I’m currently hosting this blog on wordpress.com, but since I rent my own server anyway, I’m thinking of doing the work to move over to hosting my blog on my own server. WordPress does make a plugin for integrating in the wordpress social features, like the wordpress.com reader. It’s about $40/year to use, so, I’m wondering whether anyone actually uses the wordpress.com reader to read this blog. If you do, could you leave a comment letting me know?
I had a reasonably major character who was waiting someplace for some other characters to arrive, and she was reading a book to pass the time. Then I decided to go for it. Not only am I going to actually say which book it is, it’s going to be Pride and Prejudice.
Not only is she going to like the book, I think she’s going to talk about it with the brothers.
For some odd reason, this feels almost transgressive. I don’t know why; there’s no rule against having a character read a good book. In fact, there are plenty of instances in golden age mysteries of characters talking about other fictional detectives. There’s no reason I can’t have the characters talk about an interesting subject on occasion.
For those who started reading in more recent years, back in 2016, I did a series of posts on the old trope, The Butler Did it. I put a bunch of time into researching it, and it turned out that the butler may have done it, but he didn’t do it very often. This series started with my post, The Butler Did It?
You can read the rest on the tag the butler did it. I went through the stories I could find by searching which actually had a butler as the villain, as well as one radio play.
The history of fingerprints in detective stories is a curious one; their use in detective stories almost never parallels their use in real life. Which is to say, fingerprints in detective stories are always something to be worked around, while in real life they are a tool for catching criminals.
Fingerprints have been known for a very long time, of course, but their use to identify criminals is comparatively recent. Like most things the history of the technology around fingerprints is a long one, but we can suitably take it up with a book by Sir Francis Galton, entitled Finger Prints, in which he a published detailed statistical analysis showing that finger prints were sufficiently unique that they could be used as identification. That is, if a finger print found somewhere matched a finger print taken from a person, you could be confident that it was, in fact, that person’s fingerprint.
Details are a little hazy to my very cursory reading on the subject, but shortly after Paul-Jean Coulier developed a method of transferring fingerprints from objects to paper using iodine fuming we see fingerprints start to be used to identify criminals by police forces in 1901, with the first conviction for murder based upon fingerprint evidence in 1902.
It is not long after this that we see fingerprints start to appear in detective stories; the first I can think of off of the top of my head in the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Norwood Builder. In it, a bloody thumb mark is found near where Mr. McFarlane would have gotten his hat before leaving. The thumb print was a false one, of course, made from a cast of a thumb mark left in sealing wax. This discovery has nothing to do with the fingerprint itself, however—the criminal had put it there overnight, and Holmes had observed that there was no mark in that place the day before, proving McFarlane’s innocence.
The next instance I’m aware of—I’m sure that there are others before it—is the first Dr. Thorndyke story, The Red Thumb Mark, published in 1907. Here we have another fingerprint, again in blood, but this time the case revolves almost entirely around the thumb print. It turns out to be a forgery, which Thorndyke proves by careful examination of the thumb print under high magnification. The denouement, for so it might be called, is entirely about the process for using photo-lithographic techniques for creating a stamper capable of creating duplicates of a fingerprint.
I would like to skip forward, now, to 1921, and The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner. This features the detective Malcolm Sage, and he delivers a very curious lecture on the use of photographs and fingerprints. I will quote it in full, because it’s worth reading for the historical curiosity:
“There is no witness so sure as the camera,” remarked Malcolm Sage as he gazed from one to the other of two photographs before him, one representing him holding an automatic pistol to his own head, and the other in which Sir James was posing as a murderer.
“It is strange that it should be so neglected at Scotland Yard,” he added.
Silent and absorbed when engaged upon a problem, Malcolm Sage resented speech as a sick man resents arrowroot. At other times he seemed to find pleasure in lengthy monologues, invariably of a professional nature.
“But we use it a lot, Mr. Sage,” protested Inspector Wensdale.
“For recording the features of criminals,” was the retort. “No, Wensdale, you are obsessed by the finger-print heresy, quite regardless of the fact that none but an amateur ever leaves such a thing behind him, and the amateur is never difficult to trace.”
He paused for a moment; but the inspector made no comment.
“The two greatest factors in the suppression of crime,” continued Malcolm Sage, “are photography and finger-prints. Both are in use at Scotland Yard; but each in place of the other. Finger-prints are regarded as clues, and photography is a means of identification, whereas finger-prints are of little use except to identify past offenders, and photography is the greatest aid to the actual tracing of the criminal.”
By the later 1920s, fingerprints, where they exist at all, are almost exclusively red herrings, and I think by the 1930s they more-or-less never show up. Consider this scene from Gaudy Night, in 1935.
“Is there no material evidence to be obtained from an examination of the documents themseves?” asked Miss Pyke. “Speaking for myself, I am quite ready to have my fingerprints taken or to undergo any other kind of precautionary measure that may be considered necessary.”
