Lucky Detectives

Within detective fiction, luck plays a very strange role. In traditional hero stories, luck should always favor the bad guy so that the good guy can win by the exercise of virtue. For this reason, luck helping an investigation is disappointing—it feels like cheating.

The problem in detective fiction, however, is that all clues which allow the detective to solve the mystery are pieces of luck because they are mistakes on the part of the murderer (or other culprit). A perfect murder simply couldn’t be solved.

Because of this the detective must be lucky, and the writer of the mystery has to figure out how to deal with this luck. I’ve seen it dealt with in a variety of ways, most of which work. Of the methods for dealing with this luck, I think that hanging a lampshade on it is probably the least satisfying. That’s usually of the form

Inspector Lieusew had no idea what made him think to stop and enter the ordinary-looking dry-cleaner’s shop, but later he was glad that he did.

Of course I’ve seen it done far more skillfully, as in Chesterton’s first (and excellent) Father Brown story, The Blue Cross:

He alighted at Liverpool Street, however, quite conscientiously secure that he had not missed the criminal so far. He then went to Scotland Yard to regularise his position and arrange for help in case of need; he then lit another cigarette and went for a long stroll in the streets of London. As he was walking in the streets and squares beyond Victoria, he paused suddenly and stood. It was a quaint, quiet square, very typical of London, full of an accidental stillness. The tall, flat houses round looked at once prosperous and uninhabited; the square of shrubbery in the centre looked as deserted as a green Pacific islet. One of the four sides was much higher than the rest, like a dais; and the line of this side was broken by one of London’s admirable accidents–a restaurant that looked as if it had strayed from Soho. It was an unreasonably attractive object, with dwarf plants in pots and long, striped blinds of lemon yellow and white. It stood specially high above the street, and in the usual patchwork way of London, a flight of steps from the street ran up to meet the front door almost as a fire-escape might run up to a first-floor window. Valentin stood and smoked in front of the yellow-white blinds and considered them long.

The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen. A few clouds in heaven do come together into the staring shape of one human eye. A tree does stand up in the landscape of a doubtful journey in the exact and elaborate shape of a note of interrogation. I have seen both these things myself within the last few days. Nelson does die in the instant of victory; and a man named Williams does quite accidentally murder a man named Williamson; it sounds like a sort of infanticide. In short, there is in life an element of elfin coincidence which people reckoning on the prosaic may perpetually miss. As it has been well expressed in the paradox of Poe, wisdom should reckon on the unforeseen.

Aristide Valentin was unfathomably French; and the French intelligence is intelligence specially and solely. He was not “a thinking machine”; for that is a brainless phrase of modern fatalism and materialism. A machine only is a machine because it cannot think. But he was a thinking man, and a plain man at the same time. All his wonderful successes, that looked like conjuring, had been gained by plodding logic, by clear and commonplace French thought. The French electrify the world not by starting any paradox, they electrify it by carrying out a truism. They carry a truism so far–as in the French Revolution. But exactly because Valentin understood reason, he understood the limits of reason. Only a man who knows nothing of motors talks of motoring without petrol; only a man who knows nothing of reason talks of reasoning without strong, undisputed first principles. Here he had no strong first principles. Flambeau had been missed at Harwich; and if he was in London at all, he might be anything from a tall tramp on Wimbledon Common to a tall toast-master at the Hotel Metropole. In such a naked state of nescience, Valentin had a view and a method of his own.

In such cases he reckoned on the unforeseen. In such cases, when he could not follow the train of the reasonable, he coldly and carefully followed the train of the unreasonable. Instead of going to the right places–banks, police stations, rendezvous– he systematically went to the wrong places; knocked at every empty house, turned down every cul de sac, went up every lane blocked with rubbish, went round every crescent that led him uselessly out of the way. He defended this crazy course quite logically. He said that if one had a clue this was the worst way; but if one had no clue at all it was the best, because there was just the chance that any oddity that caught the eye of the pursuer might be the same that had caught the eye of the pursued. Somewhere a man must begin, and it had better be just where another man might stop. Something about that flight of steps up to the shop, something about the quietude and quaintness of the restaurant, roused all the detective’s rare romantic fancy and made him resolve to strike at random. He went up the steps, and sitting down at a table by the window, asked for a cup of black coffee.

As a side now, if you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend that you do. (It’s available online. Like all Father Brown stories it’s a short story, so it won’t take long.)

