It's time for my annual finally-it's-not-a-review post! I really should try doing more of these feature posts...
Queen and Arisugawa, and why I wrote a rambling piece on clues in mystery fiction. To me, mystery fiction is at its best when it's a game between the author and the reader, where the writer has laid out a logical problem for the reader to solve. Obviously, this challenge has to be fair. While I don't believe in either Knox' nor Van Dine's overly specific rules, I do think a puzzle plot mystery has to be fair: it must be possible for the reader to logically point out the solution of the problem in the story, be it a murder or something more innocent like a code. Note that it doesn't need to be realistic: only fair. Mysteries set in science fiction or fantasy settings can be as fair as mysteries set in hyperrealistic settings. Mystery fiction is at its most exciting when it goes beyond the in-universe story of a detective VS a criminal, and transcends to a meta-level duel between the author and the reader.
The win conditions for the author to this game are obvious. The author wins if the reader fails in solving the case correctly, provided that the story contained enough hints so it can be reasonably expected a reader could solve the problem. Revealing without any warning that Sally was in fact a ghost who could float through walls in a natural realistic story is probably not fair. If the story is set in a world where ghost do live, and we find a gravestone with Sally name's on it, then you could make the argument it might've been fair. Of course, 'fairness' is a very subjective thing. When can we say something was adequately hinted at? The author's job is of course to run awfully close along the line of [unsolvable] and [solvable]: it needs to be difficult enough that people believe they can solve it, but not be disappointingly easy. One of the things I heard at the Mystery Club made a big impression on me and it's still one of the things I keep in my head whenever I read a mystery story: It's easy to write an unsolvable mystery story that baffles the reader. It's difficult to write a solvable mystery that still entertains the reader.
If the reader failing in solving the case is the win condition for the author, it stands to reason that solving the mystery is the win condition for the reader. But that brings me to my main question today. What do we considering 'solving' the mystery? The Stereotypical Example: Suppose you're watching a whodunit mystery drama with a somebody, who says this at the beginning: "I bet you the butler did it. It's always the butler, and look at how suspicious he looks", and ninety minutes later, it is revealed it was indeed the butler, do you consider this solving the case? (Never mind the fact that a mystery drama with a guilty butler is actually quite rare) The main problem of a whodunit is right in its nomer. So can you say someone solved the mystery if they correctly identified the culprit? Too often have I seen people saying they solved a mystery not based on logical reasoning, but for 'meta' reasons. From 'you know he's the killer because he acts so nice' to 'you know she's the killer because it couldn't be that couple, and there's nobody left'. Is this solving a case?
No, of course not. If we consider the puzzle plot mystery a game of logic, guessing isn't going to be a correct answer (and don't forget the fact that most people like to forget about hindsight bias). Solving a puzzle plot mystery is like a (very limited) math test: there is a correct way to arrive at the solution, and the key is to have both the method and the solution. I'm pretty sure that you don't get full points at an exam if you just write down an answer, even if correct, on the answer sheet, if you get any points at all. I remember at the Mystery Club, we had whodunit games: participants were given the first part of a short whodunit story, up to a Challenge to the Reader, and you had one hour to read and solve it. If you thought you got it, you'd need to go to the writer of the story and explain the method through which you identified the culprit and eliminated the other suspects. So picking a suspect at random was never an option. You needed to identify the logical path the writer had laid out for you and reveal everything they had hidden in the story in order to 'win'. To me, this was the most game-like form of the puzzle plot mystery and I loved it.
But how much of the path must you have explored before you can really say you solved the mystery? What if you only identified part of the hints the author laid out across the story? Would you say you solved the mystery? If a story features multiple fake solutions (each with their own proper chain of deductions leading to them), and you manage to deduce all of them, but stumble upon the final, true solution, how much of the mystery have you actually solved? A lot, or almost nothing? The win conditions for the reader will differ per reader, I guess, but I am curious as to what those conditions are. Are you easily satisfied with your own performance, or do you consider everything but perfection as absolute failure?
On a side note, what puzzles me also are people who comment about how they knew right away who the murderer was in series like Ace Attorney, which is in fact mostly influenced by Columbo and like Columbo, seldom a whodunit, but a howdunit. If the mystery never was about hiding the identity of the culprit, why bother solve it, I'd say...
To give two examples of 'solving a mystery' from The Decagon House Murders and The Moai Island Puzzle (Disclosure: I translated both novels): I didn't solve The Decagon House Murders. Guessing who it was, is actually not very difficult from a certain point on, because the pool of suspects has been thinned out near the end, but arriving ata a logical answer as to why X is the murderer is actually quite hard. Some might even say that it is impossible to logically arrive at the solution in this book, though I'd have to argue otherwise: it is actually possible to logically deduce who is very likely the murderer based on hints and facts (who knew what and when) scattered across the narrative: the thing is that this chain of logic is not explained in the novel itself. As for The Moai Island Puzzle, I guessed the identity of the murderer, and I also got a nice chunk of the (amazing) chain of reasoning that leads to that person, but I never felt like I solved the mystery, as it was just a guess + partial suspicions/loose bits of deductions.
Anyway, enough rambling for today. What do you 'solving the mystery' means, and do you actually try to do that when you consume mystery fiction? Obviously, there are more types of mysteries than whodunits, and most stories are actually a mix of several elements, so what is the percentage you need to 'solve' in order to win the game? Thoughts to bring along as I start reading a new (old) book.