America’s Sweethearts

One of my favorite movies to watch when I’m in the mood for something comfortable is a mostly forgotten film starring John Cusak, Catherine Zeta Jones, Julia Roberts, and Billy Crystal called America’s Sweethearts.

The premise is that Eddie Thomas (Cusak) and Gwen Harrison (Zeta Jones) were an incredibly popular hollywood couple until Gwen cheated on Eddie with another actor in a movie they were in, Hector. The movie, Time Over Time, during the filming of which those events happened is about to be released but the eccentric director, Hal Weidmann, won’t show anyone the movie until the press junket. So the publicist for the film (Crystal) must put together the press junket with the two stars of the movies not being on speaking terms and there being no film to show the press. Hilarity ensues.

And hilarity does ensue; it’s a very funny movie. It pokes a lot of fun at Hollywood and the selfishness and complete dishonesty that characterizes the movie industry. Which brings me to the modern difficulty in watching movies of knowing how awful the people who makes movies are.

I think this may be best summarized by sci-fi author Rob Kroese, a few years ago, in response to some idiocy out of Hollywood in the wake of some disaster or other:

Nice to see celebrities taking time off from raping each other to condemn prayer.

(As a side note, there seems to be law of human behavior that a person’s private virtue is inversely proportional to the number of public statements he makes condemning vice in others. Or, more briefly: virtue signaling is often camouflage.)

So, the question come up, unavoidably: does one go on watching movies in spite of their deeply flawed origins?

I think that the answer is yes, but it’s not a question which can simply be dismissed; people who simply say “who cares?” about this are just people who don’t know enough—they’ve never looked in the kitchen to see how the sausage is made.

(I should note that I’m talking about things which do not enrich Hollywood further or do so very minimally. I already own the DVD of America’s Sweethearts so watching it again puts no more money in the hands of the Hollywood. And even buying DVDs of older movies does little to support the current degeneracy of Hollywood, though strictly speaking more than zero. But for older movies, much of the money goes to people who are no longer working in the industry or their descendants because they’re dead. Life is more complicated when you’re talking about watching a new movie in a Theater.)

There are two reasons why the answer is yes—that we should still enjoy the movies made by the wretches of Hollywood. The first is practical (and probably more accessible), the second is philosophical (and more conclusive).

The practical reason is that this is a fallen world and everything is made by wretches. Some are worse than others, but even the best men will inevitably have their work tainted by their imperfections. Worse still, from a practical perspective, many men (rightly) keep their vices secret (so as not to encourage others in vice), and so one will not know what vices secretly infect their work. When it comes to the near-devil-worshippers of Hollywood, one is at least forewarned (and thus fore-armed) against their messages of lust, sloth, and pride. This does not remove the danger, and certainly doesn’t make their work preferable to people who aren’t consciously trying to promote evils, but it does put it in the realm of what can be done safely—or at least as safely as anything can be done in this fallen world.

The philosophical reason is more complicated, but at its heart is the philosophical insight that evil is a negative, not a positive, thing. Evil is the (partial) absence of being—it is a thing being only partially itself. This partial being warps and twists things, but it is impossible to be purely evil—a thing which is pure evil would completely not exist. There’s a sense in which Nothing (with a capital N) is pure evil, but that’s not really different from saying that nothing is pure evil.

This means that in all things which exist, there is good. Evil does not, properly speaking, taint the good in a thing. What it does do is disguise the good. This is not, however, an insurmountable problem. A tainted thing can be safely consumed, since the taint has a positive existence—you can’t drink a poisoned glass of wine and drink only the wine but not the poison. But a disguise can be seen through.

Seeing through disguised good is a skill and thus a person can be good or bad at it; this is highly contextual to the person, the good, and the disguise. What one person may watch safely another may be misled by; it requires wisdom to tell the difference.

And there is no substitute for wisdom.

Detective Commandment #8: Clues

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The eighth commandment of Detective fiction is:

The detective must not light on any clues are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

In his 1939 commentary on his commandments, Fr. Knox said:

Any writer can make a mystery by telling us that at this point the great Picklock Holes suddenly bent down and picked up from the ground an object which he refused to let his friend see. He whispers ‘Ha!’ and his face grows grave – all that is illegitimate mystery – making. The skill of the detective author consists in being able to produce his clues and flourish them defiantly in our faces: ‘There!’ he says, ‘what do you make of that?’ and we make nothing.

I agree with this commandment, though with some reservations.

Before I get into that, I want to mention a fun fact about where the word “clue” comes from: it was originally “clew,” which meant a ball of yarn or thread. It came to have its current meaning from the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, when Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of yarn—a clew—which enabled him to get out of the maze in which the Minotaur lived. A clew was thus, by metaphor, something which enabled someone to get out of a maze of confusion by following it. (The spelling “clue” came about in the 16th century.)

To begin with my agreement: something I’ve talked about before in my discussion of these commandments is the difference between mystery and mere obscurantism. A mystery is a thing which internal consistency. This internal consistency makes it is possible, through learning some of the pieces, to figure out the rest. Mere obscurantism is just a form of “I’m thinking of a number, try to guess which. It was 7.73792555161789434!” There’s no skill involved in defying someone else to read your mind.

This, along with Commandment #6 (accidents), may be one of the most often broken commandments. Writing mysteries is hard, and resorting to cheap tricks is a perennial temptation. That said, there are ways to break this commandment which are not cheating.

