Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

September 3, 2008

Fairness and narration

Filed under: Agatha Christie,Fair Play,John Dickson Carr — Jon @ 9:12 pm

I’m probably going to be under fire for this, but I don’t think Seeing is Believing is unfair. An “established fact” is not necessarily a true one.. Natural science is a field of knowledge in which this is evident: the established facts of yesterday are today known (or supposed!) to be false. The same can be said of History. In more prosaic terms, even a fact proven in court may, after all, turn out to be false.

In Seeing is Believing, it is not the narrator that establishes the fact. The narrator merely states that the fact was established. Carr would have been unfair if, for instance, any of the evidence the narrator explicitly states as reliable in paragraphs 3-5 of Chapter I of The Hollow Man would in the end turn out to be false.

I agree this is a borderline case. But I believe it is pure, legitimate misdirection. A puzzle plot mystery is a battle of wits between author and reader in which the reader must be prepared for misdirection from the narrator; a novel is made of words, and words, being subject to multiple (and wrong) interpretations, are therefore a legitimate means of misdirection.

This doesn’t mean I hold Carr as a fair-play saint. In The Man Who Could Not Shudder, one of the characters tells a lie that is so unmotivated the reader has no chance of perceiving it as a lie. In And So To Murder, H.M. explicitly clears the killer – this could have been fair-play if the reader had any element to detect that H.M could be lying, which is not the case. There are also other minor instances. But I stick to Seeing is Believing.

Scott writes: «However, though Carr admitted to approving of and admiring brilliant violations of his Golden Maxim, THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD in fact *never did* violate his maxim that: “The criminal shall never turn out to be […] any character whose thoughts we have been allowed to share.”

I admit I’m confused by this. By definition, the reader is always allowed to share the thougths of a homodiegetic narrator (that is, one who is a character in the story), as the narration necessarily pressuposes the subjective perceptions (= thoughts) of the narrator. Therefore, Carr’s maxim directly invalidates the homodiegetic narrator as criminal. But it does more: it also invalidates the solution in which the culprit turns out to be a character whose thoughts have been revealed by an omniscient narrator, or by a heterodiegetic internal character focaliser (that is, a character that works as focus of perception, a device frequently used by Carr). For instance, in Brand’s Heads you Lose, which I’ve recently read, the reader is allowed to share the thoughts (and dreams) of the killer about his crimes without mentioning the fact that it wasactually he whodunnit. by Carr’s rule (and also by my standard), this is totally unfair. In the end, Brand explains that the criminal was insane and, when thinking about the crimes, he wasnt’t aware he had comitted them – this would provide an explanation for the fact that the omniscient narrator “forgot” to mention that slight detail. But it still is unfair because the reader is not supplied with evidence to point that the murderer might be mad (and, to make things worse, the supposed mental illness provided by Brand is total rubbish). In Carr’s The Emperor Snuff Box, a trick of similar scope is also played, but fairly and brilliantly: we see the facts trough the eyes of Eve Neill (the internal focalizer) and are therefore lead to believe her perception of them, which ends up being false (as a matter of fact this is so fair that I’ve spotted it).

Sayers article is interesting, but she confuses author and narrator. Only the narrator can vouchsafe anything in a narrtive, not the author. Therefore, it seems we must distinguish between:

a) Position of the narrator in relation to the narrative: homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narrator. A heterodiegetic narrator must always tell the truth. But he/she is not obliged to tell anything, or to tell everything in the easiest way possible for the reader. If so, there would be no puzzle-plot mystery stories. This is why I believe Seeing is believing is fair. A Portuguese idiom goes: “Com a verdade me enganas” — it’s difficult to translate but Spanish-language readers will surely understand it; the point is that “Truthfulness may deceive”. This is indeed at the core of classic detective fiction; sometimes, as in Seeing is Believing, it may be stretched, but this is only a quantitative deviation, not a qualitative one, from the standard narrative devices used in all puzzle-plot detective fiction. A homodiegetic narrator may or may not tell the truth: I agree with Sayers on this, which I believe is contrary to the Carr Maxim. An extreme, doubtful case would be that of the narrator-detective-criminal.

b) Point of view: omniscient narrator and internal character focaliser. Here I am refering to heterodiegetic narrators (in fact, except in experimental literature, omniscients narrators are by definition heterodiegetic narrators). Following Carr, omniscient narrators shall not probe into the thoughts of the culprit. This is because, since the omniscient narrator is supposed to simultaneously know everything and tell the truth, there would be no excuse for not revealing who commited the crime before the time that is considered proper to the narrative. In order not to incurr in a narrative assymetry (the narrator probes the thoughts of some, but not of all characters) and in order not to disclose the culprit’s identity to the intelligent reader (the culprit must be one of the characters whose thoughts have not been probed into), from this seems to follow that, ideally, an omniscient narrator should not probe into the inner thoughts of any character. This is extremely difficult to do, technically speaking. I believe this is why Carr’s earlier books mostly use internal character focalisers; his later books may be weaker in many aspects but as soon as he managed to work well with an omniscient narrator within the framework of his own maxims he practically abandoned the internal character focalisers tecnique. I also believe this is why reading some modern authors that try to keep within the framework of the puzzle story while having concerns of “psychological density”, like PD James, is so uncomfortable for readers used to GAD standards. As to internal character focalisers, and still according to Carr, since their thoughts are by definition probed into by the narrator, they shall not be the culprits. I agree with Carr on all of this. In fact, I believe standards of narratorial fair-play must be more demanding in the case of a heterodiegetic narrator, because in this case the narrative is supposed to have a higher degree of objectivity, than in the case of an homodiegetic narrator.. Dr. Sheppard may be permitted to lie or omit not no reveal his guilt, but an objective narratorial instance has no such excuse.

Henrique Valle


  1. I very much appreciate Henrique Valle’s thoughts about narrative reliability. Is what he calls an internal character focalizer (more often, I think, simply called a viewpoint character) fair game as a possible culprit? Carr and others would say no, since by definition we must share their thoughts. I must say, though, that this rule or stricture seems arbitrary to me, despite HV’s eloquent exposition. (But no, I don’t think SEEING IS BELIEVING is fair. Clear case of HV’s “heterodiegetic narrator” lying through his teeth!)

