The Best Laid Schemes O’ Mice an’ Men Gang Aft Agley

This weekmonthsummer has really not been going the way I hoped it would. I’m going to talk about why that’s OK, but first I want to quote the stanza from which the title comes, because the original poem, To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785, is not quoted often enough:

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
          Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
          For promis’d joy!

So, the reason for the strike-through up above is that I began this post in, if my memory serves me, July, and I am now finishing it in August. Between various things, mostly family related, as well as an annual trip to visit my parents, and most things have gotten pushed to the side. About the only thing I’ve managed to do which is creative is work on the second chronicle of Brother Thomas, Wedding Flowers Will Do For a Funeral.

On the plus side, I’ve finished the first draft and, as of the time of this writing, have edited the first 100 pages (actually, 99¼, but the word processor is on page 100). It’s going slower than I would like, of course, but that’s something of a theme, lately.

And just to make life more crowded, I’m finally going back to the gym to lift weights 3 times a week. In the long run, it’s very good that I’m doing it, but it means even less time.

And that’s OK.

I’d really like to be a lot more productive on this blog and on my YouTube channel. I’ve got a notepad of videos to do which is up to about 10 items now. It’s a backlog. And I’ve got tons of blog posts to write. I want to finish reviewing the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, I want to review all of the Cadfael novels, and after that, probably the Poirot novels. I want to talk more about mystery writing, I’ve got lots of things to write about theology and philosophy, too.

And, God willing, some day I will.

But it’s that first part that’s really important to keep in mind. It’s our job to do our best; it’s God’s job to figure out whether—and how—we should succeed. Running the world is a big and complex task, and God doesn’t ask of us that we do it. All He asks of us is that we do our best to do what he’s given us to do in the moment.

So, the world frequently doesn’t turn out like we expect. But we can trust that it does turn out for the best.

That’s really all we can ever do: do our best and trust God.

The Two Kinds of Evidence in Murder Mysteries

In murder mysteries, there are two kinds of evidence: evidence which tells the detective what happened, and evidence which can get a practical result from society. The practical result is often a criminal conviction, but it need not be; a wedding being called off, the payment of an insurance policy, or the settling of a will all require similar sorts of evidence.

Of the two, it is the former type of evidence, not the latter type, which is of interest to the reader.

The main distinction between the two types of evidence is not really one of the strength of the evidence, that is, of the level of certainty which it conveys. In fact, one of the common features of murder mysteries is the early presence of highly convincing evidence which will convict an innocent person unless the detective uncovers the truth. No, the distinction is not in certainty. The distinction is, rather, what is required knowledge and understanding is required to apprehend the true meaning of the evidence.

Convenient names for the sorts of evidence of which we are speaking might be complex evidence and simple evidence. Complex evidence requires extensive background knowledge and understanding of human nature. Simple evidence does not; it tells its story plainly. (Using this terminology, we can say that it is common for murder mysteries to, early on, have complex evidence which appears to be simple evidence.)

In order to achieve societal action, such as convicting the murderer in a court of law or getting some other legal effect, one must have simple evidence. However, simple evidence is, in murder mysteries, hard to come by. This is, of course, a selective effect. In the case where the murderer’s fingerprints are on the murder weapon, and the murderer was seen killing the victim by multiple witnesses who know the murderer personally, and the murderer was caught immediately afterwards—these are not the stuff of murder mysteries.

Detective stories have the structure of story-within-a-story: the murder is the interior story while its detection is the outer story. Within the outer story, it is frequently the detective’s main purpose in his investigation to try to uncover simple evidence about the inner story. This makes it curious that his success or failure at achieving this goal is (almost) irrelevant to whether the story is a good story.

An excellent example of this is the Poirot story Five Little Pigs. In it, the daughter of a woman who was hanged for murdering her father, seventeen years ago, comes to Poirot asking him to uncover the truth. She just received a letter from her mother, written immediately prior to her execution but entrusted by lawyers to be delivered on her daughter’s 25th birthday, telling her that her mother was innocent.

Poirot undertakes the investigation and interviews all of the people principally concerned. At the end, he explains how all of the evidence which had pointed to the guilt of the woman’s mother actually pointed to the guilt of someone else. That person speaks alone with Poirot, afterwards, and asks him what he intends to do. Poirot says that he will give his conclusions to the authorities, but that it is unlikely that they will pursue it and very unlikely that they will get a conviction. And that’s fine. It’s a very satisfying ending to the story.

But why?