The one which comes to mind first is where the clue is mere confirmation of the detective’s theory. It does have to be a theory which is not only supported by the evidence but the only theory which is—otherwise it violates Commandment #6—but as long as the clue is merely confirmation of what the reader should have guessed, its being withheld is only a way of being playful and signaling to the reader that all of the requisite clues have now been shown.

This does (basically) require a Watson character that the detective is encouraging to guess the solution; if the story is told from an omniscient perspective rather than the perspective of the Watson, this is harder to pull off. The author may have to resort to speaking directly to the reader, as Sayers did in my least favorite of her books (The Five Red Herrings), “Here Lord Peter Wimsey told the Sergeant what he was to look for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted from this page.”

The other way to violate this commandment—fairly—which I can think of is not very significant, but is probably worth mentioning. There is nothing wrong with the detective withholding clues for a short time. If the detective finds several things and refuses to reveal them in the presence of witnesses but waits until he’s alone with his confidant, there is no harm in this. There is no great benefit either, of course, but it can be used to create some drama because of suspicion falling on whoever it was the detective did not want to see the clue.

It is also possible to separate the finding of a clue and the realization that it was a clue as long as the detective is also in the dark at the time it was found. Supposing that there was a penny on a night stand which was a clue, and it was hidden among some other coins, the detective could pick them all up and put them into a bag without noticing the penny, only to realize that the penny might be significant and then to look into the bag to look at the dates on all the coins present. In a technical sense the clue would have been discovered earlier, but only revealed later. This is fair enough in a mystery novel, so long as the detective reveals the clue when he finally looks closely enough at it to notice its significance.

Can a Pundit Keep His Soul?

By an odd chain of thoughts not worth repeating because of the extensive, uninteresting context required to make it intelligible, I’ve begun to wonder about the nature of punditry itself, especially in the Internet age. Can a man continually comment on current events and keep his soul?

I should qualify the above question with a pundit who wishes to remain popular; obviously one can keep an equilibrium of one’s comments on today’s outrage are effectively a reprint of one’s comments on yesterday’s outrage; repeating the same thing endlessly poses, I think, little danger, but it also comes with almost no prospects of being frequently read or listened to.

It’s rather the necessity which people who wish to be frequently read or listened to, to be always saying something new, which seems to me to pose the problem, for the simple reason that most outrages of the day don’t matter. It’s a simple thing to verify; just pick a year in the last 20 and without looking try to give an exhaustive list of the extremely important things which happened in that year. If you’ve got an especially good memory, your list might have a half dozen things on it.

Yet during that year, there was a new outrage which everyone was talking about (on the internet) every day or two. These things clearly matter very little, and the danger to one’s soul comes, I think, from having to constantly pretend that they’re important.

(I should note that there’s a sense in which all things are important—God loves beetles, after all—but in that sense the weather today, what a child did at school, and how a sports team did in their match yesterday are also important and not obviously less deserving of attention.)

Mystery Commandment #7: Detective Murderers

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The seventh commandment of detective fiction is:

The detective must not himself commit the crime.

In his 1939 commentary on his decalogue, Fr. Knox said:

This applies only where the author personally vouches for the statement that the detective is a detective; a criminal may legitimately dress up as a detective, as in The Secret of Chimneys, and delude the other actors in the story with forged references.

In many ways this is a counterpart to the first commandment, specifically the part about “but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know”, so some of that analysis will apply here.

Incidentally, I can’t help but wonder what Fr. Knox would have thought of the final Poirot novel, Curtain. (Technically, it should be noted, the detective in the novel is Captain Hastings, not Poirot, and there is more than one murderer in the story.) It seems like Agatha Christie made a habit of violating Fr. Knox’s ten commandments and doing it in a way that worked.

Be that as it may, I agree whole-heartedly with this commandment. Having the detective commit the crime destroys the basic structure of a detective story and turns it into a weird mockery of itself; a detective who merely investigates himself becomes nothing but an empty puzzle with no meaning or value.

Having said that, this commandment is one of the least transgressed commandments in detective fiction. There’s a highly practical element to this: most people write series of detective stories featuring the same detective. Having the detective be the murderer once will ruin the enjoyment for the readers of any subsequent stories; having him be the murderer more than once will ruin even the surprise. Who would read a story in which the central mystery was the foregone conclusion of a twist which can be relied upon? So the mere fact that mysteries are written as series tends to safeguard writers from this bad decision. It is true that sometimes self-interest will do the work of virtue.

Mystery Commandment #6: Accidents

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The sixth commandment of detective fiction is:

No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

In his 1939 commentary on his decalogue, Fr. Knox said:

That is perhaps too strongly stated; it is legitimate for the detective to have inspirations which he afterwards verifies, before he acts on them, by genuine investigation. And again, he will naturally have moments of clear vision, in which the bearings of the observations hitherto made will become suddenly evident to him. But he must not be allowed, for example, to look for the lost will in the works of the grandfather clock because an unaccountable instinct tells him that that is the right place to search. He must look there because he realizes that that is where he would have hidden it himself if he had been in the criminal’s place. And in general it should be observed that every detail of his thought – process, not merely the main outline of it, should be conscientiously audited when the explanation comes along at the end.

This may be the commandment in Fr. Knox’s decalogue with which I agree most strongly (with a few caveats). Curiously, along with Commandment #8 (the detective must not conceal evidence from the reader), this may be the commandment which is most often broken in detective fiction.

I agree with it because the whole point of a detective is to detect, not merely to be the recipient of pure luck. Pure luck is the domain of comedies or, in some curious cases, of tragedies. It is not the domain of detective fiction. And I should note that this is true whether one is talking about play-fair detective fiction or not. Even if the reader has no earthly way to guess the solution to the problem, the detective should.