    On the subject of ROGER ACKROYD — everyone seems to have forgotten that we *never* share the narrator’s thoughts. The entire narration is a *manuscript,* and moreover, we’re specifically told that it is (in the “Poirot’s Little Reunion” chapter). What could be fairer? In a sense, this is the final clue that ought to nail down the narrator’s guilt for the shrewd reader. For, as we know, there’s often no explanation given for a 1st-person narrative. It just kind of arrives — “Oh, a novel in the 1st person” — and we readers are free to assume that the “narrator” is talking (or thinking) to himself. But not in this case — Christie plays fair, and tells us that the narrative we’re reading has been written down by Dr. Sheppard. And indeed, when his guilt is unmasked, we even learn the reason for his literary project: “I meant it to be published one day as the history of one of Poirot’s failures.”

    So . . . we have never once been “allowed to share the thoughts” of Dr. Sheppard. On the contrary, we’ve been allowed to share a diabolically clever manuscript which this conceited felon had intended to publish as a final bit of crowing.


    Comment by Jon Jermey — September 3, 2008 @ 10:12 pm | Reply

  2. Some more thoughts on these subjects: In continental Law systems, one often makes a distinction between procedural truth and material truth (I don’t know if the same applies to Common Law systems). Procedural truth is what has been proven during a criminal or civil procedure before a Court of Justice. Proof is not fact, it is a conviction of fact. So, procedural truth may not equal material truth because of faults in the production of evidence (the part that has the burden of proof has not supplied evidence, or enough evidence, or adequate evidence) or because of faults in the appreciation of evidence (the judge improperly considers as proven a fact that has not taken place or the reverse). Once there is no more possibility of appeal, procedural truth is immodifiable and all legal consequences will be derived from it — and not from material truth.

    A modified form of this distinction must be made in general social life between objective truth and subjective truth, that results from informal individual and social procedures of evidence-assessment. If one refers to “proven”, “accepted” or “established” facts, like the narrator in Seeing is Believing, one is alluding to a procedural or subjective form of truth, not to material or objective truth. In fact, the book’s title may be interpreted as a warning: one in what one has seen must one believe as materially true (and even then – there’s The Emperor Snuff Box). The fact that I am a lawyer may take some part in my opinion of this. For me, the distinction between an “established” and a true fact is clear and intuitive. Also, I am used to employ words very carefully and of taking advantage of the fine distinctions between them. For instance, it would be perfectly possible for me to use the word “established fact” in a legal document with the exact same meaning Carr meant, and not with the meaning of indicating a true fact – in fact, meaning precisely that the fact was *not necessarily* a true one.

    Until today, I hadn’t noticed this possible affinity between the legal professions and mystery writing… But, after all, this may be only the result of a professional deformation. I don’t hold as particularly fair-play the scientific or medical kind of detective story in which the solution depends on some technical knowledge that, although exact, is not of common knowledge outside the scientific professions…. Doctors and scientists would probably disagree. As to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, my considerations in the previous post were mainly concerned with the interpretation of Carr’s thoughts in this matter. I also think the trick is fair because, as Sayers says, in a detective novel everyone is a suspect and the culprit is allowed (and even supposed) to lie..

    But I don’t believe Carr approved of it – in fact, his mild disapproval is more or less clear in The Grandest Game in the World. The thought-provoking distinction, made by John Morris, between a participant narrator who thinks and a participant narrator who writes seems to me ultimately artificial. In the first case, the thoughts end up assuming written form; in the second case, what has been written must have been previously thought. Dr. Sheppard’s diary is full of insights, points of view and opinions about facts and people; furthermore, by definition, a narrative necessarily presupposes the perceptions (thoughts) of the narrator. The question is, then, another one: is the participant narrator-culprit allowed to put in writing _only_ his thoughts that don’t incriminate him? Since I interpret Carr’s Golden Maxim precisely in the sense of a prohibition of this arbitrary selection of facts by _any_ narrator (participant or not) with access to the mind of the murderer, I don’t think John’s distinction would have made a difference to him.

    Best regards,


    Comment by jonjermey — September 4, 2008 @ 11:36 pm | Reply

  3. Yes, it’s a delicate and debatable question: Does it make a difference, fair-play-wise, whether a 1st-person narration is understood to have been written down?

    Henrique says, “What has been written must have been previously thought,” and offers this as evidence that we are indeed “sharing a narrator’s thoughts” if we read his or her manuscript. But if a character _says_ something, must not _that_ have been previously thought as well? And yet it can be a lie. If a character writes a letter, do we automatically believe what’s in it, simply because it was “previously thought”? Of course not. All this applies as well, then, to a narrator’s written-down statement.

    No, the tricky point is that it’s the _narrator’s_ statement, not just any character’s. Henrique goes on to say, “The question is, then, another one: is the participant narrator-culprit allowed to put in writing _only_ his thoughts that don’t incriminate him?” My reply is, Certainly. The case is no different from a character-culprit who _speaks_ only what doesn’t incriminate him. The key point, though, is precisely the one that Henrique believes is “artificial,” but which I clearly don’t: Does the reader have good reason to believe that the narrator _is_ writing down the narration? If so, then of course we must suspect him or her of lying, of selectivity. If not — and this is the aspect I perhaps didn’t emphasize or explain strongly enough in my previous post — then according to the conventions of fiction, we suspend our disbelief in the existence of this peculiar document and assume that we are indeed privy to the thoughts of the narrator. And if such a narrator turns out to be the culprit, that would be unfair, in my opinion.

    Fiction, and detective fiction, is full of both kinds of examples. Some narrators include in their narration an explanation of what sort of thing the reader is reading — Archie Goodwin’s “reports,” Watson’s “reminiscences,” Dr. Sheppard’s vainglorious and false account. Other narrators never refer to it at all — does Marlowe write down his narration? Does Hastings? Jeff Marle (Carr’s occasional narrator)? In these latter cases, as I’ve said, the conventions of fiction dictate that the reader simply not ask the question, but rather make the assumption that, by some miraculous means, we’ve come into possession of a non-specific “account” of the narrator’s thoughts. Such a suspension of disbelief is essential to appreciate a great deal of mainstream literature: After all, we don’t finish “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “The Catcher in the Rye” and throw the books down in disgust, saying, “I don’t believe Huck or Holden could have written this narration! They’re both too young and inexperienced!” To react that way would be to misunderstand how we’re supposed to read 1st-person fiction.

    So . . . the distinction, far from being artificial, seems to me crucial to the fair-play question. Evidently it seemed crucial to Christie too, since she made a point of letting the reader know that Dr. Sheppard’s narration was a genuine, written-down account. We’re free to view it with suspicion, in a way that would be uncalled-for if we were instead using the “default assumption” for unexplained 1st- person narration.