This is probably the best that I’ve seen the lampshade-hanging done and because Chesterton is a master, it works. But it’s not entirely pure lampshade-hanging. It has elements of what I think is the best approach, which is to have the detective earn his luck. Of course, in a strict sense one can’t earn luck because luck comes from God and all that comes from God is grace. But one can, through work, make oneself a fit vessel for grace—that is, a vessel without leaks that will not spill the grace poured into it.  (That too is, of course, grace, but life and language is easier if one just recognizes at the outset that all is grace and what is not distinct need not be pointed out in every sentence.)

The detective can earn his luck by doing the hard work to be in the right place to receive the luck. He can ask many questions that eventually turn up a useful answer. He can look into many places to find something there.

But there is an opposite danger, too, which the writer must avoid. A detective story is not interesting if the detective merely grinds his way through every possible place to look for clues. There is the tedium of that, of course, but tedium is very easy to elide. It takes only a few words to say:

After seven weeks of fourteen hour days spent knocking on every door in a five mile radius, Detective Inspector Drumwalt at last found somebody who had seen Wolfgang Gruenwald on the night he was murdered.

The problem to be avoided is not tedium for the reader. It’s a lack of imagination on the part of the detective. There’s no fun in trying to match wits with someone who evidently doesn’t have any.

There is of course a traditional solution to that, too, which is an army of people to do the grunt work for the detective. One can see this in the way CSI labs and uniformed policemen are used if the detective is himself formally with the police, but you can also see it in Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars.

This of course must be used sparingly and only for initial clues; the detective ceases to be the detective if somebody else hands him the solution together with conclusive evidence. In mystery novels—which need twists and turns before the solution becomes obvious to the reader—the solution to the problems raised by this solution is often to make the clues turned up by grunt-work misleading. This can often serve double-duty by putting an innocent person under suspicion and thus raising the stakes.

A popular way to play with that, by the way, is to have the evidence planted by the culprit to intentionally mislead the investigators. A clever murderer will make the evidence require some work to get, playing on human nature’s inability to believe that hard work does not come with rewards.

One of the great things about mystery novels is that at this point—130 years after Sherlock Holmes and 90 years after the golden age—every possible solution to every problem in the genre has been done straight, as a fake-out, and as a faked-out-fake-out. If you’re at all familiar with detective fiction, there’s really no way to guess which way the writer is playing it this time based solely on the form of what’s happened so far.

Suppose a suspect has confessed. Well, perhaps it’s a false confession to shield someone else, but it might also be a true confession with enough lies in it that it will be taken as a false confession and so suspicion will be thrown elsewhere. At this point, the mere fact that someone has confessed doesn’t tell you anything about who did it. This keeps things surprisingly fresh.

In fact, about the only think that you can be sure of, at this point, is that the butler didn’t do it.

If you like my discussion of murder mysteries, you might like my murder mystery, The First Chronicle of Brother Thomas: The Dean Died Over Winter Break.


Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

Clouds of Witness is the second novel featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, following Whose Body?. While my general recommendation is to start with Strong Poison, as my favorite Lord Peter novels are the Harriet Vane quadrilogy, Clouds of Witness would also be a good place to start with Lord Peter Wimsey if you’re new to him.

Clouds of Witness is a good, solid armchair cozy. There is a dead body in the first chapter, at an English hunting lodge rented by the Duke of Denver (Lord Peter’s brother) and occupied by several friends. The Duke was the first to discover the body, and is put on trial for having been the one who put it there. The victim was engaged to the Duke’s sister, and he can give only a very unsatisfactory account of his whereabouts at the time of the murder. In fact, most everyone at the hunting lodge contradicts the story of everyone else there. It is from this tangled situation that the title comes: the whole situations is fogged by clouds of witness.

Clouds of Witness has everything you expect in a Lord Peter Wimsey story:  detection, reasoning, speculation, wit, engaging characters, and 1920s England. I highly recommend it.

If you like Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries even half as much as I do, then you might enjoy my murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.


(If you don’t want spoilers, stop reading here.)


(This analysis is an attempt to learn from a master. Anything which may sound critical should be read in the spirit of being a close examination of an excellent novel.)

