The world of mystery readers divides into two broad categories – those who like to try to solve the mystery themselves, before the solution is revealed, and those who simply enjoy the story and make no serious effort to work out what is going on. Many people I know, including some crime writers, are in the latter camp, but I’m firmly in the former group.
In the Golden Age of complicated plots and ingenious if unlikely solutions, I suppose many readers liked to figure out the answer to the puzzle, and this was why Ellery Queen introduced the Challenge to the Reader in his early books – an idea taken up, as I have mentioned recently, by Rupert Penny in The Talkative Policeman and some of his later mysteries. Agatha Christie set her challenges less explicitly, though she usually managed to ‘play fair’ with the reader by giving a variety of clues to the answer. Her great gift in this respect was a matchless ability to disguise her clues. Information is supplied so surreptitiously that you may not notice you are receiving it. Her ability to misdirect truly matched any conjuror’s.
Penny couched his Challenge like this: ‘At this point the intelligent reader, if he has not already done so, should be able to attempt the solution of the problem with every prospect of success by taking thought, eked out where necessary with a guess or two...The less intelligent reader may perhaps be allowed to guess first and think afterwards, always provided that he does not shirk the thinking...nothing can too strongly express condemnation of those who use guesswork alone....’
Plainly, he had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote this, and generally, there’s a sense of fun about Penny’s writing that gives it an enduring appeal. For my part, as an author, I do like to set an implied challenge to readers who want a puzzle to solve, by offering clues to motivation and hidden secrets during the course of the narrative. Of course, plenty of my readers aren’t interested in this aspect of the stories, preferring to focus on the characterisation, setting and evocation of a particular society at a particular point in time, but that is fine by me. A writer of mysteries is in the business of entertainment, and it’s possible to entertain on a number of different levels. Rupert Penny and some of his contemporaries focused too heavily on things like train timetables for the taste of modern readers. But the fact that the genre has moved on doesn’t mean that there isn’t much pleasure to be had, both for writers and readers, in plots with fairly clued puzzles .