In case you’ve never seen the music video of David Hasselhoff singing Hooked On a Feeling, prepare yourself for greatness. And to laugh. But mostly for greatness. And a lot of laughing.
It strikes me that an interesting plot for a murder mystery would be to borrow a page from Scooby Doo and to have the murderer disguise a murder by taking advantage of a local legend.
Of course, this is hardly original to Scooby Doo. This basic structure for a plot can be found in The Hound of the Baskervilles, published some 67 years before Scooby Doo began his crime fighting in the classic TV show, Scooby Doo, Where Are You!
We live in a different time from either, which would make a somewhat different approach necessary, but I think it’s interesting to consider how, and why.
Scooby Doo originated at a time when there was tremendous interest in the “paranormal.” I’m not sure exactly when it started, and I think it had mostly died down by the 1990s, but for a while, in America at least, there was great interest in things like the Loch Ness monster, the Bermuda triangle, alien abductions, big foot, and such-like. I think that there was a relationship to the great popularity of self-help, self-actualization, consciousness-raising, and other such things that gave rise to a lot of cult activity. People knew that there was more to the world than the official explanation (that is, what they learned in public school and what was said in newspapers), and searched for it in some very strange places.
Scooby Doo, Where Are You! took this cultural pervasiveness as a starting point, and just ran with it. The eagerness of people to believe in more than the oversimplification they learned as children made for a ready setting to find strange things behind every tree and under every rock. (Scooby Doo was also a comedy, of course, so the American preference for exaggeration in comedy must also be taken into account.)
The Hound of the Baskervilles, by contrast, comes from an age which is more content with the simplistic answers that a rationalist oversimplification tends to give. Coming before the two world wars, when technology turn on its creators and the promised heaven-on-earth of Science became hell-on-earth, people had a different sort of relationship to Science than they did shortly after the second world war, which was when Scooby Doo was written and set. Given the long stretch of comparative peace within the United States, our modern time has come much more to hope in Science once again, and accordingly to be more content with rationalistic oversimplifications, so I think that we are culturally closer to The Hound of the Baskervilles. So we must look closer to the roles that the putatively supernatural plays.
Rationalistic ages tend to reject superstition, but very curiously they do it for a very different reason than Christian ages do. To the Christian, superstition is sinful because it is primarily a means of trying to step outside the natural order to control it. Bear in mind, that in a Christian context things like Angels are natural; a properly Christian distinction between natural and super-natural is created and creator. To a Christian, only God is super-natural. So stepping outside of the natural order largely means things like consorting with fallen angels, who are willing to abuse their power for their own dark ends. Superstition is sinful, then, because it is trying to be something one is not, and abusing the natural order in order to do it.
So to take an example of a superstition, trial by combat or trial by ordeal are both superstitious because they are an attempt for force the hand of God’ to serve men’s purposes. This is inverting the natural order; we were given senses to find out who is guilty, but the superstitious does not want to use our senses and our reason to determine guilt. So the superstitious man resorts to something which he thinks will give him control and force the world to do his will, that is, to tell him guilt without taking the trouble to determine it.
(Laziness is very ingrained in fallen humanity, and it took the Church many centuries to finally extirpate trial by combat and trial by ordeal.)
Also worth noting is that the first casualty in such abuse will tend to be a person’s reason; in order to act badly one must also think badly. Thus superstition always goes along with lousy reasoning; it must in order to seem like a good idea. Hence also why we get the sort of immense practicality of the monk who was trying to help a woman who said that she had the power to fit through keyholes. He locked his door, took the key out, then chased her around the room hitting her with a stick and telling her to get out of the room if she could. It might be difficult to get past a Human Subjects Review Board these days, but it’s a sound experimental design, and proved the point quite well.
Rationalistic ages, by which I mean ages which believe themselves to know everything, and approximate this by refusing to acknowledge the existence of anything they do not know, hold a radically different view of superstition. To them, superstition is anything which is super-natural where nature is defined as, basically, what they know. Thus to a rationalist, the super-natural is anything outside of his knowledge. (This is why things like big-foot will be considered supernatural even though they are supposed to be exactly as much flesh-and-blood as a Spaniard or an orangutan.)
The problem which rationalists have is that on some level they do know that they do not, in fact, know everything. They are confident, but they know that their confidence has no basis in reality. The only way to prove a negative is by contradiction; the Christian has a contradiction to people being able to achieve total power by stepping outside the natural order. (That contradiction is the providence of God; demons tremble at the name of Christ, etc.) But the rationalist has only the fallacy of ignorance (assuming that an absence of evidence is evidence of absence). Material fallacies are not very comforting at night, when it’s cold and hard to see, and one hears a sound which one cannot identify.
