Wednesday, May 31, 2017

False Truth

Misdirection has of course always been a major element of mystery fiction. Mystery fiction is about a mystery (obviously), and the solving of that mystery, ideally through a logical process built on clues that have been presented to the reader. But simply presenting a mystery and a handful of clues to nudge the reader in the right direction can be a dangerous act: what if the mystery is too simple, and the reader figures out the business right away? It's here where misdirection comes into play. Red herrings are used to point the reader in the wrong direction, away from the correct trail, but which still allow the author to proclaim victory over the reader at the end, as among all those fake clues, there is still the one correct route to the collection.

The fake solution is of course the bread-and-butter of misdirection techniques in mystery fiction. If you have mystery and the explanation to that mystery, what better way to fool the reader than by creating another fake solution to the problem? For example, a crime scene that is dressed like a suicide.would technically be a fake solution already. Or perhaps the suggestion of supernatural powers at an impossible crime scene, like a locked room mystery, would be like a kind of a fake solution. The basic set-up would be to have a mystery, and then present the fake solution, and then the real solution to shock the readers.

The examples above are of course very, very basic, and most readers will not immediately see them as fake solutions. No, when I say fake solutions, most people will probably think of the kind featured in Ellery Queen novels: solutions based on clues and logical inferences that seem absolutely believable, but which turn out to be incorrect. In terms of complexity, spirit and structure, these fake solutions don't differ much from the real solutions, but are often based on imperfect or incomplete information, resulting in theories that don't mesh with reality. It's often just one or two missed clues that messe the whole theory up. Queen was of course a big fan of this device: The Greek Coffin Mystery is famously structured around several fake solutions, and a lot of his later novels too feature an initial fake solution, only to be followed by the true solution. I should mention examples like Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case or Nakai Hideo's Kyomu he no Kumotsu ("Offerings to Nothingness") too, though these two specific examples don't really play with the device "straight, but aim to explore the device of the fake/multiple solution to its extremes.

The fake solution can of course have several origins. Often, the true criminal plants fake clues to guide the detective and other characters away from the truth. But sometimes, it's just a coincidence, with several circumstances and the stars lining up to create an evenly plausible, alternative interpretation of the clues. This difference between a fake solution created on purpose, or by coicidence can have big ramifications for the tone of a mystery story, but functionally, they don't differ very much.

And now we've arrived at today's topic, because there's an inherent problem to the fake solution. While there might be various reasons for the existence of a fake solution within the story, the fake solution is, in essence, always something that is aimed at the reader: it is directly meant to deceive the reader, to lure them in a trap and lead them away from the true solution. But obviously, the fake solution also needs to be discussed in the work itself. Someone needs to bring the fake solution up, and it has to be cleared up first before the story can move on to the true solution (and often, the true solution is in fact built upon the fundamentals of the fake solution).

The question that arises is: who should propose the fake solution?

A genuine fake solution is fairly complex: any genre-savvy reader will recognize a half-hearted attempt at a fake solution and not fall for it. In terms of complexity, it should not differ too much from the real solution. But that means that not any character in a story should be capable of making the inferences needed to reach the fake solution. As it's essentially a trap set for the reader, the character setting the trap off should be someone as intelligent as the reader, which in mystery novels is often the main detective character.

But authors like Ellery Queen and Anthony Berkeley also showed the dangers of using the protagonist to fall in the fake solution trap: it hurts the detective's credibility if they keep falling for the fake solutions. The Greek Coffin Mystery gave Ellery a very good reason to keep his mouth shut until he was absolutely sure about a solution, because that case showed how fallible he actually was. He was still prone to fall for fake solutions later in his career though. Berkeley's Sheringham on the other hand was basically created to fall for one fake solution after another, and many of his stories with Sheringham convinced he solved the case, while the real culprit is revealed to go scott-free. The fake solution and protagonists falling for them also connect to another problem of mystery fiction: if the detective is shown to be fallible, and the notion of fake solutions exist, how can we ever know for sure the final solution presented in the story is in fact correct? This problem is one that is explored in works of the authors above, but also an author like Norizuki Rintarou, but as I pointed out, this is a result of undermining the detective's authority though fake solutions.

So a different solution is The Foil Detective. If an intelligent character is needed to fall into the trap of the fake solution to serve as a substitute for the reader, but the author does not want to undermine the infallibility of their detective protagonist, the obvious solution is to create a second detective character to propose the fake solution instead. These characters are often presented as rivals to the protagonists, who think they managed to outsmart their opponent, but are then revealed to have stepped into the fake solution trap. I guess this is a variation on the Worf Effect: the Worf Effect, named after the character in Star Trek: The Next Generation refers to having an established "strong" character lose from a new enemy to show how powerful they are. The Worf Detective on the other hand is first established as a worthy detective rival, only to lose to the real protagonist in order to show their superiority in mystery-solving. The whole reason to their existence is in fact to lose, to make the protagonist character look better.

