Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

November 23, 2008

Christie’s “Lord Edgware Dies” – is it fair play?

Filed under: Agatha Christie,Fair Play — Jon @ 2:07 am

I’ve recently reread Christie’s “Lord Edgware Dies” (aka “Thirteen at Dinner”) and was again troubled by the question of whether one of the key moments of misdirection is fair.

Hastings has narrated a scene between Poirot and Jane Wilkinson which concludes as follows. [Jane Wilkinson is speaking.]

“‘I shall always think you were wonderful.’

“I only saw Jane Wilkinson twice again. Once on the stage, once when I sat opposite her at a luncheon party. I always think of her as I saw her then, absorbed heart and soul in clothes . . . ” etc.

The tone of this passage is brilliantly designed to be valedictory. By ending with a line of dialogue that sounds like an envoi, and then recounting how he only sat opposite her once at “a luncheon,” Hastings is giving the impression that Jane Wilkinson will vanish from our story. But of course she doesn’t — she’s the culprit.

Brilliant, yes — but fair? I can’t decide. As Hastings somewhat sheepishly declares at the novel’s end, he was “suddenly recalled to the Argentine” and thus never saw Jane Wilkinson at her trial. Hmm! And while it’s true that he literally “sat opposite her at a luncheon party,” this does not happen in some unspecified future but is instead a crucial moment in our story, as JW provides an essential clue in a line of dialogue which Hastings overhears — as does another character who JW then murders. (Of course, a sharp reader, arriving at this moment, might realize that this has to be the luncheon to which Hastings earlier referred, and conceivably question the valedictory tone of the rest of Hastings’ statement.)

Now if Hastings were Dr. Sheppard, doing his best to mislead, that would be one thing. But if ever there was a reliable (if dense) narrator, it is Hastings. Can we really credit him with the cleverness to fool us like this? Or are we to believe that he’s so dense that he doesn’t realize the effect of his words? No, that’s surely impossible, since he’s at any rate smart enough to write up Poirot’s cases so they read like mysteries, with the important facts concealed, etc. He would have to know what he was doing, in writing that dubious passage. In short, the problem is that Christie decides to endow Hastings with her own brilliance here, just for a moment. She lets him make an observation that exceeds his function as a narrator. It has no narrative weight whatsoever — it’s strictly personal, so to speak. Its only purpose is misdirection, something I can’t recall Hastings ever doing elsewhere.

So, fair or not? As I said, I’m honestly not sure. Has anyone else ever had doubts about Christie’s legerdemain here?

John

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31 Comments »

  1. I vote “fair” — it’s the reader’s responsibility not to be fooled.

    Doug G

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:08 am | Reply

  2. This one is trickier than at first I thought.

    SPOILERS AHEAD!

    At first I was prepared to readily agree with Doug’s vote of fairness. After all, I do subscribe to the maxim (as summed up by Dorothy L. Sayer) that:

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

    And, as Hastings is distinct from Agatha Christie, his statements can include misdirection and even outright mistruths. It is for this same reason that I have always considered “Roger Ackroyd” fair, and would even if Dr. Sheppard’s account had extended beyond just clever omissions to outright falsehoods (i.e. “I had no idea who had killed poor Roger”). Of course, it would have made that novel even more controversial (even to today), but still logically consistent with that maxim.

    However, upon reflection of the “Thirteen at Dinner” example, I am reminded of another fairplay obligation of the author, beyond just the veracity of all statements made “in his own person”: the author must motivationally justify (or allow for the motivational justification of) all actions of his characters…. and those actions include narration. Just as the author must make it psychologically believable for the murderer to kill his victim (sufficient motive), he must also make it psychologically believable that the first-person narrator would have a desire to deceive his reader.

    It is ultimately a trade-off: while the omniscient (or non-omniscient third-person) narrator cannot tell outright mistruths, he need not justify his reasons for deception through omission, psychological misdirection, etc… after all, this third person narrator is assumed to be one and the same as the author, and it is the author’s accepted job to deceive. On the other hand, while any character may tell outright lies (including those in first-person narration), he does not have the instantly-accepted justification for such deception, and so the author is obligated to provide it.

    Though it is still somewhat debatable, I believe that Christie makes Dr. Sheppard’s desire to deceive fairly believable (though for an inarguably justified example, I recommend a certain one of Nicholas Blake’s most famous novels… was that giving too much away?). But Captain Hastings? Well, certainly we accept from him the usual convention of withholding the solution until the end. I mean, he never writes in the early pages of any of his accounts of Poirot’s cases the likes of:

    “At that point, Poirot and I were introduced to Mr. Garmisch, a tall, pleasant-looking young man. He certainly gave no impression at the time of being the fiendish murderer that Poirot later revealed him to be.”

    After all, it would rather remove a substantial amount of interest and suspense from the book as a whodunit. So, even though Hastings is writing these accounts after the completion of the cases, we allow him the accepted convention of delayed disclosure of the solution. But beyond that, is he psychologically justified in actively deceiving (or attempting to misdirect) the reader? I think there is little in Christie’s portrayal of Hastings that allows for desire for deviousness. I can’t really even believe in him thinking “ah, this will be a clever way to describe it.” I don’t think Hastings is an idiot (though I know that others do), but I don’t think Christie ever gives us any reason to believe he is capable of (or even desires a capability for) this kind of cleverness.

    So, though it is still a rather borderline example for me, I find myself much more inclined to consider this as an example of unfairness… much more so than the more celebrated (and at one time controversial) example of “Roger Akroyd.”

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:08 am | Reply

  3. Yes, Scott, you’ve captured my doubts perfectly. It’s the unmotivated, uncharacteristic (and narratively unnecessary) deviousness of Hastings here that raises the fairness question for me. And Doug, of course, has stated the opposite case perfectly too: Caveat lector!

    I’m still on the fence…

    Best,

    John

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:09 am | Reply

  4. I don’t have problems with it — after all, we know that Christie was able to work successfully at several levels at once, and that much of her success derives from that. What the reader is being called on to do here is to ‘transcend the genre’ by reminding himself or herself that Hastings is NOT in fact a real person but a fictional device for telling a story, and since the main aim of that story is pleasurable bafflement, the use of any device for that purpose is legitimate. The very fact that we can be inveigled into arguing what a fictional character ‘would’ or ‘wouldn’t’ do just shows that the employment of that particular device has succeeded in its aim.

    Jon.

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:09 am | Reply

  5. I don’t buy that, Jon. I am of course aware that Captain Hastings is a fictional construct, and am appreciative of the value of works that call our attention to the medium itself, and to the actual processes of writing and reading fiction. But I really don’t think that there is anything of that type of “postmodern” agenda to be found in any of Christie’s work. She is creating fictional worlds, and the enjoyment of her work is dependent upon our investment in those worlds. Even in a tale as wacky and unbelievable as “Murder in Mesopotamia,” which severly taxes our suspension of disbelief, it is still that suspension which allows for our enjoyment (and it is a tribute to Christie’s efforts in that direction that, while reading it, we almost buy the solution to Mesopotamia).