“I’m afraid,” said Harriet,” the evidence of finger-prints isn’t quite so easy a matter as we make it appear in books. I mean, we could take finger-prints, naturally, from the S.C.R. and, possibly, from the scouts—though they wouldn’t like it much. But I should doubt very much whether rough scribbling-paper like this would show distinguishable prints. And besides—”
“Besides,” said the Dean, “every malefactor nowadays knows enough about finger-prints to wear gloves.”
There’s also a later scene where Lord Peter dusts a door for fingerprints.
“Am I really going to see finger-prints discovered?” asked the Dean.
“Why, of course,” said Wimsey. “It won’t tell us anything, but it impresses the spectator and inspires confidence…”
He went on to dust for fingerprints right up to the top of the door, which he said was “merely a shopwindow display of thoroughness and efficiency. All a matter of routine, as the policeman says. Your college is kept very well dusted; I congratulate you.” In fact, he suspected the use of strings over a door to manipulate things inside, and was checking to see if there were marks; at this late juncture checking for fingerprints is merely cover for some other, more useful, activity.
As we move out of the golden age and into more contemporary detective fiction, we tend to find that fingerprints either implicate an innocent person in a meeting with the victim prior to his death or else turn out to belong to the victim in very strange places. In short, they turn out to be either red herrings or further puzzles. (Obviously, I am painting with a very large brush, here.)
Curiously, while there seems to have been a spate of forged fingerprints shortly after the things became used as evidence, I can’t recall seeing or reading of any forged fingerprints in stories written in the last 100 years. Most of the time, fingerprints are like cell phones in horror stories—something the author feels duty bound to add a line or two explaining away, but otherwise things one would just as soon forget.
There is a close analogy in DNA evidence, which to some degree are the fingerprints of our day. Any idiot can get a lab result saying that person A was in place B where the crime was committed, and he should never have been in place B, therefore he committed the crime. This requires not a detective but merely a well-trained monkey. It is, therefore, entirely uninteresting. Fingerprints at least have the advantage that the amateur can take fingerprints almost as well as the professional; DNA evidence simply cannot be found by the amateur. DNA evidence is, therefore, merely annoying, from the perspective of the mystery author. It can be used, as fingerprints were, to frame innocent people, but not really better than any other evidence. Hair is a great place to take DNA from, but matching hair to a person is an age-old thing; finding the innocent suspect’s hair at the scene of the crime can be done without DNA evidence.
I know in my own stories I occasionally feel obliged to explain why there is no DNA evidence, though I’m always annoyed by it. To be fair, I also used DNA evidence in one of my stories, though only as potential clinching evidence that would have been worthless without knowing who to test (the test would have happened after the book was over).
I suspect that DNA evidence will eventually go the way of fingerprints—something that needs only the most cursory explanation to wave away, since the reader is as uninterested in it as the author is.
Since there was a printing of it that only cost $4 on Amazon, I bought a copy of The Red Thumb Mark, which was originally published in 1907 and has since fallen out of copyright. It has, perhaps, the largest pages I’ve ever seen in a novel, being likely to be the largest size of paper that whichever print-on-demand printer was used could print upon. On these extremely large pages, the story ran only 100 pages, exactly, and it was interesting because it gave something of the feel of reading a magazine rather than a book. This might have made the experience more authentic, as many novels were first printed as serials in a magazine, except I cannot discover that The Red Thumb Mark was one of them. I was forced to settle for faux-authenticity, much as one may still gain from velour some hint of that richness of true velvet.
The Red Thumb Mark was the first novel by R. Austin Freeman containing his famous-in-the-golden-age detective, Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke. I had expected, on the basis of what I read about the Dr. Thorndyke novels both in Wikipedia and Masters of Mystery, to find it very dry. It was, admittedly, a little long on the scientific evidence, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it quite enjoyable. Also, it turns out that Dr. Freeman (R. Austin Freeman was, himself, a medical doctor) invented the inverted detective story after The Red Thumb Mark, for The Red Thumb Mark is a conventional whodunnit, if one that places greater emphasis upon the evidence than the culprit, makes it fairly clear by about a third of the way into the book who actually committed the crime, and whose reveal of the real criminal was anticlimactic, with no actual reveal to any of the people principally concerned who did it.
The story is narrated by Dr. Christopher Jervis, an out-of-work doctor who, in a chance meeting, comes across an old schoolmate who he had not seen in a long time—Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke. While Jervis had fallen upon evil times and was unemployed, Thorndyke had stumbled into a most unusual occupation, being an admixture of a private consulting detective and a scientific expert hired to give testimony in court cases. During the course of their dinner a client comes in and dumps upon Thorndyke the case of the red thumb mark, from which the story draws its title, and Thorndyke hires Jervis to do investigative work for him, and provides him with living space while he does this work. Thorndyke also has a manservant, Polton, who both cooks his meals and assists him in the lab.