I suspect that the answer (which may be obvious) is that complex evidence is fun, while simple evidence is not fun. It takes brainwork to understand complex evidence, while simple evidence is too easy to be interesting. What matters in a murder mystery is being interesting, not achieving results. Achieving results is, really, the domain of an action story, or possibly a drama. This is why detectives tend to hand their cases off to the police at the end of the story. It’s best if the tedious work happens off-screen.

But there’s an interesting complication to this.

It is not a good story if the detective (and hence the reader) merely finds out what happens without anyone else learning it. Why this is so relates to the detective’s role within the story. As I’ve said before, the detective is Christ figure: the world has been corrupted by the misuse of reason, and the detective enters it in order to restore order to the world through the proper use of reason. So while society need not act, something must be put right. That is, someone beside the detective must learn the truth and be better off for it.

A good example of this is the Sherlock Holmes story The Blue Carbuncle*. It begins with a curious set of coincidences which place the key evidence in front of Sherlock Holmes, and with some investigation he discovers who it was who stole the gemtsone. He invites the man to his room, and he comes. After Holmes confronts him with the evidence, he falls apart and confesses, sobbing. I’ll quote just the last part:

“Get out!” said he.

“What, sir! Oh, Heaven bless you!”

“No more words. Get out!”

And no more words were needed. There was a rush, a clatter upon the stairs, the bang of a door, and the crisp rattle of running footfalls from the street.

“After all, Watson,” said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies. If Horner were in danger it would be another thing; but this fellow will not appear against him, and the case must collapse. I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness. Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward. If you will have the goodness to touch the bell, Doctor, we will begin another investigation, in which, also a bird will be the chief feature.”

Here there are two aspects to the world which Sherlock Holmes has put right, even though he has produced no evidence for a jury. In the first, the man wrongly accused of the crime will not be convicted of it because the principle witness against him has fled. The second is less certain, but the true criminal may well repent of his crime since he’s seen what evil he’s capable of and still has a chance to make his way in society honestly.

This satisfies the role of the detective as Christ figure. In fact, it even has a curious echo (perhaps intentionally) of the story of Christ and the woman caught in adultery, and how he releases her from the punishment for her crime on the condition that she sins no more. Neither is, strictly speaking, a satisfying story, but they have something else to them—the idea that there is something better than justice. That’s a very tricky notion, because mercy should never be unjust—but at least in the story of the Blue Carbuncle, what was stolen is returned, and so justice is at least mostly satisfied in restitution.

Be that as it may, the primary point under discussion is satisfied. Holmes collects complex evidence which tells him (and thus the reader) the tale, and this is the interesting part. Achieving a practical effect from society is of minor concern.

(I suspect that part of the reason why The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle ends as it does is that, though it predates Fr. Knox’s decalogue, it violates rule #6 (“no accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right”). The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle is predicated upon a series of accidents, all of which help the detective. If he achieved a practical societal effect, his reputation would benefit by pure chance. By letting the criminal go, he remains in anonymity and so the accidents which help him produce only an interesting set of circumstances.)


*A carbuncle is a red gemstone, most often a garnet, so a blue carbuncle is something of a contradiction in terms. The story suggests it is a blue diamond, though it could be a blue garnet or even a blue sapphire.

Interesting Video On Why Germany Lost World War II

In an interesting video, TIK talks about Germany’s access to oil and oil supplies and why these dictated its actions during World War II, and why they made its downfall all but certain:

It is said that when it comes to war, amateurs think in terms of tactics and professionals in terms of logistics. This is related to the saying that an army fights on its belly, that is, if it’s not fed, it doesn’t fight.

Feeding and watering an army—both men and horses—has been the concern of generals for thousands of years. (Horses were often relatively self-sustaining, since they eat grass, but they do better on grain if you want them to be constantly working.) Thus tactics like burning crop fields during retreat, so as to starve an invading army.

World War II was in many ways the first truly mechanized war, and thus the problem of logistics expanded into the economic sphere. Machines are produced only by a thriving economy, and machines run only on oil. In order to fight an effective mechanized war, one must have a strong economy and lots of fuel.

This, by the way, has strong social implications outside of war. In order to remain in peace, one must have the strength to defeat attackers. In order to do this in the modern context of mechanized warfare, one must have a high-production modern economy. One doesn’t need to be able to produce the weapons of war oneself, but one must be able to buy them. That requires a modern economy, which requires at least much of modern social organization.

