Clue as Carrier Wave

14330145_964495950345839_2469714263963758410_nI encountered this commercial product recently; it’s the “Harry Potter” edition of Clue (my UK friends will know it as Cluedo). My reaction was, if you’ll pardon my saying so, “WTF?” To me, there didn’t seem to be any rationale as to why there would be a Harry Potter mystery game; the two genres don’t overlap and  there is no natural brand affinity that would make this an obvious product. I understand the idea of a “Sherlock” edition, there’s common ground there, but Harry Potter … no.

imagesThat piqued my curiosity sufficiently to do a quick search, and I found there are a number of such brand crossover editions, some of which I’ve pictured here. The edition that relates to the movie Clue does seem to have some rationale, but — The SimpsonsFireflyThe Big Bang Theory? None of these make any sense to me.

cluedo-sherlockIt does serve as a little corroboration to a theory about detective fiction upon which I’ve been ruminating lately; this just seemed to be a very bare-bones approach to my idea, and thus was more interesting. For my regular readers, this is what I hinted at recently when I suggested that one of the reasons people read detective fiction is because of indoctrination; I’m still not prepared to
clue-simpsons-edition-580x410define that term, it might take quite a long blog post. Suffice it to say here that my idea of indoctrination means that the basic elements of detective fiction are used by writers as a vehicle to carry information about society in an entertaining way. Golden Age detective fiction carried less about society and more about committing a crime in a clever way; modern crime fiction can very nearly ignore the crime and focus on characterization and milieu.

650x650_0684b4dbc9c1a09983731913dd49f37c1c10bc3de428b2e562b76039What I see suggested here with these various board games is that the basic structure of a murder mystery — the death of Mr. Boddy, a faceless and personality-free victim, and the attempt to solve the who/what/where questions surround his death — is now so familiar to consumers of fiction that it is essentially a cliche that requires no explanation. The
174096_s0branded characters from other franchises are superimposed upon the basic plot of who killed Mr. Boddy, providing some amusement for children who were bored with Miss Scarlett and Professor Plum. Alternatively there are people who collect everything stamped with, say, the Firefly brand, whether it’s an edition of Clue or a stamped metal lunchbox or a swizzle stick, and thus those brands gain some small extension. And Clue/Cluedo here is the carrier wave that carries the superimposed brand.

ff_cl_flatbt_web_0What I’m moving towards is trying to explain why people like me and my readers still find the structure of mystery fiction entertaining. After all, let’s face it, it’s exactly the same plot over and over and over again. Mr. Boddy gets killed, various people could be guilty, someone investigates and figures out who is guilty, that person is punished. We
81gtzlei-l-_sl1500_know what’s going to happen with an inevitability that approaches 100% (just as we know that at the end of a Harlequin romance that the male and female will become a couple). I’m suggesting that Golden Age detective fiction, and particularly the Humdrum school, are no longer viable precisely because they contain mostly plot and little or no characterization; GAD that contains
movie-edition-prototype-covinformation about the social backdrop against which such crimes are committed is considered “better” when it contains more such information. (I’m thinking here of Dorothy L. Sayers; I don’t enjoy her work as much as others do, but I recognize that a novel like Gaudy Night with no murder and a huge romantic subplot was groundbreaking.) I admit that “all plot no character no milieu” detective fiction was occasionally fascinating in its day — people still know Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? — but when it comes to the less well written outputs of a Farjeon or a Rhode, the mystery plot is like a carrier wave for dead air. Half of John Rhode’s oeuvre is like trying to work the same three elementary-level Sudoku puzzles over and over again, against a background of snobbery, racism, and social elitism, and no one will ever manage to bring that back successfully to the market today. As Julian Symons so accurately notes in Bloody Murder, those pure-puzzle exercises really died with the brief hegemony of the dossier novel.

ptruca1-11966168dtAnd what does an edition of “SpongeBob SquarePants Clue Jr.” tell us about the social backdrop? Merely that, if you’ll pardon my saying so, some people will buy anything. I suspect that quite a bit of the market for such things is people investing in “collectibles” towards a projected coup on eBay 20 years from now … or adults buying toys for children without any idea at all about the semiotic overtones of having a “Family Guy” Clue game, because they have no idea of the social milieu that produced Clue in the first place.  Those ideas are also interesting to me as a student of branding, but I don’t find them particularly pleasant to contemplate (the first is venial and the second is ignorance).  It makes me want to dig out my 30-year-old version of Clue that merely has Mrs. Peacock and Colonel Mustard instead of Marge Simpson and Sheldon Cooper and have the pure Clue experience!




17 thoughts on “Clue as Carrier Wave

  1. Brad says:

    I’ll play Clue with you, Noah- the original game – but as you say, it’s a humdrum game. I gravitate more and more to those classic mysteries that both provide a good puzzle and have some good stuff jammed in the spaces between the clues: character, social commentary (or even a great visualization of what life was like way back when), good writing, real humor. I’ll probably never review a novel by Crofts and that isn’t criticism, just personal taste.