We have, then, a setup much like that of Sherlock Holmes—we have the bachelor quarters, Thorndyke as Holmes, of course; in Polton a Mrs. Hudson; and in Dr. Jervis a Dr. Watson. The story is written by Dr. Jervis in a similar sort of first-person, retrospective perspective to the way that Dr. Watson wrote his memoirs of his great detective. Described in this manner it seems very derivative, and of course, it was. The first Sherlock Holmes story was A Study in Scarlet in 1887, but supposedly it was not until the first short stories were published in Strand Magazine in 1891 that Holmes became wildly popular. Curiously, it was only two years later, in December of 1893, that Conan Doyle killed Holmes off in The Final Problem. It took Conan Doyle until 1903 to write The Adventure of the Empty House and bring back Sherlock Holmes from the Reichenbach falls, a scant 4 years before The Red Thumb Mark was published. The stories which made up The Return of Sherlock Holmes were published in 1903-1904, and it would not be until 1908 that more Holmes stories were forthcoming.
In this context, with Holmes having become wildly popular 16 years before and killed off 13 years before (that is, three years after becoming popular), with a collection of new stories finally coming out four years before and with no promise of more on the horizon, detective stories which were highly derivative of Sherlock Holmes were probably quite welcome. What people really want is not originality, but good stories; this is why, as the saying goes, mediocrity borrows and genius steals. I think this might be very analogous to how, in the aftermath of Star Wars, there was a spate of science fiction movies and especially novels which fans eagerly devoured. If you can’t get more of the original, something very similar is much better than nothing.
In The Red Thumb Mark, I think this is much more a case of genius stealing than mediocrity borrowing; Dr. Freeman makes the characters he created individuals. They are clearly inspired by the characters from the Holmes stories, but they are not copies of them. Dr. Thorndyke is highly rational, but is not the cold, calculating machine that Holmes is. Dr. Jervis is clearly not as brilliant as Dr. Thorndyke, but he is both more competent and more of a character than is Dr. Thorndyke. Indeed, in The Red Thumb Mark, at least, Jervis has far more “screen time” than Thorndyke. He makes some worthwhile deductions, and even gets praised for his creative imagination. Polton is an active assistant in cases, as well as a cook.
There is, further, affection between the characters. Mrs. Hudson was, it is true, fond of Sherlock Holmes, but Polton is devoted to Thorndyke, in his professional life as well as to him personally. Thorndyke does really care about Jervis, and not merely in brief flashes. Moreover, Thorndyke engages in witty reparté. There is not only humor, but clever expression in The Red Thumb Mark.
I will consider the mystery as a mystery in another post, but I find this take on the setup of Sherlock Holmes to be quite curious, especially in its historical context.
(It is also interesting to view Polton as something of the predecessor of Lord Peter’s valet, Bunter. It is curious to trace possible influences, as ideas come to take the forms that last through intermediaries which are forgotten.)
Since murder—in a detective story—requires a motive, money is a very frequent one, as is revenge. Since confusion as to motive helps a detective story to be interesting, Comingling the possible motives of money and revenge can make for a story being very interesting.
In golden age mysteries, this often took the form of a relative who went off and made his fortune in Africa, or in Australia, or in America. To England in the early 1900s, there were a large number of far-off places in which it was possible to make a fortune and to make deadly enemies while one was doing it. This, rather usefully, made for a ready supply of fictional millionaires with dubious pasts in detective fiction. A story might go any way of it, with the millionaire being killed for his money, or for how he got his money, and this, in turn, made any detective story which featured a millionaire who made his fortune in foreign lands instantly inscrutable. There were many ways the story could go until sufficient facts were put into place to know which way it had gone.
I am not sure that this sort of plot is really open to contemporary stories any more. For one thing, there is noplace where popular imagination will accept that fortunes are easily made (if you don’t contract a deadly disease, etc). The closest I think one can come would be a tech startup of some kind. The problem is that tech startups happen within the bosom of civilization. Worse, they are started by the most harmless people that one can imagine: nerds. Popular imagination may accept someone making a fortune in a tech startup, but will not accept the nerd who made this fortune having murdered someone in order to keep it to himself.
It would actually be somewhat plausible to have a more daring person use the small amount of money he had from his parents to fund a startup with a nerd friend and then to get rich from it, so we need not be strictly limited to having a nerd as our rich man. The problem is that it would still be the nerd who would have to get revenge, and this would not be very plausible. At the outskirts, the nerd might somehow have acquired a wife and children—though I think this would tend to strain the credulity of the average reader (more because the nerd is conceived of like a sorcerer, and sorcerers must be virgins to be powerful)—and one of the children of the nerd might grow up to seek vengeance for his father. That said, I don’t think that anyone will really buy it.
I do think it could be made to work if you want to go the dark route, though. You can have the millionaire who cheated the nerd also have cuckolded him, so that the child who kills him is actually his own offspring, having inherited his daring and risk-taking from his biological father. It would make for one heck of a reveal at the end, but I don’t like to go the dark route, myself.