    Finally, would Carr have found any of this persuasive? I quite agree with Henrique: It would have made no difference to him. JDC is my favorite detective story writer, but he had no interest in, or patience with, intellectual palaver. I doubt he’d even have gotten through the above!



    Comment by jonjermey — September 4, 2008 @ 11:36 pm | Reply

  4. > The question is, then, another one: is the participant narrator-culprit allowed to put in writing _only_ his thoughts that don’t incriminate him? – Henrique

    Why not? Certainly if the detective is interviewing a culprit, he’s allowed to reveal only what he wishes the detective to believe is true. If he’s writing, he may well write down only those parts of his thoughts that accord with what he wishes to reveal, as is the case in Ackroyd, where, after all, he does not lie, he only omits.

    Even if an omniscient author were to reveal the thoughts of a culprit, making it clear to the careful reader that these were only a portion of his thoughts, that would be both legitimate, in my eyes, and very clever as well, as long as the “thoughts” were not outright lies!


    Comment by jonjermey — September 4, 2008 @ 11:37 pm | Reply

  5. Surely due to a fault in my explanation, my view on this subject has not gotten through right.

    I agree that the participant narrator-culprit *is* allowed to express only his/her thoughts that don’t incriminate him/her. (In fact, I even wrote that a culprit-narrator is allowed to lie – provided that there is enough evidence supplied to the reader to spot the lies). My point was that I don’t believe Carr thought the same way.

    What John writes about what he calls “written down” and “non-specific” 1st person narratives is both interesting and logically sound, as well as probably relevant in many fields of literary analysis. But I don’t think it is relevant to this particular issue.

    It is almost impossible that a comprehensive, non-experimental, 1st person narrative, be it “specific” or “written down”, does not reveal the thoughts of the narrator. The diary of Dr. Sheppard certainly does. Carr almost certainly thought that it did, as can be deduced by a systematic analysis of his statements in The Grandest Game in the World. So, I interpreted his remarks as applicable to both situations. And I also interpreted his remarks in the sense that the main issue addressed by Carr’s Golden Maxim was about fact-selection by a narrator (any kind of narrator) with access to the inner thoughts of the murderer.

    On the reverse, I believe that the fair-play prohibition to reveal the thoughts of characters only applies to heterodiegetic narrators, and not to participant narrators, irrespective of the “written down” or “non specific” nature of their narrative. Therefore, the only of John’s contentions I significantly disagree with is the one that a “non specific” 1st person narrative by the culprit would be unfair.

    Every first-person narrative is to a certain extent an idealization. As John rightly mentions, this applies in particular to “non-specific” 1st person narratives. I’ve recently read a book in which the narrator dies in the last line, which is ontologically impossible (and it made a tremendous effect, by the way). No butler would write like the butlers in The Moonstone or Lament for a Maker.

    But even “non specific” 1st person narratives may find only a verbal (oral or written) expression. Due to the limitations of verbal expression and understanding, a 1st person narrative cannot consist of a mere mass of unorganized thoughts; even in experimental narratives, there must be some kind of selection. Both in “written down” or in “non specific” cases, a culprit narrator, like any narrator, “owns” the narrative, so, by definition, the fact-selection is his/hers (in addition, in my view, a culprit is ethically entitled to select the facts she/he wishes to reveal). In this respect, the situation is exactly the same in “written down” and “non specific” 1st person narratives. So I don’t think the fact that a 1st person narrative is self-stated as having been written down makes any difference in what concerns fair-play.

    I would probably only regard as unfair a narrator-detective-culprit device, because the detective shall not know more than the reader, and this prohibition must apparently prevail over the permission for the culprit to hide the truth (or to lie). Best regards,


    PS: Sandy mentions a narrative device in which an omniscient narrator might reveal thoughts of the culprit. In theory, I agree that it may be fair-play. But, in my reading experience, I’ve never seen it used in a way I found satisfactory. For instance, in many of Paul Halter’s earlier books, the omniscient narrator probes into the thoughts of the culprit (not to mention the occasions in which the narrator is the culprit, and one case in which the narrator is both the culprit *and* the detective!) As good as the plots in these books generally are, the use of this device always leaves me with a sense of arbitrariness. In order for it to work, not only the narrator must make it «clear to the careful reader that these were only a portion of his thoughts» (as Sandy writes), but there would have to be a plausible justification for the culprit thought-selection by the narrator. Christianna Brand’s tried to do this in Heads You Lose, but the result is, in this respect, disastrous (IMO, of course!)


    Comment by jonjermey — September 4, 2008 @ 11:38 pm | Reply

  6. >There is one Christie in which she allows us to share the thoughts of the murderer – And Then There Were None. At the end of Chapter 11 …

    Quite right, and if memory serves, there are a couple of others as well, though memory doesn’t serve well enough to recall the titles. In one case, it was in the context of a kind of round-robin “dipping” into various characters’ insides; she doesn’t tell us who’s who, though. The other case was similar to ATTWN: a selective sampling of a number of (identified) characters’ thoughts, including the murderer’s, who of course isn’t thinking any guilty thoughts at the moment!

    What this indicates, I would say, is that Christie simply didn’t think it was a cheat to do this, pace Carr. Nor do I, provided (as has already been noted) we don’t overhear the murderer think anything that turns out to be untrue, or grossly misleading.



    Comment by jonjermey — September 4, 2008 @ 11:39 pm | Reply

  7. I very much appreciate Henrique Valle’s thoughts about narrative reliability. Is what he calls an internal character focalizer (more often, I think, simply called a viewpoint character) fair game as a possible culprit? Carr and others would say no, since by definition we must share their thoughts. I must say, though, that this rule or stricture seems arbitrary to me, despite HV’s eloquent exposition. (But no, I don’t think SEEING IS BELIEVING is fair. Clear case of HV’s “heterodiegetic narrator” lying through his teeth!)

    On the subject of ROGER ACKROYD — everyone seems to have forgotten that we *never* share the narrator’s thoughts. The entire narration is a *manuscript,* and moreover, we’re specifically told that it is (in the “Poirot’s Little Reunion” chapter). What could be fairer? In a sense, this is the final clue that ought to nail down the narrator’s guilt for the shrewd reader. For, as we know, there’s often no explanation given for a 1st-person narrative. It just kind of arrives — “Oh, a novel in the 1st person” — and we readers are free to assume that the “narrator” is talking (or thinking) to himself. But not in this case — Christie plays fair, and tells us that the narrative we’re reading has been written down by Dr. Sheppard. And indeed, when his guilt is unmasked, we even learn the reason for his literary project: “I meant it to be published one day as the history of one of Poirot’s failures.”

