#241: Fair-Play Detective Fiction 101 – The Results!

Fair play

You suggested the titles, you voted, and now here we are: these are the top ten novels demonstrating fair-play in detective fiction as selected by nearly 500 votes on 40 titles.  Except there are twelve of them, because we had a few ties.  So, alphabetically by author we have…

Alice Arisugawa The Moai Island Puzzle (1989)

Moai Island PuzzleOnly recently translated, this has accrued much kudos for the wonderful piece of extended ratiocination that resolves two murders on an island by starting from a throughly incongruous place and then taking you through all the other little details that have been dropped along the way.  Technically the ‘treasure hunt’ Moai statue puzzle is fair, too, but anyone who says they solved that by the clues give is a bloody liar.  If we see no other Arisugawa in English, at least we got this one utter wonder to remember him by. [Currently available in print and ebook from Locked Room International]

Anthony Berkeley The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929)

berkeley2bthe2bpoisoned2bchocolates2bcaseAn argument could be made that, due to the multiple solutions, this technically isn’t fair-play, but since each solution is overturned by evidence readily available (well, okay, al but one of them…) I’d wager that this is indeed the very essence of fair play by considering the ramifications of everything we’ve been told.  A luscious treat for the epicure, but told with such wit and vigour that everyone can get so, so much out of it.  A masterpiece, recently reissued in a wonderful edition, and I’m delighted to see it on this final list. [Currently available in print and ebook from The British Library]

Christianna Brand Green for Danger (1944)

brand-greenfordangerI distinctly remember this wartime hospital-set thrillerish undertaking being very light on actual clues, with the entire point being that pretty much anyone coulda dunnit and just one or two subtle hints provided before the killer was picked out of a hat.  A lot of you disagree, though, since this garnered the second-most number of votes, so either I’m wrong or you’re all delusional; take your pick.  I’d say I’ll reread it, but I’m saying that about seemingly everything these days, so instead I’ll just trust you. [Currently available in ebook from Mysterious Press]

John Dickson Carr The Hollow Man (1935)

Hollow ManThe shooting of Charles Grimaud by a man who vanishes from a locked and watched room leaving no footprints in the snow outside, and a second shooting of another man in similar circumstances, is one of the genre milestones, and has a lot of fans.  There’s one big element of this I can see people having a problem with, but it might be worth a reread to see how it all stacks up.  I don’t think anyone would argue that this is audacity personified in certain regards, though, so now count the number of people who disagree with that in the comments… [Currently available in print and ebook from Orion]

John Dickson Carr The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939)

Green CapsuleA straightforward poisoning in which four people watching a performance witness a disguised figure enter and poison the performer.  Then it turns out these witnesses can’t agree on precisely what happened even in minor regards.  Then it turns out one of them must have been the poisoner even though that’s impossible.  One of the clue subversions here might be the most brilliant fair-play conceits ever employed, and it’s easily one of my top ten detective novels of all time.  Carr is full flight, packed with incident and heavy on clues, this is the genre in all its pomp and brilliance. [Currently OOP]

John Dickson Carr The Emperor’s Snuff-Box (1942)

Emperor's Snuff BoxThe only book on this list I’ve not read, so I cannot comment either way on its content or fairness.  As popular as The Hollow Man, though, so either people are being equally forgiving of the potential flaws in this or it really does stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the finest of Carr’s work.  It’s actually great to get something a little less-heralded a bit of attention, and hopefully this elevation will see a few more people track it down and learn its secrets.  Certainly I’ll advance it up my TBR as a result of its strong showing in this poll, so expect a review sometime around 2023.  [Currently available in ebook from Orion]

Agatha Christie Peril at End House (1932)

peril-at-end-houseBeing the best-selling detective fiction author of all time will inevitably score you votes on such a poll as this, but I can’t argue with the inclusion of this delightfully twisted who’s-trying-to-have-dunnit — it contains some of the clearest and yet most brilliantly hidden clues of Christie’s not inconsiderable catalogue.  From the end of the first chapter you’re immediately on the lookout for anything, and Christie toys with you like the pro she was.  Weird that the table of contents kinda gives it away if you think about it for too long, then… Perhaps skip that if you’ve not read this yet. [Currently available in print and ebook from HarperCollins]

Agatha Christie Death on the Nile (1937)