Those who want to bring back the good parts of traditional social organization need to understand this well. Whatever form modern society takes, it must be one that powers a modern economy which can power a modern army. If it’s not, it will be short-lived.

Studies That Test Diets And Compliance

I’ve had good results from using an extremely low-carb (i.e. low carbohydrate) diet to lose weight, so I’m highly skeptical whenever a study shows that they don’t do that. There are studies that show that they do, too, in addition to my experience, so something is going on when one has highly conflicting studies. The only thing to do is to actually dig into the studies.

And the thing one finds with many of the “low carb” diets in such studies is that they are frequently quite high carb. “Low carb” will often be defined as less than 100 grams of carbohydrate per day. People who have success eat well under 50 and frequently less than 20 grams of carbohydrate per day. A diet with 5-10 times as much carbohydrate being tested as a “low carb” diet simply doesn’t tell anyone anything useful.

But another big problem one sees is studies which test compliance at the same time they test efficacy. That is, the study breaks people up into groups and tells them what to do, but then records what they do as part of the group that they were assigned to. So if someone in the low carb group eats nothing but pasta, his weight performance will count to the low carb diet average in that study.

There are legitimate reasons for this, but they’re all for medical practitioners. Basically, such studies are useful to know how likely, if you prescribe a diet to all of one’s patients, is one to see results. Great for doctors, useless for the rest of us.

The other problem is that we largely already know what compliance with any behavioral change is in human beings: very low. It doesn’t much matter what you’re talking about, people don’t, typically, change for the better.

Where this is really egregious is where people look at these studies and don’t distinguish between the efficacy of the behavioral change and the degree to which the study told us what we already know about human beings: they don’t comply.

Hell, the compliance rates on taking a single pill a day are far from perfect; just look at all the people one knows who forget the pill from time to time. The compliance rate on 2x, 3x, and 4x pills per day is progressively worse, just from simple observation. Who, who has been proscribed taking a pill 3x per day, actually manages to take it 3x per day for all the days of the prescription?

When this comes to bigger stuff like diet and exercise, a simple and only somewhat inaccurate model is that people don’t comply. So a study which measures compliance + some change will mostly show no effect. But that’s uninteresting for people who will actually change.

Consider other areas of life: lifting weights or running. If you did a study to find out if lifting weights makes you stronger in which you also measured compliance, you’d find out that lifting weights doesn’t make you stronger. If you did a studying measuring whether running makes you a better runner, which also measures compliance, you’d find out that running doesn’t make you better at running. Hell, as long as the study is also measuring compliance, you’d find out that practicing piano doesn’t make you play piano better and taking dance lessons doesn’t teach you how to dance. Because in all these studies, the fact that most people stopped lifting weights, running, practicing piano, and never went to the dance lessons would dominate the results.

Or to put it simply, doing something only has an effect if you actually do it. No kidding.

Which is why what we need are studies which also measure compliance and separate people into groups based on compliance. This does introduce problems. Probably the biggest problem is that it will cost a lot of money because it will require really large groups of people. With 90%+ of people non-complying, you need a ten times larger group of people to study, and that costs a lot of money.

The second problem is that this switches out measuring the efficacy of the diet (or whatever) together with compliance for measuring the efficacy of the diet together with whatever preconditions (genetics, preferences, etc) make one likely to actually stick with it.

However, this is clearly a much more useful thing for an individual to measure. If I’m considering lifting weights, I want to know how much stronger I might get if I can stick with it. If I find I can’t stick with it, I don’t really care what it would do, anyway. And I don’t much care why I can stick with it, either.

If it turns out that only 10% of the population can stick with some diet, then I will consider taking my chances on finding out if I’m in the lucky 10%. Weight lifting works that way, to a limited degree. Everyone can get somewhat stronger, but only a fraction of the population can get hugely strong.

But there’s another issue at play, which has to do with motivation: knowing that something will work if I stick to it makes it vastly more likely that I will stick to it. If I actually believe that there is a causal connection between an action and a benefit, it is much easier to keep doing the action until I get the benefit.

Which is yet another reason that studies which measure compliance as well as an effect are worthless: the study participants didn’t know whether sticking to the plan even had any potential benefit.

So, in short, when it comes to studies showing no benefit to something, always check to see whether it’s a study that’s just telling you that human beings rarely change. It’s not completely worthless, but it’s only telling you what you already know.