I mentioned Ellery Queen several times now, but while in the novels it was often Ellery himself who fell for the fake solution, he was spared that fate in the 1975-1976 Ellery Queen TV series. An original character called Simon Brimmer was created as the Foil Detective, as a rival detective who fell for the fake solutions, only for Ellery to show what the real solution was. The solutions proposed by Simon were often quite complex on their own, and could've made for a nice detective story on their own, but it was his fate to be the eternal loser, so each time Ellery would conjure up a clue that Simon had missed in his haste and then proceed to reveal the true solution to the tale.

An interesting example is Hattori Heiji from Detective Conan: while he is a regular member of the cast now and shown to be as sharp as the protagonist, his first appearence (The Diplomat Murder Case) actually had him act exactly like the Classic Foil Detective, falling for the fake solution planted by the real culprit. He recovered from that, but his case is an extremely rare one.

The reason why I started thinking about fake solutions and Foil Detectives though is Kizoku Tantei ("The Aristocrat Detective"), a TV drama airing right now in Japan, based on the book series by Maya Yutaka. In it, we follow a fairly capable female detective and her attemps to solve all kinds of crimes (some of them of the impossible kind), but who in the end is also upstaged by the titular Aristocrat Detective. What is amazing about this series is how each single episode has at least two solutions: the fake solution proposed by the female detective, and then the true solution as revealed by the Aristocrat Detective. Both solutions are always quite impressive, and often the fake and true solutions are closely related (the fake solution is always used as a basis for the true solution). This structure of having dual solutions does not originate from the original stories by the way, so it's in fact the screenplay writer who comes up with an extra fake solution for each episode, which is an impressive feat. But I think it's very unique to have the Foil Detective (the female detective) as the main character of the series, as she is proven to be fallible detective in each and every episode.

The Foil Detective is thus a product of misdirection, and a sad one too: their fate is to be wrong each and every time! Their only goal is to fall for the fake solution and hopefully drag the reader/viewer along with them. The Foil Detective is nothing more but a small hindrance to be stepped upon on the way towards the true solution. It just makes you feel sorry for them. Destinated to fail forever. All just because we don't want a detective story to be too easy.

Anyway, I only wanted to give these poor creations some attention, but this post has gone on for too long, so I'll wrap it up. The Foil/Rival Detectives I mentioned above are obviously just a very, very, very small selection, so are there any others you thought were particularly memorable?


  1. The difficulty I have with a lot of false solutions is that they frequently come far too early, so you know that it will be wrong. Christianna Brand starts offering them from about two-thirds of the way into Tour de Force, and for all their implied cleverness you know it's not the sort of book where that willbe the solution and the focus will change for the last part, so it feels like a waste.

    That said, The Crooked Wreath has one of the best fake-outs ever used, and drops it right at the end, so it's not like it was beyond her. Carr does a similar thing in The Crooked Hinge, but the false solution there irrtated me because I thought it was the real one and it's terrible!

    In terms of getting around the foil detective, or having someone lose face (and Berkeley's use of Sheringham for exactly this is one of my favourite things in the whole of GAD), I think Sayers' The Unpleasantness at the Belona Club uses it best: the fake solution comes halfway through the book, and its flaseness is used to setup the entiure second half. It's a brilliantly clever piece of plotting, and makes the turgidness of that second half (and the eventual resolution) even more of a cruching shame...

    1. I think that ideally, any fake solution should always be part of the final solution, like how it's done in The Greek Coffin Mystery or the Kizoku Tantei drama, as it doesn't feel like a total fake-out. I don't mind them being revealed as fake early (or late) though: the goal is to fool the reader, and I think that both options of either revealing it late, and then the true solution, or revealing it early (thus giving the time for the disappointment to settle) and then the true solution have their merits.

      And despite me mentioning Kizoku Tantei (The Aristocrat Detective) again, I never could stand much of Sayers....

    2. What Greek Coffin does so well is make you think that you've spotted something really obscure and clever...and then whip the rug out from under you by going "Haha, we wanted you to think that...". Berkeley does a similar thing time and again in Poisoned Chocolates, but it's almost like Dannay and Lee know exactly what you're going to think each time...that's why that book is do highly regarded, because it's insanely smart in what and how it discloses.

      The difficulty a lot of false solutions have is they don't consider certain aspects to that point: they'll frequently refer to six of the nine points and ignore the other three, so you know full well it's going to be nonsense. You're not being fooled if you're sat there going "But, he was stabbed in the front, how did the murderer get close to him..." and it's never addressed. I'm sure there are others that do it brilliantly, too; I shall get my thinking cap on...

