Were Plays the TV of Previous Centuries?

Being, as I am, a fan of English Literature from previous centuries, especially of Pride & Prejudice and golden age detective stories, something I couldn’t help but note is that if anyone was near London (or another big city), going to plays was a common form of entertainment. Something else I’ve learned, in doing research about early detective stories, is that a lot of detective stories and tropes seem to be from plays more than novels.

Putting these together, I’ve begun to wonder whether plays were not, speaking broadly, the television of yesteryear.

In my own experience of plays, these are either some of the cream of English writing, as in the case of Shakespeare, or else are at least fairly time-tested things that are quite expensive and one travels a long distance to see. But plays are not generally talked of that way in earlier British fiction; they were as often a spur-of-the-moment thing as planned, and if planned, just an alternative to something like having people over for dinner. What is, or at least was, talked of like this in my experience is television.

Further, there are parallels. People usually didn’t seem to expect the plays to be very good, and they really didn’t expect them to last. And, indeed, most plays did not. As far as I can tell, the typical play had a short run in a small theater, and then everyone local had seen it and they’d move on.

If this is the case, it makes sense that plays would be frequently formulaic, since they were written on tight schedules and without any expectation of being remembered, and so it would be possible for the theater critic in the story What, No Butler? to say that in all the plays he saw, the butler always did it. (I’ve got a bunch of posts about the trope that the butler did it, btw.) This would be a lot like saying that in Murder, She Wrote the businessman’s wife did it. (There is, by the way, a hilarious formula for a typical Murder, She Wrote episode that illustrates some of what I’m talking about.)

Obviously, there are differences between plays back in the day and television today, even apart from the technology. Television shows have long runs of consistent characters, and occasionally the episodes try to be consistent with each other. (After Babylon 5, it became common to have a “show arc” where there was a long-running story that would make up some and occasionally all of each episode. In a sense these are just a return to the days of the serials, though.)

That said, I think that this might be a useful interpretive key to understanding the attitudes characters would show toward plays in older literature. Even more importantly, I think, it suggests that when trying to work out the development of genres like mystery, it means that by not having access to many of the plays people were seeing, we’re lacking one of the major influences on writers of the novels and short stories that we do have access to. In some ways, it might be like, in the future, trying to understand the development of Science Fiction through the present time without having seen Star Trek or Babylon 5. People who, in the early 2000s, write science fiction novels certainly have seen these influential things and moreover expect that their audiences to have seen them, too. It would be interesting to get a hold of some of those short-lived detective plays from the 1900s.

Why Atheists Can’t Write Good Stories, Short Version

I have previously written at some length about why atheists can’t write good stories. If you want to read a more in-depth treatment, there’s Why Moderns Always Modernize Stories and Why Do Moderns Write Morally Ambiguous Good Guys? However, for convenience, I’ve come up with a very succinct version:

Unless an atheist pretends that God exists in his story, his story is set in Hell. There are no good stories in Hell.

The Weird Idea That Writing Should Hurt

I saw this rather odd writing tip on Twitter the other day. I’m quoting it, rather than another, because it does such a good job of summarizing an attitude towards writing I’ve seen over the years.

Writing Tip: If “editing” your first draft consists of fixing a few typos and changing a word here and there, you’re not doing it right. A first draft should be ripped apart, refashioned, and sewn back together. Anything less is vanity.

It’s that last part that’s the key to this weird attitude. If a particular writer has a writing style where the first draft is essentially a protracted brainstorming session and that works for them, then good for them. The weird attitude is that this is how it should be.

In reality, for at least some people, writing a decent first draft is a viable option. If you’ve done enough planning that you’ve constructed the characters and planned out the setting and written the plot in such a way that it flows out of the characters in their circumstances—substantial changes wouldn’t be editing, they’d be just writing a different book where some of the characters have the same names.

Now, again, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. If for some reason a writer cannot bring themselves to do this sort of planning and thinking before they start writing, then I understand doing a book-length brainstorming session in order to generate some material to work with. I’ve written a few first drafts of novels which I haven’t carried through to publishing, and there’s even a very loose sense in which The Dean Died Over Winter Break can be thought of as a substantial rewrite of a previous novel called A Murder At Yalevard—though it was really more of a different book in which I borrowed some elements of the original. But I find it very strange that the writer quoted above cannot conceive of someone who can plan out their books.

There is of course the explanation that such a writer just cannot see beyond their own limitations, but I can’t help but wonder if this attitude isn’t tied in to the idea of the tortured genius. It was an idea that, so far as I know, became popular somewhere in the 1800s, around the time of Byron and Shelley, who were tortured not so much be genius as by their inability to control their lust. Shelley, in particular, seems to have been afflicted in this way, and his vices seem to have been excused by himself and his wife and friends as, not weaknesses, but virtues. To try to say it was not bad for Percy Bysshe Shelly to cheat on his pregnant wife, they invented a new kind of morality where artists were excused from being halfway decent human beings because of the enormous value they gave to humanity. Their art, I mean.

I’m not sure why this idea was popular, but it does seem to have had some currency through at least the 1930s—at least if golden age detective stories are anything to go by. It also seems, curiously, to be more popular with women than with men; it seems to have been female writers who wrote about it approvingly, and within their fiction it was generally only the women (and occasionally a close male friend) who bought the nonsense. Why that is, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s related to the “bad boy” phenomenon. And for that reason, the idea that one should tear a first draft up in a passion of anger at how far it falls short, and completely rework it, may be related.