This really gets to the question of what a detective story is. A Franciscan friar to is a good friend of mine suggested that the fundamental structure of a detective story is that some villain, through the misuse of reason, has disturbed the natural order of things and that the detective, through the right use of a superior reason, restores the right ordering of things. It is, fundamentally, the Christian story—humanity has messed up the world and God condescends with us to restore it.

This structure to the detective story only works if it is the detective whose right use of reason restores the natural order. Luck and unaccountable intuitions are to detective fiction what the Gnostic and later Arian heresies were to Christianity. Just as those heresies turned Christ into a creature and thus from a savior into a mere conduit of information, luck and unaccountable intuitions turn the detective from a savior into a mere conduit of information. If Christ is a creature, and the detective merely a lucky fool, neither is capable of saving himself, let alone us.

This rule is violated so often precisely because writing detective fiction is hard. This is especially true of mystery novels. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, mystery novels and mystery short stories are fundamentally different creatures. The short story is a puzzle at the end of which—preferably on the next page—is a solution. The novel must be the tale of the assembly of all the clues necessary to solve the problem or the author must pick whether he wants the story to be unsolvable or to drag on long after it should have finished.

But to make a mystery novel the tale of the assembly of all the necessary clues, there must be some reason why the clues satisfy two opposing conditions:

  1. They are not readily available
  2. They are available

There are a variety of ways to satisfy these two—if not, there would be no detective fiction—but they tend to boil down to a few generalities:

  1. You have to figure out where to look.
  2. The clue doesn’t exist yet.
  3. You already have the clue but it doesn’t mean anything until you find additional evidence satisfying some other condition on this list.

(To be clear, how one goes about doing these things are what make the story, and there are endless ways to do these in fresh and interesting ways.)

The second type of clue—the clue only coming into existence later in the story—requires a certain type of story to work; specifically, one where the murderer is still active. It’s a great type of story, but if it’s not the story one is writing, it’s not an available option. And in that case, we’re left with #1 and #3. And the obtaining of clues which make other clues significant in #3 will resolve into #1, most of the time, because otherwise it’s a police procedural, not a detective story.

So the big trick to writing a mystery story is really figuring out where to look for clues. And the mystery writer is hung, to some degree, on the horns of a dilemma: if the location of the clues are obvious, anyone could follow them up. If the location of the clues are not obvious, why on earth would the detective think to look for them where they are?

There are, of course, ways to unhook oneself from the horns of this dilemma; this commandment forbids the author from simply waving the problem away.

This post is already long enough, but I will mention the ways to unhook oneself from this dilemma, if briefly (and, I should note, they generally work best when combined):

  • Specialized knowledge—this runs the risk of being simply esoteric, rather than mysterious, but in a detective story which is more educational than adventurous, the detective giving away the requisite knowledge when he comes across the clue can make for an enjoyable story. Detectives are, after all, supposed to be not merely brilliant, but also learned. And mystery readers do, as a rule, enjoy learning things. They do need to be real things, though (see rule #4, poisons).
  • Psychological insight—Probably the best example of this is Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. If the detective can think like the criminal he will be able to predict what the criminal did and therefore where to look for clues.
  • Gaining the trust of people who have clues—this can easily be done badly (chiefly where the person shouldn’t need his trust to be gained), but it is an extremely workable way to withhold clues for a time. This all too often is an occasion for the detective to become a liar, though; gaining trust under false pretenses is distressingly common in detective fiction.
  • Legwork needed—This is a case where the insight of the detective leads to knowing, not exactly where a clue is, but a small number of places to look. It will take time to explore all of the possibilities until finding the clue. (This works best when there is some reason the possibilities must be investigated by the detective himself, generally to be found elsewhere on this list.)
  • Labwork, police work, etc—chemical analysis of substances, the interviewing of every lawyer in London or everyone living within three blocks of the murder, etc. all take a lot of time. When this is done off-screen, it produces space in which the detective can be doing something interesting. N.B. That interesting thing that the detective does while the poor off-screen laborers toil in the clue-mines should be something that either explains the clue when it comes in or else the arrival of the clue should have no value other than to explain what the detective found while he was occupying the reader’s attention. Anyone can cavort with an attractive member of the opposite sex for a few days until the solution to the problem they have not advanced a wit falls into their lap.
  • Delayed clues—this needs to be used with extreme care because it can easily become cheating, but clues which only show up once the post office has delivered them, or after some device with a timer reveals them, can work. The clue absolutely has to be mysterious on its own, and require everything the detective did in the interim to be meaningful, or the author has wasted the reader’s time until the clue shows up. The reverse could, in theory, work; but it doesn’t work. That is, the previous work being mysterious until the clue shows up in the mail will always feel like a cheap deus ex machina. In either case, there has to be a very good reason why the clue was intentionally delayed, and moreover, it absolutely cannot be the clue which solves the mystery.

There are probably other ways, too, though they’re likely to be some sort of variant on the methods above. And I want to stress again that giving a general description of the structure in no way implies that the stories must be formulaic or un-creative; the beauty of any story is in its specifics. It is no more saying that a story is formulaic because there are only so many workable structures for their plots than it saying that all people look alike to say that all men have the same bones in their skeleton. A man without a skull is not bold and daring, and a man with a skull is not boring and repetitive. It’s what’s inside his skull that really counts.

Mystery Commandment #5: Chinamen

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The fifth commandment of mystery fiction is:

No Chinaman must figure in the story.