      And, yeah, I've never warmed to Sayers. I still want to read Have His Carcase for the impossibility, because I'v not got to that one yet, but damn is it ever a long book!

    3. I think that Greek Coffin, as always, shows how a good false solution should come to be: the logical chain only leads to a faulty conclusion because it's missing a vital clue, not because the process itself is faulty. Add a clue, and the conclusion should change. So a false solution should ideally be "the best solution in the eyes of the character proposing it, considering their knowledge". Their theory should cover basically all, or at least most of the relevant questions in an acceptable manner.

      I think that the Ellery Queen TV drama showed this aspect well too: Ellery often had one clue more than Simon (sometimes obtained by Ellery's own detective work, sometimes by coincidence), and that would give him the advantage over Simon. In Kizoku Tantei, the female detective often overlooks more obscure clues, giving the Aristocrat Detective an advantage. Her overlooking some vital clues is okay in this context, as as the Foil Detective, she is a subsitution for the to-be-deceived viewer (so the creators want the viewers to miss those clues).

      The whereabouts of knowledge (= range of possible actions/theories) thus becomes an important factor to support viable false solutions, and that's traditionally been more of a factor in Queen/logical reasoning-based school mystery fiction than other schools, which is probably why they work better there i general.

  2. In terms of false solutions by way of an alternative sleuth functioning as a foil to the lead detective, the first thing that came to mind would be the way Anthony Berkeley uses this trope. While the assumption in, say, 'Murder on the Links', would be that Poirot would emerge triumphant, holding onto such a presupposition with Berekeley's novels often comes back as a slap in the face. Then again, holding onto any presupposition when it comes to reading Berkeley often comes back as a slap in the face. Another novel that does something clever with the 'alternative detective' trope, in a different way from Berkeley, would be 'Mystery of the Yellow Room'.

    The only Christie novel I felt made significant use of false solutions would be 'Murder on the Orient Express'. It was one of the very first Christie titles I read when I was still a child... And when I re-read it as an adult it struck me that as a mystery novel it wasn't quite as strong as some of the other, lesser-known, Christie titles. But what now strikes me would be its similarity with Christianna Brand's 'Fog of Doubt' - where the multiple possibilities are more than smoke-screens to outwit the reader, but to engage the reader's emotions. For the deceptions are ultimately staged for the protection of those who turn out both innocent and flawed. And the deferring of the revelation eventually render the truth all the more heart-breaking.

    P.S. Ho-Ling, I've on the brink of concluding my viewing of 'Liar Game' (season 1). It's engaging and clever, but it's real strength, I feel, is the surprising and effective transposition of the Golden Age murder mystery and the Honkaku/ Shin Honkaku tradition into what is otherwise a Battle-Royale-in-Money-terms drama series. In a way, Dagonronpa plays a similar game, except that the money discourse is replaced by a post-apocalyptic discourse.

    1. The thing with Berkeley's book is indeed dat Sheringham is the Foil Detective (w/o him knowing), and there's often no real detective within the narrative, so the reader is given that task. It does lead to the problem of how to unveil the truth to the reader in the end though (the scene cut to the real murderer), but that's a different narrative problem with detectives, I think.

      The false solution which is "better" for all those involved is a nice device, I have to admit, and they can give much more meaning an otherwise "mean" trick played on the reader. With Orient Express though, I think the alternative solution is a bit weak though, as it's more like a collection of various red herrings strung together, rather than a truly cohesive tale (but again, it works in the context of the tale).

      And glad you like Liar Game! It's really interesting to view the show as a mystery drama, and I think it does a great job at actually conveying fairly complex concepts in an understandable manner to the viewer too.

    2. Interestingly enough, if I recall correctly, the lead actor and actress for liar game also appeared in 'Hana Yori Dango', and the discrepancies in the characterisations, especially for the girl, played tricks on my mind... :P

  3. Now that I've watched what I assume are the first four episodes of 33 Minute Detective (all I could find subbed!), I think that everything out of Rokuro's mouth counts. The "solutions" to the locked rooms in episodes 2 and 4 need to be included in the Hall of Fame of locked room solutions, if there is one.

    The Dark One

    1. That series is brilliant. That is indeed a show completely built around false solutions, where the true solution is ignored for commercial reasons (need to fill the broadcast time!). Man, I really should've mentioned it here...

      They only subbed four of episodes? That's a shame! Both seasons do feel a bit 'samey', but it's just a hilarious show built completely around the concept of abusing detective tropes and false solutions.

      Perhaps I should rewatch it and write a review...

    2. As far as I could find. There may be more, lost to the internet and it's ways. And I see the "samey" bit, it was funny, but I wasn't sure how long they could keep up the gag before it got stale. And yes, review!

      The Dark One