Looking back over my top 10 list, I’m pleasantly surprised by how balanced it’s turned out to be. I didn’t cook it at all: if my top ten mysteries had all been by Jeffrey Deaver they’d all have been up there (and you would have had my permission to check me for concussion). But it just so happens that I got a nice mix: of eras, styles, formats and male/female authors.
Still, there are some disappointing gaps. There’s no ‘serious’ fantasy and no sci-fi at all. There are no films (there’s a feature length TV episode, but nothing that got a cinema release). Saddest of all is the absence of a single computer game or interactive story. Ever since playing Cruise for a Corpse when I was about ten I’ve been waiting for a really good mystery game but none has emerged. There are a lot of good examples on the Nintendo DS, but almost all of the PC mysteries I’ve played have been truly dire. (I actually played Cruise for a Corpse again recently, and while it still holds up surprisingly well in the style department, it turns out the mystery is pretty dull).
[Like the previous post, there are no real spoilers here. The section on the Red Right Hand contains some comments about that book’s solution.]
There were a lot of close calls, but there were also a few mysteries which almost made the list for a more interesting reason. It’s those I want to talk about now. These are some of mysteries which would have made it if the sole criterion for my top 10 was how much I enjoyed them the first time I experienced them. But because mysteries are so much about the fine balance between forefront storytelling (plot, investigation etc.) and background subtext (clues, red herrings etc.) a lot of the enjoyment is going to be very personal. Some mysteries completely fooled me because I was new to the genre, or was unfamiliar with an author’s particular quirks. Others were probably dismissed unfairly – I was distracted, in a bad mood, or took exception to something trivial.
So here are a few that I greatly enjoyed, but that I couldn’t really put on the list because a lot of my enjoyment was probably based on the circumstances in which I encountered them, or the concessions I was prepared to make for them. They’re still recommended, but a lot more tentatively.
The Hollow Man (if you can deal with the style) – John Dickson Carr (1935)
Two shootings happen within minutes of each other. In one the culprit is seen but apparently vanishes, in the other the culprit is apparently invisible, despite witnesses. The same gun is used both times…
I came to Carr late. This was my first one and I didn’t read it until after university. In the relatively short time since I’ve devoured almost his entire output. But this is still the best. It’s the finest locked room problem ever devised, and I don’t know anyone who’s fully solved it on a first reading, despite it being eminently fair.
This is a rare example of substance completely triumphing over style. I really don’t think Carr can write at all. I’ve never heard one on audiobook, but I bet his stuff sounds terrible out loud. His dialogue is clunky, his cumbersome explanations can make even the simplest concepts seem confusing, and he has a maddening tendency to interrupt a scene to artificially create suspense. He has a really weird habit of having a narrator with absolutely no personality, and then letting such a long time pass without using an “I” or a “me” that it comes as a real shock to be reminded that it’s in the first person. Sure, the atmosphere is usually good (proper creeping terror when he’s at his best), but he always seems to manage to skewer it with an awkward turn of phrase or a terrible piece of ‘comedy’. The less said about his attitudes towards women the better (although there’s a dispiriting game you can play: see how long it takes him to use the word ‘wench’ in any given book. It’s rarely more than a half-dozen pages).
That this is still a masterpiece in spite of all that shows how brilliant his plotting was. Now if only they’d let me adapt it for TV…
The Prestige (if you don’t read the book first) – Christopher Priest, adapted by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan (2006)
Two rival magicians compete to perform similar illusions
This is awesome. Some critics were disappointed that it veers off into sci-fi/fantasy by the end, but I was in the fortunate position that when I saw this I knew it was by Priest (so I knew what sort of thing to expect) but I didn’t actually know anything else about it. Some great atmosphere, and what must be the best and most audacious clues in all of cinema. Christopher Nolan really seems to understand the psychology of clueing and he uses this to great effect, even though this isn’t a mystery in the usual sense.
The book is better. It’s also entirely different in design. The film is a fairly narrow experience centred around a great surprise. The book ditches the surprise but manages to be about so much more. Which isn’t to say the film is bad; I think it’s better to do an adaptation with a strong focus than to try and cram in all the themes from the source material, stretching them far too thin as a result. But since the clueing, mystery elements and surprise are the focus of the film, it’s a rare case where the film should probably be watched before reading the book if you’re going to do both. But of course the film isn’t totally different; watching it will spoil a lot of the book’s plot. And I do wish I’d come to the book completely fresh, even though that would have spoiled the movie entirely. I’m not so single-minded that I value mysteries, surprises and twists above all else.