In his 1939 commentary on his decalogue, Fr. Knox said:

Why this should be so I do not know, unless we can find a reason for it in our western habit of assuming that the Celestial is over-equipped in the matter of brains, and under-equipped in the matter of morals. I only offer it as a fact of observation that, if you are turning over the pages of a book and come across some mention of ‘the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo’, you had best put it down at once; it is bad. The only exception which occurs to my mind—there are probably others—is Lord Ernest Hamilton’s Four Tragedies of Memworth.

This is a rule that, in its specifics, is really only about a time and place in which most of us do not live (England in the 1920s and 1930s). But I think we can both generalize it and answer the question of why it was so at the same time.

Let’s start by looking at the phrase which Fr. Knox suggests is a sufficient warning-sign of a bad book: “the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo”.

The first thing to notice about this phrase is that it’s simply wrong. The epicanthic fold typical of the Chinese (and others) looks different than the eyes of those who don’t have them, but it really does not make the eye look like a slit. Eyes look like slits when the eyelid is mostly closed, and this is true of all human beings. Saying that the Chinese were “slit-eyed” was a sort of cant, not an actual description.

One of the curious things about literary traditions (whether in the printed word or in movies and television) is how much it is possible for storytelling to reference other stories, rather than real life. It can be a valuable sort of short-hand, but it can also perpetuate entirely fake atmospheres and backstories.

And the slit-eyed Chin Loo is, I suspect, exactly this sort of reference to an evocative but bad story. I have no idea where the unrealistic Chinaman first appeared in English fiction, but I strongly suspect that it was in a very vividly told story, all the more vivid for being new. This will have impressed people, who borrow elements of the story for themselves, and among those whose experience of the world—or at least of the Chinese—comes primarily from books rather than from people, this becomes its own sort of reality.

So we have the first element of why a book which references “the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo” is a bad book—it is a book which is fictionalizing, not real life, but another book. This is fine for satires, of course, since that’s what a satire is—but a satire is all about the distance between another book and reality. As we have a copy of a copy of a copy, the distance to reality will get further and further without the author realizing it.

(There is, also, the simple correlation that lazy authors rarely write good books, but I pass that observation as uninteresting.)

The other thing we can see in the phrase “the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo” is a cheap form of exoticism which, in detective stories, is often a means of obscurantism. By obscurantism, I mean making the story appear mysterious, not by creating a tangle, but simply by referring to knowledge not commonly held, but if known, makes the entire thing clear from the beginning. For example, if you knew at the outset of a story that the Mexican mocking tarantula leaves a bite that looks exactly like the byte of the (east Asian) king cobra and moreover that it is driven into a fury whenever a red-headed woman sings “hush little baby” at night, the death of a red-headed woman whose window was open and who bears what looks like the bite of a king cobra, and who moreover was in the habit of singing “hush little baby” each night for some reason, would not be a mystery at all. No more than a person who died of a dog bite where there is a vicious dog nearby would be.

A mystery requires an apparent contradiction, at least of the evidence to a probably innocent person, but better yet an apparent contradiction to telling us who the murderer is. In extreme cases it can be an apparent contradiction to there being a murder at all. It should not be, simply, the ignorance of the reader to the obvious solution.

The worst form of obscurantism, it should be noted, is the obscurantism of purely fictitious knowledge. It is bad enough when a man looks to have died of natural causes but was actually poised by a rare but real poison that, had the reader known of it, would have been obvious from the start. It’s simply intolerable when the poison doesn’t really exist. (But about poisons specifically, that’s rule #4.) And this goes equally well for motives. The specifics of the motive will, necessarily, be fictitious. This is owing to the fact that all the people in the story are fictitious. But the type of motive must be real. If the victim transgressed a point of honor which is not a point of honor among any real people, this is simply cheating.

And here we come to Mr. Loo, who, in being so exotic, can be made to be anything the author needs in the moment. He can kill because he’s a member of a sect whose dark god demands it, or because of some arcane business deal back in China, or because of some strange rule in the triad in which Mr. Loo is an agent. He has easy access to poisons we don’t know about, ways of killing use hair-thin needles or even just properly applied pressure, and all sorts of other means of killing about which the reader can know nothing because they are made up, but which the author does not necessarily feel is cheating because they were first made up in other books. He may interfere with evidence for arcane reasons of Chinese superstition. In short, being completely fake, he may be anything and the reader has no way of guessing what.

So I think that the other generalization of this rule is also a generalization of rule #4—the people must be fake but the motivations, tools, reactions, etc. of those fake people must all be real.

Mystery Commandment #4: Poisons and Devices

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The fourth commandment of mystery fiction is:

No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

In his 1939 commentary on the commandments, Fr. Knox said, about this:

There may be undiscovered poisons with quite unexpected reactions on the human system, but they have not been discovered yet, and until they are they must not be utilized in fiction; it is not cricket. Nearly all the cases of Dr. Thorndyke, as recorded by Mr. Austin Freeman, have the minor medical blemish; you have to go through a long science lecture at the end of the story in order to understand how clever the mystery was.

With regard to poisons, building on my earlier musings on poisons, I think the poisons really in question are those which ape death by natural causes. A heretofore undiscovered poison which kills in a way that is unmistakably by poison—if the victim’s face turns neon yellow, then he can’t breathe and, gasping, dies, then afterwards his entire body becomes fluorescent green and glows int he dark for two full days—I suspect that this would be cricket. It would be odd, to be sure, but there is certainly no clue being hidden from the reader. The author would just about have to go out of his way to have the detective recognize this fictional poison but not tell the reader about how it can be obtained and administered.

