Whether or not you agree with the concept of detective fiction being a game, there can be little doubt that much has been done to play up to the game-esque elements of murder mysteries for well-nigh the last century.
We could start — non-chronologically — with the murder jigsaws popularised by, among others, Ellery Queen: a story is related, the literal pieces of a puzzle provided, and upon completion of the puzzle you’re provided either with the answer to the mystery or another clue that finally makes it all (ahem) click into place. No less of a literal puzzle, albeit a more tedious one, is Cain’s Jawbone (1934) by Torquemada, nom de plume of Edward Powys Mathers, in which the pages of a novel are provided…but out of order, so that the ‘pieces’ must be put in order so that the narrative can be understood.
Equally, a similar element of reductio ad absurdum can be found in The Maze, a.k.a. Persons Unknown (1932) by Philip MacDonald, where plot events are stripped of their usual prose trappings and related to the reader instead related via court transcripts and a couple of diagrams — the human emotions and distractions completely stripped away. This epistolary approach proved popular in classic era fiction — c.f. The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins, Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker — as well as during detective fiction’s Golden Age, as seen in the likes of The Documents in the Case (1930) by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace. Recently, the likes of Janet Hallett brought it up to date with The Appeal (2021) and The Twyford Code (2022).
Whatever title and form it is given, this dessication of the detective plot has the effect of heightening the role of the reader in ‘playing along’ — you are welcome to take a passive role in all but Mathers’ efforts but, because evidence is apparently being presented to you shorn of much of the distracting psychology of human interaction, surely most people would see this as missing out. The author has removed all but the base ingredients, taken away the smokescreens, and the implicit challenge of “You still won’t solve it…” resonates somehow, igniting our baser desire to prove ourselves against such an open-handed slap of a challenge to our intellect.
Into this category must also fall the ‘murder dossiers’ of Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links: Murder off Miami (1936), Who Killed Robert Prentice (1937), The Malinsay Massacre (1938), and Herewith the Clues! (1939). Here, the ‘playing along’ aspect is uppermost, with each dossier taking the form of a folder of letters, photographs, maps, newspaper clippings, and physical evidence such as hair samples and cigarette butts, all bound together and presented to the reader as if to some investigatory expert. The intent is clear: here’s everything you need, shorn again of prose stylings behind which all manner of chicanery might be played…can you solve the mystery elucidated herein?
To a certain extent, this is the logical progression of the Golden Age mystery. I’ve mentioned before my thinking that the Golden Age can be said to have started in 1920 because of how two debuts published that year — The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) by Agatha Christie and The Cask (1920) by Freeman Wills Crofts — were at pains to show you verbatim evidence as encountered by their sleuths (a handwriting sample and a footprint, respectively) which ensured the validity of the evidence the reader was able to access. Of course, being pieces of prose, we’re reliant on our narrator or perspective character to provide their own impressions or descriptions of the scenes they witness, but the importance of the aforementioned clues was to great to risk tipping the author’s hand ahead of time through overly-detailed description…and yet the authors were at pains to see the information handed over, as it were. Well, Links and Wheatley took that and applied it to every piece of evidence in their plot.
I say “to a certain extent” because, obviously, a lot of brilliant work was done by Golden Age authors with that slyly misleading prose — a photo of a butler squinting at a calendar, or a transcript of four people watching a brief dumb show in the next room is all well and good, but doesn’t carry quite the same scope of involvement. One of the many delights of the detective prose novel is arguably being drawn in to something without realising the significance of what you’ve seen, only for that to be unveiled with a flourish in the penultimate or final chapter. The limitation of Wheatley and Links’ approach is that Everything Is Significant (though I understand that not to be the case…) and by keeping you at arm’s length this manner of delivery is perhaps going to have to work far harder to make you forget what you’re looking for.
I’ll be honest: my ardour for these dossiers cooled in light of my experience with Cain’s Jawbone, an undertaking to which I gave untold hours and on which I made who-knows-how-little progress. And yet The Malinsay Massacre has always held a particular fascination for me, purely on account of my fondness for impossible crimes and its inclusion on the Roland Lacourbe-curated list of 100 impossible crime novels you should own. Now, bitter experience has taught me that at least eight of the books on that list aren’t impossible crimes (like this one, and this one, and this one, and this one…) and so maybe I’m setting myself up for yet more disappointment, but them’s the breaks. I was recently fortunate enough to acquire a copy of The Malinsay Massacre, and over Tuesdays in April I’m going to catalogue certain elements of my reading it, on my way to seeing if I can indeed solve it.
And solving it, if I can, presents an interesting challenge at the moment. See, these dossiers do, as elsewhere, come with the answer provided: the final section, as pioneered by Harpers a few years earlier, was contained in the final section, sealed shut to reduce people jumping ahead and claiming to have worked it out themselves — surely the lowest form of behaviour possible in relation to the treading of mystery fiction. Well, my Mayflower Books reprint from 1981 — that’s a scan of my copy above, not some image pilfered from elsewhere on the interwebs — is still sealed. I have no idea if this makes the book valuable (I doubt it) and that’s not really a concern as such…but I’m going to need to decide come the end of this undertaking whether I’m happy enough in my deductions to simply let it ride or if I wish to disarrange a four decade-old artefact purely for the sake of curiosity.
Next week, I shall start digging into the plot and the clues — I fully intend to take advantage of the recent WordPress updates in sharing several images with you, probably in a fashionably incomprehensible layout — and try to communicate the experience of picking through a mystery so boldly thrown at the reader in this manner. It might be fun, or it might be like reading someone trying to find their way out of a maze…whose to say?! Tune in next week to find out!