    Now, I’ll take Ron Weasley in the Potions class with the Hippogriff.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Brad, I agree, and you phrased it more succinctly — character, social commentary, detail about what like was like way back when, good writing, real humour. I’m learning to distinguish the details of what life was like way back when — some authors put them in deliberately and others merely think that everyone knows the small details of everyday life in England in 1930, and writes it that way. Off the top of my head, Patricia Wentworth puts in the details and John Rhode takes them for granted. I enjoy it when they’re not taken for granted much, much more.
      I’m thinking Crofts is a special case; he deliberately tried to leave out the details of nearly everything that he wasn’t good at. I can’t say I enjoy his efforts much, but he was really skilled at doing what he did, and it was deliberate.

  2. JJ says:

    Godammit, Noah — way to spoil the Harlequin romance I’m currently reading…

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Mysteries and romances seem to me to be the only genres where you know the ending before you purchase the book. The murderer always gets caught and the boy always gets the girl. So I don’t feel very guilty 😉 You knew what you were getting! LOL

  3. JJ says:

    I played Clue(do) for the first time about two years ago…and was fairly astonished at how little it even has to do with actual deduction…it’s really nothing more than one of those logic puzzles where five neighbours each have a certain number of fish and a cat named after a colour, but the two people who have more fish than Robert don’t own the cat called Green.

    In this way, whatever you apply the basis of Clue(do) to is inherently false, and the different brands make no more sense that couching it as a detective game in the first place. I appreciate this is somewhat removed from the point you’re making, but it’s something that’s been on my mind and you’ve brought to the surface wth your framing of this question.

    As for me and the reading of detective fiction…I’m mostly with Brad. Mainly it’s the construction that interests me — the number of ways there were to tell effectively the same story, but also how the little touches inform what happens: and crucially, something has to happen! If there was another genre that combined incident with plot importance anywhere near as consistently or well, I’d read that just as avidly. The idea of lots of little touches gradually combining to provide an overall pattern — but a different pattern to the last time the unpopular head of an upper class family was stabbed in the back in his locked library — is what keeps me coming back.

    As for the everyday life stuff, I’m more of a fan of it being assumed. This might be because it feels so shoehorned in whenever anyone writes a “historical” mystery set in the 1930s now. Novels set in 2016 don’t have characters explicitly discussing their use of iPhones or explaining how Twitter or Uber work, just as most of the novels from the 1930s don’t go into their milieu in the same depth — the odd sentence, a grumble about taxes, some comment about a party phoneline…no need to overdo it, so long as you’re giving me the details I need to solve the crime.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      You’ve hit on such a number of good points here it would take another post to discuss them all! There’s a lot of food for thought here and I promise to consider everything you’ve said carefully. What’s struck me just recently is that although I am a fervid puzzle-solver in many areas of life, and I’ve been assiduously reading detective fiction for decades, it might just be that all these years I’ve been reading them because the “social instruction” mode interests me as much as or more than the puzzle. I’ve realized only very recently that I’ve generally been the most interested in mysteries that give me an insight into another place and time, and set of bizarre social mores associated with that. Like van Gulik’s first-millennial Chinese mysteries, or, say, a novel that is based on the unspoken assumption that to be an “unwed mother” is the worst thing that could happen to you. And here I was so SURE it was the mystery itself. I’m currently wondering just what the hell I’ve been doing all these years if I didn’t know why I was enjoying myself! 😉
      By the way, if you continue to play Clue(do), you’ll come to learn that there are large categories of strategy available if you compel another player to reveal a specific card by calling for two other cards that are in your own hand all the time. That level of reasoning works in mysteries also. A writer can establish that a character absolutely cannot have received a message by telephone by stating the whole area is on a party phoneline; he’s using our background knowledge to firmly close one particular area of speculation as to the murderer. Today’s children will need an annotated edition to explain “party line”.

      • JJ says:

        Okay, so here’s a question: do you see a difference in your interest in books where the insight offered comes from their being contemporaneous to their setting (Christie, Berkeley, Marsh, etc) and the ones where it’s the result of potentially incorrect research (van Gulik, etc)?

        I have tried to read some modern noves set in the 1930s and they typically just feel so phenomenally false; expect inthat instance there’s obviously the books from the setting to compare them to. I’m not sure there’s much in the way of mystery fiction from the Judge Dee era that can be compared to van Gulik’s own novels, so you’re trusting him to be getting the details right. And, y’know, what if he isn’t?