As a related side-note, actual geniuses never seem to have been tortured, except occasionally by actual problems, like Beethoven being deaf. Shakespeare was, so far as we know, as reasonably happy as a recusant Catholic could have been in England in the late 1500s. Mozart seems to have no greater troubles than having a period when he didn’t make much money because a war made it hard for musicians; summary biographies don’t mention anything which would interest modern people by similarity, such as profound depression.

Shelly’s genius, to the degree that anyone still holds that he was a genius, seems very overrated. Ozymandias is a good poem, but certainly nothing worth excusing adultery for.

Casting the mind’s eye over other examples of tortured geniuses and actual geniuses, it seems like perhaps the thing that’s really attractive about the tortured genius is not the genius part, but the torture part. And I can’t help but think that this attitude that writing should be torture—what else can throwing away something one worked long and hard at be?—is an attempt to try to find some shreds of life in pain, by people who have no idea where to find life in this world.

Video Games Are Great and Dangerous

A wag I know one described the characteristic masculine and feminine addictions on the internet as:

Men play video games to pretend to be good at doing things. Women use social media to pretend to have friends.

I’m going to leave the second half of that alone, but the first half is interesting. Video games, at least for males, are great and dangerous for really the same reason: they have a much lower effort-to-reward ratio than real life does.

I should clarify that by “real life” I mean skills that still work when the electricity is out. For example, lifting heavy things, carving wood, playing a piano, flying a kite, boxing, riding a bicycle (fast), shooting a bow and arrow, building a miniature ship inside of a bottle, dancing, building a fire from gathered wood and starting it, etc. All of these skills, and many, many more, take a very long time to get good at, typically with a long time at the beginning which has little result besides besides frustration.

In video games, by contrast, one can typically learn the relevant skills to get some rewards within an hour, and often within a few minutes. It is true that they will sometimes have skills which are difficult to master, but even those tend to only require hundreds of hours to master, not tens of thousands, and they almost never involve enduring physical pain along the way.

All this is correct for video games for their intended purpose: relaxation. Video games, used well, are fun. They are a restorative to a weary soul who has been ground down by the trials and tribulations of doing real things, in situations and environments which were not designed to be enjoyable. The quick fun and easy rewards help one to remember the slow enjoyment and eventual rewards of good work in the real world.

The problem is something that really is more dangerous to young men—it is possible to become so used to the ease and comfort of video games that the difficulty of real life becomes insurmountable. Without the rewards of accomplishment coming on the schedule a young video game player has been trained to expect them, he may face crushing disappointment. Instead of being a restorative to a fallen creature in a fallen world, enabling him to face the world in which he lives, it may be an impediment which makes it harder for him to do real things.

As in all things, the trick is to use things in the right way and to avoid their pitfalls.

Hollywood Rat Race is Interesting

I’ll write about it more soon, but I do have to say that Hollywood Rat Race is an interesting book. It gives some interesting insight into Ed Wood. He’s definitely a far more sympathetic figure from this book than just from the movies. Something else which comes across very clearly is how much he loved movies. You can see it in the movies themselves, of course; he would do anything to make movies and that included making bad movies, if that’s what it took to make movies. I’m reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s often misunderstood epigram, “if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”

Much of the book is a warning to people not to come to Hollywood, for one reason and another. The last two lines in the book are very interesting, especially in light of just how much movies were Ed Wood’s life:

But that’s the extent of it. That’s the Hollywood as an insider knows it. Trouble. Problems. Heartaches…

Believe it or not, your life is more real than the Hollywood scene.

Movies Are Very Visual

I was recently thinking about how awful a movie The Least Jedi is, and how much better a movie Plan 9 From Outer Space is, except in the visual aspects—costumes, props, sets, lighting, photography, and special effects. I’ve joked that I want there to be a $150M shot-for-shot remake of Plan 9 From Outer Space to be used as the yardstick by which all sci-fi movies are judged.

Then it occurred to me that in lieu of this to suggest to people that they watch Plan 9 but imagine all of the bright colors, amazing special effects, and so on. Curiously, I could not picture anyone even trying. “Why should I have to do that work for them, that’s their job?” I can hear my interlocutor say. And yet, such people want me to do the exact same thing with the plot. They want me to imagine the motivations, the extra dialog we didn’t see, the equipment we weren’t told about, the things we don’t know anyone did—in short, because the thing is pretty, they want me to do the work of the writer and think that this is quite reasonable to expect me to do, while they are utterly unwilling to do the work of the special effects department.

I think that this suggests that for many people, movies are an extremely visual medium. Perhaps there is even a fraction of the population with a very weak imagination for whom movies are vicariously indulging in having a powerful imagination. If a weak imagination is coupled with a poor memory, that would explain a lot about what movies tend to be mega-blockbusters.

(Note: I’m not, here, criticizing people who were not given as much of some natural virtues as I was. Rather, I think that this makes liking truly awful movies more forgivable and perhaps, even, a little understandable.)

In the Mailbag

In the not too distant past, a relative gave me a copy of the book Hollywood Rat Race. What’s really notable about it is that it was written by Edward D. Wood, Jr. (If the name doesn’t ring a bell, he’s famous for such movies as Bride of the Monster, Glenn or Glenda, and most of all for Plan 9 From Outer Space.) The text on the back bills it as “part how-to manual, part memoir,” and certainly the beginning certainly seems like a how-to manual.

I’m not sure when I’ll have the time to read it, but it can’t help but be interesting. Curiously, the beginning is actually fairly reminiscent of some dialog in the Ed Wood movie The Sinister Urge.

