Sunday, 30 December 2007

Guessing whodunit

As I mentioned the other day, reading a classic detective story has something in common with playing a game – although I would argue that the best traditional mysteries offer a lot more besides - and guessing whodunit is part of the experience as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve just finished A Game of Murder by Francis Durbridge, a light thriller by one of the most convoluted plotters of them all. I have memories (very vague ones at this distance of time) of the tv serial of which this is a novelisation. The book was published in 1975, nine years after the tv series. On checking, I found that the latter starred Gerald Harper, better known to tv viewers of my generation as Adam Adamant, and Conrad Phillips, who was never off the small screen in the early to mid 60s.

When it comes to skill at characterisation, Durbridge is scarcely Reg Hill or Minette Walters, but he is good at pulling the wool over the reader’s eyes. One of his main techniques is the relentless unfolding of surprise after surprise, so it's not easy to keep up. In this case, he managed to fool me, and I’m rather pleased he did. Guessing whodunit too easily is a bit of a let-down, and it is something that occasionally disappoints me about otherwise excellent mystery novels.

Not so long ago I read a novel where I guessed the outcome 150 pages before the end (admittedly it was a very long book) and although I admired the writing, and wanted to know what happened to the people in the story, I felt that a detective novel of such length needed a bit more mystery, or at least one or two more credible suspects. Getting the balance between plot, setting and characterisation just right is an enormous challenge for any crime writer - and of course, opinions vary as to what matters most (for me, all three elements are important.) You seldom care much about Durbridge's characters (just as well, since they tend to be killed with alarming regularity), but for the whodunit fan, this doesn't matter enormously, given that his books are always short and snappy.

Of course, the more one gets to know a writer, the more one becomes familiar with the tricks of his or her trade. You can sometimes spot the culprit in Glenn Chandler’s macabre and wonderful early screenplays for Taggart by figuring out which character didn’t really need to be included in the story. Durbridge too relies on tried and tested devices, but on this occasion I fell for the misdirection. And enjoyed the final revelation all the more as a result.

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