Phone vs. DSLR Competition

Over at Linus Tech Tips, they had an absolutely hilarious video where they gave Linus (who is a tech geek) a high end DSLR in a series of challenges, while they gave Brandon (who is a professional photographer and videographer) a pixel 3 phone. It was interesting to see how it turned out, but the main thing is that it was just hilarious all the way through:

The origin of this challenge was Brandon complaining about phone companies saying that one doesn’t need a DSLR any more because their phones are such excellent cameras. He was, apparently, the one who came up with the format of the challenge because of course someone who isn’t a good photographer with a phone will have inferior pictures to someone who is a professional photographer using high end equipment. But there’s another problem, which is people who want to become photographers buying high end cameras instead of learning the craft of photography. So swapping them tested both things at once!

Which is, of course, a horrible way to test things if you’re interested in a controlled experiment, but it is a fascinating way to test them if one is more broad-minded than that. (Having background knowledge of photography really helped to interpret the results.)

Anyway, I strongly recommend watching it if you can find the time, because it’s both enormously entertaining and quite interesting. I just wish that they had showed us more of the pictures taken.

Young Scientist, Old Scientist

There’s a very interesting Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal webcomic about a scientist as a young woman and an old woman:

This is remarkably correct, and one sees it all the time. Science is, by its nature, the examination of things which is productive to examine in the way that science examines things.

Speaking broadly, this means that science is the study of things which are easily classified, or can easily be experimented upon in controlled experiments, or the relationships between things which can be measured in standardized units. By limiting inquiry to these things, the scientist can use a set of tools which has been developed over the centuries to analyze such things.

I meant that metaphorically, but it’s actually as often true literally as metaphorically. Scientists frequently use tools which were developed for other scientists; accurate scales, measurements of distance, radio trackers, microscopes, telescopes, etc.—all these things the modern scientist buys ready-made. (This is an oft neglected aspect of how what has been studied before determines what is studied now, but that’s a subject for another day.)

This limitation of investigation to such subjects as lend themselves to such investigation is very narrowing; most interesting questions in life do not lend themselves to being studied in this way. Most answers that scientists come up with are not interesting to most people. In fact, outside of science, the almost only people who study real science with any rigor are engineers. Even the degree to which they study the results of science can be exaggerated; the good old 80/20 rule applies where 80% of utility comes from 20% of science. But, still, it’s very limiting.

This is part of why scientists are so often stereotyped as hyper-focused nerds uninterested and incompetent at the ordinary business of living. The stereotype is actually quite often not true, but this is in no small part because science has become an institutional career in which the science itself is only one part of a scientist’s day-to-day life.

That said, the stereotype exists for a reason: science is just not normal.

There are two ways of dealing with this fact. One of them is to engage in the hyper-focus of science during the day and then to hang up one’s lab coat and focus on being a full human being at night. This is not really any different than a carpenter or a plumber putting away his tools at the end of the day and focusing on all the things in life which are not carpenting or plumbing.

The other way of dealing with this is to shrink the world until one’s narrow focus encompasses it. This is what the comic I linked to at the start of this article captures so very well.

The cobbler should stick to his last as an authority, but it is a tragedy of he sticks to his last as a man.

The Onion: Breaking News

Originally made almost ten years ago, this video of a generic news story still applies as if it were made today (note: rough language not suitable for young children):

It’s a spot-on parody of news stories and their utter vacuity. The basic problem with news as a business is that the world produces important news at whatever rate it feels like, while new publications must publish on whatever schedule they’ve chosen; these days often hourly.

It should be noted that this introduces selection pressures which cause evolutionary changes in the people who present news as a business.

Possibly more interesting, however, is surprise that a ten year old piece of humor should still apply today. Why wouldn’t it? It’s making fun of something human beings do, and human beings do not change very much. There is the minor technological dependency on the particular thing being done, in the firehose of news depends upon technology which permits instant publishing. True, several hundred years ago one couldn’t say “in a desperate attempt to fill 24 hours of programming”.

But even several hundred years ago newspapers had a regular publishing schedule because men become hungry on a regular schedule and must therefore have money with which to buy food on a regular schedule. And several hundred years ago, as today, the world produces important news on whatever schedule it wishes, without regard to the bellies of newspapermen.

To wit, this advice of Thomas Jefferson to a fellow about how to run a newspaper is as true today as it was in 1807, when it was written, and can be adapted with only the slightest changes to television and internet news:

To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, “by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.” Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly deprive the nation of it’s benefits, than is done by it’s abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knolege with the lies of the day. I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live & die in the belief, that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time; whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables. General facts may indeed be collected from them, such as that Europe is now at war, that Bonaparte has been a successful warrior, that he has subjected a great portion of Europe to his will, &c., &c.; but no details can be relied on. I will add, that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.

