Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Let’s Play, “Spot the Killer in Three Easy Steps” (or, Why Dorothy Sayers is Awesome)

(Image from HERE)

The problem with mystery novels is that they are expected to be surprising. This of course makes them unrealistic, because in real life, the sort of people who are the most likely to commit crimes usually do commit most of the crimes. In detective fiction, they rarely do. Readers of such literature will be aware of the following sacred and hallowed genre premises:

1. The least likely suspect is most likely to be guilty.
2. There are no random crimes.

Not to mention:

3. The inhabitants of small country villages spend so much time bashing each other on the head and having affairs with each others’ spouses, per capita, that it’s a wonder they get anything else done (or retain any population).

Unfortunately, most mystery authors fall into patterns of using their own outlines repeatedly, especially if they churn out entire series of books. This makes their work far too predictable (isn't it ironic that a desire to surprise the reader with an unexpected ending can lead to the opposite result?) and allows readers to use literary clues to predict “who done it” before the detective himself knows.

The discerning reading finds himself playing “spot the killer,” a game played in three easy steps.  For example,

Agatha Christie
(Specialist in murders that take place in English country-houses, English villages, and English or Mediterranean hotels)
1. Make a list of all characters who have names.
2. Cross off the ones who are never guilty in an Agatha Christie novel (the young man who is suspected by the police but loyally defended by his beautiful fiancée is almost always in the clear—but so is everyone else to whose potential guilt great attention is drawn near the end of the novel).
3. Circle the name of the character who makes a memorable entrance, then fades into the background as a suspect whilst being periodically trotted forth so that we do not forget him/her.

Tony Hillerman
(Specializes in murders that take place in Navajo territory)
1. Make a list of all the characters.
2. Cross off the names of all the Indian suspects.
3. Find the character who is a white male. If he is a businessman or an anthropologist with a revolutionary theory to prove, and especially if he is an employer who expects his subordinates to work hard, it is a dead cert that he is guilty.

Whenever one reads a mystery writer for the first time, one does not yet know how the author will employ or bend the tropes. This often makes the first novel that one reads by such authors the best. However, some authors really are able to write entire series of books without becoming as transparently repetitive as Agatha Christie or Tony Hillerman (both of whom have written some quite charming books-- the problem is just that they are all the same charming books).

One way in which a mystery author can avoid the trap is to refuse to go in for the surprise ending at all. This sort of story follows our detective as he or she gathers evidence against a suspect who is identified relatively soon in the novel. Another way is to change the type of mystery with each book. Dorothy Sayers does this. Even though she wrote eleven novels and numerous short stories about Lord Peter Wimsey’s detective work, she allowed her character and her style to evolve. Lord Peter becomes an entirely different type of protagonist as Sayers grows more literary and thematic throughout the series. The result is that her books are quite different from each other.

The three-step process doesn't work in her case:

Dorothy Sayers
(Specializes in English murders amongst the educated class)
1. Make a list of all the characters. Notice that it continues to expand as the story goes on.
2. Realize that each book is different in format and even style, and that “who done it” is not predictable
3. Acknowledge that Dorothy Sayers is the greatest mystery writer of them all


  1. Dame Agatha is not always predictable. Remember the one where the narrator of the book is the murderer?

    1. That one is actually my favorite Agatha Christie. Yes, it is indeed different from the others! :-)

      I think that part of the reason that I dislike her books is that (in my eyes) they all have the same cast of characters, amongst whom she rotates as she picks the killer, with occasional efforts to come up with a semi-outsider (the narrator, or the policeman). But I know that a lot of people would heave books at my head for making such snide comments.

    2. I guess that is true. But I remain a fan. :) I think I appreciate her morality and the idea that people are capable of real evil even when they appear to be fine and upstanding citizens. I also agree that Dorothy Sayers books are just better literature, a step up, so to speak.

      Did you ever read the Christie novel set in ancient Egypt? I never can remember its name.

    3. I did read it, years ago. Google says that's Death Comes as the End. I seem to recall enjoying it. Perhaps one of the best Christie stories is the way that she (apparently) tried to stage her own "murder" and implicate her husband, all while skipping off to Scotland or somewhere to lie low. It didn't work, so I guess she was better at writing fiction than fooling the police!


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