A number of different factors — among them Brad’s recent discourse on the dying message, my reading of Tour de Force (1955) by Christianna Brand, and Noah’s previous post on intertextuality in detective fiction — have brought me to the point where I want to ask the question “What is reality in relation to Golden Age Detective (GAD) fiction?”. Yes, yes, I am a very nerdy man. You should have guessed this by now.
So, let’s get into it…
The meeting of match and touch-paper for me was Brand’s impossible crime novel, and the essential trick at the heart of that book. Worry not, I shall avoid spoilers, but essentially I really like the core idea and am more than happy to admit that it works and is possible in the context of the story, but I do not believe for a second that anyone would be able to make it work in real life. Straight away, therefore, there must be an appreciable difference between my perception of the world we inhabit and the world these books inhabit.
These novels, after all, exist in what we recognise as the real world — the laws of physics are the same (hence the joy in impossible crimes), the fundamentals of forensic evidence are the same (hence the success of Sherlock Holmes), the idea of cause an effect still applies (hence the logical rigoualr of Ellery Queen), and any move to step outside any of this in the works of, say, Randall Garrett or Isaac Asimov, requires a certain amount of in-universe preparation so as not to be accused of cheating. Because cheating means that the author has not conformed to our expectations of declaration, and failing to declare a fundamental difference in the world of a novel compared to the world we inhabit would be the ultimate cheat (Asimov’s own introduction to his collected Asimov’s Mysteries (1968) explains this far better than probably anyone else ever could, but then that’s true of almost everything the Good Doctor ever explained).
So while Dr Thorndyke relies on medical evidence and deductions, they are found in real life, too, and the ideas around rigor mortis, etc, must also be upheld in reality. This, after all, is part of the fun: you’re able to deduce certain things based on your knowledge of the real world, so you get to play along at home. Crucially this is not a discussion of fairness and rules, I’ve expounded on that theme already, and I’m not discussing whether something outside of the real world can be a GAD mystery — yes, it can. Essentially, it’s a question of how ‘real’ the world of a typical GAD novel is, and whether we (or, y’know, it could just be me) deliberately make allowances for any deliberate separations from reality.
So, then, several points must be made.
Firstly, does it matter? Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think it does. Sure, reading is a very subjective thing, one of the few delightfully isolated acts we have these days, but the idea of reality forms the background of these stories, and is something we hanker after in reading them. Don’t believe me? Remember that the next time you encounter a ‘poison unknown to science’, encounter an intrguing problem dismissed at the end because the author couldn’t be arsed to explain it, or are forced to figure out the locations of everyone in an alibi problem amidst deliberately vague descriptions. Let’s face it, we need to know how the land lies, and the resolution of 300 pages having no basis or anchor in acceptable fact is an irritation that takes a good five minutes off our lives.
Secondly, there’s the issue of the in-universe reality that an author creates. Agatha Christie outright states in her own The Body in the Library (1942) that books by her and her contemporaries exist within the eponymous library, and Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen can’t seem to get through a book without pointing out how aware he is of his fictional existence, but there’s nothing to suggest that either of these worlds — beyond an acknowledgement of their being observed — should be subject to any difference of rules than of those in the ‘observing’ universe. To veer wildly into pop culture for a moment, large numbers of people will have recently discovered the Fen-like meta-awareness of Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza’s Deadpool, but that’s very clearly not set in the world we, the reader/watchers, live in.
In fact, on this theme, there’s even the question of whether the books typically thought of as GAD occur in the same universe as each other. Sure, every Gideon Fell book exists in the same strata as ever other Gideon Fell book, and the Fell and Henry Merrivale universes acknowledge each other…but does this mean that the Hercule Poirot stories, the Lord Peter Wimsey cases, the conundrums overcome by Inspector Cockrill could also exist together? There’s no explicit acknowledgement of each other — well, there’s some, since the authors were friends, but it’s mostly tongue in cheek — but could we essentially have a Marvel Cinematic Universe of GAD on our hands?
I’m going to surprise you and say…yes. Consider Leo Bruce’s characteristically-contradictory fictional roman à clef Case for Three Detectives (1936), in which Hercule Poirot, Father Brown, and Lord Peter Wimsey gather in all but name to fail to solve a baffling crime. Again we have a polite but pinpoint accurate satire on these characters, but they are undoubtedly drawn from the separate oeuvres and put together in another setting without sacrificing anything that identifies them for the pasquinades they are. It’s not as if Wimsey’s ability to summon an army of beetles to do his will has to be obfuscated so that he’ll fit in a milieu that contains Poirot and Brown…these characters in no way lapse into incoherence from their original form so that they can be made to work together.
And is the same not true of any combination of sleuths you could pluck from their comfy homes? Jules Maigret would roll his eyes in despair if confronted with the picaresque exploits of Perry Mason, but nothing in one set of books precludes a meeting with the other. Roderick Alleyn would probably wonder at how much nonsense Mrs Bradley spake, and they’d more than likely get in each others’ way, but they could find themselves confronted by the same baffling village poisoning. Oh, yes, my friends, this has been adumbrated for decades now, there’s nothing revelatory in this claim, but in order to discuss the points I wish to discuss I think it necessary to establish at least this base: for the purposes of this discussion, the GAD novels we shall consider can take place alongside each other — a GADU, if you will.
But, how much does this GADU conform to our existence?
