In GAD We Trust – Episode 26: The Maxims of Misdirection

I’m as surprised as you to see a new episode of my In GAD We Trust podcast, especially as I said on Thursday that there was unlikely to be one this weekend — well, okay, perhaps a I’m little less surprised than you, since I (sort of) planned, recorded, and (sort of) edited this, but you get the idea. However, on Thursday everything (sort of) came together and I was able to record this almost in one take and so here we are.

A little while ago, I learned of the linguist Paul Grice and his formalisation of communication via the Co-operative Principle, and it struck me that there was much in the idea that related to Golden Age detective fiction in a way that might be unique. The problem was, I couldn’t quite see my way through my thinking, and so I consigned the idea to the pending box of Maybe I’ll Write About That Someday. which is a veritable black hole of half-formed ideas.

And then, during the course of Thursday, inspiration struck and I found the illustrations I would need to limn my thinking, and so I raced home from work and recorded this tout seul, did a very quick edit (I had a busy Friday ahead) and here is the result: me talking for almost an hour on a subject I grasp in an at-best very shallow way, with no-one sat opposite me to contradict or correct my wanderings…but I would love to know what you make of it, if a speculative meander through the philosophical implications of the linguistics of the mystery story (the mystery story, Jim) doesn’t sound like too hard work.

It’s a bit free-form — this episode is very much Jazz, where the others are more Classical — but I hope you can see the point I’m making, and why I found it quite exciting when the idea struck me.

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

Thanks, as always, for taking the time to listen, and to Jonny Berlinder for the music. It occurs to me that I can include here, at the bottom of this post, ROT13‘d possible spoilers from the books I cite late in the episode, but I’ll see if there’s any interest before seeking them out to state as accurately as possible.

More In GAD We Trust in a fortnight — with a guest, I promise — and don’t forget that Moira, Brad, and I will be discussing After the Funeral (1953) by Agatha Christie in spoiler-rich detail at some point in October, too. We haven’t set a date yet, that’s a job for this weekend, but it’s definitely happening so get ready…


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

25 thoughts on “In GAD We Trust – Episode 26: The Maxims of Misdirection

  1. Fascinating topic. As you were speaking, my mind went immediately to Christie, who was a master at flouting the maxims making her endings often impactful and enjoyable.

    For example during your remarks, I mentally was dissecting The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It obviously flouts the maxim of quantity, but I could say the same maxim is used to great effect in Death on the Nile, The ABC Murders, Evil Under the Sun, A Murder is Announced and many more. Even After the Funeral that you will review next month violates this maxim in a wonderful way such that it is one of my favourites by her.

    Finally, you were irritated to keep saying detective fiction instead of mystery fiction. Whether GAD has or doesn’t have a formal detective, I the reader am always the detective. As I work my way through the story, I am attempting to spot the clues and culprit … smug when I do and even happier when I am bamboozled making the ending a surprise.


    • After the Funeral flouts the maxim of quality in a way that’s quite egregious, too, as was pointed out to me recently. But I’ll leave clarifying that for the forthcoming discussion.

      you make a good point about the distinction between mystery and detective fiction; my irritation was only half-esrious just in case someone decided to pull me up on my terminology, but there can still be detection on the reader’s part, I agree.


  2. I’ve just had a look at my copy of The Chinese Orange Mystery, in the Gollancz hardback edition, and there is a floor plan of the hotel in the front, but I don’t know if that would help make the explanation clearer – I haven’t read it recently, but I suspect it wouldn’t.


    • Yeah, sorry, I should have been more specific. My green Oenguin has a map of the hotel floor at the very beginning, but I meant some visual representation of the crime scene to elucidate the solution — there’s so much talk about angles and placement, it would be great to see if anyone was able to replicate it in any form, becuase I still don’t know what is supposed to have gone on in that room 🙂


  3. Such an interesting topic – I enjoyed this enormously. I think the use of language is mystery novels of all stripes is fascinating. When these maxims are subverted it can be very satisfying. One of my favorites is the idea that a character may be communicating utterly truthfully but in a way that is misinterpreted or poorly relayed by a third party. Done properly the author is still sticking to the maxim of quality – it’s just that we are seeing it through a lens or filter but have not noticed that fact.
    This is probably one I need to listen to a second time to think through more but I did want to be sure to engage and say how much I enjoyed this – and indeed all of the episodes of this podcast. They are always a treat whenever they pop up on my feed!