    So . . . we have never once been “allowed to share the thoughts” of Dr. Sheppard. On the contrary, we’ve been allowed to share a diabolically clever manuscript which this conceited felon had intended to publish as a final bit of crowing.



    Comment by jonjermey — September 4, 2008 @ 11:39 pm | Reply

  8. [In And Then There Were None] I find even more interesting than Chapter 11, the first couple of pages of the book. The third paragraph begins:

    “He went over in his mind all that appeared in the papers about Indian Island…”

    That is the first of many instances in which we are allowed to share the culprit’s thoughts… none of them either false or incriminating, but the thoughts of the culprit nonetheless. Most ingenious is the way she concludes this section:

    “Constance Culmington, he reflected to himself, was exactly the sort of woman who *would* buy an island and surround herself with mystery! Nodding his head in gentle approval of his logic, [X] allowed his head to nod…”

    Of course, we don’t realize that what he is giving gentle approval to was his earlier logic to select Culmington as the ideal “author” of his invitation letter.

    Which brings to my mind what I consider to be the one possible instance of unfairness in the book:

    “… and his correspondent signed herself with a flousish his *ever Constance Culmington*”

    Are we to take it that the killer hired or induced a woman to write this letter (for there is no indication in this instance that Culmington is an intermediary between U.N. Owen and this guest)? If not, the word “herself” is a cheat.

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — September 5, 2008 @ 9:31 pm | Reply

  9. > > I also have some doubts about the “his correspondent” bit… The prefix co- necessarily involves another person, and as X well knew, there was no such other person.
    > > Henrique

    Yes, that’s true… the “his correspondent” thing is as problematic as the “herself.”

    There’s also something in Death on the Nile about “something red” trickling down from “the wound” on Simon Doyle’s leg which was shot just a moment before (I’m paraphrasing, but I’m pretty sure about
    the word “wound” being there). Of course, the “something red” reference is truthful (and clever, as it sounds like like Christie is just being tastefully oblique), but I can’t see how the
    word “wound” is anything but a (tiny but definite) cheat.

    Mind you, I think both And Then There Were None and Death on the Nile are among the greatest of Christie’s works and indeed of all Golden Age Detective Novels– and I prefer both of them to Ackroyd– but I do think that both could be justifiably accused of unfairness before Ackroyd can (and please realize that I realize how awkward
    and incorrect my grammar is– particularly in that last sentence– but hopefully the concept came across).

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — September 5, 2008 @ 9:34 pm | Reply

  10. In reply to Scott’s latest observations: I don’t believe that it is possible for a 1st person narrator to… well, narrate from a purely objective point of view (it would be possible in experimental literature, but not in conventional one). A subjective point of view, by definition, presupposes subjective perceptions. These perceptions are thoughts. One may say that these may be only thoughts about objective realities and not necessarily thoughts about the subjective reality of the narrator himself/herself (one could call the latter “inner thoughts”), and one could also contend that that fair-play would only forbid the narrator to reveal inner thoughts of the culprit. This would probably be true.

    But, still: I have never read a conventional 1st person narrative in which there is not some kind of expression of the “inner thoughts” of the narrator. To stick to the point, some examples from Chapter I of Roger Ackroyd: “To tell the truth, I was considerably upset and worried.” “My instinct told me that there were stirring times ahead.” “It was really this last-named trait of hers which was causing me these pangs of indecision.” “I don’t think Caroline ever felt sorry for Mrs Ferrars whilst she was alive.” If the previously quoted Roger Ackroyd sentences had read like this: “In all truth, Dr. Sheppard was considerably upset and worried.” “Dr. Sheppard’s instinct told him that there were stirring times ahead.” “It was really this last-named trait of hers which was causing Dr. Sheppard these pangs of indecision.” “Dr. Sheppard didn¢t think Caroline ever felt sorry for Mrs Ferrars whilst she was alive.” wouldn’t it be obvious that the narrator was revealing Dr. Sheppards inner thoughts? I believe it would! And there seems to be some contradiction in believing that the same matter refers to “inner thoughts” when revealed by a 3rd person narrator and not when revealed by the person who has supposedly experienced them.

    You may say: Aha, but these are not thoughts! This is only Dr Sheppard telling us what he thought! This would, of course, be true. But isn’t it like this in any kind of narrative? It certainly is! It is always through the narrator, *any kind of narrator*, that the reader is told about the characters’ thoughts. An omniscient narrator is more likely to be reliable, but even then there is no guarantee of reliability. The concept of unreliable narrator is well known in narratology (in fact, Roger Ackroyd is a case-study in those quarters), where it is well established that also 3rd person and even omniscient narrators can be unreliable.

    So even if an omniscient narrator tells you that one character is thinking something, it’s possible that it is not true. So, what’s the difference? None, IMO. As, for the reasons I stated in previous emails, I don’t believe there is, in this respect, any difference between “written down” or “merely thought” 1st person narratives. The specificity of detective fiction in the field of narrator reliability is this: the narrator is bound by ethical limits, which we have been discussing. Which are those limits? IMO, a 3rd person narrator shall not probe into the inner thoughts of the culprit, be it by adoption of an omniscient point of view or of a character point of view (I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the last few days, though).

    Also IMO, a 1st person narrator, including the murderer, may express his/her inner thoughts selectively, may not tell the whole truth and may even lie provided there is a plausible explanation for this. This is why I believe Roger Ackroyd is fair, and not because it doesn’t reveal the inner thoughts of the narrator — which it does, to the point that it can be said that *any kind of narrator* reveals the inner thoughts of a character. In fact, my admiration for Christie’s skill does not cease to grow.

    Only now I have noticed that, in the first page of Roger Ackroyd alone, Dr. Sheppard professes to tell the truth twice! This self-assertion of truthfulness by the guilty narrator is obviously not innocent. There is probably not an innocent word in Roger Ackroyd, a word that has not been carefully thought over. Those who think Christie was a simplistic writer (or a simplistic person) should definitely pay more attention!