Thus rationalistic ages will always lend themselves to superstition (in both senses, really). Fear will never leave a man forever, and if he has no comfort from a higher power, he has no protection. There’s a section from Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man which describes it quite well:
Superstition recurs in all ages, and especially in rationalistic ages. I remember defending the religious tradition against a whole luncheon table of distinguished agnostics; and before the end of our conversation every one of them had procured from his pocket, or exhibited on his watch-chain, some charm or talisman from which he admitted that he was never separated. I was the only person present who had neglected to provide himself with a fetish. Superstition recurs in a rationalist age because it rests on something which, if not identical with rationalism, is not unconnected with scepticism. It is at least very closely connected with agnosticism. It rests on something that is really a very human and intelligible sentiment, like the local invocations of the numen in popular paganism. But it is an agnostic sentiment, for it rests on two feelings: first that we do not really know the laws of the universe; and second that they may be very different to all we call reason. Such men realise the real truth that enormous things do often turn upon tiny things. When a whisper comes, from tradition or what not, that one particular tiny thing is the key or clue, something deep and not altogether senseless in human nature tells them that it is not unlikely.
So when it comes to writing a story about someone using a legend as a disguise, the best place to put it will be in a group of rationalists. Some will violently protest against it, but all will be liked to be haunted by it. You can see this sort of thing in Chesterton’s story The Blast of the Book, where there is a book which is supposed to have some dark power to make the people who read it disappear. It is followed around a bit, with various people disappearing from it, and it turns out to be a practical joke by the subordinate the main character of the story (Professor Openshaw, which is, of course, a rationalist).
There was another long silence and then Professor Openshaw laughed; with the laugh of a great man who is great enough to look small. Then he said abruptly:
‘I suppose I do deserve it; for not noticing the nearest helpers I have. But you must admit the accumulation of incidents was rather formidable. Did you never feel just a momentary awe of the awful volume?’
‘Oh, that,’ said Father Brown. ‘I opened it as soon as I saw it lying there. It’s all blank pages. You see, I am not superstitious.’
Chesterton might, I suppose, be accused of poking fun at his enemies in this fashion, but it is actually rather good psychology. In the same way that one cannot write a devout Catholic racked by guilt—if he is so racked, he will go to confession and discharge the guilt—it does not work to write a devout Christian trembling in superstition. If one is really devout, one would make the sign of the cross, invoke the name of Christ, and open the thing one is not supposed to open. Or, failing that, take it to a priest to have a blessing said over it or perhaps an exorcism performed. A simple nameless dread does not make sense because the Christian has a definite idea of what to do with things he does not personally understand, because while he doesn’t know all the particulars, he does know the hierarchy.
Now, there is what might be called a middle ground, which we can described as undiscovered beasts. It is possible that there is a sixty foot long alligator swimming in the swamps by some campground, and the thing to do with alligators, even with large ones, is to not stand next to them. Everyone should be cautious of an insect with a poison so deadly one sting can kill twelve grown men. While these things would be superstition to the rationalist, they would not be superstition to the Christian, and would be things to investigate the within the ordinary course of probability. Demons do not leave footprints, but sixty foot alligators do.
Legends of a species of sixty foot alligators in a deep, unexplored swamp are of course possible, but do not lend themselves as well to detection, I think, for the simple reason that faking their presence requires the sort of effort that a single person is not likely to be able to put into things. Making footprints that big, and tail-tracks, and such-like would be time consuming and difficult.
This sort of unknown beast is very doable, but is more problematic in that it’s the sort of thing which should be observable, and moreover would make a lot of people interested in observing them. And since they should be observable, the perpetrator will be almost obligated to provide some physical evidence of the beastie. If there is a hyper-deadly wasp in the area, blaming deaths on it will not be very plausible unless somebody swats one of the things and it can be analyzed to find its hyper-deadly poison. Moreover, by the time one is faking the cause of death in a remote area, one might as well fake a more conventional cause of death, or even just find a way to inject the poor victim with a real disease, like tetanus or malaria or what-not. Or poison them plus give them a real disease.
So I think that the thing one would want to fake, as a murderer, would be the sort of supernatural which would not leave physical evidence of its crimes. Ghosts, etc. are a much better patsy than an undiscovered beast; they leave off all sorts of problems of having to produce evidence afterwards.
I think that the time is ripe for such stories again.
I recently read the fourth and final Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear. It’s an interesting book, or in some sense two books, the first of which I know to be interesting and the second I’m not really interested in reading.
(If anyone doesn’t want spoilers, now’s the time to stop reading.)