    As to the idea that “the main aim of that story is pleasurable bafflement,” and that “the use of any device for that purpose is legitimate,” what elements determine whether that bafflement will be pleasurable or non-pleasurable? I think the answer is that we find pleasurable those stories which fulfill our expectations and demands of the genre. And those demands include a solution which surprises us, yet at the same time follows logically (one might even suggest inevitably) from the plot’s earlier premises. If for instance, the ten deaths on Indian Island were ultimately explained as having been planned and carried out by a flock of highly intelligent ducks who hadn’t been mentioned up to that in the story, the book would certainly succeed in creating bafflement, and some might even suggest that it had “transcended the genre.” But I doubt that it would be considered “pleasurable” bafflement by most Christie readers. For, while she never offered an explicit set of rules of the genre, as did Knox and Van Dine, there was nonetheless a tacit understanding between Christie and her readers as to what they could expect from her in regards to “fairness.” Ultimately, neither she nor any other GA authors were entirely free to employ absolutely “any device” for the purpose of “pleasurable bafflement,” unencumbered by questions of legitimacy.

    Of course, a bit of playful omission on the part of Captain Hastings seems a far cry from super-intelligent duck culprits on Indian Island. At the same time, I would argue that postmodern deconstruction of her fictional world was as far from Christie’s intent as was the supernatural inclusion of U. N. Mallard.

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:09 am | Reply

  6. Hi Scott,

    I certainly wasn’t trying to imply that Christie was deliberately attempting any postmodernist trickery for its own sake, or trying to do anything other than writing a successful GAD detective story. But we know that she was an expert at allowing the reader to mislead himself or herself by relying on conventions established by less talented writers, and I for one wouldn’t feel entitled to draw a line in the sand and say: ‘This convention is OK to violate but this one is not.” As you have already pointed out, if this was a real story narrated by a real person it would be very different: for one thing, the audience wouldn’t sit around patiently for two hours waiting to find out who the murderer was: nor (unless they had the verbal memories of preliterate tribespeople) would they be able to remember the early stages of the story well enough to make sense of the final explanation. So to me the whole ‘narrator’ business is really smoke and mirrors anyway, and if I get taken in by it then I feel obliged to kick myself afterwards.

    I suspect also that the feeling a solution follows ‘logically’ may sometimes be the result of the author’s skill rather than the real use of logic — see Raymond Chandler’s analysis of absurdities in The Red House Mystery by AA Milne, for instance. But I would be the first to agree that whether or not something is ‘plausible’ or ‘fair’ is an essentially subjective judgement.

    Jon.

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:10 am | Reply

  7. Jon:

    I agree with nearly all you say, but though I too would not feel entitled to draw the line in the sand, I believe that the consensus of readership has done that very thing (as Mr. Morris has suggested in another of today’s posts). In other words, readers, via their stated approval and disapproval of works, have formulated a surprisingly consistent set of expected standards and conventions for the genre. Among these expected conventions are:

    1. The author, while he can avail himself of many forms of psychological (and literary) deception, cannot himself (i.e. in the form of an omniscient or even limited third-person narrator) make unambiguously false statements. Or, as Sayers stated it conversely, “nothing in a detective story need be held true unless the author has vouched for it *in his own person.*”

    2. There is a relationship between the solution of the mystery and those events and other plot elements which precede it such that the solution not only allows for these elements, but also accounts for them, and that they in turn point the reader toward a possible discovery of that solution (and here is where the clearly subjective matter of “sufficiency” comes up).

    and then of course, there is the convention that we’ve been dealing with re: “Thirteen at Dinner”:

    3. While characters within a story (including a first person-narrator) can tell mistruths (even in the form of narration) the author must provide reasonable justification (or at least, allow for reasonable justification) for such deception on the part of the characters. This obligation to provide justification is not, of course, limited to deception, but rather to all behavior on the part of the fictional characters.

    While I have certainly described these conventions quite poorly, I think you will agree that they describe the expectations of readers of the genre…. and when these expectations are not fulfilled, readers respond with harsh disdain.

    I don’t think most readers recall Hastings “cleverness” by the time they reach the end of the book (unlike Dr. Sheppard’s similar cleverness, it is not proudly touted in the final chapter), which is why I don’t think the book has suffered years of “Ackroyd”-like controversy. But I do actually think it conflicts with the consensus view of “fairness” in that Hastings, unlike either Sheppard or Christie herself, has no motivational justification to be tricky.

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:10 am | Reply

  8. I think that this is entirely fair since Hastings has (in my opinion) done nothing to ACTIVELY deceive the reader, he has simply told the literal truth. Of course I thoroughly enjoy being puzzled by Christie. I don’t think that I ever solved any of her mysteries. That is probably why I enjoy them so much so I don’t mind this sort of what I would call PASSIVE deception. Christie is well within her prerogative to encourage the reader to deceive himself.

    Ron Smyth

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:11 am | Reply

  9. Ron:

    I think you are making an error in speaking of the example in question in terms of “active” and “passive” deception. For although Hasting relies upon omission, and does not tell any outright mistruths, it is inaccurate to refer to his deception as passive. He deliberately chooses to omit important, and such deliberate omission is indeed active deception.

    Of course, again, he is not telling any outright mistruths, but recall that the “unwritten” requirement to refrain from telling mistruths is generally understood to refer to the obligation of the author (and by logical extension, to third-person narrators), not to characters within a story. It is authors who must frequently rely on deceptive omission, allowing readers to “fool themselves.” On the other hand, while characters within a story *can* lie (and frequently do), I believe that the author is still required to justify that character’s choice to do so. IMO in this case, Christie does not succeed in such justification.

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:11 am | Reply

  10. Here’s another way to view the “fairness” question, perhaps:

    Since there are no universal rules for what constitutes fairness in a GA mystery, our sense of fair play has developed as a kind of conversation or consensus. “Fairness” is not a Platonic abstraction or a logical syllogism. It’s more akin to “quality” in the artworld, for instance — if critics and art-lovers overwhelmingly decide that a certain painter has quality, then ipso facto he or she does; barring some tendentious definition of “quality” imported into the discussion, there’s no other court of appeal.

    So, similarly, perhaps we should acknowledge that the “Lord Edgware deception” is fair simply because the novel has been an accepted (indeed, a lauded) part of the GA canon for more than 70 years, with no serious hackles raised. Am I sure about this? No! But it’s a thought…

    John

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:11 am | Reply

  11. The fair-play topics are among my favourites in GAD!

    High kudos to John Morris for spotting this one (at least, I’ve read the book several times and hadn’t noticed it). Both sides have presented very interesting arguments. But, even as I understand Scott’s view, I can’t agree with him on this. A first-person narrator is still a narrator. I see no reason why fair-play rules should be more severe regarding first-person narrators than regarding third person narrators. The trick played on the reader in Lord Edgware Dies would unequivocally be legitimate if used by a third person narrator; therefore, it is legitimate when used by a first person narrator.

    Actually, I believe fair-play rules must be more severe regarding third-person narrators: while these may misdirect but not lie, first-person narrators may misdirect *and*, if they have a reasonable motive, even lie (as in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). IMO there is no reason to invert this rule in Lord Edgware Dies.

    The argument that Hastings is not supposed to misdirect doesn’t convince me. Every narrator in a detective story is supposed to deceive and misdirect. In all detective stories narrated by first person narrators (including the Christie books narrated by Hastings), the deception is necessarily perpetrated by the first-person narrator. There are thousands of instances of this, including in Christie’s books. The fact that the reader does not expect Hastings, both because of his personality and narratorial function, to practice this particular kind of “half-truth” deception is another example of Christie’s skill in playing with the reader’s perceptions and expectations (in fact quite similar to the one in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – both are grounded on the reliability of the Watson).

    The reasonable motive for Hastings to play the trick on us (if needed) is clear: he is telling a detective story! Once we accept that a narrator (first- or third-person) does not disclose the culprit’s identity, that he generally knows from the start of the narration, until its end, we’ll also have to accept this kind of misdirection. And Christie even provides the reader with a fair-play chance to spot the luncheon party where Hastings met the culprit for the last time – and, if so, spot the deception.