Clouds of Witness is very interesting both as a second novel about a detective and as a followup to Whose Body?. There’s a lot to talk about, but what stands out to me the most is the character of Inspector Charles Parker. As in Whose Body? he is both Lord Peter’s sidekick and his partner in detection. This is a curious choice as the requirements of sidekick are different and to some degree contradictory to those of a partner.

That’s not to say that such a thing is impossible to pull off. Sayers pulled it off in the character of Harriet Vane, for example. But it feels like she hasn’t quite gotten the balance right in Charles Parker; one can never quite be sure which he’s being in any given scene. And the difference was really in the personality of the characters themselves. Or perhaps it would be better put that the difference was in their skill sets.

Harriet Vane was a mystery writer and her strengths were aligned with this. She understood human behavior well, she was clever, imaginative, and had a great command of language. She was quite intelligent, though not the match of Lord Peter. But the advantage which he really had over her was in experience. Being older and richer, he had a far broader experience of humanity than Harriet did. It made for an extremely good pairing.

Charles Parker’s skills were far more similar to Wimsey’s. Wimsey was established as being more observant than Parker, but Parker was observant. Wimsey had a lot of experience of humanity, but Parker—as a policeman—had a great deal of experience of humanity as well. Wimsey was skilled at research, but Parker was also good at research and had the resources of Scotland Yard behind him. There’s nothing in this which is inherently a problem, but it doesn’t allow the character to be strong at times and weak at times. Watson—the character who needs things explained to him—can’t be played by an equal. It will simply feel wrong that he needs explanations—or it will feel wrong when he doesn’t.

Now, I don’t want to overstate what I mean, because there is a significant personality difference between Parker and Wimsey—Parker is more methodical and cautious, while Wimsey is more inclined to speculate and take up theories provisionally. This has the benefit of making Wimsey need to prove his steps—to Parker, if not to himself—which helps to move the investigation along in a more orderly way which is easier for the reader to follow.

Above and beyond this, though, I suspect that Sayers became a bit surprised by Charles Parker. Especially in Whose Body? but continued in Clouds of Witness, it feels like his original purpose was to be an assistant to Lord Peter. Every writer of an amateur detective has the fundamental problem of why on earth the detective is permitted to go where he goes and do what he does. For much of the detection there can be trade-offs, because the amateur is not restricted by rules of evidence in the way the police are. But there are some places the detective really needs to go which are hard to explain. Viewing the body and scene of the murder being two of them.

There are a variety of solutions to this problem, but the author does need to solve it for the mystery to have any plausibility. And a friend in the police force who is in charge of the case does solve this problem very handily. And while in a certain (very limited) sense this is cheating, I suspect most readers don’t care because what they want to read is detection, not a spy thriller in a deerstalker hat. I know that, as a reader, I’m quite forgiving of improbable though logically possible things which let me get to the good parts.

And this felt like the role that Charles Parker was meant to fulfill. He had many of the requisite attributes—other than being a police inspector, I mean. He looked up to Lord Peter as a genius, thought Lord Peter highly likely to catch clues which he himself missed, and even told Wimsey about his cases.

But then a curious thing happened—Parker also turned out to be a close friend of Wimsey’s. This introduced a tension which built over the course of the novels: brilliant, well educated men don’t have dumb friends. And Parker wasn’t a dumb man. But the more intelligent Parker becomes, the less need he has of Lord Peter.

I want to say that Clouds of Witness was the high-water mark for Charles Parker, but I’m not sure why I want to say that because it’s not true, or at best true from a very narrow perspective. He features very prominently in the next book—Unnatural Death—in fact he’s on the very first page. But then a decent chunk of the book is about a detective in the employ of Lord Peter—Miss Climpson—rather than about Parker or Lord Peter.

After Unnatural Death comes The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, which also features Charles Parker heavily, but only in (roughly) the second half. Then comes Strong Poison, which is the last novel in which he really features heavily. He’s all but not in The Five Red Herrings and Have His Carcass. He is somewhat more present in Murder Must Advertise, then has a small role in The Nine Tailors. He isn’t in Gaudy Night and is only mentioned briefly in Busman’s Honeymoon.

So while Inspector Parker does have a fairly long run, he peters out in the end. I can’t help but wonder if his role as the official access-granter prevented the further development of his role as friend. The problem with being an access-granter is that he can’t be everywhere. A friend might visit a friend anywhere, but a police inspector would not have jurisdiction throughout the entire country and be assigned every interesting case throughout the country. It’s only a speculation, of course, but it’s something to think about in the construction of friends and assistants for a detective.

