POINT ME IN THE RIGHT MISDIRECTION (Part Two: The Magician and the Empress)

You’re looking up at the slide and thinking: Wow! Brad’s top two mystery authors are . . . Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene! (Whom I think are the same person . . . or syndicate . . . or something.) Did you ever imagine a blogger would finally give these authors their due?

Actually, I hope that I honored the important place the Hardy Boys hold in my heart here and here. I only read a couple of the Nancy Drew mysteries, but since boys crave adventure and girls are smart, I suspect the ND books were better.

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The Hardy Boys were my gateway drug into something even greater. Even as I ploughed through titles like The Tower Treasure, The Secret Panel and The Haunted Fort, I knew that the mystery genre held something more, something both exciting and intellectual. And if, once I discovered mystery fiction for grown-ups, I sucked them down for the puzzles, I have grown to discover that murder mysteries also cast a light on history and societal preoccupations – albeit of a time and place where I’ve never been and can never go. Mysteries excite me and calm me down, and for me there are few greater thrills than the one I get discussing them with others.

 

If you were with me for Part One of this, er, whatever it is, you already know how I feel about Ellery Queen and Christianna Brand. Suspense has been rife in the blogosphere ever since as people lay bets on who my top two favorite mystery authors are. So far, the odds on favorite for female author has been split between Mignon G. Eberhart and Ngaio Marsh, while those in the know believe I’m about to jump the gun on male classic authors and head straight to Paul Halter. Therefore, without further ado, let me set the record straight. To quote the central figure on the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland: “Hold on tight, here we goooooo!!!”

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III. In which John Dickson Carr is a lock for the title of The Magician and Master of Miracles, and the true crime here is that of his being locked out of the (publishing) house.

Except for his baffling love of baseball, John Dickson Carr was a boy I would have liked to grow up with. Small for his age, a dreamer, a romantic, and a voracious reader, I can imagine us sitting under a tree, whether in his hometown of Uniontown, PA, or mine, San Francisco, CA, our noses stuck in books for which we had traded each other: Baum’s Oz novels, swashbuckling tales like The Three Musketeers, and the short fiction of Doyle and Chesterton. Everything we both read (separately, alas) paved the way for our lifelong obsession with mystery fiction. The main difference is . . . I didn’t write any. But even if I had, I could never have been as good as Carr.

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In his marvelous biography of Carr, Doug Greene paints a picture of a creative mind who had developed early on an assured understanding of what constitutes a classic mystery novel:

“Detective stories, John had already decided by the age of fifteen, should play fair with the reader, presenting all the available evidence. But the clues need not be physical; the master of the craft will put ‘here and there a casual remark that, unknown to the reader, is the keynote to the plot.”

The italics are mine, and they indicate an understanding of exactly what I love about mysteries. (We would have been best friends growing up, John!) To my shame, I have not read any Chesterton, but if, as Greene explains, GKC was Carr’s literary idol, I need to start. As Greene explains,

“John was influenced by more than Chesterton’s mastery of the locked room and other so-called miracle crimes. Chesterton’s interest in the incongruous, in paradoxes, in the pattern of the crime rather than in physical clues, in setting out the case so that the reader thinks that one course of events has occurred when in fact an entirely different series of happenings has taken place – all these became integral parts of Carr’s own fiction.”

And that, in a nutshell – that dedication to misdirecting the reader – is what I love about John Dickson Carr. As for the impossible crime stuff . . . well, sure, that’s good, too, but if Carr had elected to unlock every study door and place footprints around ever snow-drenched pavilion, I would be just fine with that, too!

You see, I’ve read a lot of locked room mysteries in my lifetime, but it’s because I love them. It’s because I was initiated into the sub-genre by the very best. Here’s the thing about most locked room authors like Hake Talbot, or Noel Vindry or John Sladek or Paul Halter or Alice Arisugawa: they employ misdirection in their writing in service to the illusion that a miracle has occurred. They understand the rules of fair play and know that there must be no vampires or ghosts or wendigos or werewolves; there must not be any previously undisclosed tunnels or secret passages. Yet the author must first present a credible argument that the crime could only have been accomplished by monsters or magic before revealing the rational facts behind the fantasy. Fans of the sub-genre are tickled to dwell for a few hours in the zone that lies between the Miracle That Can’t Be and the Unvarnished Truth, but make no mistake about it: the author’s solution had better provide rational explanations for all the elements that we would label as impossible in real life – that is, if he wants to stay in business as a mystery writer.