      • Noah Stewart says:

        Well, there’s “Di Goong An”, upon which van Gulik more or less based his stories in the first instance, but I’m not capable of appreciating the finer details (or, frankly any at all LOL, since I cannot read or speak Chinese). van Gulik seems to me to be authentic because I have read his book on Japanese shunga and know him to be, if not perfect, then at least very scholarly.
        But I can answer your point more clearly, I think, based on my experience. I’ve never really enjoyed any historical mysteries (at least not for any reason based on an appreciation of their historical context). All of them seem to suffer from the desire to make the reader think that the “olden days” were just like modern days — Brother Cadfael, Aristotle as detective, all those tooth-grinding pseudo-Victorian-feminist cozy series. People like van Gulik and John Dickson Carr are great researchers and THAT material is interesting, but for something like “The Witch of the Low Tide,” as a Broadway-oriented friend tells me, you “walk out humming the research”. And, as you suggest, those pseudo-30s novels where everyone seems to be constantly doing the Charleston and aping Peter Wimsey in manner are just ghastly.
        It’s an interesting question, though, because I don’t think that Berkeley and Marsh et al. meant to be “realistic”. Let me suggest that a book like Final Curtain is not about real people, but it contains information about how people in 1947 dealt with ringworm and how they educated difficult children. So even the contemporaneous novels can have a mixture of the false and the true.
        What it boils down to is, I like the true ones much better but can be amused and diverted by the false ones.

      • JJ says:

        This is going to sound like I’m being sarcastic, so I feel the need to reassure you up front that I’m not: the treatment of ringworm thing (and obviously its equivalents) is the exact sort of detail that I love. I presume it’s not a central point of the plot and so maundered on about at great length, but instead a sort of casual throwaway about “Oh, he’s doing so-and-so because he has ringworm”…I’m completely with you on the fascination of this sort of detail and entirely understand where you’re coming from.

      • Brad says:

        Ditto! I just read a pretty mediocre mystery set in the post-Depression American South. As a kid, I would have probably just skipped to the ending to find out the killer (whom I spotted from the start), but this time, I sat back and enjoyed what it was like to eat in a 30’s diner or grappled with items I didn’t understand (like a lady’s “fascinator.”) Nothing was being shoved in my face as it so often is in these pseudo-Golden Age throwaways being churned out, like “Lady Agatha and the Klambake Killer.” These casual references to earlier times are, as Philo Vance might say, “fascinatin’, don’t y’know.”

  4. I did play Cluedo in the UK in the late 70s with friends (there was even a popular TV show base don that ran several years that i remember watching) but even at that it age it tended to point to the weakest element of the the traditional genre – the purely mechanical aspects of the storytelling – and ignore what really make the best examples take off in terms of genuine inspiration and originality, strong characterisation and of of course the creation of atmosphere. I love all the variants you have posted here though Noah, fascinating to see the approach extrapoliated across such variety in popular culture,

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I’m totally looking for that TV series now that I’ve heard of it, thanks to you. That sounds great, would love to see that.
      I think you’re agreeing, in a way, that Cluedo is a kind of carrier wave. I can go with “the purely mechanical aspects of the storytelling”, that’s a very accurate description of how it can underlie other stories. Once you randomly generate “Mrs. Peacock in the Lounge with the Rope”, you can construct a story to get you there that has — anything you want in it.

  5. Thoughtful and astute post. I’m not a fan of the new cludeo versions either and equally I do find it a bit of a guessing game on the whole, no less because when I played it once I won the game in my first guess! However, one distinct advantage of the game is that it is a mystery based game which I can beat my sister at. I also have the 221B Baker Street board game and the Orient Express (1985) board game, both great games with a lot of thinking and deducting involved, yet none of us have been able to beat my sister at them. The Orient Express is probably my favourite as there is a lot to do and there is also a time constraint element.

    • Brad says:

      Yikes! I thought I was the only person on earth to have 221B Baker Street, Kate! I freaking LOVE that game. I’ve never heard of Orient Express, though! Was that fun, too? Can we all get together sometime and PLAY these board games that just sit in my closet? I have another great Sherlock Holmes game and an Ellery Queen game as well!!!

      • Yes my sister bought me the 221B Baker Street game a few years ago for a birthday present. I also got a Sherlock Holmes card based game which came out last year I think for Christmas. You should definitely get the Orient Express game, though I’m not so sure how easy it is to find. We got ours from a charity shop. What is your Ellery Queen game like? Nice to find another board game fan, it is only something I tend to get to indulge in at Christmas when my family will consent to play a few of my many games.

      • Brad says:

        Ellery Queen is a board game with five different cases to solve. The board has two sides: one is of New York City and the other is of Bromlee Station, “a fictitious town in Pennsylvania” that is a stand-in for Wrightsville. (Only one of the cases takes place in Bromlee Station.) You read the introduction and then spend each turn going through a clue index, interviewing suspects and examining evidence. Essentially, you’re reading bits and pieces of the story the author has written and you put your information together and try to solve the case before others do.

        The Sherlock Holmes game I have works much the same way, but it’s much better in that the cases are quite elaborate and they’re supplemented with some physical evidence like newspapers where you have to read closely to see if you can find new trails or different clues. Plus, the newspapers contain evidence for multiple cases, so you have to be smart.

        And I have a similar game called Hardboiled, set in San Francisco, and dealing with convoluted cases along the lines of Hammett or Chandler. It’s all wonderful, and I haven’t played in years because nobody in California matches my nerdiness!!

      • I think you must have a different Holmes game to me then, as my game doesn’t have newspapers or physical evidence.

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