The book begins with Sherlock Holmes working out a cryptogram by reasoning to the key from the cipher. It’s a book cipher, which has many pages and two columns, so Holmes is able to guess that it’s an almanac. This is clever and enjoyable; the message decodes that something bad is going to happen to a Douglas in Birlstone. Shortly after they decrypt it, a detective from Scotland Yard arrives to consult Sherlock Holmes about the brutal murder of Mr. Douglas of Birlstone. The plot thickens, as it were. This is an excellent setup for what is to follow.
When Holmes arrives, we get the facts of the case, that Mr. Douglas lives in a house surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge, and was found in his study with his head blasted off with a sawed-off shotgun fired at close range. Any avid reader of detective fiction—possibly even at the time, given how detective fiction had taken off in short story form by 1914, when The Valley of Fear was written—will immediately suspect that the body is not the body it is supposed to be. However, Conan Doyle forestalls this possibility by the presence of a unique brand on the forearm of the corpse, which Mr. Douglas was known to have had. This helps greatly to heighten the mystery.
The mystery is deepened further by the confusing evidence that Mr. Douglas’s friend forged a footprint on the windowsill which was used to suggest that the murderer escaped by wading in the moat—which was only 3′ deep at its deepest—and ran away. Further confusing things, Dr. Watson accidentally observes Mrs. Douglas and Mr. Douglas’ friend being lighthearted and happy together.
Holmes then finds some additional evidence which convinces him of what really happened, which he does not tell us or the police about, which is not exactly fair play. He then he sets in motion a trap where he has the police tell Mr. Douglas’ friend that they is going to drain the moat. This invites the reader to guess, and I’m not sure that we really have sufficient evidence at this point to guess. That’s not entirely true; we have sufficient evidence to guess, but not to pick among the many possible explanations of the facts given to us. It turns out that the dead man was the intruder, but it could have turned out otherwise, too. The facts, up till then, would have supported Mr. Douglas’ friend having been in on the crime, for example. That said, the explanation given does cover the facts very well, and is satisfying. It does rely, to some degree, on happenstance; none of the servants heard the gunshot, except for one half deaf woman who supposed it to be a door banging. This is a little dubious, but investigation must be able to deal with happenstance because happenstance is real.
We then come to the part where Mr. Douglas is revealed and the mystery explained, and which point the narrative shifts over to explaining his history in America and why it was that there were people tracking him from America to England in order to murder him. This, I find very strange.
It is the second time in a novel that Conan Doyle did it. The first time was in A Study in Scarlet, where the middle half of the book (approximately) took place in America. I really don’t get this at all.
I suspect it makes more sense in the original format of the novels, which were serialized in magazines. It would not be so jarring, in a periodical magazine, to have to learn new characters, since one would to some degree need to reacquaint oneself with the already-known characters anyway. Possibly it also speaks to Conan Doyle having not paced himself well, being more used to short stories, and needing to fill the novel with something else.
The very end of the book, when we return in the present in England, is a very short epilogue. Douglas was acquitted as having acted purely in self defense, but then is murdered by Moriarty when it was taking Holmes’s advice to flee England because Moriarty would be after him.
That the book takes such an interest in Moriarty is very curious, given that it was written in 1914 while Holmes killed Moriarty off in 1893. Actually in 1891, but The Final Problem was published in 1893. Holmes was brought back in 1903, in The Adventure of the Empty House, where it is confirmed that Moriarty died at the Reichenbach Falls. So we have a novel which is clearly set prior to the death of Moriarty, establishing him as a criminal mastermind, almost 15 years after he was killed off. What’s even stranger about it is that Moriarty barely features in the story. He’s in the very beginning, mentioned only in connection to the cryptogram and as having something to do with the murder, but he nor his men actually tried to carry out the murder. His involvement was limited to finding out where Douglas was, so the American who was trying to murder Douglas could try. He naturally makes no appearance in the story of Douglas’ adventures in America, and only shows up in a note at the end of the book:
Two months had gone by, and the case had to some extent passed from our minds. Then one morning there came an enigmatic note slipped into our letter box. “Dear me, Mr. Holmes. Dear me!” said this singular epistle. There was neither superscription nor signature. I laughed at the quaint message; but Holmes showed unwonted seriousness.
Moriarty is indicated to have killed Douglas off the cape of South Africa, and the book ends with Homles’s determination to bring Moriarty to justice.
Which would be a great setup for Holmes bringing Moriarty to justice in a later book, but we already read about it in an earlier book. It doesn’t really help to flesh the character out, it’s not really needed for the plot of the book, and it serves to end the book on a note of failure rather than of triumph. I do not understand it. Perhaps its purpose is to help increase the grandeur of Holmes’ previous victory over Moriarty? But that is a strange thing to do. Perhaps it was the reverse—a note of caution to fans of Holmes that no man, not even Sherlock Holmes, is omnipotent?