    Then, IMO: fair-play!

    Henrique

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:12 am | Reply

  12. >>The argument that Hastings is not supposed to misdirect doesn’t convince me. Every narrator in a detective story is supposed to deceive and misdirect. In all detective stories narrated by first person narrators (including the Christie books narrated by Hastings), the deception is necessarily perpetrated by the first-person narrator.<< Absolutely!

    Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a narrator has been first-on-the-spot to a crime and observes the likely perpetrator, describing her thusly: “The young woman was slight and delicate, the very image of a lady. Her exquisite face was transfixed with horror as she gazed at the pistol in her hand and then at the bloodied young man at her feet. But I knew that she couldn’t have killed him with this evil weapon!” And so he goes on to say to any number of inquiring persons, which was later proven to be entirely true. What he did not say to us, however, was that he also saw a second “smoking” gun protruding from her pocket and this weapon mysteriously disappeared as she ran hysterically from the scene! Did he lie to us? No, what he did say was true, and if he neglected to inform us of the second fact (and also the police) it can only be placed squarely at his appreciation of the “exquisite face” and a desire to protect her, n’est-ce pas? Thus does the story unfold.

    Katherine Ames

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:12 am | Reply

  13. Katherine:

    Again, as with my last few posts, I make an important distinction. In your example, you have provided your first-person narrator with a motive to deceive the reader. And as such, I wouldn’t object if that narrator went beyond mere clever omission, but as far as to flat-out lie to the reader. I just don’t believe that Christie has provided such motivational justification with Hastings. And for me, that makes all the difference in the world.

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:13 am | Reply

  14. Henrique:

    I suspect that we will never entirely agree on this matter, because of a conflicting beliefs regarding the nature of narrators, and a primary distinction (or lack of same) between first and third-person narrators. I find an essential distinction between the two, in that I believe that a first person narrator is taken to inhabit the fictional world, while the third- person narrator (whom I believe to be accepted as the author himself) exists outside of it. Thus, while I agree that fair-play rules should not be “more severe regarding first-person narrators than regarding third person narrators,” I think that they have very different demands and expectations placed upon them by readers. You write that:

    “while [third-person narrators] these may misdirect but not lie, first-person narrators may misdirect *and*, if they have a reasonable motive, even lie (as in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).”

    I quite agree. My objection to Christie’s ploy in “Thirteen at Dinner” is not that I won’t accept that a first-person narrator may either misdirect or lie, but rather that I don’t believe that Hastings has (your required) “reasonable motive” to do so. As I stated before, I wouldn’t object to Dr. Sheppard going as far as writing “I had no idea who killed poor Roger,” because we (ultimately) understand his desire to deceive his readers. But what reason is Hastings given to deceive his readership? It is this distinction in justified motivation that makes all the difference for me.

    A third person narrator, on the other hand, has an inherent justification to deceive — If we accept the third-person narrator as directly representing the author (which, as I say, I do). The third person narrator is a mystery writer, and it is the mystery writer’s expected desire to deceive — but it is *not* Captain Hasting’s expected desire to do so… at least as long as Agatha Christie doesn’t justify this desire.

    Again, I’m writing it badly (I’m not nearly as articulate as you are), but do you get my point?

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:13 am | Reply

  15. Thank you to all who are participating in the fair-play discussion re “Lord Edgware.” I had a feeling, when I started it, that we’d get some excellent analyses, and my expectations have been exceeded!

    Let me address Henrique’s point about Hastings’ motivation a bit further. He says, correctly I believe, that even a “Watson” character must have a reasonable motive for deceiving us. And the motive Henrique suggests is that “he is telling a detective story!” Is this indeed a sufficient motive? This takes us to the heart of the narratological issue. What convention are we asked to accept, re the Hastings-narrated Christie novels? Are they actual documents – that is, are we to accept that in the alternative world created by Christie, these books were published by Hastings? I believe so; he is often referred to as Poirot’s biographer, and there are many references to his having written up Poirot’s cases. Very well; Hastings is an actual author.

    Let us go further: Are Hastings’ accounts published as detective stories? Here we encounter the necessity to suspend our disbelief. In no possible world could that occur. In Christie’s alternate world, Hastings’ books would have to be the equivalent of “true- crime” nonfiction reports. Indeed, in the example that prompted all this, Hastings begins the book by firmly establishing this point: “The memory of the public is short. Already the intense interest and excitement aroused by the murder of . . . Edgware is a thing past and forgotten…” etc. Now we all know that true-crime books are not written like detective stories. What would be the point? No matter how short the public’s memory, a true-crime writer would hardly write a book that pretends its readers don’t know about a famous murderer. I think I can confidently assert that no such nonfiction account has ever been written.

    This muddies the waters. On the one hand, Hastings is a “real” narrator who has actually written the book in question. But on the other hand, he has written it in a way that is impossible, given the kind of book it purports to be! So how are we to raise and answer the question of realistic motivation in such a case? I think Henrique’s point is strong: If Hastings is truly “telling a detective story,” then that may very well be motivation enough for his narrative deception in “Edgware.” But as I’ve tried to show, things are not so clear. Hastings is “telling a detective story” in OUR world, but not in his. We have to suspend our disbelief in order to accept that Hastings would write up Poirot’s cases like detective stories. So I think the crucial question becomes: Do we suspend our disbelief all the way, so that we can even accept our narrator’s deliberate misdirection? Some would say, In for a penny, in for a pound. Others – Scott certainly, and perhaps I – would say that we require additional, plausible motivation for the narrator’s deception, and that Hastings in this case is wildly out of character. His humanity, such as it is, has been taken over by a very clever goddess named Agatha Christie. This may not be quite as outrageous as U.N. Mallard, but Scott is right on target in questioning the maneuver.

    Clearly there’s a monograph waiting to be written on the subject of “Legitimate First-Person Deception in the Golden Age Detective Story”!

    John

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:14 am | Reply

  16. Scott,

    I also find some difference between first- and third-person narrators. After all I admit that the latter, and not the former, may never be permitted to lie, and there are also differences from a narratorial point o view. While our disagreement in a previous case may have been caused by a different view of narrators (not seriously different, in any case), I don’t think that is the case here.

    I assume you admit that a first-person narrator may deceive the reader; otherwise there wouldn’t be any fair-play first-person detective stories. Conversely, I don’t admit that a first-person narrator may deceive the reader in any possible way. I believe we agree on this! So, as in the previous issue, our difference is smaller than at first sight.

    I interpret your judgment of unfairness in this case as mainly based on the idea that the deception played by Hastings is out of character. And I agree with you that it is! IMO, that’s what makes it brilliant. People sometimes act out of character in real life, and act smarter than we believe them to be. Christie played with our perception of Hastings as a flat character.

    As for motive, you write that «The third person narrator is a mystery writer». I wouldn’t put it that way, but your point is clear. But isn’t the first-person narrator also a mystery writer in the sense you mean? I believe it is! At least he/she is a person who, according to a narratorial convention, tells a mystery story.

    Some first-person narrators are even professional mystery writers, and their narratives are supposed to *be* their books or short-stories. Among many others, this is both the case of Dr. Watson and Captain Hastings, who is referred to as Poirot’s biographer on more than one occasion. So, why not accept that, as he is (conventionally) writing a detective story, all the rules of fair-play apply to him as would apply – no more, no less severely – to a third person narrator? In this case, that would validate Hasting’s trick – it’s our problem if, on occasion, he was smarter than we expected!