Perhaps an editor might begin a reformation in some such way as this. Divide his paper into 4 chapters, heading the 1st, Truths. 2d, Probabilities. 3d, Possibilities. 4th, Lies. The first chapter would be very short, as it would contain little more than authentic papers, and information from such sources as the editor would be willing to risk his own reputation for their truth. The 2d would contain what, from a mature consideration of all circumstances, his judgment should conclude to be probably true. This, however, should rather contain too little than too much. The 3d & 4th should be professedly for those readers who would rather have lies for their money than the blank paper they would occupy.

14 June 1807 Works 10:417–18

Writing Murder Mystery Endings is Hard

There is no part of writing a story which is truly easy. That said, different sorts of stories have easier and harder endings. This comes from the nature of the story; in some stories the meat of the story is in the main part of the story—or, rather, the reader eats the meat during the main part of the story. Action stories are like this; the meat of the story is the action. When you come to the end, the reader is full and only needs a light desert to finish the meal. That is, one just needs a happy ending which fits.

Murder mysteries, by contrast, delay the meat of the story for the end. There is considerable variation in how murder mysteries are structured—not all of them collect clues in the beginning then gather the suspects together into the accusing parlor for the detective to explain the solution. Many mysteries—often my favorites—make deductions along the way. The mystery unfolds as the story progresses, though often with a final clue that solves the final piece of the puzzle in the end.

But even if the deductions are made throughout the story, they are provisional; what a clue means is rarely certain. All the more so because a clue can generally mean many things. That is, a single clue can be explained by many actions. That one has a plausible interpretation for a clue, considered in isolation, does not mean that it fits with the rest of the story.

It is possible to have various clues which require the murderer to be tall one moment and short the next, striking out in blind rage one moment and coldly calculating the next, trying to disguise the murder as a suicide one moment and trying to frame somebody else the next.

There is, therefore, the moment when all of the deductions, though made earlier, must be put together into one cohesive whole to see if the deductions are compatible with each other.

There’s a good example of this in the Lord Peter Wimsey story Have His Carcass, toward the end of the book. The story told by the clues assembled so far was that of a long-laid conspiracy which involved almost split second timing for the murderer to get from the moment one witness left him to ride hell-for-leather on a horse over the surf, leap upon a rock, slash a man’s throat, leap back upon the horse, and ride hell-for-leather back to his campground with only moments to spare before another witness he could never have predicted would see him. They had timed the actions and it would be, technically, possible. Any given supposition fit the facts immediately next to it, but when told from beginning to end, it simply made no sense. People don’t lay in intricate plots to have to madly dash about for no reason that they could have foreseen. (For those who haven’t read the story, this isn’t the end; there is a twist left to discover that reveals the real story, which does make sense. The detectives find it because they reject the story I just described as too implausible and keep searching.)

Every action is made up of complex parts and simple parts. A story—in this case, the story of the murder (that is revealed within the story of the detection)—can fail either by being complex where it should be simple, or by being simple where it should be complex. It is only by telling the story all the way through that we can see if it has the proper proportions.

Of course, one way this can be difficult in a murder mystery is for the solution to simply make no sense. This can be a problem for some authors, from what I’ve read, but simply can’t be for me because of the way I write murder mysteries. I start, not with the detective story, but with the story of the murder. I write that out as a simple prose story; the motivations, the plan (if there is one), what the murderer did write and what mistakes he made that left clues—all of this gets written out. (To give a sense of detail, so far it has tended to be between 5,000-10,000 words.) Since I start with the story of the murder as one that makes sense, when I finally re-tell it within the detective story it does hold together at least at the factual level and with regard to consistency of character motivations, skill level, height, strength, etc.

But though the way I write mysteries guarantees (as human affairs go) that the solution is free from plot holes, none the less it can still have imperfections as a story. A motive may be insufficient, a killer too cold blooded or not cold blooded enough, the risks taken might be too daring or too safe—my way guarantees that it is at least a coherent story, but it cannot guarantee that it is a good story. Nothing a human being can do in this world can guarantee that one writes a good story.

And here we come to why it is hard to write the endings to murder mysteries. One must, perforce, hold the story of the murder up for examination. But when any work of art is held up for examination, a gap between the perfect thing the author imagined far off and the real thing which he actually wrote becomes apparent. The gap can be bigger or smaller, but it cannot be entirely closed by a fallible human being. To finish a mystery is thus to face this gap, which is painful.