Some friends of mine were discussing why it is that modern tellings of old stories (like Robin Hood) are always disappointing. One put forward the theory it’s because they can’t just tell the story, they have to modernize it. He’s right, but I think it’s important to realize why it is that modern storytellers have to modernize everything.
It’s because they’re Modern.
Before you click away because you think I’m joking, notice the capital “M”. I mean that they subconsciously believe in Modern Philosophy, which is the name of a particular school of philosophy which was born with Descartes, died with Immanuel Kant, and has wandered the halls of academia ever since like a zombie—eating brains but never getting any smarter for it.
The short, short version of this rather long and complicated story is that Modern Philosophy started with Descartes’ work Discourse on Method, though it was put forward better in Meditations on First Philosophy. In those works, Descartes began by doubting literally everything and seeing if he could trust anything. Thus he started with the one thing he found impossible to doubt—his own existence. It is from this that we get the famous cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am.
The problem is that Descartes had to bring in God in order to guarantee that our senses are not always being confused by a powerful demon. In modern parlance we’d say that we’re not in The Matrix. They mean the same thing—that everything we perceive outside of our own mind is not real but being projected to us by some self-interested power. Descartes showed that from his own existence he can know that God exists, and from God’s existence he can know that he is not being continually fooled in this way.
The problem is that Descartes was in some sense cheating—he was not doubting that his own reason worked correctly. The problem is that this is doubtable, and once doubted, completely irrefutable. All refutations of doubting one’s intellect necessarily rely on the intellect being able to work correctly to follow the refutations. If that is itself in doubt, no refutation is possible, and we are left with radical doubt.
And there is only one thing which is certain, in the context of radical doubt: oneself.
To keep this short, without the senses being considered at least minimally reliable there is no object for the intellect to feed on, but the will can operate perfectly well on phantasms. So all that can be relied upon is will.
After Descartes and through Kant, Modern Philosophers worked to avoid this conclusion, but progressively failed. Kant killed off the last attempts to resist this conclusion, though it is a quirk of history that he could not himself accept the conclusion and so basically said that we can will to pretend that reason works.
Nietzsche pointed out how silly willing to pretend that reason works is, and Modern Philosophy has, for the most part, given up that attempt ever since. (Technically, with Nietzsche, we come to what is called “post-modernism”, but post-modernism is just modernism taken seriously and thought out to its logical conclusions.)
Now, modern people who are Modern have not read Descartes, Kant, or Nietzsche, of course, but these thinkers are in the water and the air—one must reject them to not breathe and drink them in. Modern people have not done that, so they hold these beliefs but for the most part don’t realize it and can’t articulate them. As Chesterton observed, if a man won’t think for himself, someone else will think for him. Actually, let me give the real quote, since it’s so good:
…a man who refuses to have his own philosophy will not even have the advantages of a brute beast, and be left to his own instincts. He will only have the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy…
(From The Revival of Philosophy)
In the context of the year of our Lord’s Incarnation 2019, what Christians like my friends mean by “classic stories” are mostly stories of heroism. (Robin Hood was given as an example.) So we need to ask what heroism is.
There are varied definitions of what hero is which are useful; for the moment I will define a hero as somebody who gives of himself (in the sense of self-sacrifice) that someone else may have life, or have it more abundantly. Of course, stated like this it includes trivial things. I think that there simply is a difference of degree but not of kind between trivial self-gift and heroism; heroism is to some degree merely extraordinary self-gift.
If you look at the classic “hero’s journey” according to people like Joseph Campbell, but less insipidly as interpreted by George Lucas, the hero is an unknown and insignificant person who is called to do something very hard, which he has no special obligation to do, but who answers this call and does something great, then after his accomplishment, returns to his humble life. In this you see the self-sacrifice, for the hero has to abandon his humble life in order to do something very hard. You further see it as he does the hard thing; it costs him trouble and pain and may well get the odd limb chopped off along the way. Then, critically, he returns to normal life.
You can see elements of this in pagan heroes like Achilles, or to a lesser degree in Odysseus (who is only arguably a hero, even in the ancient Greek sense). They are what C.S. Lewis would call echoes of the true myth which had not yet been fulfilled.
You really see this in fulfillment in Christian heroes, who answer the call out of generosity, not out of obligation or desire for glory. They endure hardships willingly, even unto death, because they follow a master who endured death on a cross for their sake. And they return to a humble life because they are humble.
Now let’s look at this through the lens of Modern Philosophy.
The hero receives a call. That is, someone tries to impose their will on him. He does something hard. That is, it’s a continuation of that imposition of will. Then he returns, i.e. finally goes back to doing what he wants.
This doesn’t really make any sense as a story, after receiving the call. It’s basically the story of a guy being a slave when he could choose not to be. It is the story of a sucker. It’s certainly not a good story; it’s not a story in which a characters actions flow out of his character.
