The Jigsaw Metaphor #AtoZChallenge Mystery Tropes

Hello, and welcome to my 2019 A to Z Challenge! This year, I am giving you my personal list of  Golden Age Mystery Tropes. Particularly clue-tropes, and also those tropes that an experienced mystery reader finds herself using to solve the mystery without reference to the actual clues. But! Today I am not doing that! No, today I would like to present to you…

The Jigsaw Metaphor

“The investigation of a crime,” said Inspector Crowner solemnly, “is rather like solving a jigsaw puzzle.”

Sergeant Ernest Mug rolled his eyes. He’d heard this one before. Crowner, masterfully ignoring this act of insubordination, went on. “Say you have a fairly complicated jigsaw puzzle in front of you. A thousand pieces, all anyhow, looking like nonsense. Exactly like the way this poisoning case looks to us now, you know. Like nonsense. But you know–because the jigsaw manufacturers have assured you on the point–that, arranged correctly, all these bits of cardboard will make a picture. So you begin, Mug. With inconceivable amounts of effort, you put four pieces together, and make a picture of a Scottish terrier.” And Crowner smirked wickedly at Mug. “Good work, Sergeant.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Mug, woodenly.

“But–where does your dog fit in with the other pieces? You don’t know what the final picture is supposed to look like–assume that, please.”

“Yes sir.” Mug made the face of one assuming just that.

“So you don’t know if this picture is composed of lots of little animals, all fairly close up, or whether this little dog is part of a picture with lots of depth. And even though you know his size, you don’t really know the scale of the picture, not yet. Puzzle manufacturers are geniuses at defying one’s expectations. So are mysteries. In fact, Mug, I don’t see that your dog helps us very much. Not on its own. We need to know how the dog fits. The Hon. Roberta Flakeworth is rather a dog, by the way.”

“Sir!” Mug was shocked.

“I am not commenting on the lady’s appearance, Mug. I mean her role in this affair. We have figured out that she is involved. She was there, at the time when the first victim was poisoned. But her presence alone doesn’t really help very much, even though it took a lot of work to figure out even that. Is she an important figure in the case? Was she just there to return the book of filthy limericks that Sir Cadde had lent her? Did she herself slip the poison into the curry?”

“The coffee, sir. Forensic report just came in. I would’ve mentioned it sooner, only I hate to interrupt a good jigsaw metaphor.”

“The coffee, you say?” Crowner’s eyes seemed to stare into nothing for a moment. Then, he smiled. “Do you know, Mug, I think our little dog has just wagged its tail?”

Ah, the extended jigsaw metaphor! Or simile! Still, I’m going with metaphor here. The Jigsaw Simile doesn’t sound nearly as good (though it kind of sounds, to me, like it could be the name of some form of swing dance).

Ahem. Starting over. Ah, the extended jigsaw metaphor! What detective story is really complete without it? Actually, lots of them, but whatever. The “investigation as jigsaw puzzle” speech shows up in lots of detective stories. Poirot is an especially fervent jigsaw metaphorist, but lots of other detectives have indulged in the practice as well, from Michael Innes’ Sir John Appleby to George Bellairs’ Inspector Littlejohn. Um. I only mention those two, actually, because they are the ones I can think of at the moment (Michael Innes because I’ve practically memorized large portions of his excellent books; George Bellairs because I happen to have read him recently). The jigsaw metaphor is everywhere. Everywhere. It is right behind you, right now.

Why is this metaphor so common? Because it is actually fairly useful, and it can express lots of problems connected with the interpretation of clues. Is the thing you’ve just learned important or peripheral? Does it connect up with this other fact, or with that? Is it actually not connected to anything (expressed in the language of the jigsaw metaphor as “having got into the box by mistake”)? All of these fascinating confusions, plus many others, can be expressed with a good extended jigsaw metaphor.


Have you encountered any good jigsaw metaphors lately? What sorts of ideas do you think jigsaw metaphors express? Comment, please! You may also just say hello!

Bookmark the permalink.


  1. And they always say ‘like doing a jigsaw without the lid’. You got to love an extended metaphor. Agatha Christie used cards in one Poirot (building a case, building a house of cards). And clocks get used a lot.

    Are you thinking of the Alexander Litvinenko poisoning? An ex-Russian agent was murdered here in London at the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair. It’s the only Mayfair poisoning I can think of… But I’m assuming you were thinking of something slightly more historic.

    • Cards and clocks are both potent sources of metaphor!

      I think I was thinking of the Litvinenko poisoning, though, while assuming all the while that it was something historic. When I discovered that I was thinking of something fairly recent and scary, I edited my post to take it out–because the phrase “Mayfair poisoning case” was suddenly not charming. Not, of course, that poisoning cases are ever really charming, but one tends to lose sight of that with historical cases… not so much with recent ones.

      • I completely get that – I’m a bit of a history and mystery lover. When New Scotland Yard opened up it’s Black Museum a couple of years ago, I was really excited to see all the macabre artefacts. They even had some hang ropes including Mary Ann Cotton’s. And when you’ve studied (in an amateur way) Victorian history, that’s a bit of wow moment. But the exhibition ended with objects from far more recent crimes which suddenly makes you very uncomfortable. Amazing how distance in time makes all the difference.

  2. This isn’t one I’ve read a lot of, though I read a select few mystery authors it seems. I can see why it’s useful.

    Erotic Fiction Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *