Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Game is Afoot By John Desjarlais

What draws us to tales of murder and mayhem? Why do we stay up late at night reading about violence and vengeance?

Because they are fun. Mysteries are the guilty pleasure of the intellectual. They are puzzles of logic. When Sherlock Holmes cries out, “the game is afoot,” he almost means it literally. For if the classic mystery – the traditional mystery – is a contest between the intelligent sleuth and the clever villain, it is also a duel between the skillful writer and the astute reader, who delights in trying to solve the puzzle along with – and possibly before – the detective. The paradox is that if the reader does, indeed, discover whodunnit early on, the game is spoiled. The alert reader wishes far more to be surprised and fooled at the end, and yet finds delight in seeing how the outcome was inevitable. This is only possible if the writer has played fair with the rules of the game, in which the reader can detect along with the detective – and still be assured that the detective will be cleverer than the reader.

In Britain, Monsignor Ronald Knox set out in 1928 the "10 Commandments of Detection," ( contending, for example, that the criminal must be mentioned early on, the supernatural must be ruled out, the detective himself must not commit the crime, no accident must ever help the detective, and he must not have an unaccountable intuition, which proves to be right.

American SS Van Dine offered 20 rules ( that same year, insisting, for example, that the reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery with all clues plainly described. “There simply must be a corpse and the deader the better,” and “there must be no love interest.”

Dorothy Sayers believed the same thing but fell in love with Lord Peter Whimsey and married him by proxy via Harriet Vane. The Detection Club, which formed shortly afterwards in 1930 (, asked members (such as Sayers) to swear an oath on Eric the Skull (all in good fun): "Do you swear solemnly never to conceal a clue from the reader?" Members also promised to honor the King's English, use legitimate detection methods in stories, and refrain from stealing other writers' plots, although collaboration was encouraged. Two of the greatest collaborators in the genre, Manfred Lee and Frederick Dannay, the cousins who comprised “Ellery Queen,” regularly issued “A Challenge to the Reader” near the end of Queen novels, saying that the reader now had all the clues necessary for solving the puzzle. Queen began his – I mean their – writing career by entering one of the many detective fiction contests of the period, and always saw the detective story as a contest between the writer and the reader.

Some of this rule-making - and breaking - became quite complex. Christie, especially, played with the "rules" as a way to outsmart readers.

Books of this period sometimes looked like games: they included lists of characters, maps of houses, gardens and room layouts, all part of the game. Some included physical clues – matchsticks, coins or facsimiles of letters. One of my favorites is the "sealed mystery" - the last chapter was sealed with an onionskin wrapper. If you returned the book with the wrapper uncut (because you figured out the mystery or gave up trying), you'd get a refund. Small wonder that Parker Brothers launched the board game “Clue” at about this time. The newspapers were full of crossword puzzles and other word games. Edgar Allan Poe, who practically invented the detective story, also produced scores of crossword puzzles, secret codes and other games of logic.

The cozy, the amateur sleuth, the cop procedural and PI story are more obviously “games”; the noir story may be a game like other detective stories, but it is a rough game.

If even the serious crime novel is a form of game, there’s another reason we play it. One writer ( put it this way: “When we look at clues and details about murder, we get to be a four-year-old playing with rubber dinosaurs: the game is enjoyable because we control what might otherwise give us nightmares.”

It is small wonder that the detective novel emerged in the Victorian Age when the murder rate was twice what it is now. People wanted some assurance that the police could do their job and keep respectable citizens safe. The books did that. They still do.

Murder mysteries might also be the modern form of the medieval morality play, where the sleuth is “Everyman” (a literary term), who works against time, big money, a determined antagonist, daunting odds and personal flaws to expose evil, stop the bad actor and restore the balance of justice. At the end, readers who identify with the successful protagonist feel a little better about the world and about themselves. A critic might say that mystery novels are escapist, since they offer a fantasy world in which justice prevails, right always wins over wrong, and love finds a way. But what's wrong with that? That's healing. The odd thing is that we can escape reality and face it at the same time.

That’s because with mysteries so close to the barest human desires and fears, they have a built-in opportunity to explore life's higher mysteries: love and power, guilt and innocence, good and evil, or the mystery of undeserved suffering. 

All literature tries to make meaning out of the frightfully short dash between our birthdate and departure date on our tombstones. Mysteries, in the guise of an intelligent game, do this well.


John Desjarlais is a retired community college professor who now hikes, bikes, plays blues guitar and enjoys craft beers in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina. His latest novel is The Kill Floor (Torchflame Books 2022).


Kait said...

Very interesting! I wish I could have been a fly on the wall of some of these discussions.

Grace Topping said...

Thank, John, for a very interesting article about why readers enjoy mysteries. It is nice to think that justice prevails--even if it doesn't always do so.

Lori Roberts Herbst said...

I'm always so interested in why we choose as we do as readers. Thanks for the insight!

Molly MacRae said...

Great post, John. Nice to see you here!

KM Rockwood said...

Interesting to see how the "rules" have changed over the years (no love interest?)

I know I do feel cheated when the POV character uncovers a clue, and all we are told is "She read the note and tucked it into her pocket" or some such.

Some crime novels aren't mysteries in the sense that the reader has any chance at all of putting the clues together (ie Ann Cleeves. Also, in video, Midsomer Murders) but still have a high entertainment value just watching to see what unfolds.

The important thing is that the readers enjoy the journey that the author presents.