Setting aside the question of Charles Parker, the construction of Clouds of Witness is very interesting too. It begins with a brief connection to the previous novel, then jumps into a long recital of the facts of the case by way of a transcription of the inquest over the murder victim. This is an interesting approach to handling the exposition necessary in a mystery. Though it should be noted that mysteries have an enormous advantage over most other genres when it comes to exposition since at least some of the characters in a mystery don’t know what happened and want to know. So straight-up information dumps are often in-character.

But the same is true of a British inquest, at least as presented in Lord Peter novels, and that’s the device Sayers used. And I have to say that it was pretty efficient at communicating the setup in detail. Though not very quickly; it did drag on a little. It felt like we could have used a little more investment into the story before that many pages of facts delivered in rapid succession. Still, it is an interesting approach. In America we don’t have inquests, but we do have the grand jury which serves a similar function. Unfortunately, our grand juries our secret (I believe to protect the innocent in case the grand jury returns the verdict that there is not enough evidence to bring a trial). Probably the closest American version of this would be to have a trial end in a hung jury and a new trial scheduled. (Though Sayers had that option, too, in British courts and took advantage of it in Strong Poison.)

It is also interesting that given us all of the principle evidence, Lord Peter still has detection to do when he arrives. This is arranged in two stages because Inspector Parker has already done some of the investigation, but only after the local police have bungled the initial investigation, leading to the Duke of Denver being charged. This sequence of events sets up the main jeopardy of the story—the Duke’s life—while still putting the Parker and Wimsey in charge.

This also respects an observation of Chesterton’s (in The Mirror of the Magistrate):

“Ours is the only trade,” said Bagshaw [a police detective], “in which the professional is always supposed to be wrong. After all, people don’t write stories in which hairdressers can’t cut hair and have to be helped by a customer; or in which a cabman can’t drive a cab until his fare explains to him the philosophy of cab-driving.

By the arrangement of the local police bungling and Scotland Yard swooping in to help, the professional is given some of his due. It certainly is in keeping with the elements of realism Sayers weaves in to the Lord Peter stories. (Which, it must be said, form a counterpoint to Lord Peter himself, and keep him grounded.)

Parker and Wimsey of course find a number of clues which the local police overlooked, which is simply necessary to the story being a detective story at all. Their hottest clue is the footprints of Mary’s second fiance, Goyles, who wears a number 10 shoe, but I find it hard to be as enthusiastic as Lord Peter and Mr. Parker in their hunt for the fellow. It’s just not very plausible that a stranger came from far away to kill Cathcart whom he expected to find outside using the Duke of Denver’s revolver.

To some degree this must be chalked up to the eagerness of Lord Peter and Inspector Parker to exonerate the Duke of Denver, but I think it would have felt better if they were pursuing the owner of the number 10 shoes as an important witness since that was the overwhelming likelihood of what he was.

These investigations bring Lord Peter to meet Mr. and Mrs. Grimmethorpe of Grider’s Hole. Mr. Grimmethorpe is a curious character. He is a man so consumed by jealousy that he has become almost pure rage. I’ve always found him an intensely unpleasant character, though that is the point of him. And I suspect that he is actually realistic, given how often jealousy has led to murder.

I suspect that my dislike of the character is because he is a little out of place in an armchair cozy mystery. He is certainly not cozy. And he is important to the plot. He’s not quite central, but at the same time he’s not far from the center of the mystery and is at least tangentially related to (perhaps) half the plot. Given his relevance to the mystery, it would have been very difficult for him to be less involved in the plot. But there’s another reason why he had to show up once again towards the end, and it relates to the fundamental structure of murder mysteries.

A murder mystery is the story of a man who distorts the natural order by the wrong use of reason, put right by the detective’s right use of reason. It is the salvation of the world, in the manner of a medieval miniature. At the end of every good murder mystery, then, what is wrong must be put right. And Mr. Grimmethorpe of Grider’s Hole is very wrong. The book cannot end with him continuing to be the monster that he is, and it doesn’t. In the end he is killed trying to kill the Duke of Denver. (Or possibly Mrs. Grimmethorpe; I’ve read the passage several times and still can’t figure out exactly what happened.) There is not really any other possible outcome given the constraints of the situation.