This is why we get the modern version, which is basically a guy deciding on whether he’s going to be completely worthless or just mostly worthless. This is necessarily the case because, for the story to make sense through the modern lens, the story has to be adapted into something where he wills what he does. For that to happen, and for him not to just be a doormat, he has to be given self-interested motivations for his actions. This is why the most characteristic scene in a modern heroic movie is the hero telling the people he benefited not to thank him. Gratitude robs him of his actions being his own will.
A Christian who does a good deed for someone may hide it (“do not let your left hand know what your right is doing”) or he may not (“no one puts a light under a bushel basket”), but if the recipient of his good deed knows about it, the Christian does not refuse gratitude. He may well refuse obligation; he may say “do not thank me, thank God”, or he may say “I thank God that I was able to help you,” but he will not deny the recipient the pleasure of gratitude. The pleasure of gratitude is the recognition of being loved, and the Christian values both love and truth.
A Modern hero cannot love, since to love is to will the good of the other as other. The problem is that the other cannot have any good beside his own will, since there is nothing besides his own will. To do someone good requires that they have a nature which you act according to. The Modern cannot recognize any such thing; the closest he can come is the other being able to accomplish what he wills, but that is in direct competition with the hero’s will. The same action cannot at the same time be the result of two competing wills. In a zero-sum game, it is impossible for more than one person to win.
Thus the modern can only tell a pathetic simulacrum of a hero who does what he does because he wants to, without reference to anyone else. It’s the only way that the story is a triumph and not the tragedy of the hero being a victim. Thus instead of the hero being tested, and having the courage and fortitude to push through his hardship and do what he was asked to do, we get the hero deciding whether or not he wants to help, and finding inside himself some need that helping will fulfill.
And in the end, instead of the hero happily returning to his humble life out of humility, we have the hero filled with a sense of emptiness because the past no longer exists and all that matters now is what he wills now, which no longer has anything to do with the adventure.
The hero has learned nothing because there is nothing to learn; the hero has received nothing because there is nothing to receive. He must push on because there is nothing else to do.
This is why Modern tellings of old stories suck, and must suck.
It’s because they’re Modern.
Somebody asked me to do a video on the beatitude about meekness, so I’ve been doing some research on the word “meek”. Even though I don’t speak from a place of authority, talking about the beatitudes still carries a lot of responsibility.
The first problem that we have with the word “meek” is that it is not really a modern English word. It’s very rarely used as a character description in novels, and outside of that, pretty much never. So we have to delve back into history and etymology.
The OED defines meek as “Gentle. Courteous. Kind.” It comes from a Scandinavian root. Various Scandinavian languages have an extremely similar word which means, generally, “soft” or “supple”.
Next, we turn to the original Greek:
μακάριοι οἱ πραεῖς, ὅτι αὐτοὶ κληρονομήσουσιν τὴν γῆν
To transliterate, for those who don’t read the Greek alphabet:
makarioi hoi praeis, hoti autoi kleronomesousin ten gen.
Much clearer, I’m sure. Bear with me, though, because I will explain. (I’m going to refer to the words in the English transliteration to make it easier to follow.)
The beatitudes generally have two halves. The first half says that someone is blessed, while the second half gives some explanation as to why. This beatitude has this form. Who is blessed is the first three words, “makarioi hoi praeis”. In the original the verb is left understood, but this is usually translated as “blessed are the meek”. The second half, “hoti autoi kleronomesousin ten gen” is commonly translated “for they shall inherit the earth”.
Let’s break the first half down a little more, because both major words in it are very interesting (“hoi” is just an article; basically it’s just “the”). The first word, “makarioi”, can actually be translated in English either as “blessed” or as “happy”, though it should be noted happy in a more full sense than just the pleasant sensation of having recently eaten on a sunny day with no work to do at the moment.
I’ve noticed that a lot of people, or at least a lot of my fellow Americans, want to take “blessed”, not as an adjective, but as a future conditional verb. Basically, they want to take Christ, not as describing what presently is, but as giving rules with rewards that are attached. This doesn’t work even in English, but it’s even more obvious in Greek where makarioi is declined to agree with the subject, “hoi praeis”. Christ it’s telling us what to do and offering rewards. He’s telling us that we’re looking at the world all wrong, and why.
The other part, “hoi praeis”, is what gets translated as “the meek”, though I’ve also seen “the gentle”. It is the noun form of an adjective, “praios” (“πρᾷος”), which (not surprisingly) tends to mean mild or gentle.
Now, to avoid a connotation which modern English has accrued over hundreds of years of character descriptions in novels, it does not mean week, timid, or mousy. The wiktionary entry for praios has some usage examples. If one peruses through them, they are things like asking a god to be gentle, or saying that a king is gentle with his people.
