Riddle Me This*

RiddlesMany people enjoy solving riddles and playing ‘riddle’ games, where they have to put clues together to find an answer. And it can be a really interesting way to ‘exercise the brain.’ ‘Riddle games’ have been woven into plenty of crime fiction, which shouldn’t be surprising, really. After all, if you’re a crime fiction fan, you probably like to use your ability to link clues together and solve mysteries. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Musgrave Ritual, Sherlock Holmes relates one of his older cases to Dr. Watson. Sir Reginald Musgrave was a university friend of Holmes’, and so, was acquainted with his legendary deductive skill. He asked Holmes to visit him at his home and help solve a mystery. Musgrave’s butler, Richard Brunton, and his maid, Rachel Howells, disappeared, and no sign has been seen of them. The only clue is that before the two went missing, Musgrave had caught Brunton looking through some private family papers. The one he seemed most interested in was a paper that contained an old, apparently meaningless, poem used in a sort of family ritual. It turns out to be far from meaningless, though, when Holmes discovers what the poem really says.

Agatha Christie used riddles, puzzles and so on in several of her stories. For instance, in the short story Manx Gold, we meet Fenella Mylecharane and Juan Faraker, a recently-engaged couple who travel to the Isle of Man to hear the reading of the will when Fenella’s eccentric Uncle Myles dies. The will states Uncle Myles found buried treasure on the island, and provides clues to the treasure. According to the will, Fennella, Juan, and two other potential heirs will be given sets of clues to where the treasure is buried. The first to find the treasure gets to claim it. Very soon, the race is on. What’s interesting about this story is that Christie wrote it on commission to help boost tourism on the island. It was printed in instalments, and given to tourists, who were invited to make sense of the clues and find the treasure. Ironically, no-one ever claimed the real-life treasure – £100 to the first person who could find four identical snuffboxes holding Manx half-pennies. I know, I know, fans of Dead Man’s Folly.

There’s a more macabre puzzle in Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil. In this novel, Queen has taken a house in the Hollywood Hills to spend some quiet time writing. His plans change dramatically when he meets Laurel Hill. She’s heard he’s there, and wants his help solving what she considers to be a murder. Her father, Leander Hill, recently died of a heart attack after receiving several grotesque ‘gifts.’ She doesn’t know what the packages mean, but she is sure that her father did. What’s more, Hill’s business partner, Roger Priam, has also been getting ‘gifts.’ Lauren believes that if Queen can find out what the puzzle of the packages means, he’ll find out who caused her father’s heart attack. Queen doesn’t want to get involved at first; he wants to work on his writing. But he finds himself getting drawn into the puzzle as he solves the riddle that was left for Hill and Priam.

One of the more unusual ‘riddle games’ is in Fred Vargas’ The Chalk Circle Man, the first of her novels featuring Comissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and his police team. As the novel begins, there’s been a great deal of attention given to a strange phenomenon: someone has been drawing chalk circles in blue on the pavement in various places in Paris. Each circle is accompanied by the strange saying,

‘Victor, woe’s in store. What are you out here for?’

And all sorts of things have been found inside the circles, including notebooks, an orange, and a hat. Then one day a body is found inside one of the circles. Now the case has gone beyond the bizarre and into the murderous, so Adamsberg and his team get to work looking for the killer. In order to find that person, they’re going to have to solve the riddle of the circles, their contents, and the strange message.

And then there’s Lisa Unger’s In the Blood, which tells the story of college student Lana Granger. She’s working on a degree in psychology, and is hoping to finish soon. When her mentor recommends her for a job as an after-school sort of nanny, Lana’s not sure she wants the position at first. But the child, eleven-year-old Luke Kahn, is an interesting case from a professional viewpoint. He is extremely intelligent – even gifted. But he has severe emotional, anger, and other issues. It might be a valuable experience to work with such a child, so Lana is persuaded to contact Luke’s mother Rachel. Lana gets the job offer and prepares to work with Luke. But she soon finds it to be quite a challenge, as he is a troubled young boy. Lana’s not sure whether he is brilliant, and simply bored, or whether he is victim of abuse, or seriously disturbed for some other reason. One day Luke insists that they play a game. He begins to give clues, all of which make Lana begin to wonder at how much Luke seems to know about her. It’s an eerie game, but Luke refuses to stop playing. Then, Lana’s roommate and friend Rebecca ‘Beck’ Miller goes missing. As the police start looking into the case, Lana herself becomes a ‘person of interest.’ And Luke seems to know an awful lot about the case…

Riddles and ‘riddle games’ can be a lot of fun, and certainly intellectually stimulating. They can also add some interesting leaven to a mystery story. Oh, and you’ll notice, I didn’t include any of the serial-killer novels where the killer leaves cryptic clues. Can you guess why?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steel Pulse’s Steppin’ Out.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Fred Vargas, Lisa Unger

30 responses to “Riddle Me This*

  1. Because there are so many books involving serial killers and riddles? Yup. I love riddles too. I really need to push In the Blood up my to-read list. And The Chalk Circle Man sounds fascinating, too! I love stories that have complex riddles.