The Red Right Hand (if you’re in whatever mood I was in when I read it) – Joel Townsley Rogers (1945)
A young American surgeon tries to unravel the murder and mutilation of a bridegroom by a mysterious tramp
A nightmare in the John Franklin Bardin mould, with a narrator who finds himself embroiled in such bizarre events that he comes to question his own sanity. But instead of descending into madness, it pulls up at the very last minute with a truly audacious solution.
It’s unlike any other mystery I’ve read. There are plenty of mysteries that are (or seem) underclued, but this takes the cake: until the last few chapters it often seems as if you’re being given no information to go on at all. The main problem for the reader is whether the narrator is out of his mind or not, but there seems to be no way to decide.
But then the solution is revealed, and it turns out that almost everything was a clue. Not all of them are convincing, but the sheer number of them is where the brilliance lies. I’ve never had so many clues slip under my radar before, all hidden by the dreamlike progression of the plot.
Is this actually good? I can’t tell. It certainly does a lot of things that I hate, particularly the murderer choosing a set of false names which serves no useful purpose beyond incriminating himself. I must have been really slow when I read it because I spotted the stupid names straightaway and then failed to solve the mystery. So maybe if I’d been more alert I wouldn’t have missed all those clues that so impressed me, either.
It’s also pretty badly overwritten. How’s this for a first paragraph?
“There is one thing that is most important, in all the dark mystery of tonight, and that is how that ugly little auburn-haired red-eyed man, with his torn ear and his sharp dog-pointed teeth, with his twisted corkscrew legs and his truncated height, and all the other other extraordinary details about him could have got away and vanished so completely from the face of the countryside after killing Inis St Erme.”
And it doesn’t really let up. I almost gave up after the first chapter, but by the end I hardly noticed. You just have to let it envelop you.
The Last Express (if you can play it fifteen years ago) – Jordan Mechner and Smoking Car Productions (1997)
A rakish doctor stows away on the Orient Express and is forced to adopt the identity of his murdered friend.
This is an extraordinary computer game. It might even be the best mystery/thriller set on a train! The main reason it doesn’t make the list is that it isn’t really a fair-play mystery – I did work it out before the end, but I think it was mainly because I knew what sort of stuff Mechner is into (he’s the guy behind the long-running Prince of Persia franchise). It’s really a thriller, and while the Orient Express setting naturally conjures up thoughts of Christie, it’s actually far closer to Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train or Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.
I’m not sure anything this audacious has been tried since: the game proceeds in real-time (albeit with gaps when everyone’s asleep) and the other passengers (represented by rotoscoped actors) go about their business whether you’re there or not. If you want to stay in your cabin for the whole trip you can – the game will simply carry on to a (bad!) conclusion without you! Most of what you do will be information gathering: eavesdropping, talking to passengers, stealing glances at diaries and letters when people are out of their cabins. There’s a fair share of action by the end, but the beginning sections are mostly dialogue driven. The game records everything you do, and if you get stuck you can rewind time to try and pick up the plot from a better position. When you die (which you will – a lot!) the game automatically rewinds the game to the last winnable spot, which thanks to good design is rarely depressingly far in the past.
It’s a unique experience, and it’s one of the few computer game plots I’ve found myself genuinely absorbed in.
Well it’s old now. Some games age gracefully, some look like monstrosities now. The Last Express doesn’t really fit into either category: I think it will always have looked hideous, but at least 15 years ago there was a good excuse. There simply wasn’t space for better graphics. Even now I think it would be tricky, because of the combinatorial explosion that would result from not just duplicating the backgrounds and forgoing all attempts at lip-sync. Unless you dropped the rotoscoped actors entirely, which would kill a lot of the charm.