    Henrique

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:14 am | Reply

  17. John,

    You wrote:

    “Are Hastings’ accounts published as detective stories? Here we encounter the necessity to suspend our disbelief. In no possible world could that occur. In Christie’s alternate world, Hastings’ books would have to be the equivalent of “true-crime” nonfiction reports. Indeed, in the example that prompted all this, Hastings begins the book by firmly establishing this point: “The memory of the public is short. Already the intense interest and excitement aroused by the murder of . . .. Edgware is a thing past and forgotten…” etc. Now we all know that true-crime books are not written like detective stories. What would be the point? No matter how short the public’s memory, a true-crime writer would hardly write a book that pretends its readers don’t know about a famous murderer. I think I can confidently assert that no such nonfiction account has ever been written”.

    I believe you are right in almost all of your points. However, in order to enter Poirot’s fictional world we *must* accept that:

    a) Hastings writes non-fiction books; b) Hastings writes non-fiction books like detective novels.

    Therefore, I find little point in saying that

    “Now we all know that true-crime books are not written like detective stories. What would be the point? No matter how short the public’s memory, a true-crime writer would hardly write a book that pretends its readers don’t know about a famous murderer”.

    This is not a true true-crime writer! If we don’t suspend our disbelief in this issue, we won’t accept anything in Hastings narrative.

    The alternative is the following: if Hastings is supposed to write non-fiction books that, in his world, are not like detective stories, and if he is addressing a fictional audience that already knows the murderer’s identity, he is not fooling anyone, so the whole issue of fair-play would dissolve. I think it is better to keep him under the fair-play rules! But not on more stringent terms than would apply to a third-person narrator.

    By the way, Carr’s The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey is a true-crime book written like a fair-play detective novel. As the identity of murderer had previously been pointed out by investigators, the ending would not come as a surprise to many informed readers. Carr’s option was an artistic one (he explicitly said so) and I see no reason why we should preclude, as drastically as John did, that Hastings, in his fictional world, would not adopt the same option in writing Poirot’s cases.

    This is obviously a highly debatable issue. John and Scott raised excellent points and, however energetically I express myself, I’m not fully convinced of what I’ve written above!

    Henrique

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:15 am | Reply

  18. Yes, a very convoluted question, Henrique. On the whole, I agree with you: Hastings needs to be held to the conventions of the detective story, not the true-crime report, even though, in his world, he’s presumably writing the latter, not the former.

    I think what Scott and I are saying is that “I’m writing a detective story!” doesn’t count as motivation for Hastings’ deception, in his world. It’s a strange situation, isn’t it? We agree that Hastings the narrator has to play fair. But we also see that the whole issue of “playing fair” couldn’t arise for Hastings the character, who has no idea he’s writing a detective story, at least not under that description. Fascinating…

    Thanks, by the way, for noting Carr’s “Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey.” You’re right that, in a way, it’s an exception to my claim that no one would write a true-crime report like a detective story. But Carr’s example only works because the murder took place centuries ago, and none but scholars would know the story. Hastings’ accounts, by contrast, are presumably published a few scant years after the fact. Still, that will teach me to “confidently assert” anything!

    Best,

    John

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:15 am | Reply

  19. Henrique:

    I think we are getting closer to a common understanding. I believe (and correct me if I’m wrong here) that we are in agreement that:

    1. Agatha Christie wrote of fictional characters and events which she had created for the purpose of entertainment, and the expectations and conventions of the genre in which she worked provide an obvious justification for her desire to deceive.

    2. Captain Hastings wrote of characters and events which in his world (the fictional world of these novels) are real, and therefore, whether or not we regard them as akin to “true-crime reporting,” they are works of non-fiction (again, that is, within his fictional world). His reasons for doing so are not entirely obvious.

    I don’t want to overstep myself here… I’m merely asserting that while Christie invented Poirot, Hastings, and their adventures, we are not intended ot believe that Hastings invented Poirot and his adventures.

    Agreed so far?

    Now, of course, the question at issue is Hasting’s reasons for writing up his “real-life” accounts, for those reasons would determine his justification in attempting to deceive his reader.

    I think it is patently clear that Hastings is not a mystery writer in the sense that Christie is. In the first place, rare examples such as “Edmund Godfrey” notwithstanding, mystery writers generally create their own characters and situations, even if they borrow ideas and incidents from real life (e.g. “The Mirror Crack’d,” “Murder on the Orient Express”). More tellingly, Hastings is never referred to as a mystery writer, by either Christie or the characters in her novels, unlike Ariadne Oliver, who clearly of that profession. There is not even the occasional appreciative, “Ah, how deviously you dealt with recording that situation, mon ami!” from Poirot, suggesting that there was anything artistic or clever in Hasting’s translation from event to paper.

    He is referred to on several occasions as Poirot’s biographer or chronicler. I would suggest even that, as much as being biographical works, they are autobiographical… we are indeed reading the personal memoirs of Captain Hastings.

    Why then does Hastings write out these accounts in the form of detective stories (and by this I’m referring primarily to the postponement of the solution revelation until the end)?

    I have two suggested answers. The first is a matter of pure pragmatism: Hastings must write his accounts in the form of detective stories in order that Christie can write *her* books as detective stories! That is, if Hastings was the type who divulged solution information immediately (“Poirot and I were then introduced to Dr. Filiba, a pleasant man who hardly seemed like a murderer, as Poirot later revealed him to be”), Christie would be severly handicapped in her ability to avail herself of the first-person narrator technique, a narrative point-of-view which is often desirable. Moreover, such a requirement for a fictional narrator to match the “needs” of the author is not limited to mystery writing. If, for example, one was writing a novel recounting a war via a series of military dispatches, the author of the book would need these dispatches to describe exciting events (in order to make the novel exciting), and thus the Colonel who wrote the dispatches (who in his world has no such need for them to be exciting… he merely needs to accurately record events), and the war itself (which has no inherent desire to be exciting) would have to step things up to match the author’s needs.

    Another reason that Hastings might be writing in this form is simply that he chooses (as many do) to write down incidents chronologically, recalling memories and revelations in the order that they occured to him. Seems reasonable to me.

    At any rate, I don’t see anything presented by Christie that justifies him choosing to be “tricky.” And I believe that such justification is of monumental importance. After all, we demand it of our culprit, don’t we? If it turns out that Byron Gomshplume killed his brother in law out of jealousy borne of his incestuous passion for his sister Hildegarde, aren’t we rightfully outraged if the author gave us no indications of this jealousy and incestuous passion? Now, I’ll admit that my outrage diminishes the further that such unindicated or unjustified behavior is removed from the core of the puzzle plot, but I believe that questions of narrator credibility strike close to that core. Ultimately, fair-play requires providing clues to the motivations of all characters who have impact on the plot (or its telling).

    You wrote elsewhere that “People sometimes act out of character in real life, and act smarter than we believe them to be.” Though I agree that people often act smarter than we believe them to be, I believe strongly that people *never* act out of character! For the character of a person (and it is indeed a complex thing) encompasses all possible behavior that they would actually engage in. This brings to mind how when my mother (almost always disapprovingly) used to scold me with “How could you do that? That’s not like you,” to which I (little shit that I was) would respond “It’s not only like me, it *is* me!” I was admittedly a pain in the ass… but I was right! Even if chose to act a certain way just because it was the type of thing “I would never do,” my desire and choice to do so would fall within my character. Thus, the term “uncharacteristic” in reference to a person’s actual behavior is really a misnomer. What we are really speaking of is behavior that is outside of our understanding of that person’s character.