    Comment by jonjermey — September 5, 2008 @ 9:35 pm | Reply

  11. Henrique:

    What I don’t buy is that 1st person narration necessarily equals a truly subjective viewpoint. Remember, it is a “narrative” — a “telling” — at best a since attempt to convey the thoughts of the teller. And at worst…

    In other words, I don’t accept your statement that “it is always through the narrator, *any kind of narrator*, that the reader is told about the characters’ thoughts.” True, it is *only* through a narrator that we are told about such thoughts. I just don’t accept that we always *are* told about them. I can easily accept the possibility of reading an entire narrative such as Dr. Sheppard’s and not learning of a single one of his true thoughts (despite anything he tells me that he feels). Verbal Kint’s narrative in The Usual Suspects comes darn close to this.

    The other day I recently received an email from “an official in the Nigerian government.” In it he (can I really be sure it’s a he?) goes on to tell me a complex tale which basically entails his need for me to help him with a financial transaction which will end up in my receiving a healthy portion of $94,500 (contingent upon my supplying some of my bank account information, of course). It is a first person narrative, and though not designed for entertainment, it is fairly obviously a fiction. I don’t believe that there is necessarily a single word of truth in it, and though the author of the email tells me at certain points about his feelings of the emergency of the matter, I don’t see any reason to accept that he is telling me of his true feelings (though I do suspect he feels some urgency about my send the bank info).

    Similarly, if I write to you that “My aunt Charlotte was an ice skater and I loved her very much” you don’t really know if I truly had fond feelings for my aunt Charlotte, if she was truly an ice skater — or that I even ever had an aunt Charlotte. Now, we’d all accept such a possibly untrue narrative as a short note written by a character in a whodunit. What difference does it make if such a note comprises the entirety of a book? And,why should the “I loved her very much” be accepted as my true subjective thoughts any more than the idea that “my aunt Charlotte was an ice skater”? Similarly, while I believe that Dr. Sheppard was probably being truthful when he wrote “To tell the truth, I was considerably upset and worried” there is no reason to believe that this is necessarily the case. A first person narrator may very well have reasons for deliberately misleading — even being blatantly untruthful — to his reader.

    I believe that Sayer’s maxim (basically, that the author himself cannot personally vouch for outright mistruths) is commonly accepted as a Golden rule of detective fiction writing. But characters within a story have no such ethical obligation. Of course, it is a weakness of the author if he or she does not supply his character with sufficient justification for deliberately misleading his (the character’s, mind you) reader. But really, I think that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd would really be no less “fair” if it were not just a matter of clever omission, but rather a case of Dr. Sheppard writing outright “I watched from the window as Caroline killed Roger.” It certainly wouldn’t be as clever or brilliant a novel — and I’m sure many would call it a cheat — but I don’t really believe it would truly be cheating, for in neither case are we reading his thoughts… we are simply reading his words — and his words don’t necessarily reflect his true feelings.

    And as know that we are reading Sheppard’s words — and that Sheppard is not the author of the book — we have no obligation to believe them.

    Even in instances where it is unclear whether or not the first person narrator actually “wrote it down,” it *is* clear that what we are reading is his “telling” (whether it be written, spoken… somehow deliberately “expressed”) rather than his mere “thinking.” And the vital distinction between the two is that a “telling” can always consist of lies.

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — September 5, 2008 @ 9:39 pm | Reply

  12. Scott, I don’t think we seriously disagree (our difference concerning “subjective” and “objective” point of view of 1st person narrators is most likely a matter of words). In fact, not only I accept your conclusions, in a way I am extending them: a) You end your post by saying that “the vital distinction between the two [written down and not written down 1st person narratives] is that a “telling” can always consist of lies”. But any 1st person narrative is always a “telling” by the narrator, even if it is not supposed to have been written down! So, what you say about “written down” 1st person narratives must be extended to all 1st person narratives. The problem being whether the 1st person narrator must be allowed to select the thoughts and facts revealed to the reader, and allowing for the fact that thought and fact selection by the narrator is inevitable, I don’t believe there would be any vital difference from a fair-play point of view if Dr. Sheppard had merely “thought” (whatever that may mean) his narrative.

    Or, to sum it up: IMO the Carr dictum of not sharing the thoughts ofthe culprit is rubbish in any case of a 1st person culprit-narrator! b) All narrators are subject to unreliability. In narratology, some even argue that by definition all narrators are unreliable. Therefore, the distinction between an “objectively true” thought, as transmitted by a 3rd person narrator, and a “potentially false” thought, as transmitted by a 1st person narrator, doesn’t make sense to me (and, although I am not a literary theorist, I don’t believe it makes sense in narratological terms, either).

    The facts narrated by a 3rd person narrator are not reliable *by definition*; but, in detective fiction, they *should* be reliable because the unreliability of 3rd person narrators is considered cheating, and I believe rightly so. In other words: badly constructed detective novels are a good example of 3rd person narrative unreliability (if they are 3rd person narratives, of course) that general literary theorists could well take upon! As to the fairness of Roger Ackroyd in the possibility that Dr. Sheppard had lied outright, I’ve already supported the same view!

    All the best, Henrique

    Comment by jonjermey — September 5, 2008 @ 9:40 pm | Reply

  13. Yes indeed. And in fairness (pardon the pun!), there are some pretty heavyweight literary theoreticians who’ve looked at classic detective story construction, especially its unique demands for narrative deception. The goal of an ideal detective story is precisely NOT to tell the story! We don’t learn the real, complete story until the “reveal” in the final chapter. And plenty of mainstream fiction enjoys doing this too, with some of the same questions arising about fairness and plausibility. A “surprise ending” is no longer fashionable in literary novels, but you have only to read a book like Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” (or see the movie) to realize what a debt McEwan owes to detective story construction. I only wish he were better at it!


    Comment by jonjermey — September 5, 2008 @ 9:40 pm | Reply

  14. Indeed! There is a reason why the standard legal oath in the US requires (my emphasis) the truth, the *whole* truth, and nothing but the truth. Lying by omission is very common, and although very useful perhaps in social situations (Do I like that dress on you? It’s a stunning color!), it can indeed give the wrong impression.

    But then doesn’t half the charm of fair-play novels lie in their speaking the truth, or a portion of it, and leading the reader up the garden path by making the reader ignore the important clue in a mass of irrelevant detail or other methods?