The real problem, I think, is a fictional poison which mimics natural causes. The fictional poison is, in this case, indistinguishable from magic, as far as the reader is concerned. The author can invent any fictional poison with any properties that he wants, so there is no way for the reader to guess what fictional poison the author invented.

Even this could be managed, though, with a bit of work. The trick would be to require that some poison must be deducible, and further, what innocent place the murderer hid the poison must also be deducible. I think it would have to culminate in the detective trying to force the murderer to eat the innocent thing and having him refuse. (Probably an alternative is trying the food out on a guinea pig, but in these sensitive days animal testing may not go over well with audiences.)

I think the case against the long science lecture at the end is more self-evident. The purpose of mystery fiction is to be fun, not to take the place of a college course. The other problem with coming at the end is that the mystery was thus cheating; if the long science lecture couldn’t have come earlier without giving away the plot, the mystery was mysterious only by being esoteric. There is no real difference here with require a long lecture in art history or reading the Chinese language; if the solution is easy given a certain set of background knowledge, the mystery is mysterious only by being obscure. And being obscure is the easiest thing in the world.

It is sometimes possible to work in a long science lecture at the beginning or in the middle of a work of detective fiction, since this becomes more interesting by clearly being a possible key to the problem, and moreover its placement prevents the author from being merely obscure instead of mysterious. That said, it’s probably still best to avoid it, or at least break it up into pieces.

Mystery Commandment #3

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The third commandment of mystery fiction is:

Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

Fr. Knox’s 1939 commentary was:

I would add that a secret passage should not be brought in at all unless the action takes place in the kind of house where such devices might be expected. When I introduced one into a book myself, I was careful to point out beforehand that the house had belonged to Catholics in penal times. Mr. Milne’s secret passage in The Red House Mystery is hardly fair; if a modern house were so equipped – and it would be villainously expensive – all the countryside would be quite certain to know about it.

The secret passage was a common feature of detective fiction in the golden age of detective fiction (the inter-war period, roughly, 1919-1939), at least in English detective fiction. It’s far less common in American detective fiction for the reason which Fr. Knox mentions—it would be extraordinarily expensive to build a secret passage into a modern house. In very modern times it’s probably a little more doable, though it likely would have difficulty passing building codes and inspection (especially since inspections for house construction happen in phases, before the drywall is put up to conceal the interior of the walls).

But more to the point, there isn’t really much of any reason to put a secret passage into a house built at pretty much any time in America. In medieval England they were built into castles because castles were military fortifications and having an escape hole can be a good idea in a siege. During the time when the English monarchy was persecuting Catholic priests and executing them, recusant Catholics (in the aristocracy) would install priest holes and secret passages for getting priests into and out of their houses because getting the sacraments was worth a lot of money and trouble.

Houses in America were never designed as military fortifications—American houses were all constructed in the age of the canon—and it was never so illegal to be a Catholic in America that one had to hide priests in secret rooms to protect their lives from a police force which actively searched for them.

Basically, while in old English buildings secret passages might be a holdover from a time when they made sense, there was never a time in America where a secret passage in a house was anything but an eccentricity.

It is just doable to put a secret passage in an American house as an eccentricity—a rich old man who liked to spy on his guests, that sort of thing—but about the only place one can actually find secret passages in American buildings are related to the speakeasies during prohibition. However, those will pretty much all have been disassembled by now since commercial architecture (in America) doesn’t tend to last. The other problem is that a secret passage from, say, a nickel-and-dime store into what used to be a speakeasy and is now a storage room or perhaps a jewelry store or a hair salon doesn’t have a ton of possibility.

It has some possibility, of course. I don’t think it would work for two businesses which are open at the same time, but perhaps going from a closed business to kill someone in the open business could work. That said, the field of possible suspects is likely to be either too big or too small, depending on whether the store was broken into (or, equivalently, a customer stayed behind closing) or someone had to have the key to it.

Having said all of this, secret passages serve an odd function even in English mysteries. One of their principle uses is as a solution to a locked room mystery. The problem with them as such a solution is that they border on magic. The author can put the secret passage from anywhere to anywhere—with respect to the plot, if not precisely with respect to the architecture of the house—much like a magic spell can overcome any limitations (such as a locked room) without giving away anything about the sorcerer.

That said, a secret passage can still be interesting if it has some sort of complicated lock and there are clues to how to solve the lock to open the secret passage. And I’m happy to say that such a mystery would comply with Fr. Knox’s rule, since the existence of the secret passage must be known in order for the clues as to how one finds and opens the secret passage to make any sense at all.

A Fun Plot

Mystery writers often put mystery writers into their plots, one way or another. (It’s a minority, but way more than one or two.)

It would be fun to vary this up and put a writer of hard boiled detective stories – the story of thing that would start Humphrey Bogart if he were still alive – at a country house for an English cozy murder mystery. Much fun could be had of the police consulting him for ideas and him having no ideas but to wait for the murderer to kidnap him.

Dungeon Samurai

Fellow Silver Empire author Kit Sun Cheah has a kickstarter going for his latest story, Dungeon Samurai. There’s more information over at the kickstarter, but here’s the blurb:

Yamada Yuuki is an ordinary Japanese college student with an extraordinary hobby: the classical martial art of Kukishin-ryu. One evening, a demon rips through the fabric of space-time, abducts everyone in his dojo, and transports them to another world. To return home, Yamada and his friends must join forces with other abductees to conquer the dungeon that runs through the heart of the world. 

