1. Vance
    Offline

    Vance Member

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2011
    Messages:
    51
    Likes Received:
    4

    What makes a mystery truly fair?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Vance, Jul 6, 2011.

    A fair murder mystery is, as John Dickson Carr once said, The Grandest Game in the World. Now, what do you consider a fair murder mystery to be? Carr outlined his own definition of the term, but what do you consider the term to mean?

    What is a truly fair mystery? At what point does foreshadowing become a legitimate clue? At what point does an ending go from guessable to solvable?
     
  2. Mallory
    Offline

    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 27, 2010
    Messages:
    4,274
    Likes Received:
    191
    Location:
    Tampa Bay
    I'm not entirely sure what you're asking.

    I don't think it's unfair to throw in curve-balls in a mystery or have foreshadowing that leads to nowhere. It's called red herrings, and mystery stories are full of them. They have to be, because I'm not going to read a mystery novel where I can tell the entire time who the killer is, or where the author only includes one or two obviously-fake red herrings. I want a mystery to challenge me, not treat me like a moron.

    The only thing that's bad is a deux ex machina. Twists are great, but not if it's something like "Aaaaand the real killer is the great-uncle's friend's mob boss who wasn't even in the story!"

    But I'd rather be shocked at the end due to fruitless foreshadowing with a purpose, than read the ending and think "Meh, I saw it coming by page 10."
     
  3. Vance
    Offline

    Vance Member

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2011
    Messages:
    51
    Likes Received:
    4
    A fair murder mystery is one where the reader can legitimately solve the mystery, much like the detective does, before the novel ends. In other words, it allows the reader to "compete" against the detective to see who solves the mystery first.

    It was the rule in the Golden Age of mystery fiction. There are many articles about it, but I can't link to them due to the forum's rules, I think.

    I'm not saying that a fair mystery must be obvious, far from it. I'm saying that a mystery must be both challenging and fair.

    For example, if the only way the reader can find out the culprit's identity is by guessing based on foreshadowing, such as "this character looks guilty because she acts guilty" then that isn't really fair, is it? That's just guessing based on literary foreshadowing.

    A fair mystery uses foreshadowing to give hints or to provide red herrings, but what truly makes it solvable are small clues, that do not really count as foreshadowing. Say character A was wearing article of clothing B that contradicts statement C, and so on. That makes a thread of logic that leads to the killer, making solving the mystery a logical possibility, even if it would require the reader to be truly smart in doing so.

    Now, say we have a novel that has no such thread of logic. The detective thinks character A is guilty because she has 'that look' and so on. Such outcome is foreshadowed during the entire novel, but has no basis in logic. Even though the culprit was foreshadowed, the novel wasn't fair.

    Sorry if I wasn't clear before.
     
  4. arron89
    Offline

    arron89 Banned

    Joined:
    Oct 10, 2008
    Messages:
    2,460
    Likes Received:
    91
    Location:
    Auckland
    I guess it depends on what the author is trying to achieve. As you point out, some mystery authors intend for the reader to be able to solve the crimes independently (to compete with the detective, as you put it). But with others, I guess most notable the Sherlock Holmes detective stories, part of the enjoyment comes in the 'flourish' of Holmes' deductions. Those stories work by creating a tension between the reader, Holmes, and Watson, where the reader should always know more than Watson and less than Holmes, which means that when Holmes ultimately solves the crime, the reader feels validated for picking up on certain clues themselves, but the solving is done exclusively by Holmes, and watching him is part of the entertainment.

    There are other successful formats too, particularly in the noir genre. The movie 'Kiss Me Deadly', for instance, has a detective who isn't necessarily in control of the case or the investigation, and taking agency away from him creates more interesting dynamics while still presenting a 'fair' mystery.

    I don't think it's necessary that the reader should be able to solve the case for it to be fair, but it must be sensible when the detective does.
     
  5. cruciFICTION
    Offline

    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    May 18, 2011
    Messages:
    1,236
    Likes Received:
    49
    Location:
    Brisbane, Australia
    That's not a deus ex machina. That's just an illogical twist. That's just terrible. I don't know if that even has a name.
    A deus ex machina is a device that gets a character (or writer) out of an unwinnable situation or something similar. Like if someone is dangling from a cliff, and someone (likely a prior character) pulls them up; someone who really had no business being there, and explains it as, "Oh, I decided to follow you" and nobody thinks it's weird.
     
  6. Mallory
    Offline

    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 27, 2010
    Messages:
    4,274
    Likes Received:
    191
    Location:
    Tampa Bay
    Vance - Thanks for clarifying. And yeah, those are fun to read (and write).

    Cruc - I just knew a deux ex machina as a too-convenient cop-out from the middle of nowhere. Couldn't a nonexistent character fit that bill as well? And yes, I agree, it'd be awful to have an ending like that.
     