DotN1Voted the World’s Favourite Agatha Christie Novel, I may have my reservations about the use of the clues here, but there’s no argument that’s there’s an abundance of relevant information laid out for you, and that the mystery can be traced through the pointers given.  Despite rereading it recently I’m still not 100% convinced, but as with Green for Danger I’m going to trust the discerning people who picked it.  Proof if nothing else that this list isn’t just me picking my own favourites and ignoring the popular voice…man of the people that I am.  [Currently available in print and ebook from HarperCollins]

Agatha Christie Evil Under the Sun (1941)

evilcover__spanA personal favourite of mine, this, and with so much ornamentation in its rococo plotting and clewing that it positively brims over with marvellous brilliance at every turn.  Fine, if you’ve read too much mystery fiction then elements of it probably stick out like a sore thumb, but then what sort of person thinks there’s such a thing as “too much mystery fiction”?  Christie at her most playful and obtruse-yet-baroque, a combination we really didn’t get nearly enough of.  And if you love this then John Dickson Carr will also hold many joys for you. [Currently available in print and ebook from HarperCollins]

Agatha Christie A Murder is Announced (1950)

a_murder_is_announced_first_edition_cover_1950So scrupulously fair in its clewing that there’s a key moment which manages to tip the entire gaff — which is a shame, since this (frequently mentioned as the best Miss Marple novel) has the complexity of Papa Poirot and the gentle air of menace that Aunt Jane so excellent in dispelling.  A borderline classic, easily one of the best hooks Christie ever wrote, and with an agonisingly cold heart at its centre.  The next time someone dismisses GAD as exclusively ‘cozy’ nonsense, slap them with a copy of this and then force them to read it until they apologise. [Currently available in print and ebook from HarperCollins]

Ellery Queen The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932)

greek-coffin-2Any doubts about The Poisoned Chocolates Case above can surely be dismissed with the inclusion of this, which does the same thing with a finer focus on a smaller set of results.  Labours the importance of every clue note perfectly, and resounds with gasps and slapped foreheads come the close.  If your peregrinations among classic detective fiction haven’t brought you here yet, you have a treat ahead of you.  Scored the most votes of anything in the poll, by a considerable distance — it’s that highly regarded, and I find it difficult to disagree.  A masterpiece. [Currently available in ebook from Mysterious Press]

Derek Howe Smith Whistle Up the Devil (1953)

whistle-up-the-devilI could not be more delighted to find this previously extremely scarce title not just on this list but also beating several others here in terms of votes.  The moment that tips Algy Lawrence to the identity of the killer is extremely well shown and hidden, and the domino effect of that through all the other clues and occurrences to that point is delightful to watch.  Unjustly forgotten for many years, this plays a perfect hand and waves hint after clue after pointer at you.  Makes me all warm inside to see others appreciating it as much as I do.   [Currently available in print and ebook, both individually and as part of the Derek Smith Omnibus with the equaly superb Come to Paddington Fair, from Locked Room International]

~

You will agree, or you will disagree, or you will nit-pick — we take all kinds here, no exceptions.  So, whaddaya think of this list?  Does this represent fair-play at its best?  Let’s get into it, people…

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45 thoughts on “#241: Fair-Play Detective Fiction 101 – The Results!

  1. Fascinating to see heavy voting for both EVIL UNDER THE SUN and DEATH ON THE NILE as they both have basically the same plot! Maybe you should count them as one 😉 And I am ordering that Detek Smith title right now!!!

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  2. JJ, there seems to be something wrong with my computer screen: the image cuts off so that I can’t see the entire list. Surely that’s the only reason that AFTER THE FUNERAL doesn’t appear, right? I’m with Sergio: bump off NILE and put FUNERAL there in its place.

    Now that you have this list before you, (and I only have to buy ONE of them . . . ((and you’ll never guess which one)) . . . ), what are we supposed to do with this information? Because I’m not rereading HOLLOW MAN for an hundred years, baby!

    Make a plan quickly, or I’m going to summon up a certain spirit by saying its name three times in a row . . . 🙂

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    • After the Funeral was the next most ppular Christie, but there were quite a few votes between the least popular book here and it. Its actually quite interesting how much these twelve were ahead of the rest of the pack — in the case of Christie and The Hollow Man that’s doubtless partly — now, calm down, I said partly — through familiarity by availability, but that Green for Danger and Snuff Box are in here is a very interesting turn of events to my eye.