I’ve read the serialized version of his short novel, Invincible, which was quite good. Kit Sun, a Singaporean, writes in English but makes the Chinese flavor of that story come through delightfully. If you like adventure stories—or just good writing—I recommend checking the kickstarter out.

Forensic Detection

It just occurred to me that in the matter of detective fiction, during the early days of mysteries, the private detective was often on the forefront of forensic analysis of evidence. Sherlock Holmes ran all sorts of chemical analyses and Lord Peter Wimsey dusted for fingerprints. Holmes was famous for examining things with his magnifying glass and Lord Peter would send all sorts of samples off to chemists he knew for analysis. With plenty of exceptions, the police tended to content themselves with taking witness statements, seeing who got the most money in the victim’s will, and jumping to conclusions.

The forensic habits of modern detectives seem, by contrast, muted. Again, I’m sure that there are plenty of exceptions, but I think that modern police have acquired a reputation for having forensic teams which are very professional and thorough, and moreover have access to forensic labs which have extraordinarily expensive equipment.

I’m not sure why this should spoil the fun; there are professionals who made all of the gadgets which MacGyver made during his adventures, yet it was always interesting when MacGyver made them.

I suspect that the answer actually lies in the realm of genre, rather than structure. There is an entire genre of mystery called the “police procedural”. In it the story isn’t really so much of a mystery as merely following the police on the twists and turns as new evidence shows up, much of it forensic in nature. If one still watched broadcast television, I believe one could watch a different show each night in which the police sequence DNA to identify people.

If one really likes that sort of thing, one can get far more of it from police procedurals. As a result, there’s less fun in including it in mystery novels.

There’s another element, which is that DNA sequencing is a bit too much like magic to really fit into a detective story. Granted, it’s not all that conceptually different from fingerprints, but I don’t think that fingerprints really lasted long as a denouement—if they ever were much of one. Fingerprints because a standard part of police procedure in the west in the very early 1900s, so in the 1910s a detective dusting for them had at least the element of novelty to it.

They’re not really interesting, however. In the structure of a story, a fingerprint or DNA sample which proves who the murderer was is not really any different from a witness who was found at the end of the book. If that’s the solution, the detective did not really solve anything, he merely found someone who knew the answer and asked.

As such in modern detective stories, fingerprints and DNA evidence become like cell phones in horror movies—a nuisance which the author must spend a little effort to explain away. In modern horror movies there tends to be a scene where the main character either doesn’t have cell reception or his phone has run out of battery. In mystery novels our culprits must wear gloves and possibly scrub the floor with bleach.

Mystery Commandment #2

In this series, I will be examining the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The second commandment of mystery fiction is:

All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

Father Knox’s 1939 commentary on this was:

To solve a detective problem by such means would be like winning a race on the river by the use of a concealed motor-engine. And here I venture to think there is a limitation about Mr. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. He nearly always tries to put us off the scent by suggesting that the crime must have been done by magic; and we know that he is too good a sportsman to fall back upon such a solution. Consequently, although we seldom guess the answer to his riddles, we usually miss the thrill of having suspected the wrong person.


When it comes to committing the murder, I think that this is a fairly non-controversial rule. If there are ghosts who can kill people in the story, then one of two possibilities must be the case:

  1. We know about this from the beginning.
  2. We find out about it later.

If #1 is the case, there is no mystery to a locked-room mystery, or really any murder in the haunted house at all. If #2, this violates the first commandment, since we will not have met the murderer early on in the story.

There is the further problem that the demands of justice do not obtain. If there are spirits who are free to kill the living wandering around, they do not have any particular obligation to us to leave us alive. And as a matter of practice, the solution to the mystery is entirely academic, since one cannot put a ghost in prison.

Similarly, the detective receiving the solution to the problem from omniscient or clairvoyant beings is simply not interesting as an intellectual puzzle. One can try to match wits with the detective, but not with God. And really, there’s no difference between between having a ghost tell the detective the solution to the problem and having a living witness to the crime. And no one would write a murder mystery in which the solution was someone who saw the murder came and told the solution to the detective. After all, in that case, he’s at best a stenographer, not a detective.

There is, however, an exception to the rule, if one wants to put a book simultaneously into both mystery and paranormal genres—it would work to have a ghost be the client of the detective. There are some limits to this, of course—it would be hard to have the ghost unaware of who stabbed him to death, for example. But it could certainly work to have the ghost want to know who poisoned him, or who set a trap which killed him, etc. It would offer a fair amount of leeway, too, for how paranormal one wanted the story to be. The ghost could have no interaction with the detective other than kicking off the mystery, in which case it could be questionable whether there even is a ghost. On the other end of the spectrum, the ghost could become the side-kick of the detective, taking advantage of his ability to walk through walls to do detection which is too dangerous or simply unavailable to the detective, but the detective providing the brains of the operation. As a matter of personal taste, it’s not the sort of story I want to write, but it’s definitely doable.

Though it’s not about the command itself, I think a work is in order about Fr. Knox’s commentary on Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. I think he slightly mischaracterizes what Chesterton was doing when characters in the story would suggest magic or ghosts as the solution. I do not think that Chesterton was trying to fool the reader, any more than Scooby Doo was trying to fool the audience. Rather, I think Chesterton was setting an atmosphere.

There are two environments in which a detective can operate: one of ignorance, and one of confusion. The people can know nothing, and turn to the detective, or the people can be mistaken, and need the detective to correct them. Many of the classic detective stories are the former. A body is found, there are no witnesses and no fingerprints—who did it? But there is the other sort, where people are sure that someone did it, and the detective must prove them wrong. And this is what Chesterton was setting up.

There is also simply the fun of the thing. Chesterton loved to play with the stereotype of faith-vs-reason and the hard-headed skeptic vs. the credulous priest. And it’s fun because the stereotype is wrong. It is, generally, the skeptics who are credulous. And quite often, it should be added, the priests who are skeptical.

This may be best summed up in one of my favorite passages from the Father Brown mysteries, specifically in the first, The Blue Cross. (To give context, Flambeau is the arch criminal who tried to steal the eponymous blue cross from Fr. Brown but was foiled, and Fr. Brown explained various thieves’s tricks which to defend the blue cross he employed or was prepared for Flambeau to try, some of which even Flambeau hadn’t heard of.)

“How in blazes do you know all these horrors?” cried Flambeau.
The shadow of a smile crossed the round, simple face of his clerical opponent.
“Oh, by being a celibate simpleton, I suppose,” he said. “Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?”


If you like murder mysteries, you might like murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

tddowb

Mystery Commandment #1

In this series, I will be examining the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The first commandment of mystery fiction is:

I. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

In his 1939 commentary on his Decalogue, Fr. Knox said:

The mysterious stranger who turns up from nowhere in particular, from a ship as often as not, whose existence the reader had no means of suspecting from the outset, spoils the play altogether. The second half of the rule is more difficult to state precisely, especially in view of some remarkable performances by Mrs. Christie. It would be more exact to say that the author must not imply an attitude of mystification in the character who turns out to be the criminal.

The spirit of the first part is, I think, fairly obvious: the reader must have some chance of figuring out the solution and having some idea that the character who turns out to be the murderer exists is a necessary (though not, except in badly written mysteries, a sufficient) condition for that.

There is, however, an exception to this rule: where the specific identity of the murderer is of no great consequence. If the solution to the problem is some salient characteristic of the murderer, rather than his name, it is fair play to have not introduced his name before so long as the salient characteristic was introduced. For example, if the conclusion of the mystery is that it must have been a policeman who committed the crime, it’s not cheating to have not mentioned the particular policeman before. I should note that this regards the actual plunging of the dagger; it won’t work if the policeman acted alone. It does work, however, if the policeman was acting on behalf of a character we’ve already met.

So a possible reformulation of the rule is that at least one of the criminals must have been mentioned in the early part of the story. If the murderer acted alone, this becomes the rule which Fr. Knox set down. In the case of conspiracies, however, one can omit the pawns from appearing in the early part of the story. One cannot, however, omit them entirely. If the dagger was plunged into the victim by the man cleaning his chimney acting in the pay of his nephew, we do not need to meet the chimneysweep early on, but we do need to learn fairly early on that he had his chimney swept.

I should note that it is less tricky to pull this off if the Chimneysweep turns up dead halfway through the novel.

With regard to the other half of the rule, I think that Fr. Knox’s clarification—that the author must not imply an attitude of mystification in the character who turns out to be the criminal—is quite right. To do this would be to lie to the reader. There is a genre called the unreliable narrator genre, of course, but I’ve never heard of this being done well in mysteries.

(The problem is that nothing can compel the unreliable narrator to eventually reveal the truth. You could, however, have multiple narrators. Probably the best example would be the memoirs of the murderer, which contain lies that misdirect the reader, followed by a postscript explaining which parts were lies, written by the police detective after the murderer’s execution.)

Probably the book which Fr. Knox is referring to, by the way, is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. (There’s no point in spoiler warnings since the context inherently gives away the plot twist.) It is narrated by Dr. Sheppard, who assists Poirot in his investigations, and rather famously concludes with Poirot identifying Dr. Sheppard as the murderer. Christie makes it work by having the novel being written in real-time during the case; thus when Poirot reveals that Dr. Sheppard was the murderer the novel was almost entirely finished; he needed only some minutes to complete it where he admitted his guilt. And it should be noted that Sheppard was chronicling what Poirot did and said, he was not himself actively engaged in trying to solve the crime.

This does raise a curious point, though, that the attitude of mystification which is forbidden is in the murderer’s private thoughts—whether known through omniscent narration or first-person narration—not in the murderer’s actions. It is perfectly permissible for the murderer to have the external attitude of mystification. In fact, it is fine for the murderer to actively investigate the crime in order to throw suspicion off of himself.

I will say, though, that on the last part I tend to find that ruse disappointing. I prefer mysteries in which the good guys are actually good. I realize that in a sense this goes against the heart of the mystery novel—which is figuring out which apparently good person isn’t—but I prefer a mystery story in which there is some solid foundation in the rough waves of deception.


If you like murder mysteries, you might like murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

The Detective Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox

If one reads about the golden age of detective fiction (roughly, the inter-war period, circa 1919-1939), one is apt to come across some of the formulations of rules for detective fiction written then. As I’ve noted, detective fiction has from its inception been a self-referential genre, and it was talked about even more outside of the pages of the mystery novel than inside them.

One of the most famous lists of rules is the Decalogue (ten commandments) set down by Fr. Ronald Knox. They are:

1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
8. The detective must not light on any clues are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

I propose to go through each of these in one post per rule (which I will eventually link here) and discuss them. In aid whereof, this page which has some of Fr. Knox’s own commentary on his rules (years after he wrote them) will be especially interesting.

I should note that in general I agree with the Decalogue. My intention is not criticism but consideration—to look at the purpose of the rule and as such when it can be broken in good faith.