  7. HorusEye
    Offline

    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 25, 2009
    Messages:
    1,215
    Likes Received:
    48
    Location:
    Denmark
    What they often do in TV mysteries is let the murderer make a mistake 2/3 into the story, which turns the tables and leads to them being found out. That way the writer's assured that nobody's able to guess who the murderer is prior to the mistake being made. It's a bit cheap perhaps, but it's solid and solves the problem of too much / too little exposition.
     
  8. WriterDude
    Offline

    WriterDude Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 6, 2011
    Messages:
    738
    Likes Received:
    37
    Location:
    Icy cold wastes of Hell. Aka Norway.
    Personally, I strongly prefer to get enough hints that I think I know what's going on, then get a game changer that changes everything. Preferable several game changers, in fact. The first Saw-movie was great like that. It was quite obvious who the killer was more or less right from the start, but it changed after a while and made it quite obvious he wasn't the killer after all. It made the movie a lot more interesting than it would have been if they kept hinting towards the same killer the whole time.

    (and just for the record: Saw 1 is a classic. Saw 2 and onwards are pointless.)
     
  9. Vance
    Offline

    Vance Member

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2011
    Messages:
    51
    Likes Received:
    4
    I wouldn't call the Saw movies a mystery though. Personally, I don't believe in a twist that comes out of nowhere or making the criminal give himself away. I also don't believe that it's fine for a fair mystery not to be solvable by the reader.

    If the reader has no chance of winning, then the grandest game in the world is reduced to a soccer game where only one side is allowed to score. It isn't really a game anymore if it turns out like that.
     
  10. WriterDude
    Offline

    WriterDude Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 6, 2011
    Messages:
    738
    Likes Received:
    37
    Location:
    Icy cold wastes of Hell. Aka Norway.
    That's why I said Saw 2 and onwards are pointless. People often tend to forget how great Saw 1 really was and only think about the three dozen sequels. :p
     
  11. thewordsmith
    Offline

    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Nov 18, 2009
    Messages:
    874
    Likes Received:
    124
    Location:
    State of Confusion
    If you've ever read any Ellery Queen mysteries, while the writing may not be the be epitome of good writing, it is an excellent example of a 'fair' mystery. The reader was given all of the information the illustrious Detective Queen had. There were no secrets. Nothing was kept from the reader so the reader had as much opportunity to solve the mystery as Queen did.

    That's playing fair with your reader. Don't try to be so sneaky about the mystery that your mc pulls it out of his hat at the last minute and the reader is left wondering, "Where th'fk did THAT come from?"
     
  12. mammamaia
    Offline

    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

    Joined:
    Nov 21, 2006
    Messages:
    19,316
    Likes Received:
    1,014
    Location:
    Coquille, Oregon
    'fair' can also mean only 'so-so' or not great, but 'ok'... so, how do we know what was meant by the word?
     
  13. Vance
    Offline

    Vance Member

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2011
    Messages:
    51
    Likes Received:
    4
    It's a somewhat common literary term when speaking about the Golden Age of mystery fiction. Raymond Chandler, Carr and others frequently referred to it as such. I mistakenly assumed the term was more well known than it is.

    After realizing as much, I posted a clarification within the thread's first three posts.

    Ah yes, the Ellery Queen novels. I love them so much. The first 9 or so even included the famous "challenge to the reader!"

    The beauty of his novels didn't come from his prose, but from how elegantly he outplayed the reader. He always let the reader come this close to solving the mystery, but unless the reader in question was really clever, he would trick them with a twist or two that the reader could have seen coming but didn't.

    I can certainly agree with that definition.
     
  14. thewordsmith
    Offline

    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Nov 18, 2009
    Messages:
    874
    Likes Received:
    124
    Location:
    State of Confusion
    And I always tried to beat him at his own game... and sometimes did! (But usually didn't.)
     
  15. hyperchord24
    Offline

    hyperchord24 Member

    Joined:
    Jan 17, 2011
    Messages:
    36
    Likes Received:
    1
    Mysteries loose me if they give a solution that certainly is possible, but no real clues (read: softballs) were given. I recently watched the movie adaptation of Murder on the Nile by Agatha Christie and it seemed to me that one could have figured it out, but it couldn't have been based on clues given because they were too vague. Is that Deus ex Machina an illogical twist or am I just too dumb to read mysteries?
     
  16. Vance
    Offline

    Vance Member

    Joined:
    Feb 5, 2011
    Messages:
    51
    Likes Received:
    4
    I'm going to presume the movie is unfair, as many movie adaptations often cut the fairness of movies, because I've read the novel and it's certainly fair. I haven't seen the movie, but it's definitely not a deus ex machina in the original novel.
     

Share This Page