand, few would argue that U.N. Owen’s motivation is insufficiently indicated in And Then There Were None. Still, nothing can be proven there either, even if some reader’s would balk at Mrs. Rodger’s elaborate ABC Murders-like efforts to hasten her inheritance of her husband’s hidden fortune. So, where on the continuum of increasing motivational indication from Till Death to And Then There Were None does sufficiency lie?

        Liked by 1 person

  7. The solitary player of (a) non-competitive puzzle is his own judge – there is no threat of inequity to anyone, so strictures of fair play become unnecessary.

    It’s frankly hard to argue on what amounts to a difference of opinion, but this statement is simply untrue, Scott. There is indeed a perceived “competition” between author and reader, the same competitive spirit that you and I used when we wrote our mystery plays to both entertain and challenge our audiences. We were just as proud of crafting a clever dying message clue or coming up with a hidden third rationale for why the fireplace mantle was stained with blood as we were at creating clever, laugh-inducing lines for our characters.

    The “rules” invented by Van Dine and Knox are an after-the-fact homage to this games-like nature of the genre. Of course very few authors write only to confound: the oft-quoted Torquemada (see Nick’s brilliant reply above) proved this to me by creating that horrendous Cain’s Jawbone nightmare that I spent too much money on and will never solve. But the rules of those illustrious gentlemen served to remind readers of the spirit of gamesmanship surrounding the otherwise sedentary objective of reading a mystery.

    And there is, indeed, an implied threat of inequity, as the seven members of a certain book club who had to read Francis Duncan’s So Pretty a Problem will attest: not every rule is broken here, but among other things, a common sense of disappointment arose when 1) the promise of an impossible problem was hacked at as with a chainsaw; 2) the unmasking of the killer caused not a jot of sudden retrospective inevitability, and 3) the motive emerged out of thin air after the killer was arrested.

    I assure you, this lack of fair play ruined that book for me – but so did the interminable prose and the characterization marked by a single quality doled out to each person and repeated ad nauseum. Mysteries are neither a game nor a story: they are, uniquely, both! We hope for fair play and good writing whenever we pick up a title. We apply our own standards to both these qualities, and we come up with a wide array of opinions for every book. I say Agatha Christie is a good writer; Rhys Bowen disagrees. I say Christie aims to play fair when she crafts a mystery; you say Carr does a better job than Christie of crafting a puzzle but that fairness doesn’t enter into it. I say Queen wrote some great books; JJ says, “#$#(^$@!!”

    I think this whole thing can be solved with an analogy:

    In the posh neighborhood of Mockingbird Heights, Mr. Crenshaw and his four business partners had each built a magnificent estate, each one next to the other. A casual observer poking their head through the great iron gates surrounding the neighborhood would note the following:

    1. The man in the blue house lived between Mr. Hogborn and the man who collected old cars. The man who collected spiders lived at one end of the line of homes, while the man whose favorite reading material was mysteries lived in the other end.

    2. The reader of science fiction owned a border collie, while the man who lived in the red house owned a borzoi.

    3. Neither Mr. Sheldrake, the man who owned the basset hound, or the collector of rare stamps lived in the green house.

    4. The owner of the beagle and the man who lived in the yellow house were not speaking to each other, which was difficult because they lived side by side.

    5. Mr. Collins and the owner of the purple house were best friends and had bequeathed their fortunes to each other in their wills. Neither of them read Westerns or romance novels.

    6. The reader of young adult fiction, who didn’t live in the center house, had formed a takeover deal with the seashell collector and the man who owned a bloodhound to oust the man in red house and the owner of the border collie.

    7. The man who owned a bloodhound, who was not Mr. Ricardo, lived somewhere in-between the man who collected recipes and the man whose occasional psychotic episodes made him forget to polish his set of old cars.

    From this information, can you determine who murdered Mrs. Crenshaw, how the murder was committed, and why?