Something else curious is that the book was written mostly during the 1960s, but wasn’t published until twenty years after the authors’ death. (Wood died in 1978, at the age of 54, and the book was first published in 1998.)

Lepers And Social Distancing

A curious thought occurred to me recently with regard to how we talk about lepers in the bible, and especially in the new testament. It’s fairly common to hear about how lepers were feared, had to stay outside of society, etc. and this is often connected to people in modern times who are on the outskirts of our society. Jesus was not afraid of lepers, and so we should not be afraid of those on the outskirts of society, either. (That this means that, among others, we should love neo-nazis and KKK members and the like is rarely mentioned, though, nor is the fact that love does not always look like acceptance, as it would not in those cases.)

What this modern approach seems to miss is that ancient people avoided lepers because lepers had a communicable disease. They weren’t outcasts because they looked different, or had a different culture, or pronounced words in a strange way; they were outcasts because being too close to them might cause one to catch a serious disease. That is, people practiced social distancing from lepers.

In these modern times of COVID-19, we have an exceedingly similar practice with people who have COVID-19, though with our modern understanding of diseases and the conditions of transmissibility, we do admit some exceptions who are wearing a great deal of anti-germ-armor (“PPE”). Medical personal in body suits with respirators aside, people with COVID-19 are outcasts, except we phrase it, “they should self-quarantine”. If someone with COVID-19 comes to a hospital, we expect them to call ahead to warn the staff, and to come through a different entrance, which is a slightly more technologically advanced version of clapping a bowl and calling out “unclean!”

If Christ were conducting his earthly ministry today, there would undoubtedly be COVID-19 patients who came within six feet of him hoping to be cured, and instead of lecturing them to maintain social distancing, he would, undoubtedly, cure them. But he would not come within six feet of someone with COVID-19 because he doesn’t recognize human prejudices and is not afraid of human superstitions—disease is not a human superstition and people with a communicable disease can actually spread it. He would come within six feet of people with COVID-19 because, as Lord of the world, he is Lord of diseases, too. As the one through whom all things were made and nothing was made apart from him, COVID-19 could not hurt him. The one who can make the blind see and the lame walk and clense lepers cannot be harmed by disease, unless he were to choose to permit it.

In short, Jesus did not care about social distancing with lepers because his miraculous power made him immune to communicable diseases. The closest parallel I can think of was when he angered a crowd who brought him to the top of a cliff to throw him off, but it was not his time, so he just walked away from them. This was a demonstration of Christ’s power, not an instruction that Christians should treat angry mobs as if they aren’t dangerous. In like way, Christ was not afraid of lepers because he could cure them, not because communicable diseases are, to use another modern phrase, fake news.

Murder She Wrote: When Thieves Fall Out

The second episode of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote, is titled, When Thieves Fall Out. It’s a very unusual episode of Murder, She Wrote.

The episode begins with the owner of a car dealership firing a drunk salesman. After that we meet a rather enigmatic character. I’m not sure whether to call him the protagonist or the antagonist, and in many ways the episode isn’t sure, either.

His name is Andrew Durbin. It’s a bit complicated, but we learn his backstory: he just got out of prison for a murder he claims he didn’t commit 20 years ago. He had been a hitchiker, and a wealthy businessman was giving him a ride. A car swerved almost into their lane and they swerved to avoid it, crashing. The businessman was injured and Durbin ran to a nearby farmhouse for help, but they didn’t hear his banging on the door. When he got back someone had bashed the businessman’s head in with a rock, and $100,000 in bearer bonds were missing. At that moment the police showed, and he was taken to be the murderer, and was convicted.

He’s back in Cabot Cove because he recognized a kid in the car (in a prom outfit; it was prom night) that ran them off of the road, and he wants vengeance and to know who the driver is.

The kid turns out to be Bill, the owner of the car dealership.

Somewhere around here, the car dealership owner recognizes that some weird things are going and her husband is very scared, so she goes to Jessica for help.

Andrew Durbin goes to the car dealership and says that there seems to be some electrical trouble with his car.

Bill says that he’s busy and will need some time to get the repair done. He suggests that Andrew come back at 9pm to pick up his car. Andrew agrees. Jessica shows up and talks to Bill, but not much really comes from this. He denies everything. Jessica leaves, and Bill calls a confederate—presumably the other person in the car, that fateful night.

Interestingly for a Murder, She Wrote episode, while we’re pretty sure that someone is about to be murdered, we don’t really know who.

It turns out to be Bill, which is an interesting turn of events because it leaves the field so wide open for who the murderer could be. One obvious suspect is the man with whom he had an appointment at around the time he was killed, Andrew Durbin, but it turns out that Durbin has an air-tight alibi. He was eating dinner for 2 hours at a restaurant where several reliable witnesses could vouch for him.

The alibi is useful, structurally, but it’s also very curious that Durbin never showed up to the appointment. It’s somewhat implied, later in the episode, that this was really a setup; he expected this to stir up Bill’s confederate and get him to kill Bill. It’s never explained in detail, and doesn’t make all that much sense as a plan. Unless he figured that Bill’s killer would be sloppy and get caught, this plan would most likely result in the trail going cold and Durbin’s only hope of justice being extinguished. That said, for whatever reason he does it, he never shows up and is careful to have an excellent alibi for before, during, and after the murder is committed.

Convinced that Durbin is both innocent and telling the truth, Jessica interviews Bill’s old high school friends who were with him that night.

They lie to Jessica, of course, in order to protect Bill’s memory, and say that he was with them the whole time. Eventually it comes out that Bill was drunk and left early. There’s some further investigation and a sub-plot where one of Bill’s old football friends who is pretending to have been crippled in a car crash and is suing Bill turns out not to be crippled and to only be scamming.