    So, yes, people do indeed have hidden depths. But the obligations of fairplay fiction include the need to indicate those depths. And I don’t think Christie’s portrayal of Hastings indicates any heighths or widths, let along depths.

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:16 am | Reply

  20. Christie’s deception may be active but I still consider Hasting’s to be passive. Of course he is not the only narrator in Christie’s books to lie by omission. Whether it is justified…. I can only say that it did not bother me or spoil my enjoyment. Your mileage may vary.

    –Ron Smyth

    Ron:

    I think you are making an error in speaking of the example in question in terms of “active” and “passive” deception. For although Hasting relies upon omission, and does not tell any outright mistruths, it is inaccurate to refer to his deception as passive. He deliberately chooses to omit important, and such deliberate omission is indeed active deception.

    Of course, again, he is not telling any outright mistruths, but recall that the “unwritten” requirement to refrain from telling mistruths is generally understood to refer to the obligation of the author (and by logical extension, to third-person narrators), not to characters within a story. It is authors who must frequently rely on deceptive omission, allowing readers to “fool themselves.” On the other hand, while characters within a story *can* lie (and frequently do), I believe that the author is still required to justify that character’s choice to do so. IMO in this case, Christie does not succeed in such justification.

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:16 am | Reply

  21. Ronald:

    I still disagree. If, say, I witness a crime and say nothing about it to the authorities, my omission is passive… I am doing nothing. If, on the other hand, I decide to recount the incident to the police, and I deliberately omit details (let’s say, details which could help identify the culprit), I am engaging in an activity (creating a narrative) and my deliberate choice to leave out certain details is as much a part of that activity as my inclusion of those which I leave in.

    Similarly, Groucho Marx engaged in active deception (for comical purposes) when he stated that “Churchill and I once dined at the Connaught” (he later admitted that he had never actually dined with Churchill, but rather that “He ate there once and so did I”). As with Hastings, he is allowing the listener (or reader) to arrive at false conclusions, without ever making a false statement himself. However, both Hastings and Marx carefully framed their words to guide the listener (reader) toward misinterpretation, and such careful guidance is anything but passive.

    Is it fair? Only, I believe, if the reader has some indication that the deceiver has some possible reason to deceive. Christie is a mystery writer, and thus has an inherent justification for deception. I don’t believe she provides Hastings with any such justification, however.

    I can’t say that this element hampered my enjoyment of “13 at Dinner,” though. In fact, I never discovered this flaw at all until John Morris pointed it out a few days ago. To be honest, it has never been one of my favorite Christie novels, anyway (I find the central deception — which has almost nothing to do with Hastings — is rather too transparent).

    As you say, he is not the only narrator in Christie’s work to lie by omission… and somewhat ironically, I consider the case of the much more celebrated (and controversial) example to be, in fact, much less troubling, and much more inarguably fair.

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:17 am | Reply

  22. Just a quick thumbnail summarization of my long-winded last post:

    I accept that any narrator might be deceptive, just as I accept that any character might be the murderer. However, just as I require justification for and indication of the character’s motive to murder, I require justification for and indication of the narrator’s motive to be deceptive.

    And the third-person narrator (author) needn’t justify his own desire to mislead, as it is part of his job description.

    That’s it.

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — November 23, 2008 @ 2:19 am | Reply

  23. Yes, we certainly agree on points 1. and 2. Where I believe we disagree is in the matter of the role of narrators. As I’ve mentioned before, in a first-person narrative, all deception and misdirection played by the author necessarily come through the first-person narrator. So, the standard of fair-play applied to that first-person narrator should not be more stringent to that applied to a third person narrator. Hastings’ deception in Lord Edgware Dies (LED) would clearly be acceptable if perpetrated by a first person narrator. I think you attach a disproportionate importance to the characterization of Hastings’ role as a narrator in his fictional world. Hastings, as every first person narrator (and, in fact, as every narrator) is merely an authorial device to tell a story. So, in my view, it’s not very important to know if Hastings is a biographer, a mystery writer, or why does he tell his narratives the way he does.

    If we don’t take his narratives as straightforward detective stories, ignoring the distinction between author/narrator, we may as well start questioning if a fellow who seems never to have read a book and whose main concerns in life are pretty girls, cars and physical action, would be at all capable of writing highly structured and multi-layered narratives in an articulate, grammatical prose. If we suspend our disbelief in this respect, all the rest follows, and we must also be prepared for the kind of narratorial deception played in LED. Moreover, as a first-person narrator, Hastings is ipso facto prone to unreliability. Even if he doesn’t lie or misdirect, he may have limited knowledge about the facts or simply be wrong. So, the reader must be prepared for unreliability, which is worse than mere trickiness. Decisive is the Golden Rule of fair-play: the reader shall have enough clues to spot the truth, including the narrator’s misdirection. And in this case the reader has such clues! By saying that people sometimes act out of character I merely meant that an individual may behave in a way that does not conform with individual and social expectations based on knowledge of that individual’s mental characteristics and previous behaviour. This seems to be the case of Hastings’ misdirection in LED.

    Another case of questionable narratorial misdirection for the debate: in Carr’s The Dark of The Moon, the narrator reports a sudden Dr. Fell shout of “Mendelssohn!”, indicating that this may have some relevance in the solution of the mystery. But the word shouted by Dr. Fell, which points to the solution, is actually a very different one… And this is a *third-person* narrator.

    Henrique

    Comment by jonjermey — November 27, 2008 @ 9:40 pm | Reply

  24. Henrique:

    Pardon me for hammering at the same points over and over again, but I do so not only because I’m strongly convinced of my position, but also because I suspect that our inability to see eye to eye on these points may be rooted as much in my inability to make my ideas clear as it is in any fundamental disagreement of belief.

    Let me begin by responding to a statement you made in your last post:

    “the standard of fair-play applied to that first-person narrator should not be more stringent to that applied to a third person narrator.”

    Henrique, I believe that by your statement you imply (and you have made this implication more than once)that I insist upon a more stringent standard of fair-play be placed upon a first-person narrator (hereafter referred to as a 1PN)than upon a third-person narrator (3PN). I really don’t. I just believe that a *different* standard of fair play should be applied, for reasons that I will explain. And indeed, if my standard is more restricting toward one than the other, I believe that is actually upon the 3PN whom I place the greater restrictions.

    Here is my own (admittedly personal) judgment of what narrators should and should not be able to do:

    A 3PN may not make unambiguously untrue statements (i.e. outright lies). Furthermore, it is only upon 3PNs that I place this restriction without exception, for I actually do consider it permissable under certain conditions for a 1PN to make even deliberate false statements. Thus note that, in this regard, my standard of fair-play is actually more stringent upon 3PNs than upon 1PNs. This particular standard of fair-play, incidentally, is in place so that there is at least one thing the reader can trust: the literal word of the author. Again, to quote Sayers: “Nothing in a detective story need be held true unless the author has vouched for it *in his own person.*”

    I also believe that, with one important exception, a 3PN is always indentical to and undistinguishable from the author himself. It really doesn’t make any sense otherwise… after all, the story is being told by someone, and if the author is not the one telling it, who is? (the only other possible explanation is a fictional character, and this would usually put us in 1PN territory). Thus, despite stylistic variations, the report of the 3PN is merely the story being told to us directly by the author. The difference between a limited 3PN and an omniscient 3PN is merely a matter of degree of disclosure; the limited 3PN doesn’t know any less of the whole story than the omniscient 3PN, he merely tells less… after all, the author knows the whole of the story, whether he reveals it or not. The one exception I referred to is instances of 3P-narrated accounts embedded within the story. That is, when there are narratives within the main narrative (e.g. newspaper reports, testimonies, etc…) which are expressed in the 3PN form. These are clearly identified as “quoted” sources (e.g. “The article began:’The murder has been determined to have occurred on…” or “He stated his testimony:’Johnson left the building at 8:30.’) As such, they are clearly distinguished from the 3P-narration of the story’s author. They are undeniably the work of characters within the fictional world, and thus subject to outright falsehood (as opposed to the more limited “guided misinterpretation” permitted to the account of the 3PN/author).