To some degree the problem is that the world has become over-technologized for there to be anyone to kill in order to keep a fortune to oneself. Precious metals, oil, etc.—all these are now located by experts using expensive machines, and cannot be extracted without the sort of precise data provided by these experts. The other thing is that technology is a magnifier. Where it does provide wealth, it provides it in such abundance that it is no great hardship to share. The diamond mines, or oil wells, or whatever the millionaire made his millions on in the early 1900s provided enough wealth for one man, but would have provided only prosperity for two. Diamond mines might very plausibly produce a few hundred diamonds; a gold mine might very plausibly produce only a few hundred pounds of gold. That would be wonderful in one year; it’s not actually that much to buy a mansion on and keep servants for another forty years.
The other problem is that the modern ways of making a fortune, though they take a lot of work, involve very little suffering. No one digs all day under a scorching sun to develop a cell phone app. No one gets an almost deadly fever, or is bitten by venomous insects, or is mauled by a jaguar, while creating a website that takes pictures of your cat and gives you wine suggestions. In short, modern fortunes are not made in a romantic way. Something as dramatic as a deadly vengeance simply doesn’t go with the utterly prosaic ways in which modern fortunes are made.
I have faith that the basic outline of the plot can be made to work, but I think it will take a great deal of work, indeed, to come up with the way to do it.
I recently watched the Jeremy Brett version of The Adventure of the Naval Treaty. Other than a little bit of redistribution of lines to balance things out among the people on screen, it’s a remarkably faithful version of the short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
It’s a fun puzzle in its own right, but it contains one of my favorite sections from a Holmes story. Just for fun, I will quote it again:
“Thank you. I have no doubt I can get details from Forbes. The authorities are excellent at amassing facts, though they do not always use them to advantage. What a lovely thing a rose is!”
He walked past the couch to the open window, and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.
“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”
(I discussed this quote in some length in my post Sherlock Holmes on Flowers.)
There is something of an irony in the story in that this magnificent reflection of Holmes is met with disappointment by the people who hear it. To be fair, one of them is facing complete social ruin and the other intends to marry him, so their minds are elsewhere when they hear it.
NOTE: what follows containers spoilers. As the oldest person living, at the time of this writing, was ten years away from being born when The Adventure of the Naval Treaty was published, I can safely say, dear reader, that you have had your entire life to read this story, or at least that fraction of it since you learned to read, and if you really have not yet read it, you have, at least, been given ample time.
Anyway, considered as a mystery, it is definitely an interesting one. It has a long setup, full of facts, with what seems a nearly impossible crime. The criminal had a very short time to act, and—to all appearances—no way to have known that there was anything worth stealing. And then there is the very curious fact that the criminal made life much harder on himself by ringing the bell.
It is an extremely well executed setup, especially for its time (1893). I say, “for its time,” because, prior to the explosion of detective stories, readers were not so much in the habit of analyzing the story as a story. As G. K. Chesterton put it in 1925:
Generally speaking, the agent should be a familiar figure in an unfamiliar function. The thing that we realize must be a thing that we recognize; that is it must be something previously known, and it ought to be something prominently displayed. Otherwise there is no surprise in mere novelty. It is useless for a thing to be unexpected if it was not worth expecting. But it should be prominent for one reason and responsible for another. A great part of the craft or trick of writing mystery stories consists in finding a convincing but misleading reason for the prominence of the criminal, over and above his legitimate business of committing the crime. Many mysteries fail merely by leaving him at loose ends in the story, with apparently nothing to do except to commit the crime. He is generally well off, or our just and equal law would probably have him arrested as a vagrant long before he was arrested as a murderer. We reach the stage of suspecting such a character by a very rapid if unconscious process of elimination. Generally we suspect him merely because he has not been suspected. The art of narrative consists in convincing the reader for a time, not only that the character might have come on the premises with no intention to commit a felony, but that the author has put him there with some intention that is not felonious. For the detective story is only a game; and in that game the reader is not really wrestling with the criminal but with the author.
What the writer has to remember, in this sort of game, is that the reader will not say, as he sometimes might of a serious or realistic study: “Why did the surveyor in green spectacles climb the tree to look into the lady doctor’s back garden?” He will insensibly and inevitably say, “Why did the author make the surveyor climb a tree, or introduce any surveyor at all?” The reader may admit that the town would in any case need a surveyor, without admitting that the tale would in any case need one. It is necessary to explain his presence in the tale (and the tree) not only by suggesting why the town council put him there, but why the author put him there.
If one thinks about the story as a story, in which the rules of detection fiction state that the criminal has to actually be introduced in the story before he is unmasked as the criminal, that Percy’s future brother-in-law is the criminal is quite obvious. It would be preposterous that Lord Oakapple would commit so sprightly a crime—for it certainly involved running. The commisar could not have committed the crime, for Percy was himself the man’s witness. About the only character in the story who had opportunity was the future brother-in-law; everyone else in the story was a train ride away, and with witnesses. However, in 1893 this was not a given. People did not read stories in this sort of meta way. Conan Doyle does an admiral job of keeping suspicion on some unknown person while Holmes fixes the evidence on the real culprit.