I probably should have mentioned earlier that high school football was a big theme. All of Bill’s male friends from high school were on the football team with him, and they were the only team from Cabot Cove who ever won the state championship. This is important because it turns out that the driver, and the murderer both of Bill and of the driver 20 years ago was the beloved high school football coach.

There was actually a pretty good line from his confession, when he talked about how the business he had invested his share of the $100,000 into went bust almost immediately: “I guess I should have known that nothing good would come of that money.”

What really makes this episode special, though, is that it doesn’t stop here. Later that night, as Jessica and Amos are having dinner, Andrew Durbin shows up at Jessica’s doorstep to thank her.

Jessica says that she wishes he wouldn’t. She acknowledges that he was telling the truth and spent 20 years in prison unjustly, but he knew what would happen when he came. He replies that he did warn her that he was after justice.

“I can’t help but think that justice could have been served in a better way.”

Then he gets one of the all-time great lines in Murder, She Wrote.

“Oh? Well you give it some thought, Mrs. Fletcher, and when you figure out what could have been, let me know.”

Jessica is at a loss for words. He turns and leaves, and she closes the door. She then leans against it, thinking.

And there the episode ends.

Something I touched on in my blog post about how Jessica Fletcher is an oddly libertine scold is that she has an extremely strong but highly selective sense of indignation. She deplores violence but not, in general, any of the things which tend to make it necessary.

She dislikes, tremendously, that people she cared about were made to suffer. This is understandable, but it is a fault in Jessica that she didn’t rise above her feelings and stick to her principles and acknowledge that Durbin was in the right. Instead, she resents being made to be the one to find them out. In short, she is entitled to grieve, but not to be indignant, and Durbin’s final line points out to her how little she is entitled to her indignation.

Jessica does not learn from this moment, of course. First, because she’s written by television writers. Second, because Murder, She Wrote was episodic, with episodes not being related to each other. Frankly, I think it’s really more the former than the latter, though. All that said, it’s pretty satisfying for Jessica to get a comeuppance, for once.

Apart from all this, it’s an interesting episode. Detectives investigating long-ago mysteries is interesting, because the evidence is so limited (at least when people don’t oddly good memories about things long-past to which they hadn’t attached any great significance at the time). This is done much better in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, but it’s an unfair comparison. That was a novel; a 48 minute long TV episode cannot be as good. It does partake of some of what made that novel so good, though, even if it takes the easy route and uses photographs instead of people’s partial memories.

Further Preliminary Thoughts on Dorothy L. Sayers on Gaudy Night

This is a continuation of my post from yesterday, giving some prelimary thoughts on Dorothy L. Sayers essay Gaudy Night in the book Titles to Fame. Today something Ms. Sayers said about the development of a character over many books caught my attention. I’m going to quote it here because I think that the expression of Ms. Sayers own words are necessary to understand the thing she is trying to communicate:

I had from the outset, of course, envisaged for Peter a prolonged and triumphal career, going on through book after book amid the plaudits of adoring multitudes. It is true that his setting forth did not cause as great a stir as I had expected, and that the adoring multitudes were represented by a small, though faithful, band of adherents. But time would, I hoped, bring the public into a better frame of mind, and I plugged confidently on, putting my puppet through all his tricks and exhibiting him in a number of elegant attitudes.  But I had not properly realized—and this shows how far I was from understand what it was I was trying to do with the detective novel—that any character that remains static except for a repertory of tricks and attitudes is bound to become a monstrous weariness to his maker in the course of eight or nine volumes.

I cannot contradict Ms. Sayers from my own experience, yet, as I’m only beginning work on my third Brother Thomas novel. However, there is something here on which I think she is mistaken, or, rather, about which she is over-generalizing.

Before saying what, I also think it’s worth considering the Lord Peter bibliography, bearing in mind that Ms. Sayers had tired of Lord Peter and set off to retire him in Strong Poison:

  1. Whose Body?
  2. Clouds of Witness
  3. Unnatural Death
  4. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
  5. Strong Poison
  6. The Five Red Herrings
  7. Have His Carcase
  8. Murder Must Advertise
  9. The Nine Tailors
  10. Gaudy Night
  11. Busman’s Honeymoon

The eight or nine volumes in which Lord Peter had become a monstrous weariness to his maker was, in fact, four volumes. It’s worth considering what those four volumes were like. In Whose Body? we (and the authoress) meet Lord Peter, and everyone is interesting when you first meet them. Clouds of Witness was an excellently crafted mystery, and there was some character development in it, though in the sense of revealing the character of Wimsey rather than changing it. In Unnatural Death we see a great deel more of Miss Climpson and not nearly as much of Wimsey, and that quite often to serve the plot. In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, we see more of Wimsey, but his personality has largely retreated. Over the stories, we also see the diminution of Charles Parker, in whom Sayers seemed to initially place some personality and intend character development.

What we see, when we look at him, is that he became somewhat more of a puppet in these stories; he was there because someone had to investigate the mysteries, and Sayers balked at introducing a new detective in each story after her experiment with doing so in Unnatural Death. The problem, though, is not really that Lord Peter wasn’t changing. The problem is that Lord Peter didn’t have much of a personality (yet). You can see this in what Ms. Sayers said she needed to do in order to humanize him in order to pull off the romance which was started in Strong Poison but which didn’t work there:

If the story was to go on, Peter had got to become a complete human being, with a past and a future, with a consistent family and social history, with a complicated psychology and even the rudiments of a religious outlook.

