Caroline: It can come at any time, the revelation that ruins everything. Maybe you’re scrolling through social media. Perhaps you’re idly chatting with a friend who has a similar taste in books. You might even be reading a different novel or story when you chance across a reference to the plot of another work that gives too much detail. No matter how careful you are, you can still end up knowing too much.
For lovers of the classic whodunnit, this problem can be particularly acute. It’s all there in the title, after all. We read these books, for the most part, to find out who done it. And if that key information has already been shared with you… Well, there’s a case for saying the whole purpose of that book has just been undermined. But is it that simple? Is there really no reason to read a murder mystery beyond learning who did the murder?
To find out, today we’re going to talk about spoilers.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
Before we get into this episode, a brief update on the Shedunnit Pledge Drive. If you’ve listened to the last couple of episodes you’ll know that I’ve been trying to meet the goal of adding 100 new members to the Shedunnit Book Club by the end of 2020. And I’m delighted to say that we smashed through that goal in less than a month — exceeding all my expectations. At the time of recording, the total stands at 115 members, which is truly wonderful. I know it’s been a hard year for many of us, so it means all the more that you’ve chosen to support the podcast in this way. I want to thank everyone who contributed to this, whether by joining themselves, buying a gift for a friend, or by spreading word of the show. I’m incredibly grateful for all your efforts, and I’m delighted that I’m going to be able to make more regular episodes for you going forward. There was a bit of a preview of what that could look like on this feed last week, with the Death Sets Sail On The Nile episode, and I hope you’ll stick around for what’s to come. There will be more updates coming before the end of the year as well as a Christmas-themed bonus as a thank you, so make sure you’re following the podcast on social media to stay informed about that — I’m @ShedunnitShow everywhere.
I feel like it’s only appropriate that we should start this episode with a spoiler warning. Contrary to what the title might indicate, there are actually no major plot spoilers in this episode. But as always, if you’re concerned please consult the list of books in the episode description before going any further and return later if any of them are ones that you don’t want to know any details about at all.
That’s also a good place to start because it’s specifically the issue of spoilers on this podcast that has prompted me to make this episode at all. Long before I actually started making Shedunnit, when the podcast was just a twinkle in my overworked eye, the question of spoilers was one that perplexed me. Was it going to be possible to write and talk about murder mysteries in a way that was engaging without having to reveal every detail of their plots? And if I did end up always having to include major revelations and therefore warn listeners of the presence of spoilers, would I be able to grow any kind of audience for the show? As I started putting out episodes, this concern remained. I’m aware that there is a minority of listeners for whom almost all of the books I mention are already familiar, but as the podcast has grown it’s become clear to me that a lot of people regularly find new authors and titles to try from the show. Finding the balance between being interesting and avoiding spoilers is something I’m constantly working on, and I’m sure I don’t always get it right.
I think it’s also necessary at this point to clarify exactly what I mean when I say “spoiler”. Part of the reason that this whole issue has become very contentious is because it’s a somewhat elastic term, encompassing everything from an utterly unexpected and frank description of exactly what happens at the end of a story in a review or podcast to a fleeting reference to the fact that a work contains a surprising twist, even if that twist isn’t described. My personal definition falls somewhere near the former than the latter — I would consider it a spoiler to identify the murderer in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, say, but I would not consider it spoiling anything to say that that novel features Hercule Poirot as principal detective. But as that’s just my personal feeling, as we explore this topic in details I thought it was worth seeking some expert advice from people who have been navigating spoilers for murder mysteries for quite a while now. What is a spoiler?
Jim: Generally, my feeling about this is if you have read a book and there is an element of that book which, if you knew about it in advance, would legitimately upset part of the experience of reading that book, I think that is enough to constitute a spoiler. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say The Great Gatsby is set in the 1920s. I do think it’s a spoiler to say you won’t believe the death that occurs at the end of chapter seven in such and such a book, because that sets up a certain expectation.
Caroline: This is Jim Noy, who has been writing about classic crime fiction on his blog The Invisible Event for over five years now. You might recognise him from the recent Locked Room episode of this podcast, where he acted as our guide into the world of impossible crime stories. And given that Jim particularly enjoys such tales where a seemingly impossible event is ultimately explained by rational means, he has had plenty of cause to think about spoilers in relation to classic crime fiction.
Jim: The identity of the killer, the motive, sometimes the working of the crime, if the working of the crime isn’t immediately obvious, those sorts of things have obviously been interwoven one hopes delicately throughout the plot, they’re arguably the raison d’être of these sorts of books. And so you are spoiling that book if you are referring to something that is essentially the key purpose of the telling of that story, right? Which in golden age detection, the entire point is most of the time who the killer is, why they killed, how the killing was achieved, when the killing was achieved, or in the case of an inverted mystery where all of that is known the key thing is typically what the detective uncovers, what the detective’s surprise is that enables them to then prove the guilty party guilty.
Caroline: There’s no getting away from it: the whodunnit is a solution orientated genre. As such, spoilers just carry more weight than they do in historical fiction, say, when there’s a strong chance that a reader might know the basic background outline of the plot anyway because it’s drawn from real events. That said, with murder mysteries it isn’t always just the identity of the murderer and their actions that can constitute a spoiler. When writers get a little more experimental with the form, there can be more revelations to accommodate.