There is no cure for it, one must simply slog through it. As in all things, one must do one’s best and trust God. The only viable alternative is giving up.

(Though, as a note of explanation for many works of art, drugs and hubris can numb this pain enough for an artist to publish. They’re not as good as trusting God, of course, but in this limited respect they will get the job done. This explains why one sees so much of the one, the other, or both, on the part of artists.)

Two Kinds of Writing as Therapy

A friend of mine who is going through a hard time mentioned that he hoped to return to writing soon since writing is therapy for him. This led me to reflect on how there are two very distinct kinds of writing as therapy, one very good, the other very bad.

The kind my friend was talking about is writing as art, that is, as creation. There is something very wonderful about fiction; it can reach us in ways few arts can. This is probably because the world itself is a story, told by God; the world was spoken into existence. The writing of stories partakes in this act of creation, in some minor, reflective sense, and it is good work to make this for others. There are truths we can learn from stories we have an incredibly hard time learning any other way. To labor at this, to make something good so that one may give it to people to read, is therapeutic for one going through hard times because it is the incarnation of Saint Paul’s words that where sin abounds, grace abounds much more. Doing good work makes us feel better because it is a participation in what is better. This is the very good kind of therapy.

The other kind of writing as therapy is where the writer is trying to work out psychological issues which he has; in this style of writing-as-therapy the writing desk takes the place of the psychologist’s couch and the reader takes the place of the psychologist. There are some obvious attractions to this; for example, it is much cheaper to be paid to have people listen to you than to pay people to listen to you.

It is, however, a dangerous thing to do. Because stories communicate so much more powerfully than ordinary language does, the warped and twisted way of viewing the world which the writer is trying to work out through talking about it may infect the reader. Of course, in a traditional therapy situation, or even just a situation where one person is giving another advice, the person who is working out their problems may, in communicating them, harm the one listening. But the therapist or the wise older person volunteers because they are secure enough in the truth that they are not likely to be easily dislodged from it. To use a physical metaphor, they have lend the drowning person a hand because they themselves have a good hold of the boat, and will not be pulled down by the thrashing. This is not true of the readers of fiction. A writer does not know who will read his words.

This is why writing-as-therapy, in this second sense, is so bad to do. It is like shooting into a crowd. Sure, one might be lucky and hit the man wearing the bulletproof vest, but the odds don’t favor it.

And I think that there is a great deal of confusion that goes on, in the modern world, because it has heard of the first sort of writing-as-therapy but mostly only does the latter. The modern world has heard that great suffering can lead to great art. And so it can, because great suffering can create a need for the comfort of creating great art. That is, suffering, being a form of being cut off from goodness, can create a longing for goodness intense enough to find it in the loving act of creating something very good for others. The modern world, having no notion of the concept of generous love, in the manner of a person who only knows a few words of french trying to understand Frenchmen in Paris talking to each other, only notices the “suffering” and the “great art”.

Since suffering has no obvious causative connection to great art, for the modern, he supposes it is putting the suffering into the art which makes the art great. What else could it be? And now we have had many generations of artists in the modern world who, effectively, write about their (only sometimes diagnosed) mental illnesses on the assumption that this is the path to greatness.

This is approximately the worst conclusion moderns could have come to, of course, but moderns excel at coming to the worst possible conclusions. Mental illness is, essentially a lie. To suffer from a mental illness is to live within a lie. All mental illness is this, since it is, by definition, not perceiving the world correctly, but paranoia may perhaps be the clearest example: the paranoid man lives within the lie that other men are out to get him.

The problem with putting mental illnesses into fiction, in the sense of writing about them as if they are true—since, after all, to the mentally ill person they are true—is that they risk misleading people (especially young people) into thinking that these lies are truths. This will probably not result in the impressionable reader developing the full-blown mental illness, but it will hurt them.

Sherlock Holmes on Flowers

I like the Sherlock Holmes stories, though for some reason they’re almost never what I go back to re-read, while I do go back to Cadfael, Lord Peter, and Father Brown quite frequently. I think that part of it is that they are a bit intentionally antisceptic (moreso than most fans tend to admit). But there is in the story The Naval Treaty a part of which I am very fond and do very occasionally go back to:

“Thank you. I have no doubt I can get details from Forbes. The authorities are excellent at amassing facts, though they do not always use them to advantage. What a lovely thing a rose is!”

He walked past the couch to the open window, and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.

