The other night I was re-reading an old mystery from the 1930s and muttered to myself, “Oh, pfui, this is the Birlstone gambit.” A family member in the room, who is probably accustomed to me talking to myself, said, “Huh? What’s the Birlstone gambit?” And so a conversation was born, and hence this post.
I’m afraid before I start I must go much, much further than my usual spoiler warning. Ordinarily I warn people about my discussion of a specific book because they may spoil their enjoyment of the book if they haven’t read it yet. Here, I’m going to be discussing the patterns of plots of Golden Age mysteries — various structures that underlie certain mysteries that are not related to each other but which repeat as what I’ll call “gambits”. Gambits are related to “types” of mysteries, like “locked room” or “Had I But Known”, but they relate more to the way in which the plots are constructed. You’ll understand more as you get into it. The point is, if you keep reading, you’re going to be better able to recognize certain repeating structures of murder mysteries regardless of who wrote them or when they were written.
I will be revealing the solution of certain well-known mysteries that either originated these gambits or are famous for having used them. If you are well-read in detective fiction, you will already be familiar with the solution to, say, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But if not, your enjoyment will be spoiled irreparably. Really I only mean this post for the enjoyment of very well read mystery fans; be aware, and please be prepared to pass on to other reading if there’s a possibility I’ll spoil your enjoyment.
Here, alphabetically by author (so that there will be no chance of you making an accurate guess based on proximity) are the novels that will specifically be spoiled for you by reading the following article.
- Blake, Nicholas: The Beast Must Die (1938)
- Brand, Christianna: Tour de Force (1955)
- Carr, John Dickson: The Sleeping Sphinx (1947)
- Christie, Agatha: After the Funeral (1953)
- Christie, Agatha: Death on the Nile (1937)
- Christie, Agatha: Hallowe’en Party (1969)
- Christie, Agatha: Peril at End House (1932)
- Christie, Agatha: The Hollow (1946)
- Christie, Agatha: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)
- Dickson, Carter (John Dickson Carr): The Plague Court Murders (1934)
- Dickson, Carter (John Dickson Carr): The Red Widow Murders (1935)
- Doyle, Arthur Conan: The Valley of Fear (1915)
- Flynn, Gillian: Gone Girl (2012)
- Hawkins, Paula: The Girl on the Train (2015)
- Lorac, E.C.R.: Still Waters (1949)
- Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? (1969-1970) et seq.
- Van Dine, S. S.: The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
- Wentworth, Patricia: The Catherine Wheel (1949)
- Wentworth, Patricia: The Chinese Shawl (1943)
- Wentworth, Patricia: The Silent Pool (1954)
The nomenclature I’ve used to label these gambits is not necessarily the earliest such example, or the best, or the best-written. Frankly, it’s just how I have personally come to think of them over the years; a kind of mental shorthand, if you will. You will not find many of these gambits so labeled anywhere else. If it makes you happier to think of these ideas as tropes or even cliches, feel free. Does it seem like half of them were invented by Agatha Christie? Well, that’s why she was a great mystery novelist.
The Birlstone Gambit
In this gambit, A is found dead and B is a suspect. A has died in such a way as to render the body unrecognizable; B frequently provides corroborating evidence as to the identity of the corpse. The corpse, however, is actually that of B, and A has taken his place at the time of death. The gambit probably originated with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Valley of Fear (1915), or at least he made it his own; this has henceforth been known as the Birlstone Gambit, after Birlstone Manor House, the scene of the action in that novel. I like the way it was handled by Christianna Brand in Tour de Force (1955).
Recognizing this gambit: B sometimes displays an odd lack of knowledge of the details of B’s life, or alternatively knows too much about the details of A’s life. It’s usually cast such that B is better placed (wealthier, happier) than A, and there’s a strong motivation for A to disappear.
The Lion’s Mouth Gambit
A decides to murder B; A creates a situation where it looks as though someone is trying to kill A. After a few faked attempts on A, B is murdered by A, apparently by someone trying to kill A. Sometimes A continues to fake attempts on his own life to convince detectives that B was killed in error for A; sometimes A puts his hand in the lion’s mouth and makes a great show of hiring a detective to identify the killer of B. To my mind this was best handled in Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House in 1932.
Recognizing this gambit: A usually benefits a great deal by the death of B, to A’s mock surprise.
The Distinctive Garment Gambit
This is rather similar to the Lion’s Mouth Gambit. There are two similar patterns to this one. In one, A decides to kill B. There’s a distinctive garment that is associated with A, and B is found dead wearing that garment. A has killed B, and it’s assumed that B was killed by someone who thought they were killing A. In the main variant, the actual murderer is C; A provides the garment to B unbeknownst to C, and C actually does make a mistake and kills B, having mistaken B for A.
In Christie’s Peril At End House in 1932, the garment is a shawl; it’s also a shawl in Patricia Wentworth’s The Chinese Shawl (1943) and in her The Silent Pool (1954) it’s a coat with a pattern of huge checks in vivid colour.
Recognizing this gambit: The minute you hear of a distinctive garment (for men, it can be a hat) you should be listening for people who want to wear it; they’re about to die.