I’ll start with an examination of impossible crimes, because I think that’s the best place to examine the fidelity to reality, but we’ll expand outwards from there (hopefully; be under no illusions, I’m making this up as I go…). Essentially, we always want our explanations to be something that could happen, even if a certain amount of luck is required. As I’ve mentioned before, you’d be furious if — in this GADU, remember — Gideon Fell’s impossible shootings in a room with no exits, no gun, and no mechanical jiggery-pokery were explained away via supernatural means. We want to be able to kick ourselves for failing to appreciate the combination of events required to allow this crime to have come off, and so the contortions are accepted so long as they’re achievable (stupidity of victim notwithstanding).
So let’s take Carr’s The Hollow Man (1935), because that’s safe ground for common discussion (there will be one very mild spoiler ahead). I love the solutions to the murder of Charles Grimaud and the invisible assassin who guns down a man in a snow-covered street without leaving a footprint behind, and I’m happy to accept that this is an achievable set of actions…but only in the book itself. Frankly, there is no way in hell this could be done in my day-to-day world — provide all the diagrams you like, John, showing how physically possible it is, it ain’t gonna happen. Not least because — and here’s that MILD SPOILER I warned you about, so feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph where things are safe again — of the absence of blood; the real world would not permit that confluence of actions without a great deal of blood to give it away (also a problem in the shameless rip-off I foolishly read). Nevertheless, the book poses a question and answers it in a satisfactory manner.
Equally, while I accept the chain of reasoning formed by Ellery Queen at various stages in The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932), there’s nothing less likely to happen in the real world than someone actually putting those events in that order and reaching that conclusion. The number of criminal plots devised with a slide rule, a Wisden’s Cricket Almanac, five mirrors, and a sniff of the Birlstone Gambit that are still nevertheless unpicked by the genius who simply happens to be on the scene and knowledgeable in and observant of all the things required to fox that plan defies belief, reason, and all mathematics…yet in the GADU they must have been a near-daily occurrence. Maybe if they were observing us we’d come off as exceptionally dull-witted and in severe need of a dead scullery maid to liven things up a bit.
In the comments of Brad’s post, Moira Redmond, who oversees Clothes in Books, made the following excellent observation:
I love a dying message, even though it is always ridiculous and unreal – but then so are locked rooms, and ridiculous alibis, and blackmailers-who-are-the-next-victims. I love trying to solve the problems, while simultaneously criticizing them.
I chimed in elsewhere with a similar point: this is a genre that takes the ridiculous in its stride very easily, but we will stop short of accepting ghosts even if we’re happy to believe that someone would go to the lengths outlined in some dying clues (a trope alive and well today, as the career of Dan Brown will attest) or that killers are able and willing to go to the lengths they do. The mystery of a man flying outside a third-storey window in John Sladek’s Black Aura (1974) becomes far too ridiculous if it turns out people can actually fly…but when he is killed and it turns out the killer had to be doing two things simultaneously to achieve this, well, frankly it’s still ridiculous but we’ll accept it grudgingly…so where is the line? At what point have we crossed into unacceptable nonsense and mummery?
I don’t have an answer, but I do have a theory. Noah’s musings on intertextuality, which started me down this path a little while back — and they’re excellent, by the way, though you don’t need me to tell you that — splits it into three types, the third of which is:
Every solution to a puzzle mystery shapes every other solution to every other puzzle mystery.
Which he expands upon thusly:
[T]he reader is quite safe from reading a brand-new mystery where the answer to “who killed a child-murdering kidnapper in the confines of a snowbound vehicle” is [the killer in Murder on the Orient Express] — that’s because that’s already been done, and quite well too. More to the point, authors know it and readers know it, and each knows that the other knows it. And since the author knows that the readers know it, the author cannot produce a version of this old book where, say, a blackmailer is murdered aboard an airplane by [the same killer].
In this way, I think what we accept in our reading of GAD is not much different to what we accept and seek in our general reading: the more you see done well, the more accepting you become of things in the same universe that don’t quite hang together. We forgive the imperfections in the things we love, and since we’re likely to recall where one mystery intrudes rather too copiously upon a prior one we’re equally likely to spread around the tolerance if we’ve seen John Dickson Carr explain how a man can be stabbed in the head by an invisibe unicorn and enjoyed the explanation. Wonder Woman, after all, has recently given people hope that Justice League might not be terrible following the disappointment of Batman v. Superman: They Punch for a Bit and Then They’re Mates. Maybe there’s a line you think you won’t step over, but I’m willing to bet there’s a novel out there that’ll edge you far closer than you realise (please note: this is not an invitation to try to trick me into reading paranormal romances…)
So, how real is the ‘real’ world of this GADU? I suggest that it probably resembles the real world less the more you’ve read; if you can accept invisible unicorns, Latin-quoting detectives, murderous conspiracies, and ploys so convoluted they make Conan Doyle’s belief in færies look positively sane, you’re clearly in a happy place and not willing to look back. Perhaps this is why those Poirot novels were
bastardised reinterpreted so unfaithfully for TV, maybe the world they represent is so hilariously unrelatable that no-one would ever believe it if they hadn’t been soaking in it for a good long while. Perhaps those of us who read a huge amount of this are the worst possible critics of how realistic it is, having gone native a long time ago.
Or, hey, as I said above, perhaps it’s just me…