    However, such falsehoods are only permissable under the same primary condition which governs all character falsehoods and deceptions (including those of 1PN): there must be sufficient character motivation for them, and further, the author must provide indication of that motivation. I can’t see why there should be any disagreement to this, as it is already universally understood: the reader demands that there be an adequate motivational explanation for all character- instigated deception, from murder to mere falsification of evidence. Moreover, it is not enough that the characters have adequate reason for such deception, it is also necessary that the author to give prior (to revelation) indications of that reason, else the story is deemed “insufficiently well-clued.” Thus, it is not sufficient to allow that Captain Hasting might “possibly” have a desire to deceive; it is necessary to give some indication of that desire. For, why should the standard of motivation and indication sufficiency be any greater in regard to the murderer than to any other deceiving-characters (including the 1PN)?

    Furthermore, the requirement for sufficient motive-to-deceive actually applies to the 3PN/author as well. However, in the case of the 3PN/author, the justification for deception is self-evident. Agatha Christie, as a mystery writer, is in the business of deception; the pleasure of her books is in large part dependent upon the surprise aspect of the solution of her book. There is really no indication that Captain Hastings, however — while he does follow the detective-story convention of witholding the solution until the end of the book (I gave my suggested justifications for this in an earlier post) — has any desire to create such a sense of surprise (keep in mind that Hastings, unlike Christie, does not not create the circumstances that allow for this surprise; he only recounts them). This is why I place such emphasis on determining the 1PN’s intent in narrating these events; if he is a mere “chronicler” or “biographer,” he does not have the self-evident (necessary) justification for desiring to deceive.

    You have mentioned several times that all narrators are potentially unreliable. That is of course true, but I don’t think it in any way justifies our unconditional acceptance of such unreliability. After all, if it did, how could we place any restrictions on any narrators, even 3PNs (of whom, we have both agreed, we demand avoidance of all outright lying [i.e. Sayers maxim])? A newspaper reporter may indeed exhibit unreliable-narration by being inaccurate in his account of a news incident, but if he does so he is not doing his job correctly. Similarly, a mystery writer might relate his story via a deceptive 1PN whose reasons for deceiving are entirely unindicated, but if he does so, he (the mystery writer) is not doing *his* job correctly.

    You also wrote:

    “Decisive is the Golden Rule of fair-play: the reader shall have enough clues to spot the truth, including the narrator’s misdirection. And in this case the reader has such clues!”

    Well, I don’t know… the problem with that Golden Rule of fair- play, of course, is all contained in the word “enough.” Where does one draw the line of “sufficiency?” That question perhaps explains why I become so dogmatic about these rules. I say that there must be indication of the reason to desire to deceive. But I really can’t say what qualifies as sufficient indication. I always think of the example of the physical “peculiarity” of the culprit in “The Crooked Hinge.” Is it clued? Yes. Is it *sufficiently* clued? I tend to think not, actually, but that is certainly a matter of opinion. Still, I’m confident that if there weren’t the few clues that are there indicating the “peculiarity,” nearly all would call it unfair. As for the “13 at Dinner” example, unless I’m missing something, the only clues to the narrator’s misdirection are by a reverse deductive process: there are clues to the identity of the murderer, and if that person is the murderer then Hastings must have been deceptive in his description, and if he was deceptive, he must have had a reason for being so… not exactly the motivational indication I’m insisting upon.

    One other point that perhaps requires clarification, though it is just as likely of no importance whatsoever. You wrote:

    “As I’ve mentioned before, in a first-person narrative, all deception and misdirection played by the author necessarily come through the first-person narrator.”

    This is a tricky point, though perhaps not all that important to our discussion here. My question it, do you consider deception played by (non-narrator) characters within the narrative to be part of the “deception and misdirection played by the author”? Obviously, the author is the creator of that deception (in being the creator of the deceiver and all that he does), and while the description of it must “necessarily come through the first-person narrator” (as *everything* must necessarily come through that narrator in this type of narrative), it does not entail deception on the part of that first-person narrator. It’s basically the same question as whether anything can truly be considered man-made as opposed to God-made, if one believes that God made man.

    Another subtler, trickier point… is a 3PN justified in referring to a character by the name he/she has been using, even if that is not his/her true identity (“A Murder is Announced” provides an example of this)? I have a feeling it’s technically unfair, but it’s a tough one.

    I will say that, though I’ve not yet read “Dark of the Moon,” it reeks to me of unquestionable cheating. Though he is my favorite of all puzzle plot authors, I can’t say he was always above that sort of thing.

    Well, as badly as I’ve put all this, it has nonetheless taken me a inordinate amount of time to frame these words, and I’ve got other work to do, so until later…

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — November 27, 2008 @ 9:41 pm | Reply

  25. I wouldn’t like to bore GAD members to death with this discussion, but I feel that I have not made my arguments clear enough.

    In order to read fiction (that is, to read it, enjoy it and not be intellectually frustrated by it) , we must previously accept some general conventions. Some forms of fiction, like detective fiction, also demand our acceptance of some conventions that are specific to it.

    1) In general, we must accept that narrators and narratives are always idealized. Omniscience is beyond human capability. In the real world, nobody would believe that a butler would tell a story like Betteredge in The Moonstone or that a private dick would tell a story like Marlowe. In short: in any kind of fiction, the narrator (1st or 3rd person) is merely a device for the telling of the story. Therefore, the function of a 1st person narrator necessarily lies partially outside his fictional world. Therefore, there seems to be little use in trying to find out what kind of books Hastings writes in his fictional world, as well as in demanding that his narrative devices find a plausible justification exclusively within his fictional world. There also seems to be little sense in applying to a 1st person narrator the same requirements of “psychological justification of behaviour” imposed on other characters, because, unlike the 1st person narrator, they don’t fullfill any function outside their fictional world. The whole problem of the alleged unfairness of the Hastings’ trick stems from this.

    2) The detective story, a highly formalized and intrinsically artificial kind of fiction, demands the acceptance of some further conventions. First, the convention of the narrative structure, which requires the solution of the mystery to be kept until the end. There is no intrinsic justification for an omniscient narrator not to reveal the identity of the culprit until the end. In most cases, there also isn’t any justification exclusive to the fictional world of a 1st person narrator to do the same. But we must accept this convention in order to read detective stories. Another convention is that detective narratives rely intrinsically on deception. This applies to all kind of narratives, be it 1st or 3rd person. It is clear that this convention is also previous to the fictional world, and, in the case of 1st person narrators, it is therefore impossible to ground on circumstances that belong to that fictional world.

    Scott says that I am wrong in suggesting that he requires a stricter fair-play of 1st person narrators in comparison with 3rd person narrators. Well, he may not do it in theory, but that’s the practical result of his view. This because the narratorial trick played by Christie via Hastings would surely be accepted if perpetrated by a 1st person narrator. I actually believe Scott is coherent in this: it’s an inevitable consequence of the purely naturalistic approach that sees the 1st person narrator as a potentially real human being and not as a device fulfilling an objective narratorial function.

