Monday, 6 September 2010

Solving Mysteries


The world of mystery readers divides into two broad categories – those who like to try to solve the mystery themselves, before the solution is revealed, and those who simply enjoy the story and make no serious effort to work out what is going on. Many people I know, including some crime writers, are in the latter camp, but I’m firmly in the former group.

In the Golden Age of complicated plots and ingenious if unlikely solutions, I suppose many readers liked to figure out the answer to the puzzle, and this was why Ellery Queen introduced the Challenge to the Reader in his early books – an idea taken up, as I have mentioned recently, by Rupert Penny in The Talkative Policeman and some of his later mysteries. Agatha Christie set her challenges less explicitly, though she usually managed to ‘play fair’ with the reader by giving a variety of clues to the answer. Her great gift in this respect was a matchless ability to disguise her clues. Information is supplied so surreptitiously that you may not notice you are receiving it. Her ability to misdirect truly matched any conjuror’s.

Penny couched his Challenge like this: ‘At this point the intelligent reader, if he has not already done so, should be able to attempt the solution of the problem with every prospect of success by taking thought, eked out where necessary with a guess or two...The less intelligent reader may perhaps be allowed to guess first and think afterwards, always provided that he does not shirk the thinking...nothing can too strongly express condemnation of those who use guesswork alone....’

Plainly, he had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote this, and generally, there’s a sense of fun about Penny’s writing that gives it an enduring appeal. For my part, as an author, I do like to set an implied challenge to readers who want a puzzle to solve, by offering clues to motivation and hidden secrets during the course of the narrative. Of course, plenty of my readers aren’t interested in this aspect of the stories, preferring to focus on the characterisation, setting and evocation of a particular society at a particular point in time, but that is fine by me. A writer of mysteries is in the business of entertainment, and it’s possible to entertain on a number of different levels. Rupert Penny and some of his contemporaries focused too heavily on things like train timetables for the taste of modern readers. But the fact that the genre has moved on doesn’t mean that there isn’t much pleasure to be had, both for writers and readers, in plots with fairly clued puzzles .

15 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - I couldn't agree with you more. Today's readers do want more than just a "pure" intellectual puzzle. They want plot, they want characters that are well-developed and they want a sense of place and time and so on. But I, too, see a role for intellectual puzzle-solving and trying to "outguess" the author. Thanks for bringing up Penny as an example of one who did a terrific job of creating those intellectual mysteries.

Sarah Hilary said...

I'm like you, Martin, I love to try and solve as I read. Is it true that Agatha Christie didn't settle on her culprit until she'd finished the story (more or less) at which point she chose the least likely culprit and went back, lacing clues to his/her guilt?

(I always suspect "the least likely" from the start, and remember reading the jacket blurb to a recent crime novel that implied the reader "would never guess the identity of the killer" which immediately made me start guessing - correctly - based on "the least likely" suspect...)

seana said...

It's an interesting question why people read mysteries who do not like to try and solve the puzzle. I actually am one of those people, so that's not a disguised criticism. I don't know the answer precisely, but I will say that for me, if I can guess the answer despite my lack of serious attempt to solve the thing, then I think its a pretty poor mystery. I'm sorry to say that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo although featuring other enticements really falls short on that level.

Clarissa Draper said...

There are some weeks where I want to read just for pleasure but for the most part I love to solve the mystery before the end of the book.

CD

Eric Mayer said...

I am terrible at solving mysteries and in particular I am amazed at Agatha Christie's sleight of hand. I never guess the culprit. I would do better if I just picked a character at random. I read Death on the Nile in which she keeps removing (ie killing off) suspects. Usually, as soon as I focussed on a suspect she had the suspect killed. Even when it got down to two suspects I still picked the wrong one! However I enjoy the ingenuity of the puzzles -- when they are explained -- even if I never solve them.

Fiona said...

I'm with Seana and Eric on this...I gobble books so quickly that I don't give myself time to analyse the clues. And when I think there's a whopping give-away that puts the guilty name up in lights (on about page 99) I'm so pleased with myself for spotting it that I'm absolutely amazed when a) they are the next victim and b) the real perpetrator is so unexpected - at least by me - that I immediately start reading all over again to see how it was done!

I still can't decide if I'm too trusting, or too gullible.

Dorte H said...

Of course I happen to guess it once in a while, but on the whole I make very serious efforts NOT to work out who did it. So I see it the same way as Seana: if a writer is not even able to hide it for me, he/she has given us too many clues. For me it is like spoiling Christmas by trying to feel and shake the presents to figure out what is inside - I LOVE a proper surprise in the end.

I wonder whether the writer´s attitude to this question influences his/her writing style? I do quite a lot to keep the murderer secret until the very last pages, but it seems that one of my beta readers (who WANTS to figure it out) thinks there are enough clues for the game to be fair.

Martin Edwards said...

I hoped this post would generate some very interesting comments, as it has - thank you all. It's intriguing to see how different, yet equally discerning, enthusiasts react differently to the challenge of the mystery.

Maxine said...

Martin, I am in your camp. Well I think I am. I started out with Sherlock Holmes and ever since have enjoyed the "race" to see if I could work out the solution before the author. But now that I am (a lot) older and have read so much crime fiction, I am not so sure. For example, I have recently finished a really wonderful book, An Empty Death by Laura Wilson (Orion, 2009). It is such an absorbing book, written by a talented author who is so enjoying the universe she has created and conveying it to the reader, in three main plot lines. However, the actual main mystery at the heart of it is not that difficult to work out, mainly because of the dearth of suspects. Yet I found myself deliberately not trying to second-guess the author, because there were so many aspects of this rich book to enjoy, and I was just happy to go with the flow.

So, eeek! I became of the second category without meaning to. How bad is that?

Most of the time, though, crime books are not that well written and so much effort has not been put into them, so I like to guess who did it, etc, before the author tells me - to get even! How sad or bad is that?!

C. N. Nevets said...

I am all for the amplification of character and emotion-rich plot lines in mystery novels. However, I will say I have been disappointed many times in recent years by the number of contemporary mysteries in which the puzzle-solving has become so trivialized that it almost feels like a digression.

Stephen Clynes said...

I view a mystery novel as a product of entertainment. I trust that the author has done a professional job and has produced a book that not only entertains me but broadens my mind and teaches me something new. I like to get taken away with a book and feel that I have undertaken a life changing journey. The author should be my guide on this journey through the world created by that author. I want to join this new world and bowl along with it. I have paid for the book and I feel the author should take me along, teaching me as I work through the chapters. So, put me in the "latter camp" of readers, who simply just want to enjoy the whole story. If I really wanted to solve puzzles then I would have purchased one of the many puzzle magazines available from newsagents.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Maxine - neither sad nor bad, of course! I haven't read that book by Laura, will look out for it.

Martin Edwards said...

C.N., I know what you mean. I do like the blend of puzzle and characterisation etc to be reasonably well balanced.

vegetableduck said...

I say, why can't we have both types of mysteries, the puzzle-driven and the character-driven (and even books that combine the two)?

In the early Golden Age, during the 1920s, there was too dogmatic an insistence on the primacy of the puzzle. Today there is too dismissive an attitude toward it.

Already by the 1930s things had started changing. Rupert Penny was part of a rearguard action in when he was writing in the late 1930s and 1940s. The detective novel of manners, the psychological crime novel and the tough, hardboiled detective novel already were beginning to supersede the pure puzzle.

But for some of us it's nice to have a pure puzzle to turn to sometimes. Variety is the spice of life--and death.

Martin Edwards said...

Very well put, as ever, Curt. Thanks - and how is the book going?