Hello, and welcome! I have been reading detective fiction (voraciously) since I was 10, more than a quarter of a century ago now.
This site (spiritual successor to a millennial Geocities blog and to ramblings on Yahoo discussion groups) is a general reader’s guide to the genre.
These reviews were written over 25 years, and many go back to my teens.
The title comes from John Dickson Carr’s essay, in which he argued that a good detective story should:
a) play fair with the reader (give him all the clues he needs to solve the case);
b) be soundly constructed
c) be ingenious.
“Though this quality of ingenuity is not necessary to the detective story as such, you will never find the great masterpiece without it. Ingenuity lifts things up; it is triumphant; it blazes, like a diabolical lightning flash, from beginning to end.”
Much of the appeal of a detective story, as Carr’s own works, or those of his idol G.K. Chesterton show, comes from the ‘Of course, dammit!’ moment – when the fog rolls away from an impenetrable mystery, to reveal, in all its effulgent glory, the light of Terewth.
One of the strengths of the detective story is its variety. So long as there’s a mystery (which need not be murder) and its solution, a detective story can do anything.
It can combine a lurid, startling murder with the wit of a comedy of manners. It can be as accurate and painstaking (and sometimes as dry!) as a mathematics textbook, or have the fine writing and attention to character of a mainstream novel.
It can be a bravura demonstration of logic and the scientific method, or a religious parable.
It can be an exhilarating phantasmagoria, with a tribe of New Guinean tribesmen living in an old London house, and the search for a telepathic horse sending the detective down the Amazon.
It can be witty and playful, with riffs on Eng. lit., or it can be pure farce, with the detective slipping on banana peels, the hero and his pals rushing harum-scarum around a boat, and suspects jumping in and out of cupboards.
It can be a rich, thematically complex, moving novel that tackles such serious issues as war, animal rights, the loss of children, while drawing on Marvell’s poetry or Mahler’s song cycles – and with a couple of the finest clues in fifty years thrown in for good measure.
It can show the reader what life is like in a convent, a publishing house, or a prisoner of war camp. It can take him around the world, or even to the moon.
It can take him back in time. The historical mystery is one of the most popular sub-genres today, but John Dickson Carr’s Restoration swashbucklers are hard to beat.
It can take the reader to imaginary worlds. Set it in outer space, in the far future? Read Isaac Asimov. It can even work as fantasy, as several of Terry Pratchett’s novels show.
But it must, above all else, entertain. The reason why we read detective stories is because we enjoy them. They’re FUN.
We want to match wits with the writer, and to be fooled. We want Sir Henry Merrivale to reveal that the man slain by an Aztec curse in a locked room was really skewered through his glass eye. We want the eldritch cackle and snatching claw of Mrs. Bradley as she treks across the Orkneys in pursuit of modern day witches and severed heads. We want the keen mind of Philo Vance to stop a serial killer with a Mother Goose fixation. We want the cryptic clues that mean nothing to the reader but everything to Hercule Poirot.
We want brilliant plotting, titanic ingenuity, and to applause thunderously on learning we’ve been fooled. What we want, in fact, is the Grandest Game in the World.