The Birlstone and other gambits


Groombridge Place, the real-life counterpart of what Doyle called “Birlstone”.

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

doyleart32893289In 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

Peril_at_End_House_First_Edition_Cover_1932A 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

0950711f7e25a0734232811e47bb0e8dThis 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 

Hollow-WhiteCircleThis 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

the red widow murders, carter DicksonIn 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.

The-kennel-murder-case-1933Sometimes 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

a8f966f5701d90d5fb1f82a450a8c7dcBack 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.

00422813607212c7a4f38ab57ca34796Essentially 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

9780008164997Just 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.

Blake1In 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


plaguecourtA 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

still-watersfor 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.


635508844151936194-BasilRathbone-SherlockHolmesI 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!!







25 thoughts on “The Birlstone and other gambits

  1. Great stuff Noah – the first time I encountered the Birlstone Gambit as a named device was in the pages of Francis M. Nivens’ biography of Ellery Queen and they certainly used it several times. You should tell us more about your murder games, please!

    • JJ says:

      I, too, hugely enjoyed this, and I, too, wish to hear more about these murder games!

      I’d be inclined to suggest maybe The Chimera Gambit, in which A kills C and goes out of their way to ensure they look as guilty as possible while also throwing suspicion on B, so that both A and B end up being suspected. See: Lord Edgware Dies by Christie, The Seventh Hypothesis by Paul Halter, plus hopefully many others I’m unable to bring to mind. The precise motivation for this varies — it may simply be a case of muddying the waters, and has in one case been an attempt on A’s part to bring to light an earlier crime by B (in neither of the above books I hasten to add…).

      This has got me thinking about all the alibi gambits employed over the years — I Was Out of the Country, I Was Completing This Time-Consuming Task, etc. If I had even 20% of your genre coverage, Noah, I might attempt such a post. But I don’t, so I shall leave it well alone if anyone else wants to use it 🙂

      • Noah Stewart says:

        There’s an entire book by Barbara Paul called “But He Was Already Dead When I Got There” that’s based on her experience with watching Perry Mason on TV daily. That’s an interesting alibi gambit, but she’d already written it when I got there 😉

    • Noah Stewart says:

      You know, I just might write something about those games. We did invent a core structure that would enable a small group of actors to make some cash and have some fun, and ring the changes on a basic plot structure without having to drag in the writers (for which read Greg Kramer and myself) time and again.

  2. Lucy Brazier says:

    May I say, what an absolutely superb post this is. I have enjoyed it immensely. Thank you!

  3. Tim Tempest says:

    I’m joining the group that wants to hear more about your murder games. – And also, of course, another post devoted to the “But He Was Already Dead When I Got There” gambit. BTW: I find myself rereading your posts on intertextuality they’re insightful about the attractiveness of GAD fiction as well as applicable to other authors of the time (thinking of you, Nancy Mitford, with Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate). Anyway, another superb post.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Thank you! Although I have to confess I haven’t read Nancy Mitford. But I think you’ve tipped the balance and I’ll write something about those long-ago murder games.

  4. […] other day I was sufficiently incautious to mention that 30-some years ago I had had a little side gig — in cooperation with the late great Greg […]

  5. Tremendous Noah. There’s an Overtaken by Time category, when something that might have fooled a contemporary no longer works for a second: a few 1950s mysteries (incl a Ngaio Marsh) where everyone is terribly surprised to find that someone being shown on TV does NOT mean they were in the studio at the moment of the murder – whereas a modern reader isn’t fooled for a second. Plus all those ‘well I didn’t SEE him but I could hear him typing (talking, singing) the whole time so he MUST have been there.’ Because, you know, recordings.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Oh, that’s an excellent gambit, yes indeed. It certainly fits within the GAD boundaries; there’s an early Van Dine title and an early Anthony Boucher title that both contain that idea, and an early Philip MacDonald. Let’s call it — The Sound Of Murder Gambit? But you discovered it, so you get to name it.

  6. Christophe says:

    “Tremendous” and “superb” post, indeed! Perhaps another gambit is to “Hide a crime within as series of crimes or a lot of casualties”, as in a Father Brown short story the name of which escapes me right now and in Christie’s ABC Murders.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Absolutely right. I think of that as the Greenmask Gambit, but with no reference to the J. Jefferson Farjeon novel of that name — for spoilers’ sake, I’ll merely say that another writer ran with that idea and I don’t usually like her work at all.

  7. […] typical tightness in construction, and that her misdirection falls painfully obviously into one of the gambits so perfectly summarised by Noah recently.  The idea of Miss Marple fulfilling the posthumous wishes of an old acquaintance in being sent on […]

  8. Thanks for a very interesting post.

    Have these been done by enough writers to qualify as gambits?

    The “No Third Party” gambit – A and B killed each other and circumstances made it look as if a third party had killed both of them?

    The “Man Who Murdered Himself” gambit – A would-be murderer sets a deathtrap for someone else and inadvertently triggers it himself?

  9. […] some point in the past, I followed a link from The Invisible Event to a blog entry I decided not to read given that it spoils some twenty works of detection in the author’s […]

  10. […] the most accomplished puzzle plotters the genre ever produced, is trying to amateurishly slide some identity gambit past you…well, firstly have a little faith, and secondly the famous mystery novelist Charles […]

  11. […] reading all the books I care about spoiling off of Noah’s list which he discusses in his post The Birlstone and Other Gambits.  Eight books is rather a lot to read in order to read one blog post, but I wanted to read these […]

  12. […] (except for the Lorac which is unbuyable) to prevent spoilers when reading Noah Stewart’s post on various gambits in GAD fiction.   This impromptu project was quite fun and the reading of the […]

  13. phinnea says:

    I thought of something which might be worthy of a name if other people have had similar experiences. Not a gambit, it comes out of the fact that the stories we’re reading are decades old: clues missed because we just don’t do that any more. I did not get the significance of the open shirt in The Beast Must Die because who opens a shirt to feel for a pulse? I could tell it was significant, but not how. There was another story (can’t remember which) in which the clue was that men’s robes and women’s robes were belted differently and so the person seen only from the back was the opposite of what they were pretending, but unconsciously gave themselves away. Maybe other people know this, I didn’t. Those are the only two that sprang to mind, but I thought I’d see if anyone else has had this problem.

  14. […] I didn’t know Noah, but I had ‘met’ him virtually last fall when I read his Birlstone Gambit post and proceeded to read the books he spoiled in that post, before reading the post.   I […]

  15. […] handled.  Our psychiatrist Dr. Charles Jerrold is, in many ways, a prime example of what Noah Stewart called the SEP gambit with his tedious dry way of volubly holding forth on any point he’s allowed to build up steam […]

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