None of this requires Peter to change throughout the books. All it requires is to actually do it.

To give an example of what I mean, in the first four books we do learn that Lord Peter likes music, but he never says anything about it. We don’t know what he likes about which pieces. He collects first editions, but we don’t know why he collects first editions, and rarely which things he collects first editions of. He has read literature, but we don’t know what he thinks of it. And then, of course, he’s the sort of pointlessly non-religious character which was extraordinarily common amongst golden age detectives, for no discernible reason.

I don’t mean to keep harping on this point, but it is closely related to the problem Ms. Sayers has with Lord Peter—that he can’t articulate a reason for anything that he does other than sheer curiosity is a massive problem to him being a flesh-and-blood human being. All human beings have curiosity; the detective merely being curious is not enough. He must also either overcome the inhibitions which people have to investigating murders, or he must simply lack them. A religious reason for risking death and people disliking you can overcome this inhibition, as they did for Father Brown. The other detectives of the time seem to merely lack this inhibition. This may partially be why they are all eccentric, but they are mostly eccentric without being interesting because of it.

While there was still the thrill of working out the form and nature of the mystery novel, this could be overlooked. One detective might do as well as another when the reader wasn’t much paying attention to him anyway. As Chesterton showed, however, this was in no way necessary. And I think that this is what Ms. Sayers discovered when she finally started putting flesh onto her detective.

Dorothy L. Sayers on Gaudy Night, Preliminary Thoughts

As I mentioned, I’ve gotten a copy of Dorothy L. Sayers essay in the book Titles to Fame, in which she discussed the creation of her novel, Gaudy Night. I’ve read it over twice, and will be writing a more in-depth analysis of it, but at the moment I wanted to give some preliminary thoughts.

One of the things which leaps out at me is that she described the nature of detective stories in the early 1920s as being very focused on plot, to the exclusion of character. They were not supposed to be “serious”. Especially interesting to me is that she gave, as the exception that proved the rule, G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. He introduced philosophy into the detective story, but he was also an acknowledge master of paradoxes, and popular detective stories which were philosophical were simply one more paradox in his rather large bag of them.

She goes on to describe a trend, from the twenties into the thirties, of detective stories becoming more fleshed-out stories and less pure puzzles. This trend I find interesting, because, depending on whether you count the detective story as starting out with Sherlock Holmes or C. Auguste Dupin, it didn’t really start as a pure puzzle. In fact, even if you count the detective story as starting out with C. Auguste Dupin, you can still observe the trend of moving more toward pure puzzles, with the final Dupin story being entirely about reasoning from newspaper articles.

Be that as it may, it does raise an interesting question: why would people prefer detective stories that were pure puzzles, without real characters?

Before attempting to answer that, I think it worth noting that I’m not sure that Ms. Sayers was entirely correct. My evidence for this is hardly conclusive, but for example I can find no major support for it in the book Masters of Mystery, published in 1930. That was a few years too late to be in the full sway of what Ms. Sayers is describing, so it does not suffice. On the flip side of the 1920s, the 1907 The Red Thumb Mark and 1911 The Eye of Osiris Dr. Thorndyke novels were both almost as much love stories as they were detective stories. They are even further in time from the early 20s than Masters of Mystery was, though. The only thing with which I am familiar and which is right about that time is The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which was published in 1920 (in the United States; early 1921 in England). I am afraid I must confess that I haven’t actually read the book—I’ve only read a handful of the Poirot stories—I’ve only seen the David Suchet TV production of it. While it certainly is not a novel of manners, nor is it Gaudy Night, neither is it merely a crossword puzzle in literary form. That said, a handful of further exceptions will not disprove a general rule, and most of the detective fiction of the time period has been lost to us in the mists of time.

To return to the question at hand, I think that there is an excellent reason for detective stories to have moved, for a time, in the direction of pure puzzles: they were new and people had not yet worked out how to do the puzzles. This was true both of readers as well as writers; both were figuring out what the puzzle inside of a detective story was.

When something is new, there is, of course, the pleasure of novelty, but there is also the difficulty of novelty. The structures which make up the new thing are unfamiliar, which makes initial learning easy, but the unfamiliarity of the structures of the new thing also makes it hard to do anything else other than learn them. Accordingly, it makes sense to prefer the things in a purer form.

To give an example of what I mean, early on a person may not be suspected by the reader merely because his presence seems obvious, though it might not have been necessary. Once this is learnt, however, it becomes possible to trick the reader by casting suspicion on a character by the trick of obviously diverting suspicion from him. Once this trick is learnt, it becomes unclear what sort of trick is being played, and so the reader knows to suspend his judgement merely because a character appears innocent.

There are many such examples that can be given; writers and readers have gone through bluffs and double bluffs and triple bluffs, until finally the rules of the game have been pretty well learnt by both and it is interesting rather than taxing to add in other elements.

To put the thing in another way, it took a while for Fr. Knox’s Decalogue to come about. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the issue with fair play is not really about a guessing game between reader and writer, but rather that it keeps the writer honest and makes the story a much better detective story. Once the rules of detective fiction were worked out, the detective story became good enough to make alloys of it with other sorts of stories.

I do not know that this is what happened, of course, and still less do I know, if this did happen, that this is why it happened. If it did happen, though, this does seem to me the most likely reason why.

Materialist Detectives

One of the things which I disliked about the second Dr. Thorndyke novel, The Eye of Osiris, is that all of the principal characters were Materialists. (For those not familiar: materialism, in this sense, is the belief that the only thing which exists is matter and its interactions; it denies things like God, the soul, free will, etc.) While the characters were not religious in the first book, it was far more explicit here and the book was, in consequence, less enjoyable.

