Today at A Clerk of Oxford, she posted a medieval poem which satirizes the romantic poems popular at the time. It may take a few readings to be able to deal with the unusual spellings, but it’s worth it because the poem is quite fun.
This may be my favorite stanza from it:
Whosoever wist what life I lead, In mine observance in divers wise; From time that I go to my bed I eat no meat till that I rise. Ye might tell it for a great emprise, [triumph] That men thus mourneth for your sake; So much I think on your service, That when I sleep I cannot wake.
One of the two books in which this poem is found was in a commonplace book owned by a grocer, in the 1500s. It’s also fun to see, though the expression is somewhat different, the sense of humor is very much the same as what one might get from Chesterton or even a more modern wit.
My furnace has recently been failing to heat the house, and after a bit of investigation I discovered that the fault was in the inducer motor. (The inducer motor powers the fan which induces, i.e. sucks, the air through the combustion chamber.) I did some lubrication and manipulation of it, which managed to coax it into working for another day or two until a new motor arrived.
Replacing it turned out to be about maximally difficult; the inducer fan had rust-welded onto the shaft and even copious amounts of WD-40 specialist rust remover did nothing to loosen it. I eventually had to drill out not only the screw which held the fan onto the motor shaft but the motor shaft itself, then I had to resort to using a claw hammer to pry the thing off. Once that was done taking the old motor off and putting the new motor (and new fan which I had fortunately thought to also purchase, just in case) was the work of a few minutes.
Once my furnace was back to heating the house I turned my attention to the motor, because I was very curious what was wrong with it. From the occasional screeching sound, the help of lubrication, and the fact that once in a while turning it backwards allowed it to start spinning freely in the correct direction, I had thought that a piece of metal debris had gotten lodged in the motor.
It turned out to be wrong.
It was actually that one of the two bearings on which the motor shaft rested had rusted out and disintegrated to the point of no longer working.
If you’re not familiar with how a bearing is constructed, there is an inner sleeve and an outer sleeve. These sleeves are held apart by a number of balls. The outer sleeve rotates against the inner sleeve by rotating these bearings; they reduce the friction of rotation because—being spheres—a tiny fraction of them is actually in contact with either the inner sleeve or the outer sleeve. Moreover, they allow the two sleeves to rotate relative to each other by rolling along both, rather than by the sleeves rubbing against each other. They’re ingenious inventions.
There is, however, the problem of keeping the balls between the sleeves. This is done with some walls and also with what one might call a retaining bracket. If you look, you can see that the retaining bracket on the ball bearing of my motor had rusted into nothing in parts (specifically, the lower right part). Actually, that’s probably not quite true; I suspect it had mostly rusted by some small parts hadn’t rusted but instead got caught into the balls, preventing them from rotating smoothly. That would explain why counter-rotating it might occasionally allow the shaft to spin freely—it would have dislodged the tiny bits of metal and moved them to somewhere harmless. Until they fell back in the way, again. Which in practice seemed to be every few hours.
This is the problem with metal—it is very hard, but it is dead. It cannot repair itself from the wear-and-tear of life, so it eventually fails. In theory one could have taken the motor apart and thoroughly cleaned it, periodically, to prevent the build-up of the sort of grime which causes rust, but this is still a living thing fixing a dead thing.
This is the curious thing about life. All things are dying, and can only survive by being continually renewed. Avid fans of Chesterton will note this as Chesterton’s Post:
We have remarked that one reason offered for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow better. But the only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.
He went on to note, by the way, that these is as true of human institutions as it is of material objects; this is a curious property of our universe—truths always have echoes. You can find this idea in C.S. Lewis’s essay Myth Became Fact, but you can also find it in real life. I once had a pumpkin which grew large and looked beautiful but when I went to harvest it it had turned out that mice had eaten almost the entire thing from the back and inside. It’s a wonderful metaphor for all sorts of things—modern universities, for example—but it also was a very disappointing event in my garden, years ago.
Our universe is full of echoes.
Edit: as Mary in the comments pointed out, the story I quoted is Chesterton’s Post, not Chesterton’s Fence. (Thanks, Mary!)
This is an follow-up to Alibi by Recording. Discussing that post on Twitter made me think of a more modern version of using a recording to convince someone that the murderer is in a place when he’s actually somewhere else committing the murder.
Instead of merely recording a conversation which would be overheard, the murderer could record a series of responses and use voice recognition to map a tree of responses to what a microphone hears. Thus the murderer could actually have a conversation with someone—through a locked door. Something like this:
Janice: [knocks] Are you working late again?
Bob: Yes. I have to get these reports done for tomorrow.
Janice: Can I get you some coffee?
Bob: No thanks, I already got myself some coffee. In the big mug. It’s going to be a late night.
Janice: OK, I’ll leave you to it.
Bob: Good night.
Janice would swear to the police that she had a conversation with Bob while Bob was really off murdering his Aunt for the inheritance she was leaving him. Since these sorts of programs can have a history, it could eventually go to some default response like “I’m sorry but I have to concentrate on work. I’ll talk to you in the morning.”
Not foolproof, of course, but that most interesting murders are at least a little bit daring.
I still think that this would be a completely unsatisfying reveal to a modern audience. And yet it would be very directly analogous to, say, the murderer of Roger Ackroyd using a phonograph of the deceased to convince people that the deceased was alive when he was already dead (as happened in the Poirot story, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).
And I maintain, as I did in my previous post on the subject, that it’s because a technological solution is simply not very interesting. We’ve got technology up the wazoo and back out again, these days. What we find very interesting is the human element.
