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November 29, 2006 4:04 AM   Subscribe

What's the best plays-fair, all-clues-on-the-table mystery?

I've been obsessed with classic mysteries for a long time, and lately have been trying to find great puzzle-mysteries that (a) play totally fair and (b) lay all clues before the reader/viewer/listener, so that they have the same chance of solving the puzzle as the detective.

I've been digging the Ellery Queen old-time radio show - it's very much along these lines, as there was a trend back then of stopping the show and explicitly saying to the audience, "now you have all the clues ... do you know whodunit?" or some iteration thereof. If memory serves, the Eddie Capra Mysteries also used this conceit.

So, what mystery novels/movies/radio shows/etc. are perfect puzzle mysteries along these lines? I'm drawn to John Dickson Carr and Wilkie Collins - they're on the short list. What else?

(And I hope this goes without saying, but just in case it doesn't ... no spoilers please!)
posted by jbickers to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Agatha Christie. Its always been Agatha Christie.

It always will be.

Rex Stout is very good.
posted by ewkpates at 5:43 AM on November 29, 2006

You might like Isaac Asimov's Black Widowers stories, mostly first published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.
posted by teleskiving at 5:55 AM on November 29, 2006

Encyclopedia Brown.
posted by bondcliff at 6:00 AM on November 29, 2006

I second Encyclopedia Brown.

Also, Two Minute Mysteries and More Two Minutes Mysteries. As the title implies, these are a collection of short stories.
posted by kidsleepy at 7:53 AM on November 29, 2006

Seconding Agatha Christie. I read everything she wrote while I was a teen. Nobody could touch her.

Ellery Queen books are a mixed bag. I was generally satisfied until I read A Fine and Private Place It drove me nuts! I remember to this day re-reading it several times to see if I missed something. I hadn't! I specifially remember that a series of notes were left as clues. One note was called "the ninth note, left on the ninth day" blah blah blah. And yet the book only showed 4 or 5 notes before that. I don't even know if I finished that one. Anyway, try some Ellery Queen books, since you liked the show, but skip that one.

David Baldacci might be up your alley, but it's more in the thriller genre, yet the clues are all there. The difference is that the entire solution is not withheld until the end. Pieces of the puzzle are solved as you go.
posted by The Deej at 7:54 AM on November 29, 2006

On something of a tangent: a few weeks ago in a thread about mystery-ish comic books, someone mentioned Maze Agency as one of the few that made it a point to "play fair" in the way you've mentioned.

Might make for an interesting change of pace if you can track it down.
posted by bcwinters at 8:07 AM on November 29, 2006

It's not exactly on topic, but based on the Encyclopedia Brown recommendations, I can't resist mentioning:

Wikipedia Brown, Boy Detective
posted by Rock Steady at 8:13 AM on November 29, 2006

Yikes, my memory of Agatha Christie is of frustration that I didn't have the clues to solve the mystery until it was spelled out at the end of the book. I was looking for the same experience you're talking about, wanting to have enough facts available to figure it out myself, but I most definitely did not find Christie to match this requirement. (Maybe I gave up too soon, after only one or two books, though...)

Lately I've found that watching House on fox can provide those fun a-ha moments for me. I know just enough random medical stuff to occasionally guess a diagnosis a few moments before they give it away on the show (typically in that moment when House knows what the problem is, but hasn't told anybody yet because he's too busy being smug and injecting the patient with the cure). Then I get to feel smug, too. Heh.
posted by vytae at 8:39 AM on November 29, 2006

My memory of Christie is frustration at withheld clues.

Not a classic "mystery," but a book with a mystery that in retrospect you had all the clues to: Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent.
posted by sacre_bleu at 9:05 AM on November 29, 2006

I don't know about Christie in general, but "Curtain: Poirot's Last Case" makes an explicit point of playing fair.
posted by juv3nal at 10:01 AM on November 29, 2006

Rex Stout's books are wonderful reads but don't fulfill your central need. Wolfe has a tendency to figure out whodoneit by getting everyone into his office and drawing it out. It's satisfying but not in the way you're looking for.
posted by wemayfreeze at 10:51 AM on November 29, 2006

I love few things more than a great fair play mystery.

I see that so far most people are recommending writers, or books they have not read. Regarding the specific recommendations so far I would only agree with sacre_bleu about Presumed Innocent. It's a knockout. (Encyclopedia Brown and Two-Minute Mysteries are fun and you'll probably like them, but they're not at the top of the list, and Curtain by Christie is second-rate, and to enjoy it to its full potential you should have read other Poirot books first.)

Rex Stout wrote a lot of mysteries, some of which were great, but wemayfreeze is correct - they're good for other reasons, not because of fair play, and where he does play fair the books are not in the top rank.