    So, in short, I believe Hastings’ trick to be sufficiently justified because his function is partly outside the fictional world he inhabits and because in a detective story the reader must be prepared to be deceived by the narrator.

    Another highly relevant aspect is the fact that the reader is supplied with evidence to spot the truth. If he/she does so, he/she will automatically expose Hastings half-truth. The latter may only have the effect of misleading the inattentive or credulous astute reader that would otherwise be on the right track. The attentive and alert astute reader will not be fooled. The unattentive and credulous astute reader or that attentive and alert nincompoop reader (I’m one of them) will not even suspect the truth and even less the subtle misdirection, which is aimed at a cleverer reader; at most, he/she will only spot it in retrospect, either spontaneously or prompted by John Morris! The first class of readers may legitimately be furious, but they shall learn not to be fooled by the same trick again; the second class of readers has no legitimacy whatsoever to cry “Foul Play!” at a deception that wasn’t even necessary to deceive them.

    Scott undervalues the “enough clues” argument, saying that the book doesn’t provide enough psychological motivation for Hastings’ trick. But as I see it, that’s not the point. The fair-play rule requires that the reader be supplied with clues to reach the solution. In Lord Edgware Dies there are more than enough of these clues, so the fair-play rule was undoubtedly complied with. If Hastings acts out of character only to fulfill a narrative function is a different question. Characters in GAD fiction do it all the time, often with the effect of fooling the reader expecting a different behaviour on the basis of previously gathered psychological evidence. It doesn’t matter if the character in question is the narrator or not, the results are the same (and anyway the psychological evidence relating to characters must be supplied by *some* narrator). One could argue that this is bad art, but it’s not unfair.

    I wouldn’t qualify the Christie example at stake as “bad art”, but it would definitely be my verdict for the trick in Dark of The Moon I mentioned before. Although, strictly speaking, it also respects the fair-play rule, it’s a trick Carr in his prime would have never used.

    Henrique

    Comment by jonjermey — November 27, 2008 @ 9:43 pm | Reply

  26. I too will start this post with apologies to GADers who have had more than enough — but I figure they will sensibly just skip this.

    Henrique, I agree with some of the points you raise. There is (almost) always a suspension of disbelief required for 1st-person fictional narrators. This usually falls into two categories: 1) We suspend our disbelief that the document in front of us (in our world, the novel) has somehow come to be written down and presented to us. Marlowe’s cases would be a good example here, or Holden Caulfield’s narration of “The Catcher in the Rye.” In *their* world, there is no reason for Marlowe or Holden to write books, and we aren’t expected to believe they really did. 2) We also suspend our disbelief in the quality of the writing. Even if Chandler or Salinger had contrived to give us reasons, in their narrators’ fictional worlds, for why those narrators decided to become authors, we’d need additional (and highly unlikely) explanations for how they managed to be so *good* at it.

    So when you write, “The function of a 1st person narrator necessarily lies partially outside his fictional world,” we are in agreement, though I would substitute “believability” or “plausibility” for “function.” What we both mean is that the author is *using* a character, prepping him to do things that are implausible, granting him motivations and abilities that wouldn’t really be his in that character’s fictional world.

    Granted all this, though, I don’t see how it justifies your further assertion that “there seems to be little sense in applying to a 1st person narrator the same requirements of ‘psychological justification of behaviour’ imposed on other characters, because, unlike the 1st person narrator, they don’t fullfill any function outside their fictional world.” Just becase a 1st-person narrator “fulfills a function” which is outside his fictional world, which is to a degree implausible and unmotivated — that is, as a storyteller — that doesn’t mean he or she no longer filfills any functions *within* the fictional world. Indeed, most mainstream 1st-person narratives are largely *about* the narrator, so these narrators have to be as fully rounded and believable as any other character. Yes, Marlowe is functioning as a (highly unlikely, because unmotivated and excellent) narrator, but he is also the protagonist of the story and has to be held to any and every standard of behavior that the other characters are held to.

    I may be putting words into your mouth (or thoughts into your head) here, but perhaps you’re suggesting that *in one respect only* a 1st- person narrator isn’t held to such standards — namely, in respect of his function as a narrator. Since his narrative abilities are already granted to be more or less impossible — since we’ve already suspended our disbelief about them — then why not go the whole way and say that *anything* he does, strictly as a narrator, is OK, and requires no motivation? I see the allure of this, but it won’t do. Marlowe can’t suddenly start writing like Proust, and Holden can’t forget to mention that he got kicked out of Pencey Prep. Just because you’re a narrator, you don’t get a pass on *how* you narrate.

    This of course brings us to your thoughts about the special conventions of detective-story narration. You’re suggesting, I think, that one of the conventions of “how you narrate” a detective story is unmotivated deception. This is tricky, all right. With detective-story narration, there are indeed a further boatload of implausibilities that we have to suspend our disbelief about: Not only must our narrator have decided somehow to write a book, and write it well, but he must also be versed in the conventions of what to tell and not tell, must offer clues, must build suspense, and then reveal the solution at story’s end. All this we cheerfully accept (or more accurately, disregard as irrelevant to the narrator’s supposed character). I don’t think they change the basic situation; they’re just further strictures on what counts as good narration, for this genre. Let’s call it “being deceptive.”

    But I don’t see how it follows that “being deceptive” allows unmotivated and implausible changes of character — for remember, our narrator *does* have a character; even a Hastings fulfills some function in his fictional world above and beyond his duties as a narrator. He is not simply “a device fulfilling an objective narratorial function,” to use your phrase. If he were merely that, why does Christie spend so much time (too much, many would say) on the banter betwen Hastings and Poirot that establishes H as a dull but loyal sidekick? I could more readily accept a Lord Edgware-style trick from “Van Dine,” who has no character whatsoever.

    So I’m not sure that your assertion that “in a detective story the reader must be prepared to be deceived by the narrator” can cover any and all narrative deception. Is that really the expectation we bring to 1st-person detective stories? I would say it’s rather the contrary: While we expect the narrator to “be deceptive” according to the conventions of a detective story, as discussed above, we don’t further expect him to reveal aspects of himself that show *him,* the character, to be a deceptive *person.* That’s *not* one of the conventions. Instead, we trust him. We believe he will play fair. To claim that the type of deception under discussion here *is* one of the conventions of the detective story is to beg the question — whether or not it is, is precisely what’s under discussion. To justify my claim that it is not, may I offer two words…Roger Ackroyd? Clearly, if we expect narrators to deceive, no one would have got their knickers in a twist about that one, yet knickers are still twisted, 80 years on. Could we argue that RA changed everything? — that ever since, we approach 1st-person narrators with unmitigated suspicion? That just doesn’t seem to be the case. Surely RA is an unrepeatable trick; we don’t approach each and every 1st-person detective story with the expectation that the narrator is a con artist or a liar. And we particularly don’t do this with an established “series” narrator like Hastings. Like it or not, he has a character, we know him, we trust him — hence our (or my, at any rate) hurt surprise that he would deliberately mislead us.

    Now despite having said all this, I am STILL on the fence about “Lord Edgware Dies”! And that is because of your point about all the opportunities Christie provides for the very, very astute reader to see through Hastings’ disingenuous statements. There’s no doubt Christie intended to play fair; she by no means ignored the question and just let Hastings run amok. I wonder if the only true test of whether the thing is ultimately fair would be this: We need to find a reader who saw through the deception (probably at the crucial luncheon scene), went back and re-analyzed Hastings’ words, and then anticipated the solution. If THAT reader believes it was fair . . . then it was!