It is also interesting that Holmes delivers the treaty to Percy in a breakfast dish. He apologizes to Percy for this theatrical surprise, saying, “Watson here will tell you that I never can resist a touch of the dramatic.” It’s an interesting aspect of Holmes’s character.
The story also has a great ending. (If you haven’t read the story, it will help to know that Holmes arrived to the breakfast at which he delivered the naval treaty with a bandage on one hand, where Mr. Joseph Harrison, Mr. Percy Phelps’ intended brother-in-law, had attacked Holmes with his knife. Also that the day before, a figure, who turned out to be Harrison, had come to the window of the bedroom in which Mr. Percy Phelps was staying, carrying a knife.)
“You do not think,” asked Phelps, “that he had any murderous intention? The knife was only meant as a tool.”
“It may be so,” answered Holmes, shrugging his shoulders. “I can only say for certain that Mr. Joseph Harrison is a gentleman to whose mercy I should be extremely unwilling to trust.”
It’s interesting that here in the United States, 2020 is a troubled time, in a somewhat similar way to how the 1920s in America were a troubled time. So far, at least, they are troubled for different reasons, though of course one should never count on the future as certain. I don’t think that the specifics of the troubles matter very much, though, to the subject I want to talk about.
As you may remember from previous posts, I’m very much in the camp that approximately the first thirty five years of the twentieth century (in England) were the golden age of detective fiction. That is not to say that there hasn’t been good detective fiction since, of course. The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael are some of my favorite mysteries and they were written between 1977 and 1994. The period from 1900-1935 was, however, one of astonishing growth and development of the genre that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created in the 1887. (In a sense Poe created it with Murders in the Rue Morgue, and A Study in Scarlet even references Dupin, but there seems to be very little between the two, and an explosion in the style only after Sherlock Holmes was born.)
While there was a great deal of development in the early part of the 1900s, the 1920s are sort-of smack-dab in the middle of the golden age and were the origin of some of its most celebrated sleuths. Coming shortly after the first world war shattered the optimism which had, to some degree, dominated the late nineteenth and very early 20th centuries, the 1920s involved a great deal of exhaustion, both religious and moral. America, though across an ocean, was deep into the rise in organized crime which Prohibition had caused and exported many sensational stories about organized crime to England. Divorce was ceasing to be scandalous. Contraceptives were becoming more popular and sex outside of wedlock was becoming far more accepted. It was a troubled time.
In spite of that, it was an artistically creative time. Detective stories, which are almost always rigorously moral stories, were wildly popular, and writing them was also popular. We tend to forget the troubles of the past because we don’t live them; even when we’re aware of them it’s hard to feel their concerns because ours are different. Moreover, we know how things turned out for previous ages and so the many worries that people at the time had seem unreal to us because we know which worries never came to pass. Given that we, in 2020, know that the 1920s was a troubled time, that should give us some idea of how troubled must it have been to live in it!
Despite their troubles, the authors of the 1920s were able to write, and often to write a lot. Granted, many of them made money at it, but not always a lot, at least not at first. For example, it was not until after she published her fifth Lord Peter Wimsey story that Dorothy L. Sayers was able to quit her day job to write full-time. And even if they did it for money, creativity is not something can simply turn on, like a spigot, regardless of the conditions.
One possibility is that writing was itself a refuge for the writer. Many of us like to read detective stories in part because we seek refuge from the troubles of our own lives, and want to take a holiday in a place where intelligence is used well and wrongs are set right. It is possible that for some writers, writing allows them that escape while they are writing. I don’t find that so much for myself, but others might.
The other possibility that comes to mind is that the writers who were successful in the 1920s were those who were good at pushing the stresses of the day aside and focusing on the task at hand. It’s a very useful skill, and one that probably needs no argument for trying to get better at.
If you’ve been around a while, you will probably have encountered some form of this man, who gave up swimming:
There are obvious religious parallels to a certain sort of atheist, but you’ll find this sort of thing in hobbies, in friend groups, even the occasional person who keeps hopping from girlfriend to girlfriend or boyfriend to boyfriend or even marriage to marriage. It’s a pretty universal phenomenon.
Freeman Wills Crofts was an Irish mystery writer during the golden age of mysteries. His most famous detective was Inspector French. According to Masters of Mystery, he worked on a railroad and included his extensive knowledge of railways systems and places that they visit into his stories.
What I didn’t realize, until I recently read an article about him, was that many of his stories, and especially his earlier stories, were inverted detective stories. That is, rather than being whodunnits, they were howcatchems. I was surprised to learn that style of story (one can’t quite call it a mystery) was popular so early on. (Crofts sold hundreds of thousands of copies of his novels.)
The same article in which I found this out also said that the novels featuring Dr. Thorndyke, the detective of R. Austin Freeman, were also howcatchems rather than whodunnits. In fact, the Dr. Thorndyke novels were supposed to be so entirely about how the culprit was caught that scientific experiments—all of them performed by the author himself prior to writing about them—were (apparently) the chief amusement of the books.
