Many 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.