      Personally I couldn’t be more delighted to see Moai and Whistle in this list, and I’m again heartened that they seem to have been taken to heart by people who read this kind of thing — sharing in the peloton with classics such as are here is a wonderful thing to see. Good job, voters, you’re awesome.

      What do we do with this? Well…yeah, I dunno. It’s an interesting and hopefully instructive list for anyone new to the genre who’s looking for some great titles that do the right thing by their readers, and I for one will be paying extra attention to Snuff Box when I read it to see how it stacks up against the likes of those that didn’t make it into the final list. So there will be plenty of relfection on this to come.

      And I totally know which one you need to buy, Brad. I know you better than you know yourself… It’s A Murder is Announced, isn’t it? ADMIT IT! WE’RE ONTO YOU!!!

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      • Yes, I didn’t recognize that title. How strange . . .

        And, since my attempts at sarcasm fell so flat recently on Facebook, I want to make clear to all and sundry the first sentence of this reply was a sarcastic riposte, responding to JJ’s suggestion, which I knew to be made in jest because he knows my love for Christie.

        Oh, God, will I ever be able to be sarcastic again?????

        So, yeah, it’s the Derek Smith title, and I’ll need to get it. Meanwhile, I see in the next couple of months at Ah Sweet Mystery, at the very least, a review of SNUFFBOX and a comparison-with-spoilers between NILE and SUN. Both WILL be fun!!!

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      • Shame how “After The Funeral” wasn’t on the list because it was a very good mystery and Christie deceives the reader right from the very beginning. And that ending! One of the most disturbing and yet realistic if you consider how far the human heart would go to get rid of a person. And Christie works with what she does best– dysfunctional families. And of course we get a taste of some poison. In “A Peril At End House” it’s poisoned chocolates. In FUNERAL it’s a poisoned cake. Who can ask for a better mystery?

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    • Brad, I’ve got to say I was also expecting After The Funeral on there as well. Push comes to shove, it’s my favorite Christie novel. I was blown away by the ending. Despite being a Carr guy, without Christie I wouldn’t be a mystery novel fan.

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      • Many readers become mystery fans by first being introduced to Agatha Christie. She sets the standard and is one of the best mystery authors to start with if someone is about to enter into the world of mysteries.

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        • Yes, we can at least be thankful that someone who is so popular is also someone who frequently shows the genre at its most entertaining and creative. No doubt the various television abominations incarnations of her works have a hand in her sales, so we can be relieved that the books at least do a good job.

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        • Of course, no matter how bad some of the adaptations are, especially the ones done these days, they do have a hand in the sales but in a way that’s good because then the viewers who in turn read the books will see how extraordinary of a mystery writer she was, conjuring up those plots the way she did. I do have some hope (just a little) that those viewers who watch those bastardize adaptations will become a big fan of Christie’s books and see the liberties that were taken and some of the magic that’s missing.

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        • Though some of the television adaptions have been horrendous, many of them have been quite good (both among the more and less faithful to the letter ones). And I’d say that even the lesser adaptations are more likely to draw in new Christie readers than are most of her plays (which somehow lack much of the key appeal of her novels).

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        • The key difference, however, is that the TV adaptations are easy for people to see — both in terms of being in production and being easy to access — whereas the plays aren’t going to be experiences by most people unless they seek them out to read; and anyone doing that is probably already signed up to Christie anyway…

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        • This is not a defense of Christie as a playwright – I think she was serviceable but there are serious limits to her talents as a dramatist – but I do think the whole whodunit form works better on film than onstage. The necessity of reducing a novel-length investigation to one or two settings, plus the need to seriously simplify a classic murder plot over two hours of talk, hampers both the efficacy of storytelling and the entertainment value in live theatre. (Not that there aren’t some GREAT puzzle-oriented plays, like Sleuth, although that one thrives on its identity as a battle of wits, with twists.) Movies allow access to settings, less limitation of visual cues, and greater manipulation of point of view. In addition, we are trained as audience members to acknowledge the role directors play in interpreting another person’s writing to their own vision. That’s why so many different interpretations of And Then There Were None work on screen, even in the comparison of one to another, while ten different directors would be hard put to impose ten deeply varied interpretations onstage of Christie’s play.

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        • I do agree with Brad that “the whole whodunit form works better on film than onstage.” For me the primary reason for this is that the stage has severe limitations in conveying the revisitation of events so necessary for the inevitability aspect of sudden retrospective illumination, and which is much more easily available both to the writer of a novel and a screenwriter.