    • I think of a particular line in A Murder is Announced by Christie (rot13: “Fur jnfa’g gurer!”) where the speaker is being honest and has realised the key piece of information, but there are three possible interpretations that cause a certain amount of problems.

      It has also been said — by no less an authority than Tony Medawar — that the first edition of And Then There Were None contains a wonderful example of this (an early mention along the lines of: Whfgvpr Jnetenir ernq uvf yrggre gb uvzfrys — a deviously brilliant piece of phrasing) which was changed in later editions. I don’t have a first edition to confirm (imagine!), but it’s a glorious piece of misdirection so early on and precsiely what should have been left in.

      Thanks for the kind words about the podcast, too. I’m still amazed anyone listens to it.


  4. OK I have downloaded Chinese Orange Mystery.

    And I VERY MUCH need to know what the line is in Sleeping Sphinx – how are you going to tell me 😉😉😉? I read it not that long ago, and see from my blogpost that I thought it ‘completely batty, but none the worse for that of course’.


    • Just for you, Moira:

      “Fur jbhyq unir orra guvegl-fvk lrnef byq va Wnahnel; fur jnf fb sbaq bs lbhat crbcyr.”

      Greene calls the second half of the line “needlessly obscure” and it’s difficult to disagree, but it’s also a wonderfully brazen piece of shifting focus in a way that really doesn’y make sense if you stop to think about it for even a moment.

      And, yes, your assessment of this book is spot on 🙂


  5. When you clarify the egregious floutation (floutation? Is there such a thing as a floutation device??) in After the Funeral, if it’s what I think it is then we’re dealing with a weird situation, what I assume to be a mistake by the author that isn’t in the proper text but I’ll admit is certainly a serious violation of – I WILL say it – the rules of fair play. Take out that one little line, and the book is a masterpiece. Keep it in, and I still love the book to death but will concede Christie’s error.

    Jr’er gnyxvat nobhg gur snzvyl gerr, evtug? Naq gur YVR gung Pben urefrys jnf nzbatfg gur nggraqrrf ng gur shareny . . .

    While it was adorable listening to you futz about regarding the term “detective story,” I take a bit of issue with your suggesting And Then There Were None is NOT a detective story. I’ll grant you it’s not a traditional detective story, where the detective character is an outsider to the closed circle. But this is a unique situation where the characters play all four roles of mystery fiction: they are murderers, victims, suspects AND detectives.

    Or rather, the final five characters act as detectives in a variety of ways: Blore is the stupid “legit” cop, Lombard and Vera the young couple working together, and the Judge and the Doctor work undercover as a team. It’s interesting that by the time they are running around trying to solve the case, Christie has obeyed a couple of traditional rules, including killing off the servants (because, after all, a servant CAN’T be the killer.)

    It would be interesting applying the maxims to this book alone, especially considering that a significant portion of it is a representation of the character’s thoughts. Since you have considered Roger Ackroyd here in passing, I gather that we can apply these ideas to narration and interior monologue, which would make for some heady discussion.


    • I think the whole “detective fiction” thing is a non-issue. Sure, there’s a disagreement about the proper use of terminology, but it doesn’t lead to a misunderstanding of the genre. Whether one thinks ATTWN should or should not be called a detective story, it does not change their understanding or appreciation of the story. This is what I qualify as “mere terminology.”


      • I just knew that if I kept saying “detective fiction” someone would point out that it didn’t only need to apply to detective fiction, since it’s more about how information is relayed to the reader than the specific roles of the characters.