Though it must be said that Mrs. Grimmethorpe is not right either. She has committed adultery. And indeed, so has the Duke. I find it odd how much this is passed over as inconsequential. Its only real significance seems to be that the Duke won’t say where he was when Cathcart was killed. Neither repents in any way of their sin; they basically simply agree to forget about it. Which is a resolution of sorts, but a very cheap resolution that is not really fitting. But leaving that aside, it’s rather strange just how cavalier everyone else is about the Duke having committed adultery. The characters all seem to think it inconsequential that he adulterates he marriage, and completely inconsequential whether news of his infidelity reaches his wife. No one seems to think any less of him for it.

I don’t know what to make of it. Perhaps it was plausible at the time. The 1920s is known as a very immoral time—a reaction against the stricter Victorian era, which was itself a reaction against the more morally lax Georgian period. (Clouds of Witness was published in 1926.) And that itself was a reaction against the era which came before it. And moreover every era is a combination of many threads; people are never uniform. (Also, curiously, the greatest saints tend to show up during the generally worst times.)

The conclusion of the mystery is also interesting, where Lord Peter tracks down Cathcart’s former lover in America then has a harrowing and dangerous trans-Atlantic flight to bring the evidence back to the trial. The audacity of this flight is, I think, lost on modern people who can safely travel the Atlantic in a jet which cruises several miles above the clouds for $100 per seat (one way, on a really good sale). As I mentioned, Clouds of Witness was published in 1926. The first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight was made in 1919 (and of the three teams making the attempt on the same day, two didn’t make it across). Charles Lindbergh had not yet become the first to cross the Atlantic solo—he would do that the next year in 1927. In 1926 going between New York and London by airplane was only just slightly more realistic than science fiction. It’s a curious thing to stick into a detective story. Consulting detectives are already quite unrealistic, though, so perhaps it does go together.

The one part of Clouds of Witness which I think was a mistake in what was otherwise an excellent book is the very end, where Inspector Sugg finds Lord Peter and Inspector Parker slobbering drunk—one comatose, the other talking with a statue. It’s not that I disapprove of drunkenness—I do, but that’s not my issue here—since after all saving the life of one’s brother after nearly dying excuses a lot. It’s that it’s very out of character for Lord Peter to want to lose himself in the manner that one loses himself in drunkenness. And if it’s out of character for Lord Peter, it’s even more out of character for Charles Parker. I suspect that it was meant as a comedic note to end on. Another possibility is that it was meant to humanize Lord Peter and make him more relatable. I don’t think it really does either. It would have felt far more in character if Lord Peter took Parker out to an opera or even if Parker invited Lord Peter to go with him to church and after all of the emotional exhaustion, Lord Peter went with him. (Of the two, the opera would be more likely.) Or even brought Parker to his flat and played music and sang into the wee hours of the night. And even if Lord Peter got drunk, Parker really shouldn’t have. A moment of sober conversation between Parker and Sugg over the drunk Lord Peter would have been more interesting than Sugg calling Peter and Parker a cab.

You Can’t Get an Ought From an Is In Hell

One of the questions which comes up in discussions of morality is whether you can get an “ought” from an “is”. This is relevant primarily to discussions of atheism, since to the atheist everything is a brute fact, i.e. an “is” which is not directed towards anything, and therefore an atheist cannot get any “oughts” out of their description of what is. Or in simpler language, if God is dead then all things are permitted. (Note for the unpoetic: by “God is dead” we mean “there is no God”.)

There are two reasons why if God is dead all things are permitted:

  1. If God is dead, who is there to forbid anything?
  2. If God is dead, then there is no ultimate good because all is change and therefore nothing has any lasting reality.

If you argue this sort of stuff with atheists long enough, somewhere along the line while you’re explaining natural ends (telos) and natural morality, you may come by accident to a very interesting point which the atheist will bring up without realizing it. It often goes something like this:

OK, suppose that what God says is actually the only way to be eternally happy. Why should you be eternally happy? Why shouldn’t you do what you want even though it makes you unhappy?

This question sheds some very interesting light on hell, and consequently on what we mean by morality. Our understanding of morality tends to be like what Saint Augustine said of our understanding of time:

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.

Somehow or other atheists tend to assume that ought means something that you have to do, regardless of what you want to do. It’s very tempting to assume that this is a holdover from childhood where ought meant that their parents would make them do it whether or not they wanted to. It’s tempting because it’s probably the case and because that’s not an adult understanding of ought. And it’s not because ultimately we can’t be forced to be good. (Or if this raises your hackles because I’m “placing limits on God”, then just take it as meaning that in any event we won’t be forced to be good.)