    Comment by jonjermey — September 5, 2008 @ 9:40 pm | Reply

  15. Some of the “heavyweight literary theoreticians” you mention have written fascinating stuff about the detective stories, like Todorov, who applied the Russian formalist distinction between “fabula” and “sjuzhet” to the classic detective stories. But, on the whole, what they say mostly presupposes a discourse about the detective story, and not a first-hand knowledge of detective stories (the ignorance is in some case blatant). I’ve read a lot of this sort of stuff in the past but decided to quit; after a while, I was feeling in a kind of literary endogamy – I was reading folks writing about what other folks wrote about other folks that wrote about a mystery story, and I was neither reading the mystery story (or any kind of story, for that matter!), nor enriching significantly my understanding of mystery stories. An exotic case of the blatant ignorance I mentioned: in 2007, Portuguese Mystery Writer Francisco José Viegas won one of the country’s major mainstream literary accolades. The winning novel includes this foreword: «As it is well known, mystery novels have their rules. This one hasn’t”. This was obviously a provocation, and in fact it is a highly complex and multi-layered assumption, since at first glance it seems to be shunning the qualification of mystery story, while at the same time implying it at a much subtler level (of course, “this one” stands for “this mystery novel”). Actually, one critic (who had probably never read a mystery story in her life and whose mental framework couldn’t possibly admit one of such literary by-products could win this prize) used the allegedly rule-less nature of the novel to disqualify it as a mystery novel!


    Comment by jonjermey — September 6, 2008 @ 10:10 pm | Reply

  16. Henrique:

    I agree that we are generally agreeing. However, I want to point out that I was not making a distinction between “written down” and “not written down” 1st person narratives — I agree that there is really not any important distinction, as in either case, we learn that which the 1st person narrator wants us to know (whether it be true or false). I was making the distinction between that which is “told” (whether it is written or not written) and the concept of being able to look into the narrator’s thoughts, free of his wishing to express them to us. And I don’t think we ever get that with 1st person narration, as it is always clearly a “telling” (whether written or unwritten) and more specifically (and importantly) the telling of that 1st person.

    The closest we get to the “unvarnished” thoughts of any character is probably through the omniscient narrator, who makes such statements as:

    John thought “I wish someone would kill Gerard.”

    Of course there is still (often significant) omission and selection of thoughts in this case, but (importantly) it is the deliberate omission and selection on the part of the omniscient narrator (i.e. the author), rather than of John — John is not “telling”. I understand that, as you say, “In narratology, some even argue that by definition all narrators are unreliable.” However, mystery readership, through convention, has made a distinction between the accountability of 1st and 3rd person narrators, which I believe reflects Sayers statement that:

    Nothing in a detective story need be held to be true unless the author has vouched for it *in his own person.*

    Basically, a character can lie, the author can’t. And, as the 3rd person is accepted to be the author (while a 1st person narrator identified as distinct from the author is not), our accepted genre standards do make a distinction between “an ‘objectively true’ thought, as transmitted by a 3rd person narrator, and a ‘potentially false’ thought, as transmitted by a 1st person narrator.” These accepted genre standards admittedly may be borne of intuitive consensus rather than logic, but I do believe they exist.

    Mind you, this standard of accountability for the author (or 3rd person narrator) is significantly lower than the requirement to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” We don’t demand of the author “the whole truth.” Still, we are adamant that he tells us “nothing but the truth.”

    (The “whole truth” question brings to mind the genre “rule” that “all clues necessary to arrive at the solution of the mystery must be made available to the reader” [my paraphrase], which I believe brings up an even more problematic question: what constitutes “sufficiency” in clue-ing? Must the information provided be sufficient to deductively prove every aspect of the true scenario, logically discounting all other possibilities? Very few, if any mysteries ever written have ever done this, and any one that did would have to exclude such logically unprovable aspects such as motive. I myself find Carr’s TILL DEATH DO US PART richly clued and Van Dine’s THE DRAGON MURDER CASE to be poorly clued — but I certainly don’t think there is a logical line of “sufficiency” to be drawn between them)

    I would want any puzzle plot I write to be richly-clued and to be *un-controversially* fair- – but this is because I would want my work to meet the “intuitive” standards of myself and readers — but not because I believe those standards have a firm logical basis.

    As for case SEEING IS BELIEVING, I agree that it is not unfair if we take the term “accepted fact” to mean “a statement which has been accepted as fact” (which you, admittedly probably due to your legal background, would do). However, I believe that most readers would probably take the term to mean “a fact (by which is meant an undoubtable, objective truth) which has been accepted as such.” So, I can understand the outcry… and I consider it one of Carr’s least acceptable stunts.

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — September 6, 2008 @ 10:11 pm | Reply

  17. And I too agree that we are generally agreeing. My notion that it makes a difference whether a 1st-person narration is understood to be an actual, written-down document is debatable — and we are indeed debating it! As for the difference between “thoughts” represented through a 1st-person narrator vs. through the omniscient author, I believe Scott’s got it right. If the author vouches for them, they’d better be true. “A character can lie, the author can’t.”

    But as to SEEING IS BELIEVING — no, the phrase Carr uses is “That was the admitted fact,” not “accepted fact.” This makes a big difference. Had it been the former phrase, every astute reader’s antennae would have begun quivering: “Accepted fact,” huh? Hmmmm…. I can imagine Carr scratching his head, trying to find another word that would still be “fair” but wouldn’t set off alarm bells. Did he find it? No, can’t agree. “Admitted fact” is an empty term — admitted by whom? — but that doesn’t make it fair. To admit something means to acknowledge its truth, grudgingly. It doesn’t have the connotation of “to accept,” which attaches to a number of phrases in English that all imply convention, or consensual agreement, but not necessarily truth. I might say to you, “The economy is tanking because of the housing market.” “Yes, that’s the accepted explanation,” you might reply, meaning that though most people believe it, it ain’t necessarily so. So “accepted” would have been perfectly fair … but also a giveaway. One sees why Carr avoided it, but sorry, “admitted” DOES imply truth, so it’s a cheat, IMHO.