          The reader of a novel is an active participant who has had to visualize incidents when he first came across them, and so is able to readily revisit them when they are recalled later by the author (with Christie, this often accomplished by the sleuth emphasizing words [a group of words in italics is a common Christie catalyst for revisiting past incidents]). In addition, the novel reader has the ready opportunity to literally turn back the pages and reread the passages referred to.

          With a motion picture, the audience is passive rather than active, but the screenwriter has the device of the flashback available to him– an ideal tool for revisiting a past incident and showing it with a new understanding.

          But the playwright has the advantage of neither an active audience nor (generally) the easy availability of the flashback technique. True, there are flashbacks in certain stage works, but they are rarely found in mystery play denouements, for the very good reason that onstage it is generally a cumbersome technique– the playwright cannot easily jump in and out of them, as can a filmmaker.

          Over the years, I’ve come to recognize that Christie indeed had a (generally under appreciated) talent for stage dialogue, but had little success in conveying the sense of sudden retrospective illumination that she achieved so beautifully in her novels. Very few people have been able to translate that sensation to stage. For this reason, I believe, the bulk of the most successful mystery related stage shows have not been pure whodunits, but either what might refer to as “twist dramas” (Sleuth, Deathtrap, Accomplice), or else inverted crime stories (Dial M For Murder, Wait Until Dark). Of course, the commercial success of the longest running play in history cannot be denied– and it is a pure whodunit– but that success must be considered a bizarre freak of nature, and is a success recognized as much more commercial than artistic.

          Indeed, though

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  3. Once again, despite my affection for THE GREEK COFFIN MYSTERY, it’s another example of pseudo-logic in Ellery Queen presented as the real thing, either because the authors never really understood logical thought, or because they’re trying to pull sloppy reasoning over on readers who will assume that it’s correct because it is spoken with authority. In this case it’s a matter of the penultimate solution, for which Ellery maintains that the last-but-one accused suspect could not be the killer, because he did not act upon information he would’ve had if he had truly been guilty. But it proves nothing of the kind. Unlike the more prosaic inverse of this type of clue (in which the guilty party is proven to have more knowledge than they could’ve had were they innocent– the device used in an untold number of MURDER, SHE WROTE episodes– and which is really ultimately a clue of opportunity), one can never logically prove someone has less knowledge than they should in a given situation– there is always the possibility that for some reason they are simply not acting upon it.

    Admittedly, it does suggests innocence when someone doesn’t employ knowledge they have that would prove their innocence, and thus this is a strong behavioral discrepancy clue. But whereas one can often prove someone could not have done something, one can never prove someone WOULD not have done something. And just because one does not have any evidence as to why someone would behave in a manner that seems contrary to normal human motivation, that doesn’t prove he doesn’t have a reason. As they say, an absence of evidence does not prove evidence of an absence. Maybe this penultimate suspect was being particularly clever, realizing that Ellery would ultimately use that train of thought to exonerate him. Or maybe he just forgot about the point that would prove his innocence.

    I’ve also been told by someone whose reasoning I trust that the whole color-blindness business doesn’t hold up either (I accepted it when I read it, but I could certainly have missed the flaws).

    So even if I could accept the concept of fair play in clueing (and, as maintain steadfastly, “fair” has absolutely no meaning if it is not made in reference to the concept of an objective standard), I don’t see how this novel, enjoyable as it is, could qualify.

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  4. As to the whole NILE vs. SUN thing, I much prefer NILE because I feel it has a sturdier plot, despite its somewhat annoying surfeit of subplots. The murder plan in NILE is a strong, cleverly devised one, which only through bad fortune on the part of the guilty party begins to fall apart. My objection to the murder scheme in SUN is not that it is overly complex, but that it strikes me as the most ludicrous combination of careful planning and leaving things to chance. Also, the whole vertigo thing screams out “significant clue” IMO, and that damages the deceptive EDD of the plot.

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  5. Ummmmm. Aaaaah. I’m glad that a few of the titles I voted for made it into the top ten. I was slightly surprised that only one title by Ellery Queen squeezed into the rankings, though Arisu Arisugawa arguably writes in the tradition of Queen rather than Christie or Carr. I guess I could only wish for a wider representation of authors, as opposed to multiple entries by Carr and Christie…

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    • I considered some sort of limit on the number of books allowed by an author at one point, but then we were trying to find the best and so any false limits would have curtailed that somewhat — and doubtless have made a bit of a jolly experiement into something of a chore.