Murder By Poison

Though I’m only about halfway through writing Wedding Flower Will Do for a Funeral (the second Chronicle of Brother Thomas), it’s good to put some thought into when the next book will be—murder mystery plots are the sort of thing it’s nice to kick around for a while instead of having to come up with in a moment. Accordingly, I bought a book on poisons for mystery writers. I hope to review when I’m done with it, but I wanted to talk about the subject of poison as the murder weapon.

(I should note that this is thinking out a variety of alternatives, and is not aiming at any single conclusion; it’s more like a walk through a workshop than an essay.)

Poisons kill, but they do so in a variety of ways. Some kill quickly, others slowly. Some kill very painfully and some just put the victim to sleep and a short time later into eternal sleep. And as I was reading over descriptions of the effects of various poisons it occurred to me that some poisons have greater differences between them than there are between some of those poisons and more conventional weapons such as knives and bullets.

One of the great differences in poisons is a question of detection. That is, how hard is it to discover that the victim was poisoned? Poisons which cause the victim to writhe in agonizing muscle spasms for days before finally killing them, for example, are not likely to be mistaken for death by natural causes. So why use such a poison?

(Before answering that question I should note, in passing, that these tend not to be popular poisons in television mysteries because they don’t give the opportunity for the detective to spot the clues which indicate poison that most people have missed. If the detective confidentially whispers to the police that a victim taken suddenly ill right after dinner and who thrashes about for several days before finally was probably poisoned, he’d be liked to get a sarcastic, “How did you work that out, then?” if it’s a British show or, “Thank you captain obvious” if it’s an American show. Good television, this does not make.)

I think that the best reason to use obvious poisons—except in the case of pure malice, that is, to want to see the victim suffer—is in order to frame somebody. The big problem that murder mysteries have is that of motive. Cui bono? Whose good? Who is it who benefits so much from someone’s death that they’d commit it in cold blood (and murder by poison almost certainly has to be in cold blood since the poison must be procured beforehand). There are generally only a few people who will benefit to any great degree from the death of a person; this narrows the field of suspects down quite considerably. Good for the detective, not nearly so good for the murderer. (And to actually go through with a plan for murder, one must expect to get away with it.)

There is still a problem with the frame-up: if the case against the person being framed isn’t air-tight the field of suspects will become very small indeed. This can certainly be made to work, but poisons introduce the problem that the murderer doesn’t have to be present when the victim takes the poison. While convenient, it renders alibis useless. (This can to some degree be worked around by contriving to make it seem like the time the victim took the poison was known.)

If the murderer is not trying to frame one of the few other people who will benefit from the death of the victim, an obvious murder which does not readily admit of an alibi seems very unlikely to appear a good idea. I suspect, then, that this is probably best used in revenge killings, and in particular those where the relationship between the killer and the victim is not generally known. In English cozies this is the classic case of the killer being the grandson of someone who the victim murdered forty years ago in Australia.

This can be done extremely well; I think most of the interest is going to lie in establishing the backstory and solving a 40 year old mystery in order to unravel the present mystery.

The other sort of poisoning—the gentle kind—results, I think, in a very different sort of murder investigation. Probably the most notable aspect of this is going to be the overturning of an initial conclusion that the victim died from natural causes. The most classic example of this is, I think, the elderly rich relative.

In many stories the climax of the investigation is the digging up of the body and testing it for poison, which is then found. There’s nothing wrong with that plot, but things get very hard if a monkey wrench is thrown into it. The obvious monkey wrench is the undetectable poison—and there are a few—but it’s interesting to consider the approach that Dorothy L. Sayers used in Unnatural Death. It suffered from the minor problem that the effect she relied on was exaggerated about 100-fold; as one reviewer put it the method would work but the apparatus used would be comically large. But that aside, since a poison wasn’t used none could be found. And the rest of the story tells us, I think, how stories about undetectable poisons have to go.

If the first murder was undetectable, the only real solutions is for there to be more murders, this time imperfect. The murderer had ample time and opportunity to plot the first murder, but latter ones will either be rushed or the murderer will relax because of the overconfidence created by success.

The murderer can be pushed into subsequent, rushed murders either by the detective—who seems to be getting too close—or by someone who witnessed an incriminating part of the murder and is now blackmailing the murderer. (It’s convenient for detectives how few fictional people realize that blackmailing a murderer is a very dangerous way to make money.)

In the former case, this can be done by way of the murderer having an unwitting accomplice—somebody who didn’t understand the significance of an action they knew the murderer did or may have even done at the murderer’s request. The impetus comes when the detective is starting to ask questions which might make the unwitting accomplice realize the significance of what they know. The tricky part about this is that the detective can’t do this on purpose or he’s guilty of the unwitting accomplices’s death. It’s not easy to pull this off even unintentionally, though, since the brilliant detective should—because of his brilliance—foresee the probable outcome of asking the questions he’s asking.

All things considered, I think the cleaner way is for the second victim to blackmail the murderer. The downside is that the detective is thus being handed a piece of luck outside of his control, which isn’t satisfying. On the other hand, this is true of (basically) all possible clues. The murderer’s bad luck is the detective’s good luck. If the murderer committed the perfect murder, the detective couldn’t solve it.

On the one hand, this feels like a cheat. On the other hand, it is appropriate; to murder is imperfect and imperfect people do not do things perfectly. Murder is a sort of short-cut, and people who take one short-cut will take others, too. The real trick is to keep the sort of short-cuts taken that help the detective in-character with the murder itself.