The Most Likely is Least Likely is Most Likely Gambit
This gambit was a specialty of the great Anthony Berkeley. Essentially, A has a strong motive to kill B. When B’s corpse is found, A is in such a position that the blood is literally dripping from his hands. The experienced reader knows that the most likely suspect is always the least likely suspect, and that there is some X out there who has set this up. The VERY experienced reader knows that when someone is the least likely suspect, they are the most likely suspect; A looks as guilty as possible because they’re actually guilty. My favourite of these is Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (1946) but she also worked a variant of this in 1937’s Death on the Nile. Berkeley’s variants are frequently arranged so that the most likely suspect is, after much investigation by Roger Sheringham, ultimately found to be the killer and hasn’t set anything up at all.
Recognizing this gambit: When A points out, midway through the murder investigation, that had he wanted to kill B, he could easily have done it in a much less obvious way and escape detection, you should pay close attention.
The Complicit Victim Gambit
In this gambit, A wishes to kill B. A creates a situation such that, unbeknownst to anyone except A and B, the two arrange a plot so that B will be able to, for instance, kill C with the assistance (alibi, etc.) of A. But halfway through the plot, A kills B (which was A’s plan all along) and, because B has helped to arrange the circumstances of his own death, A hopes to escape detection through impossibility. I like the way this was handled by John Dickson Carr (as by Carter Dickson) in The Red Widow Murders (1935) but there are many other examples.
Sometimes the assistance of B in his own death is accidental. There’s a sub-gambit of this that I’ve given its own name: the Elizabeth of Austria Gambit. In 1898, that noble lady was stabbed by an anarchist with a thin blade, and managed to walk unassisted to her cabin on a boat, where she died. I use this to stand for the cases where A kills B and then, unbeknownst to A, B continues to move around and lock himself into rooms and the like, and muddies up the path to A’s having murdered him. Principal among these is S. S. Van Dine’s The Kennel Murder Case (1933).
Recognizing this gambit: you have to recognize that the plot is quite simple if the deceased person has cooperated cheerfully in setting the scene of their own demise, and then figure out who might have convinced them to do that.
The Somebody Else’s Problem Gambit
Back in the 1980s, the late mystery novelist Greg Kramer and I used to earn small sums by writing and producing live murder mystery games over the course of a Saturday in Vancouver, culminating in a banquet in which All Was Revealed. (And may I add here that actor Curtis Armstrong, who played a supporting role in Moonlighting, is the finest real-life detective we ever encountered; a natural-born Sherlock.) There’s probably a novel or two based on the crazy stories Greg and I created for those games, but one gambit that we used over and over was a character to whom we referred as the SEP, or Somebody Else’s Problem.
Essentially we gave a single character a crucial fact and told the actor to conceal it by being annoying. A woman with a high squeaky voice who wanted to tell you the details of her recent encounter with aliens; an elderly man with a severe drinking problem and a failed marriage who wanted sympathy. Most of the players weren’t prepared to put in the work to dig that crucial fact out of such an annoying person and tended to encourage their teammates to do so, with greater or lesser success. But you couldn’t solve the case without getting that little fact possessed only by the SEP.
In mysteries in the print medium, this is a more difficult element to maintain; it’s usually done by creating a character whom no one believes or whose evidence is “clearly” incorrect. Agatha Christie did this best, I think, in 1953’s After the Funeral but also in 1969’s Hallowe’en Party.
Recognizing this gambit: when a character is either so grating that you don’t want to read about them, or you’ve become convinced that their evidence is unreliable, that’s the person who knows what actually happened, if you can only dig it out of them.
The Unreliable Narrator Gambit
Just lately, this has become a big thing in the literary world with the huge success of Paula Hawkins’ 2015 debut novel, The Girl on the Train and 2014’s Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Essentially the protagonist represents a situation to be a certain way in the earlier part of the book and then, over the course of the action, reveals that she’s been “lying” to the audience and the truth is quite different. Successful films were made from both these books and seem to have spawned a spate of imitators.
In GAD, of course, this concept is represented by the magnificent novel by Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and the equally clever The Beast Must Die by Nicholas Blake (1938).
Recognizing this gambit is very difficult. Essentially you have to mistrust what you are reading from the very beginning and always have the potential for an unreliable narrator in your mind. If the narrator says something that seems to gloss over an essential fact — “I did what little had to be done” — focus in on that.
The Scooby-Doo Gambit
A situation is outlined that contains a supernatural or creepy element; something that tends to keep people away from a certain building, or area, or room. It might be the rumour of a ghost or other monster. Upon investigation, it turns out that the supernatural element has been deliberately falsified and bolstered so as to keep people away from a criminal activity. “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been
for you meddling kids!” In other words, every single episode of the cartoon Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and its sequelae, but also many different novels by writers like John Dickson Carr (many times, but I like 1934’s The Plague Court Murders and 1947’s The Sleeping Sphinx). Carr had a stronger emphasis on the supernatural; other practitioners created less spooky and more outright threatening situations to cover crimes like smuggling, such as E.C.R. Lorac’s Still Waters (1949) and Patricia Wentworth’s The Catherine Wheel (also 1949).
Recognizing this gambit: Frankly, if it’s a ghost, the tradition of GAD is that it has to be revealed by the end of the story as not being of supernatural origin (except that one Carr story LOL). So if you see a story element that involves people being warned away from the Spooky Old Woods — it’s a Scooby plot.
I know my friends and fellow GAD enthusiasts are champing at the bit to tell me their own gambits. Feel free, with appropriate spoiler warnings. I would suggest that a “gambit” per se is something that’s used in more than one book and by more than one author, but I’ll be interested to know your thoughts. If I’ve gone wrong, feel free to say so. And if you have a better title for one of my gambits, I’d love to hear it!!