        Frankly, whatever I did, someone was going to point out that I’d said the wrong thing 😄


  6. I believe the two distinctions between Grice’s four maxims as applicable to mystery fiction and other types of cooperative communication (and even this label for the genre I think you’ll note is ultimately problematic but, unlike other terminology we’ve discussed, I don’t think leads or reinforces a fundamental misunderstanding of the genre) is that 1) the maxim of “quality” alone is precisely defined or demanded in terms of sufficiency and that 2) mystery fiction alone demands and celebrates (retrospectively recognized) ambiguity in regards to “manner.”

    When it comes to our clearly-defined demands of “quality,” I think Dorothy L. Sayers described it accurately when she said:

    Nothing in a detective story need be held to be true unless the author has vouch for it IN HIS PERSON.

    This does not prohibit falsehoods expressed by characters within the world of a fiction— yes, including first person narrators— but clearly (and quite precisely) disallows stated falsehoods on the part of a third-person narrator (one can argue whether an “accepted fact” is a fact that is accepted or an assertion that is accepted as fact, but that ultimately falls under the province of manner rather than quality).

    And this also does not prohibit efforts to deceive on the part of the author— it is indeed the author’s expected duty to attempt to deceive— only the author’s right to make false statements.

    The impossibility of clearly delineating sufficiency in terms of “quantity” I reflected upon at length a couple weeks back— there is no way to clearly define what constitutes “enough” clues (or “all the clues”) as well as the acceptable level of non-relevant details. Surely we do not complain if there are a few details of description or characterization that do not have plot payoff in the solution, but there is a certain point— different for each of us— at which we deem it inacceptable obfucasation. This is also the point regarding which I have trouble making the distinction between “quantity” and “relation”— isn’t it the surplus aspect of certain information that characterizes it as irrelevant?

    Finally, we not only accept ambiguity but demand and celebrate it in the mystery story. We want the ultimately revealed solution to be something different from what we were being led to believe via truthful yet ambiguous knowledge we were given— we just don’t want its ambiguity to have been apparent to us until that time. So, I think we must look upon the maxim of “manner” differently in regard to the detective story than we do to neatly all other genres— or for that matter nearly all other communication, where ambiguity is almost invariably deemed unwelcome.


    • The reminds me of a point I wanted to make but, in my haste to record, forgot: a few years ago I saw a video (on Twitter, I believe) entitled “Waking up my sleeping bunny wityh an air horn” (or similar). Sure enough, it was avideo of a cute, fluffy rabbit having a snooze, and then a hand appeared in the side of the frame, holding an air horn, and held the mouth of the horn to the rabbit’s ear.

      Then, very gently, the air horn was brushed down the length of the rabbit’s ear, over its head, and, very gradually, the rabbit became aware of this light pressure and was woken up. Technically there is nothing about this that contravenes grice or the claims made in the vudeo title…but it still manages to confound our limited range of expectations.

      It’s one of my favourite pieces of “real world” misdirection, and I’m furious for forgetting it at the moment it would have been most relevant 🙂


    • More concisely— and I hope more clearly— I believe these are the unique ways in which Grice’s four maxims are applicable to the puzzle plot (mystery) genre:

      Quality – expected and precisely delineated (demanded truth is defined as [and limited to] the prohibition of false statements made by author)

      Quantity – expected, but impossible to precisely measure (“enough” clueing can be subjectively measured but not objectively delineated).

      Relation – expected, and in conjunction with surprise the genre’s core appeal (function of solution is to directly answer those questions proposed by puzzle)

      Manner – expected and seemingly met, but actually not fulfilled (the impact of the story retrospectively is ultimately dependent upon formerly unrecognized ambiguity).


  7. 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.


  8. What a great episode of this wonderful series! The topics are much more intricate than I was expecting, but you’ve presented them in a very understanding and enthralling manner.

