If you were to ask a million people what makes a detective story good, you might get a whole bunch of different responses, everything from that the murder be nice and bloody and happen to someone who deserves it (or who, though undeserving of being murdered, perhaps is annoying enough that we enjoy it), to the fact that the detective is someone unexpected.
However, and this is pure speculation as I have no way to ask a million people a question (and if I did, this probably wouldn’t be the question I’d choose), I believe that there are two answers that would come up more than the rest combined.
The first is the interest factor. If the butler did it with the revolver in the billiards room, no one cares. It’s been done before. So to keep people’s interest, the writer needs to get clever either in the method, the culprit or the motive. So if the butler’s invalid mother committed the murder using a poison distilled from the teeth of a Venus flytrap, because she wanted to take the rear-view mirror from the victim’s antique Bentley, readers who like originality will be happy.
The second major preference in my utterly hypothetical scientific study would be those who want to have a chance to beat the detective at his or her own game. These would insist that the keys to discovering the murder must be given to the reader, no mater how fiendishly disguised. In fact, the more cleverly hidden, the better; true experts aren’t interested in the thrill of a hollow victory. They want to earn it. But to do so, there must be no ambiguity, and the clues must point to a single possible resolution.
The perfect mystery story would have both of these characteristics at the same time. It would be both original and fair. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen, which creates a Venn diagram with a couple of circles that do touch, but not as often as would be ideal.
So where are we going with this? Well, we’re looking at a specific book, and through it at a particular author. The book is After the Funeral and the author is Agatha Christie. I’ll try not to spoil it for anyone.
(By the way, we’ve looked at Agatha Christie before, but that was through the lens of what made her a megagazillion bestselling author–not looking at her as a pure specimen of a mystery writer.)
This is a typical Christie book in that everything, including the murder, is in doubt until the very end. From a reasonably large sample size that also includes her more well-known titles, I’d have to say that this is a fairly typical showing. If someone put a gun to my head and asked me where Christie falls on the spectrum discussed above (again, is that the question anyone would ask another person while threatening them with death?), I’d place her firmly on the “originality” side of the Venn diagram with one foot occasionally, but certainly not permanently in the “fairness” circle.
This isn’t to say that Christie doesn’t give certain clues, or that it’s always impossible to guess at what’s happening, but her objective, I believe, was more to make her audience say ‘coo, that was clever’ (she was British, the British say this sort of thing) than to slap themselves in the forehead and say ‘of course! That was why the goose swallowed the revolver!’
But, at the same time, there is certainly a soft focus to the clues in many of her mysteries. While the resolution arrived at by Poirot or Marple or whoever might fit all the clues, there is always a fuzzy border in which the clues also fit other answers. These are usually discarded by Poirot after he goes on an undisclosed trip to talk to someone off camera.
That’s fine, and I think half of the people who read these books will not be overly concerned with that… But the other half might, and considering Christie’s status, they might be put off mystery fiction forever.
Of course, as a writer in a different genre, I am not unduly bothered by this. A failed mystery or a perceived unfairness in a Christie novel might simply drive them to one one of my books instead (hooray). So I’m not complaining!
Gustavo Bondoni is the author of Outside, an SF novel with a mystery at its core which may or may not be fair, but it will definitely both shock and surprise you. You can buy it at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.