    Comment by jonjermey — September 6, 2008 @ 10:11 pm | Reply

  18. Scott, just to clear this (I *promise* not to come back to this subject!), I mentioned the distinction between «”an ‘objectively true’ thought, as transmitted by a 3rd person narrator, and a ‘potentially false’ thought, as transmitted by a 1st person narrator” as as not making sense to me, in the context of 1st person narrators and specifically in the context of Carr’s prohibition of revelation of the murderer’s thoughts. Applying the distinction to Carr’s dictum, the guilty narrator would be allowed to lie about his/her thoughts throughout but forbidden to reveal his/her *real thoughts*. Maybe this doesn’t convince you, though, because you seem to make a distinction between “thoughts” and the “expression of thoughts”. I believe this to be artificial, because, due to the potentially unreliability of all narrators, in any narrative there is only expression of thoughts. Even thoughts revealed by 3rd person narrators may be false, which proves that in any case the reader we only have a expression of thoughts and not direct access to the minds of the characters. Simply, in mystery fiction, books in which this occurs are considered bad. Why? Because of the duty imposed upon 3rd person narrators mentioned by you. But this is not an ipso facto necessity (i e., thoughts revealed by the 3rd person narrator are not necessarily true) but an ethical obligation (thoughts revealed by the narrator should be true). Therefore, the narrator doesn’t directly “reveal” thoughts of the characters; what we have is a narratorial expression of character’s thoughts that, by force of an ethical obligation, readers come to assume are true (but they may be wrong!). As I see it, this may be our only slight difference in this matter. About “admitted” and “accepted”, Jonh wrote: «”admitted” DOES imply truth» In fact, I believe both “admitted” and “accepted” imply truth. But, what do we mean by truth here? Not objective truth, certainly.. If it were objective truth, it wouldn’t be an “admitted” or “accepted” fact, it would be *fact*, period. Objective truth (or fact) is unqualified. Both “admitted” and “accepted” imply, not objective truth, but something subjectively perceived as the truth. Of course this is a fine distinction that may deceive inattentive readers, even those who are aware of it. But that’s the whole point! We are talking of degrees of deception here, not of the nature of deception. This is a huge deception that at first may make one want to kick the author but then makes one want to kick himself (I mean myself, of course!). I am not a native speaker of English, so of course I’m ready to admit (or accept!) to missing some subtlety here (although both words are of Latin origin and quite similar to words in my own language).

    By the way, interestingly, in his email of 9/6 @ 9:23, Scott has twice used a word derived from “admitted” (admittedly) to refer facts that are not objective, but to their subjective perception!

    — — — –

    Scott raises another interesting point about fair play which is independent from the kind of narrator involved. That is, the degree of sufficiency of evidence supplied that is demanded by fair-play. I would say that the minimum fair-play standard is at least one clue that points unequivocally to the culprit. But, from an artistic point of view, this is very unsatisfactory in a novel (it may pass in a short story). This is the case when there is a single clue used by the detective (as in Asimov’s dreadful A Whiff of Death), and also (and perhaps specially) when the detective used other clues that weren’t previously revealed to the reader. But I agree with Scott that a quantitative and qualitative minimum is impossible to define in advance. As a reader, I like books that are fairly clued as to every relevant aspect of the mystery (whodunit, howdunit and whydunit). I also agree with Scott that in most cases it would be impossible to supply evidence relating to motive pointing to the murderer with exclusion of every other suspect. But I intensely dislike the books in which, after we know whodunit, we are still unable to grasp whydunit, and are dismissed with an explanation of the kind: “Ah, we thought he was a multimillionaire and, therefore, would not have killed for money, but actually he was in great financial difficulties, as we afterwards discovered”. I don’t think this is fair, and it also shows a contempt for the human element that practically reduces the story to a mere crossword puzzle. Motive clues are very difficult to deliver satisfactorily, both because they are related to subjective and sometimes emotional aspects and because they may point too directly to the culprit. But this only means books that manage to deal satisfactorily with motive clues are potentially more achieved artistically than the ones that don’t.


    Comment by jonjermey — September 9, 2008 @ 4:09 am | Reply

  19. Henrique:

    I make no such promise not to return to this subject (!), but I’d say we are pretty much on the same page. I agree that both 1st and 3rd person narrations are “expressions” and logically subject to unreliability. But again, it is the expected convention of the genre that the 3rd person narrator *will* be truthful (or, I should make the lesser claim of “will not be untruthful”). I think there is good justification for this “ethical obligation” — the reader of the genre is, after all, facing an onslaught of deception, not only from the culprit, both also from other characters and the author himself (for, though the author cannot make untruthful statements, he is still can avail himself of many other “fair” psychological deception techniques design to deceive his reader). The very little that the reader should be able to count on is that he can depend on the “word” of the author as not being untruthful (though it may still be deceptive). Further, the word of the 3rd person narrator is accepted to be that of the author.

    As to “minimum standards” of evidence, I was saying more than just that “in most cases it would be impossible to supply evidence relating to motive pointing to the murderer with exclusion of every other suspect” (though I agree with that statement). I was saying rather that motive pretty much has to be left out of the equation entirely if we are to hold that “sufficient evidence” entails of deductive proof, and this is not only because we cannot prove that all other suspects had no motive. Even if there were only one suspect in the case, we couldn’t prove that he had a motive, due to the impenetrability of the human mind.

    For example, even if we knew of nasty nephew Nigel that he:

    1. Would lose his million dollar inheritance if his Uncle Charles changed his will (which Charles publicly stated he was planning to do in the next two days).

    2. Had gone around the community in the last few days telling everyone that “I hate my Uncle Charles, and I’m gonna kill him.”

    3. Had gone to the local dispensary, obtaining a poison that he confirmed would be “sure to kill someone of my Uncle’s age and medical condition.”

    4. Had been caught on two previous occasions attempting to kill his uncle.

    There is still no proof that he now had a desire to kill his uncle (which is how we must define “motive,” for if we define the term as only a “possible” desire to kill someone, everyone always has a motive to kill everyone else). Now, I’d certainly say that list comprises a pretty hefty load of indications that Nigel had a motive, but if we are to insist on deductive proof, we have nothing.

    Our only real hope of “proof” of motive is for our 3rd person narrator to write “Nigel wanted to kill his Uncle Charles” or “Nigel thought ‘I want to kill my Uncle Charles'” — again assuming that a 3rd person narrator will be truthful. And either way, it’s hardly very subtle or effective ‘clue-ing.’

    – Scott

    I gotta run to work now. More on this (sorry folks) later.

    Comment by jonjermey — September 9, 2008 @ 4:10 am | Reply

  20. About sufficiency of clueing: Ellery Queen’s “Challenges to the Reader” always claimed that his novels provided clues that inevitably led to “the one and only possible culprit.” That’s an interesting standard, and worth considering. In the context of Queen’s stories, it seems to mean that only one possible solution can account for every clue. This is not quite the same as deductively eliminating everyone other than the culprit. Rather, if X is guilty, then no possible explanation that postulates Y or Z or A as the murderer will be able to explain clues 1, 2 3,…n.

    I think this is a pretty good working standard for fair and sufficient clueing. I agree with Henrique that a single clue which points definitively to X and to no other may be “fair” but it’s certainly inartistic. Carr has some trenchant things to say about this in connection with Biggers’ “Charlie Chan Carries On.”