“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

I like this scene, both for itself, and for the light it throws on the character of Holmes. He is so often, in the modern age, portrayed like a logic machine, except in the case of religion.

It is a great mistake that moderns make to think that logic is on the side of atheism. Indeed, atheism is, in a very real sense, little else but the denial of logic. Atheism is the denial that our reasoning actually works, when we look on creation and see the unmistakable hand of the creator. Atheism is the denial that we are capable of thinking logically, when it comes to explaining away our own minds as just sex robots that happened, by an odd coincidence, to fall under the delusion we could think.

There is another way to see this. If you look at the beginning of the gospel of John, you have:

ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὖτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν.

In the beginning was the word, the word was with God, and the word was God. He was in the beginning. Through him all things came to be, and not one thing came to be but through him.

Now, the word translated as “word” is “λόγος” (“logos”), and it means an awful lot more than just “word”. If you look it up in an Ancient Greek-English dictionary, you’ll find it also means thought, argument, speech, rationality, and other, related things.

There is a very important relationship to the creation story in Genesis, where God spoke the world into existence. “God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.” etc. That is, the world was created according to a rational idea. This is what makes the world rationally intelligible. This is why human reason works to know truth—because the world was created according to reason.

If the world was not created according to reason, but was merely a cosmic accident of unthinking [there’s no actual word that means the irrational being that has to go here in the sentence because words are intrinsically rational], then human reason is a phantasm that does not work.

Human beings reject logic not because they are hard-nosed logicians who want evidence, but because they are soft-headed people who do not think adequately or because they are hard-hearted people who prefer darkness to the light.

If you ever find a man who is ruthlessly logical, you will find a man who believes in God.

Useless Murders?

There’s an interesting episode of the TV show Death in Paradise where one of the characters tells detective Poole to remember the 5 “BRMs,” the “Basic Rules of Murder”:

  1. If it’s not about sex, it’s about money.
  2. If it’s not about money, it’s about sex.
  3. A wife is always most likely to kill a husband.
  4. A husband is always most likely to kill a wife.
  5. The last person you should discount should be the one you least suspect.

This is, obviously, an incomplete list; among other things it says nothing about revenge. It is surprisingly complete, though, for being such an incomplete list; especially the first two cover the vast majority of murders in mystery fiction. If one were to inquire into this it would be a chicken-and-egg problem, since seeming rational and being guessable are two criteria for the murders in murder mysteries.

It would be quite possible to have murders where someone picks names out of a phone book using dice, but these would be effectively unsolvable, and moreover, uninteresting. They are the domain of horror stories, not mystery stories.

This requirement for being rational and guessable does limit the scope for murder considerably, and hence why the first four BRMs are so widely applicable. So when considering other motives for murder besides sex and money, the murder mystery writer needs to consider whether they can be made to fit these criteria.

Revenge is obviously a possible motive that is both rational and guessable, but I’m wondering if it is possible to make a murder work that is, essentially, useless. Not purely random, of course, since that would satisfy neither criteria. But a murder where no one benefits.

The three ways that this has been worked, that I’ve seen, are:

  1. Where someone does benefit, but the benefit is secret.
  2. Where someone thought that they could benefit, but turned out to be wrong.
  3. Where someone benefits, but the benefit is not widely regarded as a benefit.
  4. Nobody actually dies.

An example of the first would be a Brother Cadfael story in which the murderer was the bastard son of the victim, but the manor was in Wales where bastards can inherit (provided the father acknowledges paternity). The location of the manner together with this quirk of Welsh law were not known to any single person (and hence to the reader) until the end of the book.

I’m having trouble thinking of a specific example for the second case, but I’ve seen several cases where the murderer expected to inherit from the death but turned out to not be in the will.

An example of the third would be the death of the American millionaire in The Secret Garden. Valentin killed him to keep him from putting large amounts of money into the promotion of the Church in Europe; that an atheist could care that deeply about the cause of atheism was not widely credited by those who were not Father Brown.

An example of the fourth would be a person killing off merely an identity of his, in order to take up a new identity elsewhere. Admittedly, this is often about money in the sense of escaping debts, but it can be done for other reasons. In one Sherlock Holmes story it was actually done as an attempt at murder, by framing the intended victim for the fake crime. This is also a way of making in a random murder intelligible, because the one faking his own death frequently supplies an unrecognizable corpse to make the story convincing.

The first of these methods is probably best classified as being about murder or sex, so I’m not sure, in the end, I should have included it. It is, however, important to keep around as a way of disguising the others.

