Cluefinders

By Martin Edwards

 

‘Fair play’ is a defining principle of the traditional detective story. The author makes an implicit promise that readers will be given a reasonable opportunity to unravel the mystery for themselves before all is revealed at the end. Clues will be given to the solution – and they need to be adequate. Red herrings may abound, tempting false trails may lurk throughout the narrative, and all kinds of distraction tactics may be employed to keep the reader from figuring out the answer. But the author must not withhold vital information. To do so isn’t fair. Nor is it artistically satisfactory.

Agatha Christie was adept at fair play plotting. True, the crucial twist in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd did provoke outrage in some quarters, but the criticism wasn’t justified. Christie certainly played fair in that novel, as well as in almost all of her other mysteries. As Dorothy L. Sayers pointed out, the readers should suspect everyone. Many of Christie’s fellow novelists during the Golden Age of detection between the world wars were equally adept at fair play plotting. Occasionally they overdid the fairness, making the puzzle too easy for an experienced reader to solve. Sometimes the clues were too dependent on specialist technical knowledge to be entirely helpful or fair. But the most skilled writers, such as Christie, Anthony Berkeley, and J.J. Connington walked the tightrope with aplomb.

So did Ellery Queen, who delighted in the ‘challenge to the reader’ as a means of demonstrating fair play. Towards the end of each novel, readers would be told that they now had sufficient information to solve the mystery. It is a tribute to Queen’s expertise in puzzle-making that, all too often, readers were defeated in their attempts to anticipate the big reveal. This device became very popular, and variations of it appeared in the books of a wide range of authors, including Berkeley and Milward Kennedy.

Another gimmick seems to have originated with J.J. Connington’s The Eye in the Museum, published in 1929 (the year which also saw the appearance of the first Ellery Queen novel). Connington’s innovation was, in the closing pages of the story, to point the reader to the pages at which clues to the explanation had been given. The idea was quickly adopted by others. For instance, chapter 23 of Freeman Wills Croft’s highly elaborate The Hog’s Back Mystery, ‘French Propounds a Theory’, is headed with an author’s note stating that: ‘references have been inserted into the following exposition, indicating the pages on which have been given each fact that French used to build up his conclusions’.

Soon ‘cluefinders’ of this kind were cropping up in detective novels published on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, the device was adopted by writers such as Elspeth Huxley and Rupert Penny, while in the United States, the prime exponents of the cluefinder were that master of the locked room mystery, John Dickson Carr, and the equally ingenious (if eccentric) C. Daly King.

The cluefinders in King’s three ‘obelist’ novels were the most elaborate of all. He excelled himself in the final book in the short series: Obelists Fly High, a labyrinthine mystery which begins with an epilogue, ends with a prologue, and boasts three diagrams and an outrageously intricate plot. This strange and remarkable novel, more than any other, fired my own enthusiasm for cluefinders.

After the Second World War, the Golden Age lost its lustre, and cluefinders fell out of fashion. Edmund Crispin was one of the last writers to use the device, but he was burnt out as a detective novelist by the mid-1950s. The last author, as far as I know, to tip his hat to the cluefinder in the twentieth century was none other than Kingsley Amis. His The Riverside Villas Murder was a pastiche of the Golden Age whodunit, and the dust jacket flap mentioned a few pages where key clues were lurking. Otherwise, the cluefinder has been dead and gone for more than half a century.

Last year, while I was writing my latest novel Mortmain Hall, I resolved that it was time to resurrect the cluefinder. This book is the second, after Gallows Court, to feature Rachel Savernake and the journalist Jacob Flint, and is again set in 1930. Both books are intended to pay homage to Golden Age fiction, although they are by no means pastiches. Rather, I’ve taken elements from classic detective fiction and tried to use them in a fresh way. Gallows Court is not a whodunit, although the storyline is packed with puzzles; in some respects, it’s more akin to a psychological thriller.

Mortmain Hall, however, does include a whodunit puzzle, and – you guessed it – the truth is finally explained to the assembled suspects in the library of a country house. This storyline gave me the opportunity to contemplate the inclusion of a cluefinder. As you might imagine, the cluefinder is the last part of the novel to be written. You need to be absolutely sure of the structure of your storyline before you are able to look back and highlight the specific clues to the explanation.

When at last I reached the final stage, I was astonished to discover that I’d been more generous with my clues than I’d realised. So no fewer than thirty-four telling leads are referenced in the cluefinder to Mortmain Hall. You may suspect that this makes the mystery easy to solve. But I like to think that it’s quite a tough challenge. I’m excited to see how American readers react to this revival of an old tradition of the genre – and to discover how many of those clues they manage to spot…

Posted in Blog Article, Detectives.

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