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This can result in some endings that are as hard to swallow as my daily dose of probiotics! Hake Talbot is lucky that Rim of the Pit is so much damn fun because when he starts explaining the method by which two impossible crimes were committed – well, let’s just say that to me the end of that novel resembles a favorite childhood game called Mousetrap. There comes a point in many locked room mysteries where cleverness stretches credulity to the point of craziness. I also have to admit to not having a particularly mechanical mind, and it’s frankly hard for me to grasp some of these solutions. This makes me feel stupid, and that’s the last thing I want to feel when I’m indulging in one of my favorite pastimes.

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Carr was certainly capable of complex murder methods that stretched the bounds of believability in how life works and how people think (*koff*The Three Coffins*koff*), but what makes him one of my two favorite authors is how expertly he practiced the art of misdirection in every aspect of his plots, not just in the “how”. In both Coffins and He Who Whispers, Carr posits that a vampire committed the crimes. Certainly the aspects of the murders here support that theory (killers who vanish from a room, fly across the snow leaving no footprints, float across a lake or fly to the top of a high tower), and if that were all Carr accomplished, most people would be happy. All he would have to do is adhere to the laws of nature and reassure us at the end that vampires are not involved – and he has to explain how the illusion was accomplished in a (hopefully) satisfying manner. But Carr’s characters exhibit behavior that would suggest they are vampires not just to prepare us for the murder method, but in service to the larger mysteries of who and why.

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This results in scenes that display Carr’s penchant for (and expertise in) horror writing, and they present complications for a reader who has, as is natural, dismissed vampires as fiction. We know the laws of physics apply here: a person can’t float or fly of vanish into thin air. Much fun comes in bursting these illusions, but it’s not so easy to explain how several men burst out of coffins buried in the ground, or why a woman has her mouth fastened on a child’s throat. The rationale for both these scenes requires a subtle weaving of circumstances into the narrative to cast further doubt on our tendency to cling to the natural order of things and keep a deep sense of foreboding in play.

 

Carr shares with my other top authors a strong sense of having made a compact with his readers. Ellery Queen communicated via his “Challenge to the Reader,” and Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee toured the lecture circuit, often wearing masks and pretending to have a Writer’s Duel between Queen and Barnaby Ross! Christianna Brand broke the fourth wall to remind readers not to get too comfortable with the characters as one or more would be dead by the time she got through with them. Like the best magician, Carr brought his audience up onstage and made them part of his act. I may not love The Nine Wrong Answers quite as much as Patrick or Ben do, but it illustrates Carr’s bravado his willingness to look the reader in the eye and say, “Everything I tell you here is true” and still have our world turn upside down at the end.

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This breaking of the fourth wall is pure Carr. So is his attitude toward women. I say this with all respect when I opine that Carr had the mid-20th century gentleman’s attitude toward objectifying women. Another gift at which Carr excelled was in creating ambivalence surrounding a person’s moral character, particularly women. In typical American noir fashion, Carr’s female characters lie at the extremes of good and evil. They are designed to trick us into false trust – or false accusation. And, like the other three in this magnificent quartet, Carr the romantic is willing to tear families or lovers apart in service to his craft.