The main problem with Materialists as detectives is that their position is a false one with regard to the main activities of a detective. A detective detects, yes, but for a purpose. In a mystery, the world has become corrupted through the wrong use of reason, and the detective enters it in order to restore the world to its proper order through the right use of reason. It is true that detective stories sometimes aimed to be pure puzzles, as if they were a long-form version of a logic problem where “The baker is sitting next to the red haired man, and across from Sally”. That is simply false, though. The moment that there are characters who are moving through time, they must have motives; they must have a theory of the world and be acting according to it or against it, and thinking well of themselves or being self-reproachful. In short, once you have characters not not mere chess-pieces, they must be human. They might be failed human beings, as in the classic creature of pure habit who goes to work, comes home, watches TV until it’s bedtime, and repeats the process every day merely because it is his habit, with no more thought than we can perceive a rabbit gives to munching grass. But the very fact of telling us what a man does during the day tells us what he doesn’t do, by exclusion. In short, the pure puzzle does not work.

The Materialist cannot do anything other than a pure puzzle. To the Materialist, a human being is merely a clump of matter that happens to be more interesting than an equally sized clod of dirt for reasons of pure sentimentality. The mystery cannot actually be a problem, to the Materialist, because he has no theory of the world in which one organization of matter is superior to any other. He cannot be restoring the world to its proper order because it has no proper order. The Materialist, in truth, has no reason to do one thing instead of another; all he has are the tendencies he has inherited from men who did have a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

This problem is exacerbated in The Eye of Osiris because the person whom Dr. Thorndyke is helping cannot pay Dr. Thorndyke’s fee. Some reason must be put forth for Dr. Thorndyke helping, and since charity is not a permissible reason, as Materialists may neither give nor receive charity for reasons a little too involved to go into here, Dr. Thorndyke is in the absurd position of insisting that he is not in the least helping the old man intentionally, but purely as a by-product of satisfying his own curiosity in the case. In fact, he goes so far as to reject the old man’s thanks.

This is reasonably true to life; Materialists cannot actually exist in society with other Materialists, because their mutual philosophy leaves no room for human beings. It is not, however, interesting. The wretched state of the Materialist is true, so in that sense the book does embody a truth about real life, but it is an unpleasant truth. Unpleasant truths are not what we look for in mystery novels. We look to mystery novels, not for the temporary truth that the world has fallen, but for the eternal truth that the world has been saved. It’s hard enough to remember in this world of sin and woe; we don’t need our reminders of it to make it harder to remember.

Jessica Fletcher is a Weirdly Libertine Scold

I am a big fan of Murder, She Wrote. I watched it very fondly as a kid, and I own the DVD box set of all 12 seasons. I enjoyed it then and I enjoy it now. I am a fan. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the thoughts I am going to relate.

One of the really weird things, that’s obvious to me now that I’m watching it as an adult, is that Jessica Fletcher is a weirdly libertine scold. She absolutely deplores violence, and also murder. She also has absolutely no patience for selling drugs. Other than that, she really doesn’t care what people do and will smile at just about anything.

This is odd for several reasons, not the least of which is how completely at odds this is with her background. Jessica is a retired school teacher from a small town in New England. This is a place where people are expected to pull their weight and screwing over friends and family for personal selfishness is frowned upon. The sort of selfishness involved in cheating on a spouse, prostitution, casual sex, leaving someone to move to a big city and follow ones dreams, and the like—these are the sorts of things which city-folk don’t care about, in part because half of them have done these things and the other half expect that they will in the not too-distant future. These aren’t part of the things small-town America approves of because they see the damage they cause.

Another odd thing about this is Jessica Fletcher’s age. She was a retired schoolteacher, which means that she had to have been in at least her late 50s in 1984 (the shows are contemporary). The latest she could have been born would have been around the year 1930. (Angela Lansbury was born in 1925, and was generally about the age of Jessica Fletcher.) A woman who grew up in small-town America in the 1930s and was a young woman in the late 1940s and early 1950s would not have been someone who instinctively approved of fornication, adultery, infidelity, and selfishness.

It may be objected that we normally see Jessica take in all of these acts unphased during an investigation, when, as a detective, she needs the confidence of the people she’s pumping for evidence. This might work if she weren’t willing to turn scold if one of the few things which offended her popped up. Moreover, she never scolds anyone about these things after the investigation, though she will scold them, then, for murder and violence.

This is most easily attributed, of course, to the loose morality of the people writing Murder, She Wrote. They, being in Hollywood, didn’t really disapprove of much of anything at all, though at times they were obliged to pretend to. That said, if we refrain from drawing back the curtain and only consider the work of fiction on its own terms, Jessica Fletcher is a very strange character.

Murder, She Wrote, for all that it’s fun, is often corny, though I admit it with great reluctance. That Jessica Fletcher was never given any actual principles, which is to say that she was never given any definite beliefs about the meaning of life and the attendant consequences of that, is I think what really kept the show from ever being great. She is, in a certain way, a direct descendant of the early detectives, who were often supposed to be mere calculating machines with legs. She had traits, but never really a personality.

I think that this is a great pity, though I doubt that it could have been otherwise in American television in the 1980s.

The Eye of Osiris

So, I’ve read the second Dr. Thorndyke novel, The Eye of Osiris. I didn’t entirely expect to do that, but I was curious how Dr. Freeman introduced the inverted detective story (“howchatchem” as opposed to “whodunnit”). I didn’t find out, though, because it turns out that he didn’t do it in this novel, either. The villain was relatively obvious, but his identity was not revealed until the second to last chapter.