So translating the first half very loosely, we might render the beatitude:
Those who restrain their force have been blessed, for they will inherit the earth.
This expanded version of the beatitude puts it in the group of the beatitudes which refer to something under the control of the people described as “makarios” (blessed, happy). Consider the other groups of people, which are roughly half of beatitudes: “the poor in spirit,” “those who mourn”, “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”, “those who are persecuted in the cause of righteousness,” and “you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you falsely on my account”.
I think that this really makes it clear that what is being described is a gift, though a hard-to-understand one. So what do we make of the other beatitudes, the ones under people’s control?
Just as a quick refresher, they are: “the meek”, “the merciful”, “the pure in heart”, and “the peacemakers”. They each have the superficial form of there being a reward for those who do well, but if we look closer, the reward is an intrinsic reward. That is, it is the natural outcome of the action.
So if we look closely at the second half of the meek beatitude, we see that indeed it is connected to the first half: “for they will inherit the earth”. This is often literally the case: those who fight when they don’t have to die when they don’t have to, and leave the world to those who survive them.
Now, I think too much can be made of “the original context”—our Lord was incarnate in a particular time and spoke to particular people, but they were human beings and he was also speaking to all of us. Still, I think it is worth looking at that original context, and how in the ancient world one of the surest paths to glory was conquest. Heroes were, generally, warriors. They were not, as a rule, gentle. Even in more modern contexts where war is mechanized and so individuals get less glory, there are still analogs where fortune favors the bold. We laud sports figures and political figures who crush their enemies in metaphorical, rather than literal, senses.
Even on a more simple level, we can only appreciate the power than a man has when he demonstrates it by using it.
And here Christ is saying that those are happy who do not use their power when they don’t have to. And why? Because they inherit the earth. Glory is fleeting, and in the end one can’t actually do very much with it. Those who attain glory by the display of power do not, in putting that power on display, use it to do anything useful. They waste their power for show, rather than using it to build. And having built nothing, they will end up with nothing.
You can see this demonstrated in microcosm in a sport I happen to like: power lifting. It is impressive to see people pick up enormous weights. But what do they do with them once they’ve picked them up? They just put them back down again.
Now, the fact that this is in microcosm means that there can be good justifications for it; building up strength by lifting useless weights can give one the strength to lift useful weights, such as children, furniture, someone else who has fallen down, etc. And weightlifting competitions do serve the useful role of inspiring people to develop their strength; a powerlifting meet is not the same thing as conquering a country. But there is, none the less, a great metaphor for it, if one were to extend the powerlifting competition to being all of life. Happy are those who do not.
One of the popular plots in detective stories is the investigation of a murder which has been—so far—successfully disguised as a suicide. It’s a popular plot for a reason, offering some very interesting possibilities for stories. It does, however, come with some requirements on the stories containing it, which I’d like to discuss.
The first and most obvious requirement which faux-suicide poses is that of means. People tend to kill themselves in one of a limited number of ways, and in any event must kill themselves in a way that is plausible to do alone. A man cannot shoot himself in the back with a rifle from a great distance. Further complicating the faux suicide, the murder weapon must be plausibly accessible to the victim when the body is found. Dead men do not move murder weapons. The murderer must then have access to the body after the murder in order to plant the murder weapon in some fashion. This precludes, or at least makes very difficult, the locked room murder.
Of course, that’s really just a challenge to the writer, and there have been some clever solutions. I think my favorite is a room that had both a deadbolt and a latch; the murderer locked the dead bolt but left the latch unlocked then broke the door open, staged the suicide, then locked the latch. When the detectives broke in, they assumed that the deadbolt was broken then, and not already broken. That was quite clever. (This is the Death In Paradise episode at a nursing home.)
The limitations on the means of suicide are more strict, though. For example, any poisons used must be very fast acting. Poisons like arsenic which cause pain for days before death finally comes are simply not plausible as a means of suicide. Elaborate traps which catch the victim by surprise are also implausible. Simple drowning is right out.
Additionally, the means of murder have to be something one can force on a person without leaving bruising that will contradict the idea of suicide. It will not work to knock a man unconscious with a frying pan before staging his suicide with a gun. Sedatives are the easy way out, but they’re a gamble because a toxicology report will then prove that it was not murder. Another alternative is providing an explanation for bruising will also work, such as pre-mortem bruising, faking the victim changing his mind at the last minute, or damaging the body post-mortem such as by throwing it off of a cliff.