The case of a person thinking that they will benefit from a murder, there does of course need to be some sort of rational reason why a person might have had this expectation. A mistress who was fed lies by a married man, a cult who thought that someone was more in their power than was, or even a wife who didn’t know about a mistress could all do it. That last, though, does illustrate a problem with the approach—the benefit has to be someone no one else would expect, or it’s irrelevant that the person didn’t actually benefit. A wife who was cut off without realizing it would be a normal suspect.

Someone who expected to benefit in a will is probably the most common example, but I think that there can be others. I know that there was an Agatha Christie story in which someone didn’t benefit from a murder because the actual mechanism was uncertain and so didn’t actually kill the victim until after the victim had written the murderer out of her will, and informed her of it.

The same can also work for a sexual motivation, of course. A person who kills a rival only to discover that the object of their affection won’t choose them even when free of their spouse.

Still, it seems that there must be some way to have another motive than expected sex or money. Power and prestige can work, I think. Though really this just gets us back to the beginning, in finding alternatives. But it’s worth pursuing. Bishop Barron noted that Saint Thomas identified four things a fallen human being can substitute for the love of God in this life:

  1. power
  2. pleasure
  3. wealth
  4. honor

Sex can, roughly, be identified with pleasure, in this list—though in some ways it’s more complicated than that. Wealth and murder for money are obviously connected. Power and Honor seem far less common than the other two.

The relative paucity of killing for the sake of power may be related to the commonality of democracy in the modern world, together with the way that people switch jobs so commonly in the modern economy that it would be hard to envision someone killing for one.

I do not think that this is an insuperable barrier, though; there are plenty of jobs at which a person only really has one shot in their life. Academic jobs are a good example; they are incredibly hard to come by, these days. At the same time, they are also hard to guarantee getting; it is not easy to have a guaranteed line of succession. That can play into the “falsely expected to benefit” angle.

Control of a business can work for this purpose; it may be enough to dilute a foe’s control by having his shares spread among his descendants. Even killing a competitor can be sufficient for this purpose. As soon as I say that, these do pop up more often, at least recently, as red herrings—theories which a bull-headed police detective clings to while the detective pursues the real theory.

And, to be fair to this approach, we live in a time when people’s lives are guided to an extraordinary degree by their crotches. In some sense, making all murders at the direction of people’s genitalia has a certain essential realism about it.

I don’t think that this realism is worth it, though. Mystery fiction is intrinsically unrealistic, and one of the legitimate purposes of reading fiction is to escape, for a time, to a better world than this one, where we can refresh ourselves to rejoin the fight in this world. I think that can apply to murders, too—to live, for a time, where people murder for better reasons than The Crotch Shall Not Be Denied.

With regard to honor, I have definitely seen this in the form of people killing blackmailers and whistle blowers. Gaining honor through murder is much rarer, from what I’ve seen. It’s nowhere near as easy to accomplish, which makes it a curious subject to think on. It may have the problem that gaining honor necessarily involves fame, which means that it cannot be quiet—and I prefer quiet mysteries to ones with high stakes. Still, both Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie managed to pull it off that the detective was quietly in the shadows, so this is not a fatal objection.

The Case For Jesus is a Good Book

On the recommendation of a friend, I recently picked up a copy of The Case For Jesus by Brant Pitre. I’m glad I got it on hardcover, because it’s the sort of book I’m going to make sure my children read when they’re older.

The main subject of the book is the historical evidence for the gospels and within them, Jesus’ claim to be divine. It is very easy to read, and covers a good amount of both modern nonsense and straightforward questions which even a non-modern might reasonably ask.

On the modernist front, it addresses subjects such as the gospels being anonymous compilations, assembled long after the witnesses were dead, which were folktales rather than history. It rips each of these to shreds, with copious endnotes.

On the more reasonable front, it asks and answers questions such as, who wrote the gospels? Did Jesus really claim to be divine in the synoptic gospels? Why did people think that Jesus was the Messiah? It answers these questions in a very satisfying way.

It’s the answers to the more reasonable questions which are what make the book great. Pitre’s main thesis is at looking at Jesus and early Christianity through first century Jewish eyes, and one of the more intriguing things he notes is that what really impressed the first Christians were not the modern arguments common today but the degree to which Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of scripture. This prompts an absolutely fascinating discussion of the prophecies in the book of Daniel, as well as drawing attention to what the sign of Jonah actually was.

So, in short, this book is absolutely worth it and I highly recommend it.