    The solution:
    Gur xvyyre jnf Znybzne, gur lbhat purs jub jbexrq sbe Ze. Pbyyvaf. Ur xarj gung Zef. Perafunj jnf uvf ovegu zbgure naq jnagrq gb unir uvf eriratr sbe ure qebccvat uvz bss ng na becunantr. Ur xarj gung – yvxr uvzfrys – Zef. Perafunj fhssrerq sebz na nyyretl gb frnsbbq, fb gur arkg gvzr gur Perafunjf jrer vaivgrq gb n qvaare cnegl ng gur Pbyyvafrf, Znybzne fbnxrq gur ebnfg bs orrs va n fbyhgvba ur unq qvfgvyyrq sebz obvyvat Ze. Pbyyvaf’ frnfuryy pbyyrpgvba. Nf n erfhyg, Zef. Perafunj fhpphzorq gb nanculynpgvp fubpx. (Znybzne yngre srq gur orrs gb gur snzvyl obembv, ryvzvangvat nyy rivqrapr bs uvf pevzr.

    There are strict rules to logic puzzles that we all know. The rules to reading and solving a mystery are looser and more personal. You will read the solution to my “logic” puzzle and get that this is all a joke, but some of you will derive more satisfaction than others as to how I put things together and/or referenced past mysteries. Every author is going about their business, trying in their individual way to connect to their readers, both emotionally and intellectually. That is the wonderful unique aspect of the genre: we get both – and sometimes we get both done well!!


    • I very much enjoyed your riddle (reminded me very much of Benchley’s “The police arrested the housekeeper” mystery in humorously exposing our expectations regarding the relationship between puzzle and solution). But I think you’ll note that the real puzzles of the type you suggest with this one (you’re clearly aware of the model) are almost the exact opposite of the “man is running home” riddle. The former offer true “fair play” (they arrive at deductively provable solutions) but no SRI, the latter offers SRI no fair play (as the set of logically allowable solutions is inexhaustible).

      As for the “solitary player” thing, I once again claim an improper conflation of concepts (and by extension, terminology). In this case, I say disappointment is being confused with inequity. And I think it’s pretty simple to demonstrate.

      In a competitive game, two or more participants compete against each other in a test of similar or identical skills. At the conclusion of the the game, one or more of the participants is deemed the winner, the others (often by tacit default) deemed the loser(s). The winner is granted anything from a lucrative reward to the mere recognition as the superior player. If there is cheating involved, there is a sense of inequity because someone was unfairly granted the reward of winning.

      Compare that to a crappy crossword puzzle or crappy whodunit. The clues are (in the reader of player’s mind) insufficient or illogical. When, at the end of reading or playing he is told what the solution is, he is bitterly disappointed. He may be terrifically angry… BUT, does the sole arbiter or outcome (the reader or player) deem the lousy mystery author or crappy crossword puzzle constructor the winner? No! Does he grant the author or constructor recognition as a superior player? No! There can certainly be a sense of anger of disappointment, but not inequity as the wrong person is never recognized as the winner, and the wrong person is never deemed the loser (he may consider himself a loser for having read the book or played the crossword, but that is a totally different thing— he does not hold himself as the inferior player).

      That’s the diff.


  8. I’m a bit less precise here, but I’ll repost this, as my views on the core appeal of the genre seem to be more palatable— and somewhat less controversial— in song form. Even with my inept uke playing.