      Four Christies might be overdoing it, but then they’re the books people know…I’d rather people vote for something they know to fit the bill than guess randomly at something they have no idea about!

      But you raise a good question: is there a fair way to restrict the number of books by an author (to decide, say, one each) without ludicrously hamstringing the whole undertaking? I couldn’t think of one, but then I wasn’t really thinking that hard… 😛

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  6. On the one hand, John’s point is well taken, and this Christie/Carr fan wonders what the list would look like if you had limited it to one title per author. Perhaps the short list of authors occurred because none of us read enough mystery fiction and need to double down on the number of books we tackle. (Shoot me now, Colonel Mustard.)

    But on the other hand, if you had attempted that, JJ, we would be saddled yet again with trying to pick THE ONE – almost as bad as “tell us your favorite Queen, sir ” – and I could not have done that for twelve authors. The fact is that you could have come up with a dozen lists of twelve (and may well do so over the course of your critical career.)

    John, perhaps an examination of this list, heavy though it is with titles by the masters, will serve in the development of a sort of template on which we can measure all other books we read and suspect of being fair play (or not.) Should such a template actually come into being, JJ can will it to science and let them use it to cure society’s ills . . . or something like that.

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      • There are something like six Johns, but they all go by initials or cool nicknames like realhog! Between John and James and Edward and Colin, I think we’ve covered all extant British names, haven’t we?

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        • Yup, literally everyone in Britain — women included — is called John, James, Edward, or Colin. I happen to be called John James, hence JJ, which is dangerously close to sedition ’round these parts…

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    • I confess that I voted according to the standard of my preferences… I only allowed myself one vote per author, and while my pick for Carr entered into the top ten, my pick for Christie fell just short of the rankings. 😛

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  7. BTW, I’m sure the inclusion of ‘Death of Jezebel’ in the photo at the top of your post is causing envy among Golden Age mystery bloggers and readers. All you need is a cluster of John Rhode novels to create mass envy culminating in revolt. 😛

    I recently purchased a copy of ‘Death of Jezebel’ under £25 as a birthday present for a friend… 😀

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    • I got very lucky with that copy of Death of Jezebel, and had to wait friggin’ ages for someone to be selling it secondhand at a sensible price. This is one of the advantages of always being on the lookout for som many books — you can usually find something you’re looking for, so it always feels like your patience is paying off!

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      • I’m often too much on the lookout for lovely, second-hand, Golden Age mysteries – and so I’ve placed an embargo that restricts me from buying titles that I can either get from a few local libraries or get from my local Kindle store. Then again, my friend is a keen reader of Arthurian legends, and so far all the classic-style mysteries I’ve purchased for his birthday presents have a knightly leitmotif: ‘Invisible Circle’, ‘Policeman in Armour’, and now ‘Death of Jezebel’… 😀

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        • What a great idea — and what a great range of top quality books, your friend is very lucky! I know Invisible Circle has its detractors, but it’s a very atmospheric piece of writing, and the description of it as “impossible crime for Terry Pratchett fans” that someone used fits perfectly in my mind.

          I shall keep an eye out for anything else that has a knightly motif to pass on as a recommendation. There’s a round table in Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide, for one…

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        • Thanks for the recommendation – yes, if you can think of more knightly classic mysteries, do please pass them on! 🙂

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  8. At least Peril at End House made it on there. 😛 It’s a good one, barring that mess with the table of contents, but the central trick has been used by so many lesser writers that it’s easy to forget how well Christie did it.

    It’s been too long since I’ve read Whistle Up the Devil to comment on fairness. I don’t recall the cluing, it felt more like, “This is the only way that X could happen, and that means Y, which turns means Z.” or something along those lines.

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    • My memory of WUtD is that there’s a key moment where you’re told something very explicitly that contradicts a moment earlier in the book, and the only way for this contradiction to be the case is….which means that…so when…., etc. It has a lovely tumlbing effect that works through a lot of what you know to that point, and is so perfectly hidden while being so brazenly on show that it’s actually kinda wonderful to see.

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  9. Pingback: NILE vs. SUN: Fair Play With Spoilers | ahsweetmysteryblog

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