    • Good guess, Sue! And I do recommend Unger’s In the Blood. I think you might find it really interesting. And Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series is terrific. It’s unusual, but that’s part of its appeal.

  2. Nice examples, Margot: it’s very much something I associate with Golden Age stories, so you did well to find modern instances!

  3. Patti Abbott

    Just reading IN THE BLOOD and quite caught up with it.

  4. I really did not like Chalk Circle Man when I read it. I put me off Vargas’ books for a long time. (I did like the second one when I read it.) I don’t know that I like riddle type puzzles, but like everything else, it depends on the author and the execution.

    • The Chalk Circle Man certainly isn’t for everyone, Tracy. And as for ‘riddle’ puzzles, I think you have a well-taken point. Whether a puzzle is interesting and appealing, or off-putting, really depends on how it’s presented and the quality of the story.

  5. Kathy D.

    I do like riddles very much and puzzles. While my idea of a home vacation is curling up with Commissaire Adamsberg, tea and treats, I wasn’t overly fond of The Chalk Circle Man, the only book by genius Fred Vargas that I say this about. The rest, great. The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, magnificent.
    Aren’t all mysteries puzzles unless the perpetrator is revealed early?
    But I know what is meant here.
    Also, books where the perpetrator leaves clues are puzzles, too. (not including serial killers either here, don’t like those books)

    • Interesting, Kathy, that you found The Chalk Circle Man to be the least appealing of Vargas’ books. And you know, I thought about that point (that all mysteries are puzzles unless we know who the killer is right away). I almost mentioned it when I wrote the post. So I’m glad you brought it up. In the larger sense, of course, you’re quite right. I think, in fact, that that’s part of their appeal.

  6. Col

    I’ll have to read some Vargas at some point I think.

  7. I do so enjoy a mystery with riddles. I haven’t read an Ellery Queen book in ages and The Chalk Circle Man sounds like a book I’d enjoy. Riddles and puzzles do keep us coming back for more. Great post, Margot.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mason. Riddles and puzzles can help keep the reader’s interest piqued, I think, and they can add to a story. If you read The Chalk Circle Man, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  8. The French are very fond of riddles and regularly have ‘enigmes’, as they call them for children at school and in magazines, relying on word games and puns. Mostly (but not only) of the charade type mentioned in British historical fiction or Jane Austen, not so much in use nowadays. You know: My first is to be seen Every day in the firmament; My second conquers Kings and queens; And my whole is what I would offer To a friend in distress. (Answer: sol-ace)

    • Those riddles are great, aren’t they, Marina Sofia? They can certainly be both challenging and fun. And I’m glad you mentioned Austen and modern British historical fiction. Those sorts of charades were popular, and it’s interesting to how they play out in the literature of and about the times.

  9. Kathy D.

    I think most mystery readers would read through hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts and famine to find out the whodunnit and whydunnit. The puzzle drives us as well as good writing. In my younger days, I’d walk around my neighborhood reading as I walked, just could not put down a mystery.

  10. I love riddles but never manage to solve them – my brain just doesn’t seem to work that way. Fortunately Bilbo did a little better with the riddles Gollum set him… (What? It’s a crime novel! Bilbo stole the Ring… 😉 )

    • 😆 Yes, he did, indeed, Fiction Fan! And after all, as has been said before, every great novel has a crime in it. You’re right, too, that it’s just as well Bilbo was able to deal with those riddles…

  11. I suspected you planned to do a whole series on serial killer riddles…there certainly would be plenty of material to work with!

  12. In The Blood sounds intriguing – must read that one.

  13. I love riddles but that doesn’t mean I’m very good at solving them, but it’s good to have a go!

  14. Margot, in Ed McBain’s JIGSAW (an 87th Precinct mystery), the key to the homicide lies in a torn picture and Brown and Carella have to find out the missing piece. Not exactly a riddle but it seemed like the killer had left one behind.

    • Oh, that is a good example, Prashant. Perhaps, as you say, not a riddle with words, but it certainly is a puzzle, isn’t it? Thanks for reminding me of that great series.

  15. Kathy D.

    As a daily solver of the NY Times crossword puzzle (except on Sunday), and dabbler in the puns and anagrams and lover of word games, I will read books with interesting clues. However, The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown was full of enigmas, but not my cup of tea overall. Not sure real full-on mystery readers like his books.
    But one puzzle I cannot figure out: the London Times crossword puzzle. Maybe if a commenter sees this plea, someone can explain it to me.

    • I like word puzzles and riddles, too, Kathy, like crosswords and puns. As to The Da Vinci Code, it didn’t exactly sweep me away either. And I wish I could help with the London Times puzzle, but I haven’t attempted one of those in a long time.

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