Jim: If I tell you who who the murder victim is in Freeman Wills Crofts’ Antidote to Venom, now murder victim isn’t actually settled on until I think halfway through or possibly even half over halfway through that book. If you go into that book knowing who the victim is, I would argue it paints a lot of the decision made by the killer in that book in a very different light, because you’re like, oh, we’re just waiting for them to trawl through this until they get to this particular person. It really affects your reading of the book, I would argue. There’s a an Anthony Berkley novel, same thing where a murder plot is planned and then is upset and then upset again. And eventually it’s about the third or fourth victim who is settled upon. But if you know that going in then you’re just like I can’t believe he’s wasting time with this now. And I think it’s Berkeley playing around with this idea of victimhood. Whereas if you go in and you know what, they’re going to kill Mrs. X and it happens in Chapter 15, then you spend 14 chapters going, oh, just just can we just get to the bit where he kills Mrs. X?
Caroline: This is getting into the realm of what I would call a “structural spoiler”, as opposed to a straightforward plot spoiler. Even if you don’t know who that mystery victim turns out to be, the fact that you know there is a mystery around their identity at all is going to give you a different reading experience than if you arrived at the novel without any prior knowledge at all. It’s the same as if someone tells you that a story has a twist in it. Even if you don’t know what the twist is, being on the alert for it will colour your perceptions of the work. Alongside that, there’s what I’m going to call an “emotional spoiler”, which I think is when you get a revelation about the tone and atmosphere of a book before you start reading it. If you know that something is going to be scary or sad ahead of time, for instance, the emotional beats that the author has worked into the plot are going to hit differently. During our conversation about this, Jim alerted me to the existence of a website called doesthedogdie.com, which has an interesting take on emotional spoilers. If there’s a certain theme that you want to avoid in pop culture, such as animal cruelty or body dysmorphia or a whole host of other categories, you can check out the book, series or film that you are thinking of consuming there and it will tell you what to expect without giving away any plot or structure points. That strikes me as a really excellent channelling of the spoiler question towards something positive rather than negative.
Another spoiler issue that is peculiar to the classic whodunnit is the question of age. Many of the books that I talk about on the show were first published eighty, ninety even a hundred years ago. Is there such a thing as a statute of limitations on spoilers? If a book has been around for that long, is it reasonable to expect that most people will have read it? Well, no, I would argue, and Jim agrees with me.
Jim: I mean, we know the genre started about 100 years ago, the majority of the titles in 80 odd years old, this doesn’t mean that people have had 80 years to read more than everyone has had 80 years to read them. I’ve only had about 35 years to read them. I’ve only been reading them for probably about 15 or 16, there is a lot of stuff in this genre which I have not yet read, that I would be incredibly annoyed if somebody were to spoil for me.
Caroline: A book might not be new in any sense of the word, but it might be new to you. And for that reason, I don’t think there is any statute of limitation on spoilers for these books, or really for any other element of pop culture. There’s a lot of TV I haven’t seen for instance, and might one day want to watch without already knowing what happens. I think anyone who wants to get into classic detective fiction should have the option of doing so without being bombarded with spoilers from the very first time they type “whodunnit” into Google.
After the break: The internet ruins everything. Because, of course it does.
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The issue of spoilers feels that much more pressing now because of how much easier it is to communicate. Of course it was perfectly possible to have a whodunnit spoiled for you fifty years ago in conversation or via a review or another book, but the peril was perhaps less omnipresent. Now, involuntary revelations are everywhere, and it’s because of the internet.
Kate: So I think in the Internet age, there’s so many more ways of having things spoilt, because obviously in the era that the books you tend to talk about coming from the 20s, 30s and 40s, you didn’t have that problem, though. I have been sort of thinking about they still have the issues of spoilers just in different ways because sometimes writers, if they’re doing a series and it’s like no book six, they have to have a character happily referring to how they solved a case in books one to five, like who did it something. So you feel like you’ve told me that I haven’t read that one.
Caroline: This is Kate Jackson, who writes the Cross Examining Crime blog, and who has — like Jim — been handling the question of how to write about whodunnits on the internet for quite a while now.
And this brings us to the title of this episode. In the last decade or so of mass communication about pop culture on the internet, a certain etiquette has evolved to deal with the problem of people consuming content at differing paces. It’s not perfect — you can still have a book spoiled for you just by innocently googling its title sometimes — but in the majority of cases, a simple warning ahead of time in an article of podcast will allow people who don’t want to know more to duck out in time. This is what Kate does on her blog:
Kate: I think whenever I am going to give a spoiler, I usually have a very big warning in bold in large letters saying, please do not read the next two paragraphs if you haven’t read it or if the whole post is going to have a lot of spoilers, might say, don’t read this if you’ve not read such and such. So people have the choice to keep on reading and just be brave and reckless and potentially find out spoilers or people can, sometimes people just say, I’ve gone away, I’ve read it and I’ve now come back and I’ve enjoyed your posts and not had anything spoilt.