    Best,

    John

    Comment by jonjermey — November 27, 2008 @ 9:44 pm | Reply

  27. I’ve been reading this long discussion and have a question.

    At the time that Hastings made his “false” statement, did he himself know it to be false, again *at that time?*

    If an author draws a conclusion based on what he or she thinks is evidence at a certain point in the story, then I think it’s fair for him or her to share that conclusion with the reader, even if the conclusion turns out to be false and even if the story is written at a later point when it’s known to be false.

    I often consider such a book as if it were a diary. What is said by a supposedly truthful character is true as of that date, but as a reader I should beware that future events might make certain statements untrue, especially statements of belief rather than of fact.

    So, “the roses on the table were red” should be an immutable fact, barring some trick such as an odd form of colorblindness on the part of the story teller. “The waiter had put red roses on the table” might not be true, if it turns out that the roses were put there by someone who’d snuck a sniffable drug into them, and the author only finds that out later.

    When Hastings narrates stories, unless he writes them day by day as they happen, he must know by publication date that he has observed incorrectly, he has concluded incorrectly, and that there is reason for Poirot’s actions, however odd they may seem to Hastings as Poirot does them. If he were to correct all these errors as he learns they are errors, where’s the mystery?

    Sandy.

    Comment by jonjermey — November 27, 2008 @ 9:45 pm | Reply

  28. John Morris wrote: «I may be putting words into your mouth (or thoughts into your head) here, but perhaps you’re suggesting that *in one respect only* a 1st-person narrator isn’t held to such standards — namely, in respect of his function as a narrator.>>

    You are right – that’s precisely what I meant.

    John Morris wrote: «Just because you’re a narrator, you don’t get a pass on *how* you narrate».

    I agree with you on this. But I didn’t say that Hastings could do anything. I only said that, since Hastings is a “device fulfilling an objective narratorial function” (you’ve added a “merely” before the beginning which I believe I didn’t write and in any case didn’t mean), he may do, in fair play terms, what a 3rd person narrator would be allowed to do. And I still hold that the trick played on the reader in Lord Edgware Dies would be valid if perpetrated by a 3rd person narrator, because all the clues to spot it are there. Outside his/her narratorial functions, a 1st person narrator is bound by the same standards of believability (whatever they may be) that apply to other characters. However, I also still hold that, generally, in classic detective writing, psychological believability and fair play are different artistic achievements. So, IMO, even if we would consider the “Hastings trick” as psychologically unbelievable and therefore bad art, it would still be fair, because it would be so if done via a 3rd person narrator.

    Henrique

    Comment by jonjermey — November 27, 2008 @ 9:46 pm | Reply

  29. Hi Sandy — Hastings knows quite well that his statement is deliberately deceptive (not “false,” actually). I’ll re-paste the passage here, since you probably missed it way back at the beginning:

    Hastings has narrated a scene between Poirot and Jane Wilkinson which concludes as follows. [Jane Wilkinson is speaking.]

    “`I shall always think you were wonderful.’

    “I only saw Jane Wilkinson twice again. Once on the stage, once when I sat opposite her at a luncheon party. I always think of her as I saw her then, absorbed heart and soul in clothes . . . ” etc.

    The tone of this passage is brilliantly designed to be valedictory. By ending with a line of dialogue that sounds like an envoi, and then recounting how he only sat opposite her once at “a luncheon,” Hastings is giving the impression that Jane Wilkinson will vanish from our story. But of course she doesn’t — she’s the culprit.

    Best,

    John

    Comment by jonjermey — November 27, 2008 @ 9:46 pm | Reply

  30. Thanks, John.

    My fallback position has got to be that Hastings is telling a story, and like many another story-teller, he doesn’t want to ruin the punch line by giving things away.

    He’s telling the truth, nothing but the truth, but not the whole truth. Two out of three ain’t bad, IMHO.

    Sandy, who doesn’t mind this sort of thing really.

    Comment by jonjermey — November 27, 2008 @ 9:47 pm | Reply

  31. Annoying boy here…

    I guess I’m going around circles here, but I’m going to try to restate my position one more time, still in the belief that I may have been misunderstood. I think that John has clearly stated much of what I believe, but let me approach it from a different angle.

    I admit that all kinds of narrators can and may be unreliable, both in error and in conscious deception. My requirement for motivational justification of deception applies to both 1st-person and 3rd-person narrators equally as well… both must be justified in their conscious desire to deceive. The only distinction I make in that regard is that only in the case of the third person narrator is that desire *self-evident.* That is, as the third-person narrator is perceived to represent the author, who is a mystery writer, such a desire to deceive is expected. The first-person narrator, however, is perceived to represent a separate mind… yes, I realize that the 1st person narrator is merely a construct of the author’s mind utilized to tell the story, but no more of an imaginative construct than are any of the other characters within the story — we realize that both Hastings and Poirot are inventions of Agatha Christie’s fertile imagination, but we are to believe that Hastings is telling his account of Lord Edgeware’s death no less than we are to believe that Poirot solves it.

    Thus while, I repeat, the avenue of deception is as open to Hastings as it is for a third-person narrator, there is the heightened requirement for Christie to give to indicate, or at least retrospectively explain, Hastings justification for desiring to deceive (unlike her own desire to deceive, which is self-evident as part of her job).

    An example imbedded entirely within a fiction may serve to clarify. Let us suppose there are two characters, Bob and Ed, who were present at the home of Lord Gummidge at the time of his (Lord Gummidge’s) grisly murder. Bob, Lord Gummidge’s nephew, was well known to be worried about his uncle’s announced changing of his will- – Bob was to be disinherited the next day. Bob had also been heard to threaten his uncle’s life on several occasions. Ed, on the other hand, was an old friend of Lord Gummidge… they were known to be the best of pals, never a cross word between them. Now, it is certainly fair that the author can choose either Bob or Ed as the culprit. Further, our sense of fair-play requires that whoever turns out to be the killer had a sufficient reason to do so. The difference is that, at the time of the denouement, Bob’s motive is well known, and thus requires little if any explanation. With Ed, however, a great deal of justifying explanation is required.

    I consider that “outside of the fiction” Agatha Christie and Captain Hastings are analagous to Bob and Ed. Both are allowed to deceive the reader. Both must have sufficient reason to do so. However, whereas Christie’s reason (because she is a mystery writer) is self- evident, it requires no further explanation (as with Bob). As Captain Hastings reasons for chronicling these events is not quite certain (indeed we may be expected to believe that he is not really writing them down at all, just somehow “communicating” them to the reader by some unknown means), his reasons for desiring to deceive require further explanation.

    Henrique wrote that the “Decisive is the Golden Rule of fair-play: the reader shall have enough clues to spot the truth, including the narrator’s misdirection.” My point is that the narrator’s desire to misdirect is indeed part of the entire solution, and requires as much justification as does the murderer’s in committing his crime.

    Note again that I would even accept outright lies on the part of the 1st person narrator, if his desire to deceive was sufficiently clued… and this avenue of deception I would *never* grant the third-person narrator. So, I really don’t think I’m giving the third-person narrator that much of a “pass” on deception.

    By the way, while a mystery story may require deception, it need not require any deception on the part of the narrator (either of the first or third person variety). If further explanation for that statement is required, I’ll be glad to oblige.

    Well, I think I got out all I need to say right now (and certainly more than anyone needs to read right now!)

    – Scott

    Comment by jonjermey — November 27, 2008 @ 9:47 pm | Reply


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