Hell is a real possibility. Or in other words, it is possible to see two options and knowingly pick the worse option.

What we actually mean by saying that we ought to do something is that the thing is directed towards the good. And we can clarify this if we bring in a bit of Thomistic moral philosophy: being is what is good. Or as the scholastic phrase goes, good is convertible with being. But being, within creation, is largely a composite entity. A statue is not just one thing, but many things (atoms, molecules, etc.) which, in being ordered toward the same end, are also one thing which is greater than their parts.

And you can see a symphony of ordering to a greater being, in a human being. Atoms are ordered into proteins (and many other things like lipids, etc), which are ordered into cells, which are ordered into organs, which are ordered into human beings. But human beings are not at the top of the hierarchy of being, for we are also ordered into community with other created things. (Please note: being part of a greater whole does not rob the individual of his inherent dignity; the infinite goodness of God means that creation is not a competition. Also note that God so exceeds all of creation that He is not in the hierarchy of being, but merely pointed to by it.)

And so we come to the real meaning of ought. To say that we ought to do something is to say that the thing is ordered towards the maximum being which is given to us. But we need not choose being; we can instead choose non-being. The great lie which the modern project (and, perhaps not coincidentally, Satan) tells us is that there is some other being available to us besides what was given to us by God. That we can make ourselves; that we can give ourselves what we haven’t got. And, not at all coincidentally, are the things which we ought not to do—that is, those things are not ordered toward being. They’re just what the atheist says that all of life is—stimulating nerve endings to fool ourselves that we’ve accomplished something.

And yet atheists complain when one says that, according to them, they’re in hell.

God, at least, has a sense of humor.

Gold Covered Chicken Wings

If you haven’t heard, there’s a restaurant which came up with the idea of gold-covered chicken wings. While there are all sorts of things which could be said about about the wisdom of buying such things, the thing I really want to talk about is the symbolism of the thing.

(Since there’s too much outrage on the internet, I think I should note in passing that due to gold’s astonishing brilliance with only a few atoms of thickness the wings are not actually wildly expensive. You can get 10 wings for $30, which for the location is probably a 3x markup—wasteful, but not very wasteful in absolute terms. You can easily get less food for more money in Manhattan.)

To see the symbolism of the thing, we need to consider what gold-plated food is. Unlike many heavy metals, metallic gold is (basically) inert, which is why it is safe as a food additive. But the fact that it’s inert also means that it has exactly no nutritional value, either. It’s not bad for you, it’s not good for you; it’s just there.

As such it’s an almost pure waste. I say “almost” because it does look pretty, though its beauty in the wrong place. If gold is to be present, it should be on the plates, where its beauty is not destroyed by the act of eating. It should not be on the food itself, where the beauty is destroyed by the act of eating. And that is, I think, the key to the symbolism.

My favorite version of the baptismal promises includes the questions:

Do you reject Satan?

And all his empty promises?

But there is another translation of the second question:

And all his empty show?

Gold-covered chicken wings seem to me an almost perfect illustration of Satan’s empty show. It looks like it has value—but has none—and the acceptance of it destroys even the slight good it uses as a bait.

Hearing the Same Story Twice

One of the great benefits of having friends who are at least twenty years older than oneself is that they have a wealth of life experiences that they are happy to share. This enables one to circumvent the problem in the popular saying:

Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.

Having significantly older friends means that one can benefit from their experience. (The same is true of parents, if one can bring oneself to listen to them.)

But there is a problem with listening to the stories of people who are several decades one’s senior: they tend to tell you each story several times. Contrary to popular belief, this is not because they’re old, but because while stories are memorable, the act of telling them isn’t. In fact, telling a story is actually quite hard to remember because the storyteller’s attention is on the story, not on the telling.

Further, older people simply have far more to remember because they’ve got much fuller lives than young people do. Our culture’s obsession with youth not withstanding, older people have far more friends and acquaintances than young people do. They also have vastly more people’s lives and concerns to keep track of.

And since one very remarkable experience—that is, one good story—will touch on many aspects of life, in conversation with one’s older friends their especially good stories will come up from time to time, and they will probably not remember that they already told you that story three years ago. As I said, the story is far more memorable than the telling of it.