Because of the aesthetic hurdle, the writing and the acting have to do all the work. As I said, these are top notch, but until you get your bearings that might not be enough. Gamers raised on tutorials and dynamic help are going to be a bit nonplussed to just be plonked down in a corridor facing a wall after the intro finishes. Like a lot of games with a Myst-style engine, navigation is confusing. Even towards the end I was still getting lost, which shouldn’t be possible on a train! There aren’t many item based puzzles to solve, but what few there are could be very annoying. Some of the hot-spots to change scenes are ridiculously tiny, which means it’s quite easy to get stuck. There’s an item in a jewel box which is virtually impossible to find, and it’s not helped by the fact that so many of the boxes and trunks in the game have nothing useful in them, so the player isn’t encouraged to keep looking after coming up empty handed. And whilst there is some non-linearity in the game there’s none at that point: if you don’t find the item you’re screwed.
And if you’re stuck there’s nothing to do except wander around listening to the same conversations until you get a game over and the game automatically rewinds for you to try again. And even the best dialogue gets dull after the dozenth time. I don’t usually like using walkthroughs, but here it was indispensable.
But despite those criticisms, there’s still tons to recommend. And it’s cheap. Maybe watch a youtube video of the beginning and see if you think you can stomach it. But hurry. I think they might be making a movie of it and my hopes aren’t high.
Clue (if you watch the copy my dad taped off the telly) – Jonathan Lynn and John Landis (1985)
Six victims of blackmail are invited to attend a house party incognito
One of my favourite films, and with a surprising amount of bite for a parody. I can do without the gimmick of the multiple endings: clearly only the C ending explains everything, and it was obviously the one they had in mind when they wrote most of it. But obviously it fits in with the boardgame theme, and the version they show nowadays has all the endings.
I much prefer this to Murder by Death, which came out ten years earlier but is really the only other full on mystery parody that I can think of. Murder by Death does have some good jokes (Peter Falk’s answer to Eileen Brennan’s, “Why don’t you trust me, Sam?” is one of my favourite film speeches) but it’s very uneven and quite dull for long stretches. It also shows that you can’t really get away with pretending to be a mystery: if you’re going to play the mystery gambit, even for laughs, you need to have some sort of an ending up your sleeve.
Clue doesn’t have any of those problems. It’s a proper mystery with plenty of real clues. Because there’s a real plot, and the expectation of a real ending, it means that the plot can hold the viewer’s attention even when the jokes falter. The ending sequence, where Wadsworth recaps the entire plot in great detail and the characters all charge about the mansion after him is a perfect send-up of the overlong showdowns in front of the whole cast that those star-studded Poirot films seemed to popularise.
The real ending isn’t just tacked on or played for laughs either. It’s clever, and one of my favourite sorts: it subverts the very premise you assumed the film was based on. I love the last line as well.
The version I first saw, as a child, was just a VHS recording of when it was shown on TV. Either my dad didn’t start it properly, or it was later taped over by an edition of The Generation Game. So I never saw the first ten minutes or so. Which it turns out is no great loss. Sure, the theme music is ace, but do we really need the extended dog shit joke? In a film which seems to have been pared down to maximise the joke rate, the beginning seems flat and dull.
Make It Good (if you’re already familiar with interactive fiction) – Jon Ingold (2009)
A drunken cop unwillingly investigates a murder…
This is a real treat, if that’s the right word to describe something with so depressing a plot. Again, the only reason it didn’t make the list is because it isn’t really a fair-play mystery. There is a period at the beginning of the game where you don’t know whodunnit, but most players will tumble to the solution after a few bad endings are reached. The real meat of the game comes afterwards: now that you know whodunnit, what are you going to do about it? It will take a lot of replays to get the ‘best’ ending, because there are so many plausible things to try and the other characters have a lot of spanners to throw in the works. But when you do manage it the sense of satisfaction is immense.
It’s an interactive fiction game, and so has all the problems associated with the medium. It’s going to be too difficult for a novice to play. Interactive fiction has all sorts of traditions and syntax which really need to be second nature in order to enjoy a difficult game. If you don’t know that ‘x’ is ‘examine’ and navigation is done using compass directions and the proper format for conversation is “ASK [character] ABOUT [subject]” then it’s going to be too frustrating to get the game to do what you want, let alone think about the story. Even old hands will probably find it tough to get to a winning ending, and unlike more linear graphical adventures, simply looking up a walkthrough will totally ruin the experience.
So that’s it. Next time the blog will be living up to its name with a massively spoilerful experiment.