The second sort of requirement which faux-suicide imposes is on the conditions of the victim, pre-mortem. The victim must have some sort of plausible reason to have killed himself. This significantly limits the sort of victims one can have. It would be very difficult to disguise the murder of a successful man in good health as suicide, for example. It’s not impossible, of course, but the attempt will tend to involve faking a scandal which would ruin the man’s life. It’s doable—it’s certainly doable—it just introduces other problems which need to be solved in order to make it work.
The final requirement imposed by a faux-suicide is about the detective: why on earth is he investigating the crime? If it’s suicide, what is there to investigate? The perpetrator of the crime is already known.
Proximally, there’s only one reason: because someone thinks that the faux suicide was not suicide. In a sense this is just a sub-case of the more general case of there being someone who is widely accepted as guilty, but there is someone who does not accept their guilt. In both cases, there can even be a confession (a suicide note, in the case of the faux suicide). That said, I think that there are enough differences to consider the faux-suicide on its own, rather than just as a special case of the more general pattern.
The reasons for the detective investigating the faux-suicide seem to me to come in roughly two main classes:
- Some of the facts of the scene of the crime are inconsistent with the suicide theory.
- Someone who knows the victim does not believe they could have killed themselves.
There is a very good example of #1 in Death in Paradise. Detective Richard Poole does not believe that a woman could have killed herself because she had only drank half of her cup of extremely expensive tea. (He also thinks it unlikely she could have drowned herself by sheer force of will, and she drowned but had no bruising anywhere on her, nor any sedatives in her system.)
Another example of this is the death of Paul Alexis in Have His Carcass. His blood being liquid and there being only one set of footprints—his—up to the flatiron rock suggest suicide, but on the other hand it seems implausible for a man with a full beard to buy a cutthroat razor, then take a train (with a return ticket) and walk 5 miles to sit on a hot rock for several hours before cutting his own throat with the razor.
Have His Carcass also gives an example of the latter category—a wealthy widow who was engaged to Paul Alexis thinks it is impossible that he killed himself and begs Harriet Vane to find out who murdered her intended husband.
The first category is, I think, far more common than the second sort. I can’t, off hand, think of any examples in which a detective investigated a murder solely on the strength of someone thinking it impossible their friend committed suicide. The closest I can come to that may be Five Little Pigs, in which Poirot investigates an old murder because the convicted woman’s daughter is certain her mother is innocent. Her certainty comes from a letter from her mother assuring her daughter she is innocent. This, and that her mother always told the truth. In that story, though, Poirot did not accept the mother’s innocence and was explicit that he would tell her if his investigation made him think the mother did it.
It seems, then, that a faux suicide usually requires some amount of inconsistent facts in order to be a viable story. The question then becomes how to balance these facts such that the detective understands their meaning but the authorities do not. In a sense, this is just a sub-class of the problem of how to give clues the detective understands but others don’t; still, again, I think that it is worth looking into the specific case.
I think that, as a rule, the evidence in favor of suicide should be the main physical evidence, while the evidence against should be the more subtle psychological evidence. This is certainly the common pattern, at least, but I think it makes sense since small psychological inconsistencies are easier to brush away as explained by information not present. People occasionally do strange things, and suicide is almost definitionally the strangest. No one kills himself more than once in his life.
But, then, why does the detective—who knows better than anyone that life is sometimes just unaccountably strange—place such high value on the evidence which others dismiss?
One common answer is that the detective has a compulsion to make sure that everything is neat and orderly and makes sense and is explained. This is not very satisfying, though, since this trait must be selectively applied as life is very rarely neat and orderly, with everything having an explanation which makes sense.
Another approach, which is better but still not great, is that the detective has a hunch. It’s not really satisfying because it violates rule #6:
No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
That said, this is a fuzzy line. One man’s unaccountable hunch which proves right is another man’s feeling that he can’t articulate but bears further examination.
One variation of this which is not so much a hunch is giving the detective highly domain specific knowledge. “No deep sea diver would ever drink tea at this time of day”—that sort of thing. The problem is that unless one can prevent the authorities checking up on this, they will be immediately forced to conclude the suicide was not suicide. (This is sometimes dealt with by making the authorities very pig-headed or otherwise very budget-constrained, so that they will jump at the chance to classify every death as a suicide so as to avoid having to investigate it. It an be pulled off, of course.)
I think what probably works out the best is inconclusive evidence that the suicide is fake combined with someone other than the detective acting as the driving force. The detective may not have unaccountable hunches, but others may. This sets up the interplay that the other person is sure that it wasn’t suicide, while the detective can only see some evidence which supports this conclusion but at least does justify further investigation. By making the motive force a hunch, there does not need to be sufficient evidence to justify the hunch. This allows the faux suicide to be generally taken as suicide without all of the people involved being dimwits. Unless the murder mystery is also a comedy, it is preferable to populate the world with reasonably intelligent people.
