If you haven’t read one of these before, I write up my thoughts on a mystery as I go along, and try and solve it before the end. To avoid devastating people with spoilers, I try to pick books that are very obscure or have had poor reviews. This time, it’s Carter Dickson’s The Skeleton in the Clock. Continue reading
The internet has cut out, just over a fifth (12m 15s) of the way into this week’s episode of Death in Paradise. While I’m waiting for it to come back online, I’m going to make a prediction about whodunit. Not to show off, but because I think there are certain sorts of clues that really stand out, especially in dialogue, and clients are often interested in techniques for making this kind of information less (and occasionally more) prominent. Details are going to be a bit fuzzy, because I can’t go back to check them. But obviously there are going to be spoilers for the episode. Continue reading
A bit of a departure for me, this, but I’ve been ill and it was the first book that fell to the ground when I flailed at the bookcase. I don’t know where I got it from. I think it was recommended as part of the Richard and Judy book club, which is a sort of low-rent version of Oprah’s book club here in the UK. It’s surprisingly good, at least for the first two-thirds. Sensitively drawn but densely layered. Unfortunately it descends into implausibility in the final stretch, and the closing twist, while ambitious, doesn’t make much sense in light of what’s gone before. But worth a read.
Anyway, that’s your lot if you’re trying to avoid spoilers. After the cut I’ll be talking about the whole thing, including that final twist. Continue reading
Research for my new plot continues apace. By which I mean I’ve been ill in bed reading books about 19th century chess in between vomit attacks. When I’m better I’ll probably look at my “detailed notes” and find they’re nothing but skulls and question marks. One interesting problem when writing about specialized topics is how much detail to go into. Too much and you risk alienating all but the most hard-core audience, but too little and a story can seem insubstantial. This is too complicated a topic to get into when I’m semi-delirious on a Sunday evening, but what I do find interesting is how badly chess has been handled in the past. Here are some examples:
I still haven’t got round to watching the final series of Poirot. The most recent episodes have been pretty difficult to get through. Despite David Suchet’s unquestioned talent in the role – I expect he understands the character better than Christie ever did – the recent adaptations have been rather boring. Someone seems to have decided people love Poirot’s grandstanding so much that the explanation and resolution of the mystery should take up at least 25% of the running time. This leads to a mad rush to get through the plot and gather everyone together in the drawing room, followed by a turgid recap of the entire plot to drain all life out of the proceedings. While Poirot’s explanations are an essential part of the character, one of Christie’s many talents was the simplicity of her mysteries. Stretching a quick and elegant solution out to half an hour robs it of all its power. Continue reading
So I was entirely right in my predictions. Which isn’t necessarily a problem. As I said in my longer review of episode 1, a mystery being obvious isn’t necessarily a failing. Plenty of puzzles are designed to be solved. What’s more of a problem is the generally shoddy nature of the script in this second episode: a lot of clichés and half-hearted jokes, combined with a lot of scenes that just petered out into shrugs and knowing glances at Goodman’s clumsiness. I appreciate that Death in Paradise is a gentle, unchallenging show, but that’s no excuse for such insipid writing. Hopefully it’s just a blip. It’s a shame that such a weak episode came so early in Kris Marshall’s run. We’re still learning about his character, and early interactions make a much stronger impression on an audience than later ones. If this had been episode 7 or 8 in the series it would have felt less detrimental. As it was, it was the first time watching Death in Paradise that I considered skipping to the end. Continue reading
I’ve been pretty ill this weekend, so just a quick real-life mystery today. As is usual in the new year, I’ve been rooting through old notebooks to see which half-formed plots I’ve got buried there still interest me. My post about the Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes reminded me about an idea for a plot about a chess automaton.
In my story, naturally the automaton appears to commit a dastardly crime: in this case, the murder of a chess champion during a chess demonstration, on stage in front of hundreds of a people. I’m pretty pleased with my “design” for the automaton and the subsequent murder. The automaton is shaped like the goddess of chess Caissa, and she’s unpacked and constructed from her component parts in full view of the audience before the game begins, to prove that there’s no-one concealed inside. I’m pretty sure it would work, and in fact I’m surprised that none of the automata exhibited at the time employed a similar trick. Now all I need is an actual plot to go with the crime!
Automata don’t feature as much in mystery fiction as you might expect. Despite being incredibly creepy, and an obvious candidate for “impossible” murders, there’s only really The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr, and that’s a real hodge-podge of brilliant ideas and terrible execution.
Chess automata were a huge phenomenon in the 18th and 19th centuries, mechanical figures which could apparently play chess of their own accord. The Turk is the most famous, but there were quite a few which toured Europe and America, playing against the public, chess masters, celebrities and even royalty. Most of them were simply elaborate trick cabinets; the operator would open various windows in the base to show that they were apparently filled with cogs, but actually there was space for a human player to be concealed inside and operate the machine.
But Mephisto was different, apparently. Designed as a stylized devil, Mephisto was apparently “remotely controlled by electromechanical means”. But beyond that it’s hard to find any concrete information about it. How did it work? Or how might such a machine work? Was it just a cover story to distract from another concealed player, or was it really possible in 1876 to design an electromechanically operated arm that could move chess pieces around a board?