I was recently thinking about the way that the TV version of Poirot sometimes re-sets the stories in the 1920s. (Poirot stories were generally written contemporaneously, spanning the 1920s through the 1960s.) It makes sense on television for a variety of reasons—including that the 1920s were far more visually interesting than most of the decades which followed. That said, it is curious because the sorts of plots one finds change somewhat over the decades.
Nowhere is this so obvious as in the case of murder by ingenious invention. It was a common enough plot in the golden age of mysteries but seems to have fallen out of favor more recently. And a particular kind of ingenious invention has really fallen into disuse these days: the alibi by recording.
In the golden age of fiction it was a not uncommon plot that either the murder’s presence or the victim’s being alive when he was already dead was established on the basis of an overheard conversation which turned out to be a recording. (Both give the murderer an alibi, though in different ways.)
I’m curious why this has fallen out of fashion. (And of course I don’t mean that it never happens—I can think of a few TV mysteries which have employed the murderer using a recording to fake being on a stage giving a presentation when they ducked out for a minute to commit the murder. But I think that’s more properly regarded as a variant of the being-on-stage alibi rather than the recording-alibi.)
There was a certain amount of fascination with the progress of technology which one finds in the 1920s because it was an era of rapid technological progress. But our era is also one of rapid technological progress. More so, in absolute terms.
I think, though, that we’ve become exhausted with technological progress. It’s not merely that we wonder whether all the change is actually for the better—we do, but so did the people in the 1920s. In many ways more than we do, actually, since they had just come off of the horrors of the first world war and its deadly machines and poison gasses. Nuclear annihilation isn’t much of a threat any more, though technically it is still possible.
It’s also not that technology has become the realm of the specialist. It was always the realm of the specialist. It wasn’t ordinary people who invented gadgets, and it took more expensive equipment to record a phonograph in the 1920s than it does to record voice on a cell phone now.
I think it’s rather that we have a sense that life doesn’t change nearly as much as one would think it does. I don’t mean that life is mostly the same minute-by-minute. That would be ridiculous. We do far more driving and far less walking; we are constantly stimulated by electric devices and never has mediocre music been nearly as omni-present. But we remain human beings with much the same problems; our problems are just far more convenient and fast-paced.
Being so inundated by technology, we find it boring. These days (with expensive software) one could edit video to remove somebody from a security camera recording. So what? That’s not an interesting reveal. It’s really no more interesting than a mystery about wizards involving the reveal that the murderer used an invisibility spell.
What’s far more interesting in murder mysteries is the human element.
I should also note that this is probably also partially a result of short stories being mostly dead and gimmics (by which I mean clever murders) being far more the domain of short stories than they are of novels. Not that the murders in novels aren’t clever, only that they’re not generally based on one large reveal. That said, as I’ve argued in the past, structurally speaking, television murder mysteries are much closer to long short stories than they are to novels. So murder mystery short stories have generally moved to television from the written word.
And even there, recordings are not a popular alibi.
I was recently watching the Murder, She Wrote episode It’s a Dog’s Life with my eldest son and it occurred to just how much dysfunctional wealthy families are a staple of murder mysteries.
It’s not the wealthy part that’s at all surprising—it’s well known that the two most common motives for murder in detective fiction are sex and money—but the dysfunctional part. Or at least that they’re obviously dysfunctional.
This is probably more a staple of modern detective fiction like Murder, She Wrote than it is of golden age detective fiction, I should add, though one can certainly find it in golden age detective fiction too.
The reason I find it a little surprising is, roughly, two-fold:
It’s somewhat at odds with the idea of concealing the murderer
It makes the victim less sympathetic
Curiously, that last part is papered over quite frequently—almost as if the authors don’t notice it. But it’s simply not avoidable. One child turning out badly could be attributable to free will but a parent who badly spoiled all his children is, simply, a bad parent.
You can see this same problem in The Big Sleep. The old man who hires Philip Marlowe was—according to the story, and if I recall correctly, according to the old man himself—a radically selfish man who didn’t actually raise his own children. Granted, in that story the wayward child didn’t kill its father, but still, it made the old man very unsympathetic. It also made Marlowe’s loyalty to him incomprehensible. Why be loyal to a man who’s only reaping the results of his own bad behavior?
The other problem with with this approach is that—however suited it is for coming up with a convincing murder—it makes for unpleasant detection. If everyone is distasteful, the story of finding out which of them committed the crime will be distasteful, too. The solution to this is frequently to have a lone sympathetic character in the story, but this also raises problems.
The first and most obvious is what on earth the sympathetic person is doing in the company of the others. Decent people rarely associate with awful people for the pragmatic reason that awful people try to drag everyone else down with them. There’s also the somewhat more subtle psychological fact that awful people rarely like decent people. And if they’re thrown together by being in the same family, this then requires an explanation of why on earth one turned out differently than the rest. (I think that having different mothers or different fathers is a semi-common solution to this problem, but it introduces real issues of judgment. There’s no judgment call more important than picking a good parent for your children.)
Getting back to the first point, there’s also the issue of creating overly obvious suspects. The wife and child of a rich man are the obvious suspects in a murder mystery under any conditions—the eternal question is cui bono? (Who benefits?) So in a sense making the family dysfunctional is shifting the question from “could it be them” to “is this a head-fake or a double-head-fake?” Which is a legitimate sort of mystery, but it is a bit limiting because it means the story almost certainly will focus on opportunity and alibis. I will grant, however, that it can be a good way of distracting from other people with motives—inheritors are not always the only people who benefit from a rich man’s death.
None of the above is meant to say that this situation cannot be made to work, only that it’s got some inherent difficulties that are often overlooked.