In case anyone is interested in my progress on my Brother Thomas series, I’m currently editing the second chronicle of Brother Thomas, Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral. The current draft is out to test readers, and I’ve already gotten some valuable feedback which I’ve begun to incorporate into my edits. I’m going to do another round or two of edits, which I hope to complete by the end of October, then have it off at the beginning of November to my publisher, Silver Empire, for final edits and publication.
It’s taken a lot longer than I’d hoped, but it’s happening.
Looking to the next Brother Thomas novel, I’ve started kicking around ideas. I’ve got a tentative setting of a family resort camp in the Adirondack mountains in upstate NY. It has a lot going for it:
- a remote, isolated location which limits the suspect pool.
- A picturesque place that would be nice to visit so would be pleasant to visit in a book
- limited technology. there are real camps with no cell phone service, no wifi, and no electricity
- the ability to bring together an interesting and eclectic group of suspects most of whom—supposedly—don’t know each other
- a setting in which there are people with (relatively) stable lives, where for the most part the same people have been doing the same work for decades
I’m not entirely decided on it, yet. I’m still in the early stages of working out who the guests might be, who the victim and murderer is, and why the brothers would be called in. It’s only after that I can really come up with a title, though for some reason the title Thank God He Didn’t Drown in the Lake is kicking around in my mind. We’ll see.
I was just thinking about the song Finite Simple Group (Of Order 2), and if you have studied graduate level math and haven’t heard it, you really should:
If you haven’t studied graduate level math, the many, many puns will not be funny—in many cases they get the meaning at least approximately correct in both senses, which is the ideal form for a pun. There is something interesting to contemplate without watching the video, though.
It is curious how context-dependent humor can be. This can, of course, become a problem. For about a year after I left grad school, I could barely make jokes which other people would understand. In fact, I often could barely make jokes because I was constantly interrupting them with, “oh, wait, that won’t make any sense to you.”
The problem was not that I couldn’t think of things to joke about that would be of general interest, but that all of the similes and analogies which sprang to mind were esoteric. Since the essence of wit is making suddenly obvious connections which are normally hidden, it proved disastrous because I couldn’t find the things which would make the connections obvious to others.
One of the things necessary for the skill of comedy, then, is to keep familiar with the things one’s audience will be familiar with, whatever those are. As can be seen by the laughter which Kleinfour (the a cappella group in the video) got, this can be esoteric if your audience happens to be made up of people who all share that esoteric knowledge.
Just a subset of the dictum, know your audience, I suppose.
Many years ago, I was studying judo from someone who had done judo since he was a kid and was teaching for fun. He was not a very large man, but he was a very skilled one. One time, he told a very interesting story.
He was in a match with a man who was a body builder or a power lifter or something of that ilk—an immensely, extraordinarily strong man. He got the strong man into an arm bar, which is a hold in which the elbow is braced against something and the arm is being pulled back at the wrist. Normally if a person is in a properly positioned arm bar, this is inescapable and the person holding it could break his arm if he wanted to; this (joint locks) is one of the typical ways of a judo match ending—the person in the joint lock taps out, admitting defeat.
The strong man did not tap out.
He just curled his way out of the arm bar.
That is, his arm—in a very weak position—was so much stronger than my judo teacher’s large core muscles that he was able to overpower them anyway.
Next, my judo teacher pinned him down. In western wrestling, one can win a match by pinning the opponent’s shoulders to the ground for 3 seconds. In judo it’s a little more complicated, but the point which is important to the moment is that you have to pin the opponent such that he can’t escape for 45 seconds. Once he had pinned the strong man, the strong man asked him, “you got me?” My teacher replied, “yeah, I got you.” The strong man asked, “are you sure about that?” “Yes, I’m sure,” my teacher replied.
The strong man then grabbed my teacher by the gi (the stout clothing worn in judo) and floor-pressed him into the air, then set him aside. (Floor pressing is like bench pressing, only the floor keeps your elbows from going low enough to generate maximum power.)
Clearly, this guy was simply far too strong to ever lose by joint locks or pinning. So my teacher won the match by throwing him to the ground (“ippon”).
The moral of the story is not that skill will always beat strength, because clearly it didn’t, two out of three times. The moral of the story is also not that strength will always beat skill, since it didn’t, that final time.
The moral of the story is to know your limits and always stay within them.
Making processors is getting very expensive. According to this report, the R&D to take a processor design and turn it into something that can be fabricated at the latest silicon mode is $1B.
Each fabrication node (where the transistors shrink) has gotten more expensive. I suspect it’s likely that economics will play as big a role in killing off Moore’s Law as physics will. Eventually no one will be able to afford new nodes, even if they are physically possible to create.
This is what an s-curve looks like.