It's true that Christie didn't always play fair, but she usually did, and the results are wonderful.

Here is a short list of outstanding plays-fair, all-clues-on-the-table mysteries. I'm including those by Queen - your post doesn't make it clear whether you've read his novels or not.

I have read all the books by the writers below, so I'm not just listing the books I've read - these are the really good ones. Some of them have other books that you will likely enjoy if you like the ones below, and for some of them these are the only books I would recommend. I've noted whether they have other good ones at the end of each list.

Agatha Christie:
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
A Murder is Announced
Crooked House
Lord Edgware Dies (aka Thirteen at Dinner)
Death on the Nile
Witness for the Prosecution (watch the movie with Laughton instead of reading it)
- and many others if you like those

Ellery Queen
Calamity Town
The Greek Coffin Mystery
The Glass Village
The Adventures of Ellery Queen (short stories)
- and others if you like those

Barnaby Ross (Ellery Queen pseudonym)
The Tragedy of X
The Tragedy of Y
- his other two under the Ross name are not so good

Carter Dickson (not sure whether you know he is Carr)
The Judas Window
The Unicorn Murders
Till Death Do Us Part
The Plague Court Murders
- and several others if you like those

Christianna Brand
Tour de Force
Fog of Doubt
- and Death in High Heels & Death of Jezebel if you like those. Brand is right up there with Christie, Carr, and Queen.

John Sladek
Black Aura
Invisible Green

H.H Holmes
Nine Times Nine
- and The Case of the Seven of Cavalry by Anthony Boucher if you like that one. (Holmes is Boucher)

Francis Beeding
Death Walks in Eastrepps

Michael Gilbert
Smallbone Deceased
Death in Captivity
- and others if you like those

Edmund Crispin
Buried for Pleasure
Frequent Hearses
Beware of the Trains (short stories)
Fen Country (short stories)
- and others if you like those

Erle Stanley Garder
The Case of the Howling Dog
The Case of the Perjured Parrot
The Case of the Buried Clock
- and many others. Gardner's ingenuity is underrated today. He is the other writer who ranks with Christie, Carr, and Queen.

Derek Smith
Whistle Up the Devil
- his only published

Cyril Hare
Suicide Excepted

Gaston Leroux
The Mystery of the Yellow Room
(Carr called it the best detective tale ever written)

C. Daly King
Obelists Fly High

Anthony Berkeley
The Poisoned Chocolates Case

Ellen Raskin
The Westing Game
- may be the best fair-play mystery ever written for children, but very readable for adults, and ingenious. Best enjoyed by an American, but not exclusively. (I'm not American, but I love this book.)

The suggestion of Asimov's Black Widower stories is good, but you're best trying the first collection (Tales of the Black Widowers) before moving on. The next book (More Tales) has slightly fewer good stories, and so on.

In the same vein, the stories in James Yaffe's collection My Mother the Detective are uniformly wonderful and really, really clever. (I haven't read any of his novels, but there are several.)

Edmund Crispin probably wrote more terrific little fair play kick-yourself short stories than anyone, so make a point of getting the two collections I listed, even if you prefer novels.

I assume you know about the TV series Colombo - it is also outstanding.

Taste always enters into these matters, so I feel compelled
to list a few books that are commonly noted by others, but that I didn't enjoy enough to call top-notch:

Dorothy L. Sayers
- any book. I did really like Have His Carcase, but not quite in the top rank. Others would be The Nine Tailors (love it or hate it), Strong Poison (usually recommended by those who love the romance, not so much the mystery, though it's pretty good too), Murder Must Advertise

Ngaio Marsh
Death of a Fool
- I like this one and others by her, and recommend her in general, but can't call any of her books outstanding. Many others if you like it

Margery Allingham
More Work for the Undertaker
The Tiger in the Smoke
- many others if you like them. I think they're good but not great.

I would also suggest that if you're reading Carr you avoid starting with Seeing is Believing, Death-Watch, or The Crooked Hinge. In the first two he does not play strictly fair, (you get all the clues but he also lies to you), and there are some problems with the third. If you read his others and enjoy them, then you will still enjoy those three. (I did!) I would start with The Black Spectacles (aka The Problem of the Green Capsule) The Arabian Nights Murder, The Three Coffins (aka The Hollow Man), He Who Whispers, or The Burning Court.

Finally, I know that some people who love this kind of puzzle mystery can be put off by the unnaturalness or old-fashioned-ness of many mysteries. For those people I would recommend starting with:

One of the Christies, Gilberts, or Sladeks above
Turow's Presumed Innocent
Queen's The Glass Village
Carr's The Burning Court
Raskin's The Westing Game

And I would avoid starting with Leroux, Gardner, King, Ross, or Smith, until you know whether you like this kind of thing or not. Those have not dated well, but once you get in the swing with them they are still great.

posted by lockedroomguy at 4:01 PM on November 29, 2006 [19 favorites]

I see that so far most people are recommending writers, or books they have not read.