Prior to learning about these detectives, the only inverted detective stories with which I was familiar were the episodes of the TV show Columbo. I never gave it much thought, but while if I was forced to make a guess I’d have guessed that someone had done an inverted detective story prior to Columbo, I never realized that it was actually popular prior to Columbo. It’s curious how much, in the circle of people I know, the earlier examples faded into obscurity. Though sometimes the characters are preserved longer than their authors.
I cannot recall having encountered, in my own time, anyone talking about Freeman Wills Crofts, nor have I heard anyone talk about R. Austin Freema. Dr. Thorndyke, however, is referred to fairly often in at least one of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, and if my memory doesn’t deceive me, more than one. In the banter between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, they sometimes talk about what Dr. Thorndyke would make of what they’ve found.
I find it a bit surprising to learn that Dr. Thorndyke wasn’t in mysteries but rather howcatchems. Perhaps I shouldn’t be, though. It was only a howcatchem from the reader’s perspective. From Dr. Thorndyke’s perspective, he was every bit as engaged in trying to solve a mystery as Lord Peter was.
The references to Dr. Thorndyke and learning more about him are also a curious vantage point onto popular culture references aging. The first few times I read the stories I had no idea who Dr. Thorndyke was except what was implied by how he was referenced; he was a brilliant Sherlock Holmes type. Past that, I knew nothing. Now that I know more, it is curious that the reference doesn’t really mean more to me than it did. Perhaps that would change if I were to actually read the Dr. Thorndyke stories—I can’t really say without having read them, of course. (I did just order the first book, The Red Thumb Mark, off of Amazon to at least read the first chapter.)
I think that this does point to popular culture references, if done with enough context to explain them, working reasonably well. It is handy, for example, that Dr. Thorndyke is a doctor; the prefix helps to clarify that the name refers to a person and not a company or a place, for example. Having the other person respond in some fashion also helps, because the response will, itself, help to fill in some of the knowledge necessary to understand the reference.
Popular culture references also adds something interesting to track down and to discuss with one’s friends. It’s curious what little tid bits of history get preserved by offhand comments from people who only ever existed in a writer’s imagination, prompting others to research these things and write down what they were.
There is a story in my family about my grandfather, which comes from the 1950s or perhaps the 1960s, when he was not a grandfather but only the father of three girls. It’s not a long story; they had a television and would sometimes watch it. He had a habit of occasionally, and out of the blue, telling his children to put Tarzan on it.
They would then explain, once again, “but Daddy, you can’t just put Tarzan on. You have wait until they broadcast it.” The way the story is told, I suspect that he knew it perfectly well, and was only teasing his children. In my own experience young children never grow tired of telling their parents things that their parents already know, and a parent pretending to not know something makes for a game that’s a little bit like a baby bird learning to flap its wings.
The very curious thing about this story is how dated it was. When I was a boy, the story required no explanation, for television was still broadcast over radio waves at the time, on a schedule, and if you missed a broadcast you had no way of seeing it again. (Incidentally, when I explained that format of watching shows to my then-five-year-old son, the look of horror on his face was priceless.) This story made perfect sense to me without any explanation.
From what I understand there are still companies using the broadcast television model, though mainly over cables rather than over radio waves, though even that is, so I hear, still going on a little bit. However, the predominant way in which children watch video these days is all video-on-demand over the internet. Whether it’s Netflix or Amazon or Disney+ or YouTube or one of several others, the dominant way a child watches a cartoon is to think of what cartoon he wants to watch, go to the appropriate player, and hit play. Not everything is on streaming services, of course, which is why the DVD and Blu-Ray disks exist; they require a bit more exercise to put into the blu-ray player, but, barring one having a more important obligation, one can still watch whatever one is in the mood for, at approximately the moment one wants to watch it.
This is a story that I will no doubt pass on to my own children, but it is curious that I will have to include an explanation that what will sound perfectly natural to them was actually a joke at the time.
Thinking over the settings for the golden age of detection fiction, it was relatively common for a detective to run into a mystery while on vacation. I think that this served two primary purposes, which I’d like to consider in turn.
The first function of encountering mysteries while on vacation is to spread the murders out, geographically. You can see the reverse of this problem in Murder, She Wrote when Sheriff Metzger asked, after the third or fourth murder since he moved from New York City to get away from the constant violence, whether Cabot Cove was the death capital of Maine. Unless you put your detective in a huge city, as Sherlock Holmes was in London, it is rather limiting to have to set all of his cases locally.
That said, a consulting detective can be called in by someone who does not live near him, just as Sherlock Holmes often was. Vacations, then, serve another purpose, too. Vacations give us interesting places as settings.
This is related, I think, to Lord Peter being very rich. It’s worth looking at the quote from Dorothy L. Sayers on why she did this; the detective’s vacation fulfills a similar function:
Lord Peter’s large income… I deliberately gave him… After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it. I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes. It relieves the mind and does no harm to anybody.