    I should add, though, that I’m no admirer of the Queen oeuvre. The writing is too awful to tolerate, and the occasionally brilliant puzzles can’t survive his puerile disdain for anything resembling real people with real motivations.



    Comment by jonjermey — September 9, 2008 @ 4:10 am | Reply

  21. I understand the standard that “only one possible solution can account for every clue.” But I think the issue is really more complex than that. For there are nearly *always* multiple solutions that will account for clues 1, 2 3,…n, It is simply that usually only one will account for them in a manner that provides a satisfying sense of causal inevitability.

    To illustrate, I’ll use an example of my own creation. Let’s take a story in which one Mr. Filiba was murdered. There are several significant odd circumstances surrounding his death. Mr. Filiba generally walked directly home via Lexington Avenue after work, but on the afternoon of his death, he went home via 93rd St. A strange man in a green jacket was seen lurking near Mr. Filiba’s house late the night before his death. Just two days before, Mr. Filiba called his lawyer and told him that he wished to change the conditions of his will. And just moments before he died, Mr. Filiba was heard to yell out the name “Ida Lupino!” It was also well known that Filiba’s nephew Todd had always hated him.

    Now here is one solution to this mystery: Mr. Filiba had been told recently by a co-worker that there was a great new delicatessan on 93rd St., so on the afternoon prior to his death, he took that route home to check it out. A local burglar, Mr. Kenworthy, had been checking out the neighborhood for possible homes to rob, and did so the night before Filiba’s death (Kenworthy was wearing a green sweater, of course). Mr. Filiba had been considering changing his will for several months, and two days before his death, decided that he had procrastinated long enough on the matter. He also had been trying to remember for several days the female star of the 1945 film “Pillow to Post,” and happilly (and loudly) recalled the answer just moments before he was killed by his nephew Todd (who, as we know, had always hated him).

    Now, that solution *does* account for all of these clues (which, as presented, I would say, comprised an fairly intriguing group). However, what it doesn’t provide is a scenario which accounts for them in an interesting causal relationship, in which all of the clues are related to each other and essential to the murder plot. A great puzzle plot writer (Carr, Christie, yes even Queen), on the other hand, would devise a scenario which would not only allow and account for these clues, but in a way in which they would all tie together to create a startling but seemingly inevitable deterministic pattern (which would also probably not pin the ultimate blame upon Todd).

    Books such as HE WHO WHISPERS, FIVE LITTLE PIGS, CAT OF MANY TAILS and GREEN FOR DANGER (to name some personal favorites) are filled with interesting circumstances which could very well be accounted for by the kind of unrelated (and frankly uninteresting) explanations I have offered above (and indeed, even in these works, there are here and there plot points which are ultimately explained by such arbitrary happenstance). Take three clues out of FIVE LITTLE PIGS and it would certainly be less richly clued (and less satisfying), but it would certainly be no less “conclusively” and “logically” fair as, even in it its present (fully-clued) form, it does not provide the only one possible explanation for all of its details. However, it strikes me (us) as a satisfying and well clued mystery because its solution provides a sense of “inevitable” retrospective illumination.

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — September 9, 2008 @ 4:11 am | Reply

  22. What you’re saying here, Scott, seems to me an admirable summary of the principle of Occam’s Razor.

    This is described on Wikipedia as follows: — – The principle states that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory. The principle is often expressed in Latin as the lex parsimoniae (“law of parsimony” or “law of succinctness”): “entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem”, roughly translated as “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”. — – It was also expressed by Einstein as “An explanation should be as simple as possible — but no simpler.”

    Or in other words, if there are a lot of external circumstances described which add to the puzzle but turn out to have no bearing on explaining the central mystery, what we are reading is not a successful GAD story.


    Comment by jonjermey — September 9, 2008 @ 4:11 am | Reply

  23. Yes, but this does not mean that *some* level of “inessential” external circumstance is not useful. In fact, such “extraneous” details can aid significantly to the effectiveness of the puzzle plot. For, we must keep in mind that the most effective whodunit solutions are those which are retrospectively “obvious” (i.e. “of course! I should have seen it all along!”)but at the same time surprising. And it is often such extraneous detail that helps the plot from becoming too transparent prior to the denouement. Indeed, the inclusion of more than one possible suspect is generally an example of such “obfuscation by additional detail” (for, while it is true that non-culprit suspects are often integral to the central murder plot, others, even in the greatest of these works, are not).

    The trouble occurs when too great a percentage of these details are inessential and unrelated, as in my “Murder of Mr. Filiba” scenario. How great is too great? Frankly, I don’t think a definitive line can be drawn. But, as is often said about art, we know it when we see it!

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — September 10, 2008 @ 12:46 am | Reply

  24. Yes, this is a very good analysis, Scott. And your parody of how to account for “inessential clues” is actually all too common, in D-grade mysteries. So it would seem that the Queen standard — “the one and only possible culprit” — isn’t sufficient by itself. Also necessary is the use of Occam’s razor (thanks, Jon) in its artistic version, and would we ever be able to standardize what *that* should be? Words like “tight,” “concise,” “obvious in retrospect,” “surprising but inevitable” all come to mind, but clearly aren’t objective.

    Maybe we could borrow Vladimir Nabokov’s list of “the virtues that characterize all worthwhile art: originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity, and splendid insincerity.” These qualities, particularly the last, seem to fit GAD stories well — not that this takes us any closer to an objective standard for sufficient clueing.



    Comment by jonjermey — September 10, 2008 @ 12:47 am | Reply

  25. Love that quote from Nabokov, John. I’ve never read it before, but it certainly does apply well to GAD fiction.

    The point being made about “sufficient clueing” seems to be pretty much the same distinction generally made between deductive and inductive reasoning: deductive arguments are either valid or invalid, but the standard of validity or invalidity cannot be applied to inductive arguments — there are merely stronger or weaker inductive arguments.

    For example, the fact that every man who has jumped off a certain bridge has died from the fall is a strong inductive argument against doing so, but it doesn’t prove that there will never be a man to survive the fall. Still, the longer the past record of these fatalities, the stronger the inductive argument is deemed to be. Similarly, the more richly a GAD is filled with essential clues, the stronger and more satisfying we deem it, but, as you say, there is no objective standard, no clear-cut line of sufficiency.

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — September 10, 2008 @ 12:47 am | Reply

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