There are, at this point, three options:

  1. Interrupt them to tell them they already told you the story.
  2. Let them tell it then tell them that they already told you the story.
  3. Let them tell the story and appreciate it again.

Of the three, the second is the worst option. It’s basically throwing a gift back in the giver’s face. Don’t do this.

The first can be polite, but it’s tricky to pull off. If the story is recognizable in its first few words, you can probably find a pause in the first sentence (or so) to interrupt and ask if it’s the story you’re thinking of—and bear in mind you might be wrong because sometimes different stories sound similar. If it is, then tell the friend how much you like the story. The danger of interrupting them is that you might seem ungrateful or unappreciative of the wisdom being conveyed and telling them how much you appreciate the story—not merely appreciated it in the past, but kept its lessons with you—will ensure that the proper reaction of gratitude is conveyed.

The third option is often the best option. First, because it is the most grateful option. Second, because the same story is often told with different details filled in, so one gets a more complete version of it by putting the two together. Third, because one will probably learn new things from hearing it again. And fourth, because the impossibility of perpetual novelty (while maintaining quality), happiness depends upon the ability to appreciate good things one has already experienced. Hearing a good story again is excellent practice at this.

One should not lie and pretend that one has not heard the story before, but it almost never comes up, and if it doesn’t, there’s no need to bring it up.

And you’re vastly better off having heard the same story twice than not at all.

Atheists’ Bluster

Around a quarter century ago, in my early teens, I did online Christian apologetics in various forums (AOL, usenet, etc.). And something I came across was the habit of atheists using bluster—the extremely confident assertion of things that, if pressed, they couldn’t defend.

In my later teens I took a hiatus from apologetics to spend time learning, to better prepare myself. It ended up being a fairly long hiatus, and by the time I was ready to get back to apologetics I was Catholic and now it was called evangelization. And in the great dealing of thinking and reading and so forth that I did in those years, I  came to the conclusion that reasoned argument was not what most people needed. Atheism was not so much an intellectual position as it is a mental prison. The atheist is in a tiny, cramped little universe, so much smaller than a human mind. What atheists really need—as Chesterton said of the madman in his masterpiece, Orthodoxy—is not arguments, but air. He needs to come in contact with enough truth that he will realize it can’t fit inside his prison, at which point he will realize that he’s not actually inside of a prison, and leave.

But being an open Catholic online and hanging out with the sort of people I hang out with does bring one into contact with a lot of atheists—though almost all of a few related kinds. And in meeting the same sorts of people I was arguing with 25 years ago, I found that they were still using bluster—making assertions with impressive confidence. But as an adult in my 30s, this was nowhere near as intimidating as it was to me when I was 13. And I found something very interesting when I would respond to bald-faced assertions with contrary bald-faced assertions.

I somewhat naively expected to simply come to a standstill of assertions that would result either in agreeing to disagree or providing space for a real discussion to take place. Instead, the atheists tended to get angry. Very angry. And what was curious was that it was the sort of anger one sees from a dog owner who isn’t any good at dog training when their dog fails to perform on command. It’s the anger of, “you’re not doing what you’re supposed to!”

You’ll see this all over the world, from all sorts of people. Doubtless many atheists have gotten this from irate grandmothers. But they were holding themselves up as rational inquirers. But if you scratch the surface, like with gold leaf, you find out that their rationality is just a coating which is only a few molecules thick.

And I started noticing that this applied in other places, too. The people who scream, “only believe things because of evidence!” get awfully huffy when you ask them for evidence of their honesty. They don’t put it that way, but apparently that, you’re supposed to take on faith.

“Don’t believe things without evidence!”

“OK, do you have any evidence that you’re not a moron?”

Again, their principle apparently comes with a lot of unstated qualifications. In theory, this should be an entirely reasonable question since you’re just asking for evidence. Instead you’ll typically hear about “ad homs” (argumentum ad hominem, i.e. arguing that the man is bad as if that proved his conclusion is false, see here for more), which is rather bizarre since a question cannot be a fallacious argument since it is not any kind of argument.

It’s been rather fascinating to see, since these people have great conviction, but it’s not conviction in their own principles. I still haven’t really found what their conviction is in. (I have my suspicions, and it will vary with the individual, of course. But I haven’t come to any definite conclusions yet.)

But it’s been very interesting to see how little there is behind atheists’ bluster.