    If I have a thorough understanding of this (very insightful) topic, I believe I can think of a well-known example of where a novel’s main revelation / sudden retrospective illumination (The Decagon House Murders to be precise) breaks all of the maxims except, interestingly enough, for quality. I’ll have to use ROT-13 to explain further just to be safe…

    1.) Dhnagvgl: Gur eriryngvba nobhg gur zheqrere’f vqragvgl pbzrf sebz gur snpg gung jr ner fvzcyl abg gbyq n fcrpvsvp xrl snpg nobhg jung pbaarpgf gjb vzcbegnag punenpgref.

    2.) Eryngvba: Fvzvyne gb gur nobir, jr ner gevpxrq vagb frrvat gur frpgvbaf ba gur vfynaq naq gur znvaynaq nf qrgnpurq sebz bar nabgure (orfvqrf gjb punenpgref ba gur znvaynaq xabjvat gur fghqragf naq gur cnfg znffnper ba gur vfynaq,) jura va snpg gurer vf bar guvat gung hggreyl yvaxf gur gjb gbtrgure.

    3.) Znaare: Guvf bar vf zber dhrfgvbanoyr – gur obbx vf boivbhfyl orvat nzovthbhf nobhg jung gur eriryngvba pbapreaf, ohg ng gur fnzr gvzr gurer vf nofbyhgryl abguvat gb gryy hf gung jung jr ner gbyq vfa’g hanzovthbhf va gur svefg cynpr.

    Ohg fvapr gur obbx arire biregyl yvrf gb lbh, bayl jvguubyqf gung bar xrl snpg, vg qbrfa’g (ng yrnfg va zl bcvavba) oernx gur znkvz bs dhnyvgl.


    • It might be an interesting experiment to go through a mystery novel of this ilk and see how each of the maxims stands up at each revelation. I have no intention of doing that — crikey, even I have limits — but as an academic exercise the results would be fascinating in many ways.

      One of the things I especially enjoyed about TDHM is how it’s explained near the end that ‘Condition X’ and ‘Condition Y’ present in virtually identical ways. That sort of “well, this could easily be common knowledge if you knew it” clue is, I think, both the most satisfying and the most unsatisfying way to hide a revelation (which is, in part, why John Rhode’s schemes always feel a little empty to me — sure, I could be aware of that obscure scientific principle were I to read enough, but I’ve also gotta, like, work and eat and sleep 😄).

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Having said I would be interested when you mentioned it before, I’ve managed to turn up two weeks late! Oh well, great episode!
    You can’t beat a good example, I think – both to reinforce the point and to make you want to read the book used as an example (or read it again…).
    As always with any theories about the construction of mystery fiction, I immediately want to try it out and analyze a book. My attempts always fail. I get distracted by enjoying the book.
    As Scott says, mystery fiction’s relation to the Quality maxim is the easiest to pin down, and might even be one of the defining features of GAD. Internal to the story it will be flouted (prize for most appearances of “flouted” in a podcast and comments section…), but between the book and ourselves we get very ticked off if it’s broken there.
    For the rest, it’s more like… we expect the maxim to be broken in any individual passage, but for the book as a whole we expect them to be fulfilled.
    I suppose the process of going back to your earlier communication to clarify what you meant is a common one, but it’s very rare that your previous communication was constructed with that in mind, with the intention of the other party enjoying the process of clarification. That really does seem like a key feature of the genre.


    • Hey, the important thing is that you made it — the beauty of this blogging lark is that the posts hang around for everyone to discover at whatever time is most convenient to them.

      The notion of the quality maxim has got me reflecting on the information gap in mysteries: how a piece of information is provided in such a way that the reader rushes (usually unconsciously) to fill in the implications, and then that assumption turns out to be wrong. We only have ourselves to blame, and it’s so much fun when it happens!


  10. Your opening comments fail to consider the case of false confession. He says he bludgeoned his uncle to death. But he might be covering for someone else. Or he might have been coerced to confess. Or he might be mentally disturbed. If you want a real-life example, check out Evan Pederick’s confession to planting the Sydney Hilton Bomb (1978)


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