Carr’s casts are invariably small, and suspicion is evenly spread, necessitating great skill in misdirection. He rarely makes the mistake into which Christie sometimes fell, that of weaving such a thick web of innocence around a certain character that it all but assures us of the revelation of that person’s guilt in the end. And while all four authors practiced the art of the false solution with such skill that we have all not only been suckered into believing the next to last theory to be the correct one, we often think it the best one, Carr was the best of the lot. In The Problem of the Green Capsule, we don’t just jump from person to person in our suspicions; the author leads us there with great dexterity, piling up damning evidence against first one character then another, including the actual murderer. As a result, titles like this one don’t end so much with a bang-up surprise as with the satisfied certainty that everything has at last been explained away in the only manner possible. But Carr is equally capable of jaw-dropping finales, as in She Died a Lady, where the unmasking of a surprise killer causes us to pore through the novel once again, realizing how we took certain things for granted and jumped to conclusions we had no right jumping to!

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Paul Halter is a disciple of Carr’s and has patterned his own career on the styling and trickery for which JDC was famous. I often give Halter a hard time, but one thing he has done is make it crystal clear to me how difficult a task it is to juggle parallel mysteries, to place miracles from the past side by side with the relatively clear-eyed attitudes of modern-day, to present characters and motives and methods in such a way that the path to truth remains cloudy until the final chapter, sometimes even the final word. Carr’s enormous output – sixty-five or so novels, countless radio plays, many short stories – couldn’t prevent a few clunkers from popping up. But all in all, when it comes to impossible crimes, he is the original and the best. And as a master of misdirection he had no better. No fan could ask for a better writer in his Number Two spot!

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  1. In which Agatha Christie is crowned the Empress of Misdirection, a great many examples are discussed, so many that they spill over into the next post, and this blogger dares to predict that she could make a living off her writing.

If Carr began writing because he was inspired to by his boyhood heroes, and Brand penned her first mystery out of murderous wish fulfillment, and the cousins Queen put aside their natural competitiveness to win a contest (they didn’t win), then isn’t it funny that the most successful mystery writer did it as a lark, perhaps to win a bet with her sister that she even could complete something?

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Agatha Miller’s childhood seemed to prepare her for nothing so much as to get married. Her parents loved her, but they were very busy. She was mostly self-schooled, mostly in the niceties of life. She was pretty, but she was shy. She spent a lot of her time alone. She read books and made up her own stories and plays. In short, she had all the credentials to assume the life of a writer. Within a half dozen years of her first book, she had blossomed from a mystery author to The mystery author. After negotiating an awful first contract with a publisher, and after seeing how easily adaptors could trash her work on stage, screen and television, Christie became as proprietary about her work as she was private about her process. I wonder, though, if she ever dreamed that she would become an industry.

Marketing can only go so far, and those who dismiss Christie’s talent do so at their own risk. P.D. James was quick to dismiss her:

“Agatha Christie hasn’t in my view had a profound influence on the later development of the detective story. (She) wasn’t an innovative writer and had no interest in exploring the possibilities of the genre . . . (She) is a literary conjuror who places her pasteboard characters face downwards and shuffles them with practiced cunning. Perhaps her greatest strength was that she never overstepped the limits of her talent.”

I always find this assessment shocking, but Ms. James was not alone in holding to this opinion. Every so often, somebody trots out a piece from the Times or the This or the That, full of cold admiration laced with patronage about the quiet, dowdy creator of seventy-two novels, fourteen short-story collections, sixteen plays, and sundry other writings, that looks at her work and murmurs, “How extraordinary!” As recently as last month, an article in the U.K.’s Independent on the Christie “Corporation” created a portrait of the author that was, to my mind, patronizing and insulting, forcing her great-grandson to defend her against her dismissal as the inventor of the “cosy” mystery. James Prichard called her a writer who “wrote about people, and the effects that murder had upon them.”

 

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Perhaps the key to her success is that Agatha Christie was a mystery writer for the people: she knew her public and never underestimated its intelligence. She also wrote about the whole panoply of society, not just the rich, but the working- and middle-class. She was not concerned with “big” themes or overly complicated structures like Queen, just with people and their reaction to the shifting fortunes of men. She eschewed sentiment, inviting her readers into a world where no relationship is safe and anybody can be a killer. As complicated as her murder plots could get, there was something about Christie that was refreshingly simple – the opposite of Carr’s Grand Guignol atmosphere and Queen’s penchant for the bizarre. A political thriller could begin with a day at the dentist. A megalomaniac would be certain to stock his underground kingdom with a fine boutique and a beauty salon to make sure the women are satisfied. Often the telling clue that cracked the case was firmly rooted in the mundane details of daily life: the manner in which a woman selects shoes, the vagaries of spelling, the oddness of taking a bath in the afternoon when on holiday.

