Monday, February 19, 2018

Playing Fair

I did enjoy Charlotte's post about her dislike of 'fuzzy endings' – where the author hasn't really told you what happened and you have to make up your own mind – as well as the comments about it afterwards.

They seemed to echo something I'd been thinking of writing today – the question of what a detective story ought to be. Perhaps Oscar Wilde's Miss Prism summed it up in her defense of the three-volume novel: 'The good ended happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.'

It was Monsignor Ronald Knox who made the first attempt in his tongue-in-cheek '10 Commandments for Detective Fiction.' They included prohibitions like, 'Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable,' 'No undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end,' and 'No Chinaman must figure in the story,' – possibly a dig at the Chinese opium dens that featured in Sherlock Holmes' cases and then became a feature much imitated in the 'penny-dreadful.'

The great thing about having rules is the effect when someone breaks them. When Agatha Christie, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, transgressed by breaking the first commandment, 'The criminal must be someone mentioned in the first part of the story but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to share,' the shock propelled the book to the top of the best-seller list.

Now, of course, rules have been long superseded. As Butch Cassidy was told, 'There are no rules in a knife fight' and in crime fiction today anything goes. In some of the very best crime novels we know right at the start 'whodunit,' and the suspense is about the why or how.

But I still have an affection for the classic type, and I was wondering how other writers and readers today feel about Knox's commandment no 8: 'The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.'

I've always felt when I was writing a book that I have the intelligent reader at my shoulder. I want to conceal the villain from them so that they don't guess who it is too early and I will do my very best to mislead them, but I like to think that the clues to the answer are there if they want to follow them. I try to play fair but I can go to elaborate lengths with red herrings - I remember rewriting one scene half-a-dozen times so that the clue I ought to give them remained unnoticed. But I couldn't get any satisfaction from the reader who says, 'I didn't guess' if I had actually cheated.

Is this an idea whose time has passed? What do you think?


Unknown said...

Please continue to sprinkle all clues while hiding them. Part of the fun of reading a good mystery is realizing that a clue was missed, then going back to search for it and admire the skill with which it was concealed. That's still another way of enlisting the reader's participation in the story.

Aline Templeton said...

Thank you for this. So glad to know that people still enjoy the puzzle.

Sybil Johnson said...

In certain kinds of crime novels, like traditional and cozies I think it's important to play fair and sprinkle clues throughout.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

I did enjoy your post, Aline. When I read crime novels, I don't want what's to come so heavily signposted that the element of surprise is lost – why read on? Equally, I don't want there to be so few hints and clues that I am left baffled at the end. So frustrating! It is deliciously enjoyable to uncover the truth of a story little by little. For me as a crime writer, getting the balance between what to leave in and what to leave out is one of my biggest challenges – but it is deliciously satisfying when I get it right.

Aline Templeton said...

hanks, Marianne. I do agree, trailing the clues while making sure they're hidden is the best fun!