There’s an element of this which I think applies to all writers, or at least almost all writers. We are not a bunch known for actually going on many vacations. Fictional writers do, of course. They travel to book signings the world over to meet legions of adoring fans who wait in long lines to see them for a few seconds. (To be fair, book tours were a thing, once, though like the Wild West they may have lasted longer in fiction than in reality.) Be that as it may, since giving up their personal secretaries and learning to type for themselves, real writers spend a lot of time alone. That’s how the books actually get written.
Sending one’s detective on a vacation can be a good substitute. It also does away with many of the disadvantages of traveling. Plane rides are something to be endured, not enjoyed. The Caribbean may be beautiful, but it is hot in the sun, and for some of us, at least, sunburn is not a highlight of one’s day. No one enjoys donating blood to biting insects. All these inconveniences, and more, can be placed onto the shoulders of our long-suffering detective, while we, in our imaginations, can enjoy only the highlights of the vacation.
What is true of the writer is also true of the reader; it is a pleasure to read about places that incur inconvenience to actually go to.
This question of setting is one that I think mystery writers (though not the great ones) sometimes neglect. That probably sounds like a more sweeping generalization that I mean it; to stand on firmer ground: I, at least, am prone to neglecting it. I tend to be very plot-focused, and as a result think of the setting primarily as it impacts the plot. Obviously, a setting does need to work with the plot and not against it, but I suspect that a good starting point for a mystery is an excellent setting, and then one can consider what sorts of plots would work well in it. At that point selecting characters becomes easier because one has the guidance of the question: who would do such a thing, at such a place? Then just add in some eccentric acquaintances, a romantic sub-plot, and you’re good to go!
In The Well and the Shallows, Chesterton has a chapter on writing styles and egotism. (It is called An Apology for Buffoons, for those interested in reading the whole thing.) In it, he talks about style and what is true egotism; the problem comes up that people are amusing may seem to be drawing attention to themselves, when actually they are drawing attention to the their subject. Conversely, there are people who may seem to be not talking of themselves and yet talk of little else. The second part contains the quote I’m writing this post to to quote, but the first part is worth mentioning.
As an example of someone who draws a great deal of attention to himself through his wit, the purpose of which is to draw attention away from himself and onto his subject, Chesterton uses Mr. George Bernard Shaw. The paragraph where he does is worth quoting in full, because it sets up the last sentence very well.
It is not an idle contradiction to say that Mr. Shaw is flippant because he is serious. A man like Mr. Shaw has the deliberate intention of getting people to listen to what he has to say; and therefore he must be amusing. A man who is only amusing himself need not be amusing. Generally, when he is a perfect and polished stylist, he is not. And there is a good deal of misunderstanding about the relative moral attitude of the two types; especially in connection with the old morality of modesty. Most persons, listening to these loud flippancies would say that Mr. Bernard Shaw is egotistical. Mr. Bernard Shaw himself would emphatically and violently assert that he is egotistical; and I should emphatically and violently assert that he is not. It is not the first time we have somewhat tartly disagreed. And perhaps I could not more effectively perform the just and necessary public duty of annoying Mr. Shaw than by saying (as I do say) that in this matter he really inherits an unconscious tradition of Christian humility. The preaching friar puts his sermon into popular language, the missionary fills his sermon with anecdotes and even jokes, because he is thinking of his mission and not of himself It does not matter that Mr. Shaw’s sentences so often begin with the pronoun “I.” The Apostles Creed begins with the pronoun “I”; but it goes on to rather more important nouns and names.
Now that Chesterton mentions it, there is something very interesting in the fact that the Apostles Creed, as too does the Nicene Creed, starts with the word “I”. In fact, the Nicene creed has it more than once. And yet it is the very opposite of egotistical.
This is related, I think, to how the most momentous things a human being can do is to subsume himself into the mass of humanity. In a strange way, a man becomes most individual when he is in a group of people and reciting the same creed, word for word, all of the other men are reciting too, and which Christians have recited for many centuries.
Be that as it may, it’s really the second part—the disguised egotist—which is why I’m writing this post. Chesterton introduces this with:
Father Ronald Knox, in his satire on Modernism, has described the courteous vagueness of the Oxford manner which
…. tempering pious zeal
Corrected, “I believe” to “One does feel.”
It is quite true that “I believe” is a statement about other things, though admittedly with a bit of a caveat as to who the authority is. “One does feel” is just a description of an experience, if, still, in this more original form, a somewhat generalized feeling. In our own times it has become “I feel.” There is much that can be said about the move from thought (“I think”) to emotion (“I feel”). Suffice it to the moment, though, the timidity which drives it does change it into something that is about the person speaking far more than about the thing spoken about. And the epitome of this is what Chesterton calls, “the essay,” though that term now refers to other things. It is well known, even, now, though. It is a thing with great style and no substance, though often the pretense to substance. The style is unmistakable, and Chesterton imitates it rather well:
“The pond in my garden shows, under the change of morning, an apprehension of the moving air, hardly to be called a wave; and so little clouding its lucidity as to seem rather vacuity in motion. Here at least is nothing to stain the bright negation of water; none of those suburban gold-fish that look like carrots and do but nose after their tails in a circle of frustration, to give some sulky gardener cause to cry ‘stinking fish’. The mind is altogether carried away upon the faint curve of wind over water; the movement is something less solid than anything that we can call liquid; the smoke of my light Virginian cigarette does not mount more unsubstantially towards the sky. Nor indeed inaptly: it needs some such haven of patriarchal mildness to accent sharply the tang of mild tobacco; alone perhaps, of all the attributes of Raleigh’s red-haired mistress, rightly to be called virginal.”