She was sparing with her details about a room or a person’s appearance. Perhaps this is one of the things that irked writers like James, who could stretch the description of a room into chapter length or focus so hard on the psychology of her suspects that she sort of . . . forgot she was writing a mystery. Christie’s gift was something that Carr had little patience for: setting the fantastic in our banal world. Still, Carr had to admire Christie’s ability to weave her clues within a gentle skein of wool, to mask a revelatory remark in casual conversation, to make you focus on the date on the calendar when what you really should have noticed is that the butler is nearly blind.

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If Carr took his biggest risks in the “how” of a murder, Christie could make your jaw drop with the who and the why. That means she ran a greater risk of readers latching onto the key trick at the beginning and seeing through the subterfuge. But this is an issue for individuals, not the masses. Christie’s novels fooled most of the people most of the time, and even those who aren’t fooled by one title or another can attest to the ride still being enjoyable (which cannot be said for a lot of mystery authors whose pages we keep reluctantly turning merely to find out whodunit – and then bedunwithit!)

Part of Christie’s brilliance lies in the way she lulls us into a false sense of security by painting in broad strokes a prosaic world her readers recognize as their own, making us jump to conclusions by accessing our own experience to fill in the gaps that Christie has left blank. On a meta-level, this extends to our assumptions of our innate ability to read and interpret text and to cast aside anomalies, such as incorrect spelling, as mere textual errors, or to accept information given to us at face value. When reading Christie, one must pay attention to everything in terms of the way she lays out her story: what has she told you, what has she left out, and in what order did she tell it?

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Here’s an example from one of my favorite novels, which I will not mention by name but which sensitive readers might want to skip as a potential SPOILER. The book opens with a dramatic scene where an old woman makes a declaration in a roomful of people that sends everybody reeling and essentially removes any sense of complacency or safety from their lives. Next comes a series of short scenes following the characters as they journey home separately from this gathering, showing their reactions both through conversation and inner thoughts. We are trained to believe that inner thoughts don’t lie, so we make assumptions about each character based on these thoughts. We end with a vignette of an old woman congratulating herself on the impact she had on the group when she made her declaration. There can be no doubt that this is the same woman we met earlier. Yet Christie is hiding a huge secret here that, once murder is committed, will send most readers in the entirely wrong direction. END SPOILERS

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Christie is never less than cunning when giving us a glimpse into the minds of her characters. We see inside all ten of the guests on Indian Island and, although we know one of them must be the killer, based on what we read we can neither confirm guilt nor exonerate any of them. We tackle whole novels that are seen through the mind of a killer without suspecting anything. In her most famous example of this, Christie relies on our assumption that narrators always tell the truth or, at least, their perspective of the truth. She challenges herself even further by weaving into the text not only physical clues that point to the killer but clues from the killer’s own narrative that leaves it to the reader to interpret the true meaning of the words. But since we don’t expect the narrator to lie, most of us don’t even acknowledge this open-ended aspect to his words, and when they are explained at the end, we see that all along the narrator – and the author – has been taunting us with clues to the truth.

Christie understands that readers see what they’re trained to see, often jumping the gun in our interpretation of how something is worded. Here’s another example with no title from a fair to middling Christie. You might want to skip it for fear of SPOILERS:

A man gets locked in a room with a madman who brandishes a gun on him. Witnesses outside the door can attest to the intensity of the situation, the real danger to the man’s life – and incidentally this nightmare provides both men with an alibi when murder is discovered. When the man emerges from the room “breathing hard as if he had been running,” we automatically assume this to be the result of the stress he endured during that ordeal. Here’s where the reader who asks himself (like a certain convivial 15-year-old asked himself some years ago), “What if he was running?” ends up figuring out the whole plot way in advance (the map provided helped for once!). But Christie has some other tricks up her sleeve to cast doubt on this possible solution. It all depends on how you read it. END SPOILERS