The real mystery is how you know this...
posted by The Deej at 4:42 PM on November 29, 2006

My guess his he/she knows it because people are recommending books that don't fit the fair-play definition.
posted by Roach at 6:04 PM on November 29, 2006

lockedroomguy deserves the best answer choice.

No question he has put a lot of time into giving the best answer. However he agrees with nearly all of the previously mentioned authors/book. So how can he maintain "most people are recommending writers, or books they have not read."

No biggie, just sayin...

And his recommendations are great.
posted by The Deej at 6:46 PM on November 29, 2006

lockedroomguy, thank you - that's an awesome reading list! Look forward to getting into it.

I'm glad you mentioned "The Westing Game," as I had meant to put that in the original post as a perfect example of what I'm talking about - one of the few perfect puzzle-mysteries I've ever encountered.

Re: the Agatha Christie thing ... I find her to be very inconsistent when it comes to playing fair. I recently read a Poirot novel (forget which one ... made no real impression), and there was no way the reader had a chance. But it seems like her short stories are more fair, generally.

I'm also glad folks mentioned Encyclopedia Brown - just dug out some of those from my closet a few weeks ago. Great, enduring fun. And this conversation has also reminded me of a YA book I had from around that era called "The Thinking Machine" ... gotta find it again ...

Thanks, all!
posted by jbickers at 3:57 AM on November 30, 2006

Hey lockedroom guy -- great suggestions. I've copied your entire list to my "recommended books" list.

I'd add "Busman's Honeymoon" to your Sayers list. I think it's one of her most explicit "here's everything you need" mysteries. Well, there's that one with the train schedules and the eye dialect, but let's ignore it.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:59 AM on November 30, 2006

To TheDeej (mainly),

I certainly didn't mean to imply that I was accusing anyone of recommending a book they hadn't read, but I can see how it could be taken that way. I should have been clearer.

I said, "I see that so far most people are recommending writers, or books they have not read." But I meant it very literally and didn't mean to imply, "I see that so far most people are recommending writers they haven't read, or books they have not read." I just meant, out of the first posts, most people recommended a writer without naming a book, or recommended a book they hadn't read (see bcwinters' post).

My point was that the op was looking for recommendations of books. bcwinters recommended Maze Agency, but made it clear that it was a secondhand recommendation.

So I was trying to gently nudge people into recommending specific books they'd read, and not just writers. Christie and Stout wrote over 150 books between them. You have to assume the poster has heard of 2 of the most famous mystery writers ever - he needed books named that fit his criteria.

For people who did recommend books, I assumed that they had read them (except bcwinters as above) and I commented on those recommendations. (And by the way, I didn't, as you said, "agree with nearly all of the previously mentioned authors/books." I didn't agree with Baldacci, Stout, Encyclopedia Brown, Two Minute Mysteries, or Curtain by Christie, but I was nice about it. Some of those are quite good, but the op asked for the best.)

Then I went on and made my own specific book recommendations. No offense intended to anyone, and I apologize for my lousy phrasing, because I can see The Deej's point.

Holy crap that took a long time to explain. I hope I don't come across as being even ruder then you thought I was in the first place. As you nicely pointed out I put a lot of work into the list and I'm annoyed at myself for making it sound as though I was putting other people down - it kind of detracts from the overall effect of trying to be helpful.

Hey, The corpse in the library, Busman's Honeymoon is a great suggestion.

jbickers, it's nice to hear that someone else appreciated The Westing Game - I understand it won awards when it came out and was critically acclaimed, but I never met anyone else who read it. Please throw in any other books you've already read that might fit if you think of any - maybe some of us haven't read them!

If you go looking for the Thinking Machine stories, they're available in cheap Dover paperback editions. Best Thinking Machine stories is a good collection, for example.

You can also read all of his short stories online here:

I have not read all his novels, but I can't recommend any of the ones I have, so I'm thinking you want to stick to the short stories.

posted by lockedroomguy at 5:23 PM on November 30, 2006

Hey those thinking machine short stories are neat. Thanks.
posted by juv3nal at 5:27 PM on December 1, 2006

No offense taken, lockedroomguy. You are without question very well versed in this area. I bow to your superior knowledge. (No snarking, honest!) My initial comment about "the real mystery" was just a little throw-away joke, which I am famous for. Well, not famous yet. But anyway, thanks for taking the time to clarify.

Now if I only had time to read more mysteries... :)
posted by The Deej at 6:06 PM on December 1, 2006

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