Caroline: That point about choice is the vital one, to my mind. Spoiler warnings give readers or listeners the option whether or not they want to keep going and hear the information, making it a matter of individual preference. Whereas when there is an unannounced spoiler in a review, or in the blurb on the back of a book, or even in the cover design because yes, that does happen sometimes, the reader doesn’t have any agency. And that’s when tempers flare up. People can get a little bit strange about this kind of thing, shall we say. Jim had one incident with his blog that I thikn shows the lengths people will go when they feel wronged.
Jim: In the top right hand corner of my blog, I typically post the image of the book. I will be reviewing the following Thursday and for about four or five books in a row, somebody would email me spoilers about the books that I had flagged up. So they like sent me spoilers with some of your email with things like the book titles, So-and-so is the Killer or the book title, this is How The Murders Done or something like this. I mean, the joke was on them because they sent them through a variety of mail of email address, hiding software things, and so when it came through to my email, it immediately bounced into spam. And I checked my I checked my spam about once every six months, as everybody does. So it was six months down the line. And I was like, what the hell is this? Why someone sent me an email about it was The Julius Caesar Murder Case by Wallace Irwin. And it’s like, so, so and so. And I was like, oh, oh. And then there were yeah, I think some of them, however many, which was obviously somebody trying to weaponize spoilers against me, which was I mean amusing. I know who it was.
Caroline: For me, I think the most extraordinary thing about this incident is the fact that Jim’s correspondent put the spoiler in the subject line of the email, so that he wouldn’t even have to click into the message to get the information. It comes back to that issue of choice again — if you really want to be malicious with this, you have to give the recipient of the spoiler no choice at all.
Needless to say, I don’t advocate behaving like this, even to your worst enemy.
There is another side to the spoiler question, though, which is where that balance I talked about at the start comes in. What if in order to say why a book is worth reading, we have to give something vital away about its plot? Here’s Kate again:
Kate: For everyone who hates having anything spoilt, the flip side is everyone who is really passionate about book and they want to share why it’s so brilliant. But the very reasons why it’s brilliant are things which are classed as spoilers, like your hands are somewhat tied. I think I came across this book called Post Mortem, which was written in the 50s by Guy Cullingford, and obviously that’s a big piece of information. It lands on page twenty five. So it’s very, very early on. But is the sort of information a lot of people will say, whoa, you’ve told me this now. Now I feel like it’s been ruined for me. It makes it very, very challenging to review.
Caroline: In this situation, the only option as a writer is to tread carefully, add whatever warnings seem appropriate, and trust readers or listeners to use their common sense. But what if you do still see a spoiler for something that you were keen to read. Given that, as I said earlier, whodunnits are all about the solutions, is it still worth reading that book at all?
Kate: I do think that perhaps there’s a misconception that mysteries or traditional whodunnits are all about the plot and the ending. So if you take away the surprise of the ending, there’s nothing else left, which obviously I think the fact that your podcast has been going on is really popular or the blog post. And it even like a conference in the British Library of kind of shows that isn’t just there’s a lot of entertaining events and interesting solution at the end.
Caroline: I definitely subscribe to this view. I reread my favourite whodunnits all the time, and it doesn’t affect my enjoyment of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night at all that I know the solution to the mystery already. I reread murder mysteries for the characters, for the settings, for the details about how people lived in a different time. For me, if it’s a well written and appealing book, it won’t matter if I know when the denouement is about to start.
That said, that is my choice, and I usually reread after I’ve already had the experience of reading for the first time without any prior knowledge. And if you want to have that option, there really is only one way of making sure of it.
Jim: I have a policy that if I know there is a book, I am definitely going to read. But I have not yet read if it’s somewhere on my TBR and I see a post on it or I see a review of it on somebody else’s blog, regardless of the esteem in which I hold that reviewer. I do not read that review because all it takes is one person to be very careful and not say one thing and another person to be very careful, to not say another way. And suddenly, potentially the two things come together and you realise the gap that they’re trying to navigate around. So my take on this is I just typically try to avoid reading about anything that I haven’t read that I know I want to read. Obviously, you can’t avoid everything you haven’t read because how are you going to find out if you want to read about something?
Caroline: In all of the thinking about this that I’ve done over the course of making the podcast and this particular episode, I’ve come to a few conclusions. I don’t think spoilers are a trivial issue — it really is very frustrating if someone deliberately or carelessly takes away your choice to read a book for the first time without any prior knowledge of its plot. However, I do think that in this internet age the responsibility for preventing this is shared. I, or Jim, or Kate, or anyone who writes or talks about whodunnits, should take the trouble to include spoiler warnings when relevant. But readers and listeners should also apply common sense. Check for warnings, use contextual clues, and if in doubt, you can always do as Jim does, and just avoid all mention of that book until you’ve read it for yourself.
And if you feel the need to exact a complicated revenge plot on the person who spoiled a whodunnit for you… well — just hope that there isn’t a sleuth on the spot in that case.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. Thank you very much to Kate Jackson and Jim Noy for joining me today. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/spoilerwarning, where there will links to my guests’ work and further reading suggestions on the topics we covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
Thanks for listening and I’ll be back with another episode soon.
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