Like Brand, Christie could play havoc on a reader’s perception of the motive for a murder. She could present a set of circumstances that seemed to allow for one credible interpretation, and then flip the situation upside-down, sideways or in reverse. Potential victims become murderers, and bad guys are redeemed. Sometimes the most likely suspect is the killer. In fact, I cannot think of a single person, of any age, gender, sexual persuasion or occupation, who has not committed murder except, ironically, the butler. (That wasn’t a real butler, folks!) No love affair is sacrosanct, and in at least one title a woman who can’t decide between two suitors learns at the end that both of them are killers. Mothers have seen their sons sent to the gallows (except for the mother who was killed by her son!), and children have been orphaned when their parent was placed under arrest.

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This no-holds-barred attitude on Christie’s part frees her to play with our sentiments and preconceived notions at every turn. She can depend on our tendency not to read too closely, knowing that she can toss an important clue right in our faces and rely on us not to put two and two together. One of my favorite devices of hers is the “frozen look” that comes upon a character in moments of stress. That character can turn out to be a witness, a victim or a murderer; the device is never used twice in the same way.

Here’s an example which I’m not sure counts as a SPOILER, but you can never be too careful: In A Caribbean Mystery, old Major Palgrave is boring poor Miss Marple to death with old stories. As he is about to pull out a snapshot from his wallet of a murderer, he stares in shock over Miss Marple’s shoulder, thrusts the picture back and lamely changes the subject. Miss Marple looks behind her and establishes the seven suspects who will figure in the Major’s inevitable murder. But Christie has already laid out a basic fact – in fact, she has pounded that fact into our brains! – that we had better remember if we are not to fall into her trap. END SPOILERS

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I have spoken before about certain titles that are so audacious in their misdirection and surprise element that they should be read quickly before someone spoils them. As I have come to realize from Ben’s blog posts, the novels with the biggest build-ups often lead to the biggest let-down for the intelligent reader who grasps the misdirection early on. That’s okay – because Christie provides hundreds of examples that permeate her canon, and some of the smallest are among the best. In the final part of this series, I will examine two classic titles by the Queen of Crime, poring over her technique and how she goes about bamboozling her readers. THERE WILL BE SPOILERS!

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8 thoughts on “POINT ME IN THE RIGHT MISDIRECTION (Part Two: The Magician and the Empress)

  1. So delighted to see Christie here, Brad! I’ve always felt that way about her work, but I’m a very biased fan. So I’ve always been willing to accept that not everyone agrees with me. Love it that you see things in a similar way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “When reading Christie, one must pay attention to everything in terms of the way she lays out her story”

    This is one of the key points about Christie and the fact that she kept surprising readers, in new ways, for almost her whole career is astounding. Also, her skills as a storyteller are often underrated.

    Thanks for this impassioned exploration of two great writers (I am less of a Carr fan, but I have a great admiration for his ingenuity).

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Christie had a habit of slipping key clues right by you, innocuously. I would provide examples but they would be spoilers. The original title of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans is as close to an example as I dare. Great piece as always, Brad.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. You’re right Brad, “The Boomerang Clue” is the alternative title –the American title — to “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans”? I prefer the latter.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, you are correct! The Boomerang Clue, which I’ve always preferred. I thought as a title line, “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans” took all the drama out of the moment when someone actually utters these words.

        I preferred the original title of TBC because the title’s significance became apparent only at the end of the story,

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  4. “The Boomerang Clue” may provide key significance toward the end of the story but as an intriguing title that hooks the reader, I’d say “Why Didn’t They Ask Evans”. Why you may ask? When I see the title the group of questions I ask are: Who is Evans? What was Evans supposed to be asked? Who are the “they”? And obviously, why didn’t they ask Evans? What’s the reason behind not asking Evans? It makes me want to read the story all the more.

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