A battle of wits?
Recently my old friend Pauline reminded me that when we were teenagers, we used to read Agatha Christie together and try to work whodunit. We must have been thirteen or fourteen years old. We would even draw up lists of suspects and clues. I had forgotten all about that. And I can’t remember whether we ever got the better of Dame Agatha, but I somehow doubt it. As I continued to read crime fiction in my twenties and thirties, I went on enjoying fairly clued mysteries by writers like Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Dorothy L Sawyers and I remember being particularly pleased when I fingered the murderer in Marsh’s Death in a White Tie.
That was why I found Gladys Mitchell irritating in those days. She has many good qualities, but tight plotting is not one of them. These days I am more forgiving and can often, though not always, enjoy them for their atmosphere, their glorious eccentricity and for her sleuth, the splendidly intelligent and reptilian Mrs Bradley.
As for John Dickson Carr, the maestro of the locked room mystery, yes, his novels are, I suppose, fairly plotted, but I have never yet worked out whodunit by logical deduction and I’d be very much interested to know whether anyone else does. I do however sometimes guess, through a kind of process of elimination, because after reading a number of JDC’s novels, I’ve realised that certain types of people tend not to commit murder in them, so can probably be ruled out. That’s in contrast to Agatha Christie, where absolutely anyone might have done it. She turns our assumptions that certain types of people don’t commit murder against us. It is one of the ways that she pulls the rug from under our feet.
Reading JDC’s The Four False Weapons recently (purchased for a mere £1.50) I didn’t really try to work out the solution, but just went along for the ride. I especially enjoyed the nail-biting climax where the murderer is revealed as the result of a thrilling high stakes card game. I wondered if JDC had invented this extraordinary game called Basset, but I’ve looked online and it is indeed a real game that was played in the 17th century. He describes it brilliantly.
While I do still enjoy a battle of wits with an author – and have sometimes challenged readers of my own novels to a contest – it’s not all that matters to me these days.