I doubt that there is a point to spoiler warnings on works so old that they were published before any reader of this blog post was born. Moreover, if one wants to read the story The Eye of Osiris in a state of total ignorance as to what the next page carries, it seems improbably in the extreme that one would read a blog post with that title, and whose first paragraph purports to be about that very book. That said, if such is your aim, dear reader, stop reading this post and go read the book.

Rather to my surprise, The Eye of Osiris is narrated, not by Dr. Jervis, but by another doctor whose name I forget. Whereas Jervis was unemployed and came into the employ of Dr. Thorndyke, this doctor—his name is Berkeley, I just looked it up—is filling in for another doctor, who owns a private practice, and who is now on vacation. Dr. Berkeley is young, and was taught in school by Thorndyke, which is how he knows him. Other than these variations, he fulfills much the same role that Dr. Jervis did in the first book. It is for Dr. Berkeley to become a friend of the household, to extract information about it from passing conversation, and to fall in love with the beautiful and intelligent young lady who lives in it. Dr. Jervis, presumably now married to the beautiful and intelligent young lady from the household of the previous case, has precious little to do in this story. This will sound more significant when the reader understands that about a third of each book is taken up with its respective doctor falling in love with its respective lady.

The mystery, itself, is interesting, though the chief of the mystery isn’t really who did it—there are only two plausible suspects, and one of them swears that the other didn’t know about the will which could be his only motive. To give the barest summary of the plot: a rich man, John Bellingham, called on his cousin, Mr. Hurst, after a month-long overseas trip, but when Hurst came home and checked in his study, Bellingham was not there despite the maid not seeing him leave. Hurst rushed over to Bellingham’s layer, Mr. Jellicoe, and together they went to Bellingham’s brother’s house, where Jellicoe found a scarab Bellingham always wore on his watch chain. Two years later, bones from an apparently dismembered body started showing up in pools and rivers in an area near to where the missing man’s house was. John Bellingham’s will left a few thousand pounds to Mr. Jellicoe, who shared Bellingham’s interest in egyptology, and left the bulk of his estate to his brother if he was burried within his family parish and to Mr. Hurst if he was not burried there. This bizarre will caused much confusion and trouble.

It’s fairly clear from the description—which also involved Mr. Jellicoe being the last person to see John Bellingham alive before his trip—that it was Mr. Jellicoe who committed the crime. Murderers really should be more careful than to find chance evidence themselves. (It was also clear that when “Mr Bellingham” called on his cousin after his trip, no one who would recognize him actually saw him.) What is unclear, though, is why the body was cut up into so many pieces, and why it was done with medical precision—it was severed in places an anatomist might sever it, and moreover it was done without any scratching on the bones. Why did the murderer take such care to dissect his victim?

Having some experience of butchering large vertebrates (deer), and hence being familiar with why one would cut the arm with the shoulder blade rather than at the ball joint, I partially guessed at the answer: the victim had done a good deal of rotting prior to his body being dissected. It turns out that the egyptology was more relevant to the plot than one might have suspected, and the body was not that of John Bellingham but instead a mummy which Bellingham had gifted to the British museum. John Bellingham’s corpse had been concealed within the cartonnage that concealed the mummy.

The grand reveal, here, was done with x-ray photography of the mummy, revealing various features of John Bellingham such as a tattoo of the eye of Osiris on his chest as well as silver wire in his kneecaps from when they were surgically repaired after being broken. I think that this was a much more exciting reveal in 1911, a mere 16 years after x-rays were discovered and while they were still very much in their infancy as a technology.

Overall, The Eye of Osiris is a somewhat strange book. It’s enjoyable to read, though I did find myself skimming some of the more melodramatic parts of the romantic plot. Dr. Jervis, who was the best developed character in the first book, barely appears. Even Dr. Thorndyke shows up less than he did in The Red Thumb Mark. The scientific evidence, which in this case essentially means the medical evidence—is emphasized to an enormous degree over all other kinds of evidence. I suppose that this makes a certain amount of sense with a doctor both as the actual writer and the fictional writer of the story, but medical evidence tends to be the least interesting sort of evidence there is, with the possible exception of accounting evidence. And then there is the very strange ending where the crime is revealed, not to be murder, but merely to be concealing the body of a man who died by accident, together with casting suspicion upon innocent people for the murder of the man who wasn’t murdered. This was a very strange decision, since the book goes to some lengths to show just how uncaring of his fellow creatures Mr. Jellicoe was, but then instead of the strange events being the plot of Jellicoe they are merely his best attempt to avoid being convicted of murder for the accidental death of his friend.

I should note, though, that The Eye of Osiris, like The Red Thumb Mark before it, has the occasional clever wordplay. In fact, it may have a bit more of it. For example, in a probate court in which an interested party is trying to get John Bellingham declared dead:

“…As the time which has elapsed since the testator was last seen alive is only two years, the application [to presume death] is based on the circumstances of the disappearance which were, in many respects, very singular, the most remarkable feature of that disappearance being, perhaps, its suddenness and completeness.”

Here the judge remarked in a still, small voice that, “It would, perhaps, have been even more remarkable if the testator had disappeared gradually and incompletely.”

I doubt that I would recommend The Eye of Osiris to anyone, though neither would I counsel anyone to not read it. It is pleasant enough and is, at least, curious as an element of history.