  9. My thoughts having just listened and read through some of the comments above.

    1. I don’t believe fairness is ever objective – we can all mean something different by it – on any given decision there will be a spectrum that will generally follow a normal distribution e.g. one son takes care of his elderly parents before their death and the other does nothing. The first inherits 75% and the other 25% – a lot of people (based on my own assumptions) may say that is fair. A few may say 100% to the first son is fair – some a 50/50 split is fair.
    2. I think that what most of us refer to as fair play is at a gut level what Scott defines as inevitable retrospective illumination with all clues being explained etc. That may be incorrect use of language but then I think we are guilty of that a lot of the time, but people generally understand what we mean.
    3. If Carr said he was playing a game then we should believe him. Maybe not all authors were so maybe it isn’t appropriate to apply his terms to all GAD but it seems other authors agreed with him and as per Nick above some reviewers were convinced of this. Clearly from comments above some modern readers also agree.
    4. With TRACE and CARET, TRACE is a clever red herring, which is initially a possibility until you solve another clue which makes it impossible. So then, like every good detective you need to re-think your assumptions and come up with a different solution.
    5. You could fit many solutions into a crossword grid by ignoring the clues completely. Or force it by interpreting a clue inaccurately. This is what JJ referred to in the Penny book. Some clues in the acrostic fit roughly to give a false solution but they only roughly fit and don’t fully obey the rules of a cryptic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Re: point 3 — I think there’s arguably an aspect of some of the clues or revelatins in GAD where the author is enjoying playing with the expectations or perceptions of the reader in a way that is going to work 80% of the time, and in that way the author is playing a game by laying a trap well in advance for the reader to fall into. Carr did this exceptionally well, time after time, and in that sense he is playing a game. It doesn’t need to be instantly reactive because he already knows it will succeed in most cases. In the rest…well, that’s the risk you take in laying out these “dangerous” clues as he styled them.

      I also love the idea that one can write whatever words they like into a crossword grid by simply ignoring the clues. There’s a superb parallel there linger frustratingly out of reach, but it’s a superb observation.


    • Sorry I didn’t get back to this earlier. (Lots of stupid kids magic shows for lots of stupid kids).

      You write:

      I don’t believe fairness is ever objective – we can all mean something different by it.

      I quite agree that we can all have different subjective opinions of where fairness lies (as you offered in your example). But that doesn’t mean that there exist multiple standards of fairness, or that we conceive of the concept as a subjective one.

      For, I believe there is a confusion here between the notions of objectivity, subjectivity, and subjective expressions of objective notions.

      If I state that:

      1. I like chocolate.

      the truth value of my statement is not dependent upon any quality or characteristic of chocolate, only the truth (or lack of it) that I do indeed like it. That is, the truth value of the statement is wholly dependent upon (and based on) my belief and opinion. It is thus a subjective statement.

      On the other hand, the truth value of:

      2. Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States.

      is not dependent upon whether I believe it or not, but rather on the truth of whether Abraham Lincoln really was or was not the 16th President of the United States— it is an objective statement, as is:

      3. Abraham Lincoln was the 33rd President of the United States.

      an untrue statement that is made no more or less true by my (or anyone’s) belief (or lack of belief) in it.

      However, the truth value of the statement:

      4. I believe that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States.

      is, like statement 1, while it references an objective notion, is itself a subjective statement, entirely dependent upon my belief and opinion. If I believe that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President, statement 4. is true, independent of whether he really was the 16th President, for what the statement is asserting is my belief in Lincoln’s proper historical designation, not the truth of that designation itself.

      (Your initial assertion that:

      I don’t believe fairness is ever objective

      Is just such a statement; its truth value is entirely a function of your belief that fairness is not ever objective [and thus it is undeniably true, unless you’re lying to me about your belief]. But the truth of whether fairness is ever objective is itself not determined in any way by your belief).

      Many would argue that, as statements 2 or 3 are expressions of thought, they entail a tacit “I believe” or “I assert that” at their beginning, and thus are also subjective assertions of objective notions (I.e. there cannot actually exist an objective expression). I wouldn’t disagree with that, but the important point here is that such notions as “Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States”— that is, the notions referenced by the expressions— are not dependent for their truth upon anyone’s beliefs or opinions.

      And so, the question at hand is, when I state (in referring to your example of inheritance fairness):

      5. 25% for the ne’er-do-well son is fair.

      or even:

      6. I believe that 25% for the ne’er-do-well son is fair.

      am I suggesting that my belief that 25% is fair— my opinion— is what makes it so (as is the truth of my appreciation of chocolate)? If we are to hold fairness as a subjective concept, we are indeed holding statement 5 to mean:

      7. 25% for the ne’er-do-well son is fair because I believe it to be so.

      which is easily recognizable as distinct from statement 6– and I assert to be a ridiculous notion. For, if we are to conceive fairness as a subjective notion, we would have to accept that the people who believe that 50% is fair are also correct— that there are indeed as many true standards of fairness as there opinions held of it. But then (here’s the big problem) what would fairness even mean?

