Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

May 17, 2008

What is a ‘Puzzle Plot’?

Filed under: FAQ,Sub-genres — Jon @ 5:16 am

From Monescu:

A “puzzle plot” is, as the phrase suggests, merely a plot which is in its essence a puzzle. As such, the term has a wider scope than “impossible crime story,” which in turn has a wider scope than “locked room” mystery. Perhaps I should say that the “locked room mystery” is a subset of the “impossible crime story” which is in turn a subset of “the puzzle plot.” A few examples may help make things clearer:

Conan Doyle’s “The Speckled Band” is a locked room mystery. As such, it is also an impossible crime story and a puzzle plot.

Ellery Queen’s “The Lamp of God,” which involves the stunning vanish of an entire house, is not a locked room mystery (there is no locked room involved), but it is an impossible crime story and thus also a puzzle plot (there are many examples of this type of story… Carr’s “The Curse of the Bronze Lamp” is another that comes to mind, though the word “Lamp” in the title is certainly not a prerequisite!).

Agatha Christie’s “Five Little Pigs” (as with most of her novels) is neither a locked room mystery nor an impossible crime story, but it certainly is a puzzle plot.

The term puzzle plot is used nearly interchangeably with several other terms, though there are important distinctions. It is usually a puzzle plot that is meant when one refers to a “Golden Age detective story,” but not all puzzle plots were written within the historical period referred to as detective fiction’s “Golden Age,” nor is a detective figure necessary for a puzzle plot (Christie’s “And Then There Were None” certainly qualifies as a puzzle plot, and it lacks such a detective character [yes, I know about William Henry Blore… but he quite obviously doesn’t count!]). “Whodunit” is another term that is frequently used to refer to puzzle plots, but is actually another subset; many puzzle plots are not concerned with the question of culprit identity, instead centering on questions of “how,” “why,” or even “where” (e.g. Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” where the identity of the culprit is known from the beginning).

Again, the boundaries of classification are sometimes fuzzy and in constant dispute (of course, I’ve tried to make it easy on myself by choosing examples that are fairly clear-cut). Did that help? I hope so.


  1. I agree with Scott (monescu4) and his excellent post on puzzle plots. Want to add some examples. A “puzzle plot” is a mystery in which “a well-defined puzzling situation is set forth, followed by a solution that is logically based on the situation, but which is surprising.” A good example is “Silver Blaze”, the great Sherlock Holmes story. Who killed the trainer? Holmes investigates this puzzle, shows the reader all facets of the puzzling situation. The he proceeds to develop a new interpretation of the situation, which logically leads to a completely surprising solution of the puzzle. This is the “puzzle plot” mystery in its pure state.

    Another good example is Ellery Queen’s “The Robber of Wrightsville”, in his collection QBI. Almost by definition almost all impossible crimes are puzzle plot mysteries, as Scott said. The impossible crime riddle is the puzzle; the detective interprets facts differently, and comes up with a logical-but-surprising solution. And most dying message or break-the-alibi tales are also puzzle plots. So are many find-the-hidden-object-or-treasure tales. But there are lots of puzzle plots that don’t have anything to do with these subgenres. “Silver Blaze” and “The Robber of Wrightsville” sure have puzzles, but they have no impossible crimes, or clever alibis. * Lots of good books were published in the Golden Age, that are not puzzle plots. Sayers’ “Whose Body” has a well defined puzzle: there’s a murder and a disappearance, and Lord Peter Wimsey has to explain them. But “The Nine Tailors” just doesn’t seem like a puzzle plot. The complex story never seems to coalesce into a clear cut puzzle. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad book – everyone agrees it’s one of the best Golden Age novels.

    Puzzle plots tend to be associated above all with the Big Three of the Golden Age: Carr, Christie and Queen. They are also prominent in much of Doyle, Futrelle, Chesterton, Bentley, Hake Talbot, James Yaffee, Joseph Commings, Edward D. Hoch, and such contemporary writers as Jon L. Breen and Paul Halter. And we keep getting tantalizing glimpses of what seems to be a huge body of puzzle plot writers in modern Japan. Puzzle plots can also be found in hard-boiled writers. Dashiell Hammett has some doozies, especially in his Continental Op tales. Cornell Woolrich’s “The Room with Something Wrong” is a classic puzzle plot. It’s also a pulp magazine story, set in a seedy hotel in the Great Depression, solved by the house dick. The FORM of puzzle and logical-unexpected solution makes a puzzle plot, not the CONTENT of how tough or cozy the settings and characters are.

    Mike Grost

    Comment by jonjermey — May 17, 2008 @ 5:21 am | Reply

  2. I agree with everything Scott and Mike wrote on this topic. I see only one loophole, which prompted this question: in order for a mystery to qualify as a “puzzle plot” story is it enough that the puzzle is posed to the detective, or is it required that it is also posed to the reader? Or, in other words, does the expression “puzzle plot” necessarily imply fair-play clueing?

    For instance, many Doyle and Futrelle stories certainly consist of puzzles but aren’t fair-play stories. On grounds of the terms in themselves, it would certainly be possible to admit that a puzzle plot story may not necessarily be a fair-play story, and also that a fair-play story may not necessarily be a puzzle plot story (a good example would be The Nine Tailors, mentioned by Mike, in which a puzzle never really builds up, while the ending is still deducible from the previously presented evidence; this would also be the case of most of P.D. James’ novels). In this case, although “puzzle plot” and “fair play” may coincide in the same story, they would ultimately be different concepts. I had never previously thought about this (possible) distinction. At the end of the day, this is only a matter of terminology, but it has some importance because these are frequently used terms.

    Henrique Valle

    Comment by jonjermey — May 17, 2008 @ 5:22 am | Reply

  3. Mike, I agree with nearly everything you said, especially the point about how puzzle plots can be found in the works of hard-boiled writers (one of my pet peeves is how people think that by setting a story among the British gentry — thus making a “cozy — they are somehow creating something comparable to the works of Christie. Grrrr!).

    The one difficulty I have is merely a matter of terminology — in this case the use of the terms FORM and CONTENT. I see (and agree with) the point you are making entirely, but I think it’s somewhat problematic in that those same terms are often used to mean nearly the oppposite of what you are saying. That is, as the term CONTENT refers to “what is being said,” while FORM is used to refer to “how it (the content) is being said,” the puzzle itself can be regarded as the content (the what). Conversely, the stylistics of the story (how cozy or tough the settings and characters are)are part of “how the puzzle is being told,” and though I don’t think they could properly be described as constituting the “form” of the story, I think you could see how this muddies the distinction between terms. Again, this is not disagreeing an iota with the point you were making- – any of your points, in fact.

    I think that I probably get more annoyed than most at the casual lumping together of true puzzle plots with non-puzzle “cozies” as, for me, nearly all the value of a whodunit story is found in the power of its moments of “anagnorisis” (or revelations, or paradigm shifts, or epiphanies, or… well, here we go with terminology again). Any mystery novel that has no moments of simultaneous surprise and inevitability holds little interest for me.

    Which is why I suspect I should learn to read Japanese, and share in what sounds like it might be the new Golden Age of Detective Fiction… er, puzzle plots.

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — May 17, 2008 @ 5:23 am | Reply

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