As I mentioned, I’ve been working on the story for He Didn’t Drown in the Lake (the third chronicle of Brother Thomas). I have the “what really happened” written out, and it’s about 5000 words. And I realized I need more.
The first thing I have to do is to add to what-really-happened and include what was going on until the Brothers arrived. There’s a whole bunch of characterization that will happen in those hours between when the police arrive to view the body and when the brothers arrive. In theory, I could just make notes of that, but I tried a bit and it seems like there’s no substitute for actually writing out the story as if it were a novel, even though it won’t (directly) go into the novel.
The other thing I need to write out, in addition to the outline I’m working on, is a schedule for the camp. When does paddleboard yoga happen every day, when are the horseback rides every day, etc. The camp would have a schedule, and I can already tell that I’m going to get horribly lost unless I come up with one, too.
At least I have one paragraph of the actual story written.
Today I received a hilarious spam message. It was from “firstname.lastname@example.org” (almost certainly wasn’t, of course) and had the subject “OHFVQO3N51RUEBV3”. This was, of course, promising. Then I opened the email and couldn’t help but laugh. Here’s the body of the text (I cleaned up the punctuation):
Hi, how are you? I write with with firm intention, if only you would be interested in this letter. Call me Aimeny. Im a very gentlemanlike person. Its not a new for me I look pretty. Have you ever heard about Azerbaijan? Its country I live in. I a just a 25 year old lady. Why am I here? I need a friend! To be honest I want to find a betrothed. Its time to start a family. My best personality traits are sense of humor and kindness. Do I deserve a chance to talk to you? I know that I may be not interesting for you. You can just delete this message. However it would be pleasure to talk to you. I am open for conversation. Ask me anything. Interesting, what will you say to me? It would be great if this is the beginning of something magical. Stay safe, my friend! I will wait for you! Sincerely yours
So, according to this email, Jose Ferrer, who has a German email address, he lives in Azerbaijan and wants me to call him Aimeny. (For what it’s worth, there is an attached picture of a woman in far too much makeup.)
I do understand that these things often are implausible as a feature, to filter out the non-gullible so that the crooks on the other end of the spam don’t need to waste time on people who will figure out what’s going on, but this one seems like it’s taking that to extremes. Even if some lonely man is so desperate he would fall for the body text hoping against hope that it’s real, why would he open the email with a man’s name?
Also, what on earth was the sentence, “Its not a new for me I look pretty” supposed to mean?
One of the problems that detectives investigating complicated murders have is that there is all sorts of evidence that probably exists which it would be convenient for them to have which they don’t. It would be great to have a recording of every phone call every suspect made, for example. Better still would be 24/7 surveillance footage of all suspects. Of course, these would make for very boring detective stories, so no detectives have these.
There is an intermediate case, though, which is the police; the police have broad powers to obtain evidence which ordinary people cannot use. Police can get phone records, they have a network of people to track the movements of an individual, they can compel banks to give them bank records, etc. Sometimes the detective has these advantages because he is a police detective; sometimes he has these advantages because he has a friend on the police force. Perhaps one of the more creative examples was Lord Peter Wimsey, who was able to obtain all sorts of privileges because of his prefix.
There is a curious interaction of these special privileges with the fair play principle. Of course, strictly interpreted any such privilege is fair play if the reader is given the same privilege by being given the information that the detective is, but in another sense this violates part of the spirit of fair play because it takes from the reader the possibility of imagining himself doing what the detective did, under similar circumstances.
This is, for all its flaws, one of the great triumphs of Encyclopedia Brown. His proofs are often pedantic or trivial, and occasionally factually incorrect, but they are all proofs that anyone who has read a lot of non-fiction books could make. The glory of Encyclopedia Brown is that, allowing for the fact that in real life no one would go to the Brown Detective Agency, anyone who reads the books could open their own Brown Detective Agency and make a go of it.
I should also note that I think that this is one reason why some detectives resort to criminal means (more generally, things unavailable to the police) to obtain evidence. This is, essentially, a sort of special privilege for the detective. I suspect this is one of the reasons why I think that such behavior—and, in a sense, lying to witnesses to obtain their testimony—is not as good as the alternative. By doing things which the reader cannot or should not do, the detective gains special privileges which help to explain his special success.
I do not think that there is anything wrong with a detective with special privileges—there have been many great ones—but I think that the great detective without special privileges is a difficult ideal worth being aimed at, at least.