      And, if all of these standards could be simultaneously true, why would there be any dispute regarding them? If I say “I like chocolate” and you say “I don’t like chocolate,” some might suggest that we are in disagreement. But we are not truly disagreeing… both are statements of subjective opinion, and as such can coexist simultaneously as true in our universe, and indeed necessarily do if we are both being truthful in our expression of them. It is only an objective statement (“Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States”) and its negation (“Abraham Lincoln was not the 16th President of the United States”) that cannot simultaneously exist in the same universe, and thus are subject to dispute. And so, the very tendency to dispute matters of fairness is a highly suggestive indicator that we conceive it as an objective concept.

      But, of course, much of the problem lies in that we’re dealing with a concept that is employed and referenced without any significant effort to define it. Sure, we can easily say that “fair play” is activity characterized by fairness, but what does fairness itself mean?

      The dictionary definitions offered are largely circular (“the condition or quality of being fair” while “fair” is defined as “characterized by fairness”) and also consistently (and properly, I believe) suggest notions of objectivity: “freedom from bias,” “impartiality,” “even-handedness,” etc… But mostly, dictionary definitions primarily employ lists of synonyms as a substitute for thorough, thoughtful consideration of true definition (which is understandable— with so many thousands of words to define, it seems unrealistic to expect deep contemplation of each).

      However, not burdened with such an exhaustive task, I feel I am better able to offer a concise (if inelegant) definition of “fairness” that I believe nonetheless more accurately aligns with and encompasses the meaning that we intend in our use of it. I would define fairness as “the objective standard at which that given is equal to that deserved.” Merit is equaled with reward. Or, in more specific reference to clue sufficiency, “the point at which that which is provided is equal to that which is necessary.” I realize that this definition might not seem to include such matters as whether the author tells falsehoods— what JJ describes in his next post as Grace’s maxim of “quality”— but I would argue that it does. For a puzzle clouded by such narrative transgressions cannot lie at the point where that which is provided is equal to that which is necessary (yes, I’m arguing that the maxims of quantity and quality are ultimately the same thing, a notion no doubt more properly controversial than anything I’ve discussed here!).

      Further, that point of equity— I believe— is understood to be not only objective (lying outside the dictates of our judgment), but as such necessarily every bit as precise as a word count (or even a letter count). Mind you, I don’t believe we can accurately assess that standard, but it is understood to be precise nonetheless. For we mustn’t confuse human inability to pinpoint a precise standard with the lack of such precision. Three people staring at a hill from a distance may alternately estimate it to be 95, 112, and 115 feet tall, but— though they may not be able to come up with a consensus as to its height, or even have much confidence in their own guess— that doesn’t mean that any of them doubt that the hill actually has a precise height that is not dictated by their opinion.

      The same is so with fairness. For when we say, “I think 25% is fair,” what may actually be meant is that that’s what we hope for, or will settle for, or demand. But what is understood to be asserted by the statement “I think 25% is fair” is “there exists a single standard of fairness (the point at which that which is given is equal to that which is deserved) and I believe that 25% is where (or approximately where) that standard lies.” Thus, our assertion itself is subjective and inexact, but we recognize the standard to which it refers to be objective— lying outside our opinion or belief— and precise.

      Ultimately, disagreement on any concept is dependent upon our acceptance and treatment of that concept as objective (even if it is a concept for which we believe there can be no objective truth values [e.g. aesthetics]). That is, my argument is not that there is a true objective standard of fairness, but that in our reference to it— and acceptance of it as a notion warranting dispute— we are necessarily accepting fairness as an objective concept.


  10. I’m not nearly as well read in the genre as everyone else who’s commented, but I still enjoyed this a lot and it’s certainly made me want to read some of the books you mentioned. (I have read the Christies and a few of the others, & I’m working my way through Martin Edwards’ Golden Age book.)

    I loved the way you were talking off the cuff – I think I’ve lately had an overdose of very slick and rather saccharine (usually American) book podcasts. This was much more fun and felt real.


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