Historical Research is Interesting

I recently paid approximately $10 to get a copy of a chapter that Dorothy L. Sayers wrote in the book Titles To Fame, which is an anthology book in which “Ten eminent novelists … give us the ‘biographies’ of their most successful books” (supposedly, according to the forward). I applied to and filled out a form with the Marion E. Wade Center to get the copy of that chapter. It was a most curious feeling, finding a document mostly forgotten that sheds insight into a subject which is not forgotten.

There was even a certain fitting aspect to this, in that the chapter is about the book Gaudy Night, which is about scholarship, and its plot even turns on a document which was found and stolen in a remote library. Further, Harriet’s cover story for her presence in Oxford is research into the life of the victorian era novelist Sheridan Le Fanu. (Le Fanu was an Irishman best known for ghost stories; I’ve only been able to find a little bit about his mystery stories, and I’m not sure, from the descriptions I’ve seen, that they’re really in the same sort of genre as what we commonly call mystery, i.e. where there is a detective and an explanation to which the reader comes to know. I suppose I will need to find some of his works and actually read them to find out for myself. That said, as an interesting tidbit, Le Fanu was writing primarily from the 1830s to the 1870s; Harriet investigating him in 1935 is actually rather like me researching Dorothy L. Sayers now, that is, in the year of our Lord 2020.)

I’m going to write at least one post and possibly several on the contents of the chapter. For the moment, I just wanted to mention the curious feeling that accompanies digging up things which have been mostly lost to time. It’s got a certain exhilaration to it which is often rendered accurately in golden age mysteries which feature Egyptologists and archaeologists more generally.

Servants in Mysteries

An extremely common feature of golden age detective mysteries is the presence of servants in a household. They acted as witnesses for the police, to place people at the scene of a crime as well as to provide alibis. They were also invaluable sources of information when discretely pumped. It is very difficult to come up with any modern equivalent, though, at least outside of exceedingly rich households.

In real life, servants occupied a curious niche in British culture during the early 1900s; with the rise of the middle class servants were relatively commonplace, since the middle class was comparatively wealthy and the transition from farms to a modern economy was still underway, supplying a large number of people who had few specialized skills but just as much need to earn a living as anyone else. This made servants affordable, and the middle class’s pretensions to be like the aristocracy, combined with a lack of the modern labor-saving devices, made servants indispensable of one could at all employ them.

From the detective writer’s perspective, they were enormously valuable, since they lived intimately with families to whom they rarely had any great allegiance. A brother might lie to protect a brother, or a mother her son, but there was no reason to suppose that a valet would lie to protect his master or a cook to protect her mistress. I can’t recall a single instance of anyone supposing that a charwoman would so much as j-walk for an employer.

In books, servants were not omniscient; it was possible to fool them or even to hide a body on the premises and dispose of it without their seeing. Neither were they disloyal. They would answer the questions of the police, so far as they were legally obliged to, but they did, in general, hold that repeating what they saw to strangers was no business of theirs. Discretion was important no less in maids than in doctors. However close to reality this was, it was plausible—if for no other reason than in keeping with other fiction from the timer period—and phenomenally useful to the detective writer.

The writers of mysteries has two opposing problems, and they arise out of the two principle characters of the mystery story. On the one hand, there must be sufficient evidence of the crime that the detective can detect it. On the other hand, there must be sufficiently little evidence of the crime that the murderer is willing to commit the crime at all. The near-ubiquity of servants, combined with their limitations, answer this need quite admirably, which goes a long way to explaining how frequently they showed up for the purpose.

Times have changed and servants no longer make any economic sense, outside of the homes of the unbelievably rich. The most significant factor here is that the transition in farming is mostly complete. In the United States, approximately 2% of the population are farmers; mechanization has taken its toll and the toll has been paid. Immigrants do supply a small stream of unspecialized labor, but even here the economy as a whole has developed enough jobs for people who can learn specialized skills that they do not concentrate in any particular industry. Even where they do show up in service jobs, these service jobs tend to be done on a contract basis. People no longer employ gardeners but lawn services. People rarely have maids though they may have a cleaning service. Much of the work a maid might do has been rendered doable in a short time by a washing machine, a dryer, or a vacuum cleaner. In short, live-in servants are no longer plausible. Are there any other professions which might fill the role?

I fear that, for the most part, there are not. Where people congregate they tend to pack in too closely, for the sake of efficiency, to make it easy for someone to slip something by the witnesses. Where people do not congregate, they tend to live only with people whose testimony is worthless for an alibi.

There are, of course, exceptions. Resorts will have people who work at them and at least temporarily live there, but who live in sufficiently low density that they will not observe everything which goes on. Museums, art galleries, libraries and the like also (sometimes) have approximately the right density of impartial witnesses, though they tend to be closed outside of business hours and over-packed with guests during business hours. That said, they will have slack times, of course. There are also some academic settings, such as a laboratory, that may work for the purpose, too.

All of these substitutes will have their peculiarities that will, perforce, change the stories set with them. This is no disaster, but it will make some of the spirit of the golden age mysteries harder to recapture because part of that spirit was the ordinariness that the extraordinary events took place in. One cannot make an extraordinary setting feel ordinary. Even if an volcanic observation post has the same density of impartial witnesses that a Victorian home might, it will need to be filled with the sort of odd people who might live an work in a volcanic observation post. Nearly anyone might be forced into the circumstances which make a job as a cook the only job they can get, but few people are forced by the need to avoid starvation into being a librarian. Modern writers, if we try to recapture the atmosphere of golden age mysteries, are forced to turn the characters who in the original would have been comic relief into everymen. Circumstances having changed, we must work very hard to have both the circumstances and the humanity that golden age mysteries had.