The Problem of Thor Bridge

The Problem of Thor Bridge was first published in 1922, making it one of the last Sherlock Holmes stories published in The Strand Magazine and towards the last of the Holmes stories published anywhere. (Only ten Holmes stories were published after, the last in March of 1927.)

By this time, other detective stories were well underway. Dr. Thorndyke had been solving cases for fifteen years, Father Brown had been solving cases for twelve years and Poirot for two. I don’t know whether Sir Arthur ever read any of these stories, or to what degree they influenced him. It seems possible, though, as this is one of the only Holmes stories in which there is a ingenious murder device, that is, with a clever and unusual method of committing murder. Far more common in Holmes stories are fairly ordinary means of committing murder that only left a few clues behind. (As well, there are plenty of non-murder cases entirely. Possibly the majority—I haven’t counted.)

Technically all the villain got away with, in the story, was self-murder, and merely attempted to murder the woman she hated by setting the scene to look like murder and framing her rival. It was still a very clever and original technique for murder.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, Mrs. Maria Gibson was jealous of miss Grace Dunbar, the governess of her children, because her husband had fallen in love with Miss Dunbar. Mrs. Gibson made an appointment with Miss Dunbar for a certain time in the evening and had Miss Dunbar confirm it with a note. After Miss Dunbar came, Mrs. Gibson insulted her until she ran away. Once Miss Dunbar was safely out of earshot, she tied a heavy rock, with a long piece of twine, to a gun, and shot herself, with the note clutched in her other hand. When she fell dead, the rock pulled the gun over the edge of the bridge and into the water below. The final piece of evidence against Miss Dunbar was a duplicate gun, planted in Miss Dunbar’s wardrobe.

The absence of the gun was very strong evidence against suicide, and the timing selected gave most people, except for Miss Dunbar, an alibi for the time of death. It’s quite clever.

I find it curious that this means of murder has been copied so little. I couldn’t think of any examples, and the Wikipedia page mentions only two TV shows which have borrowed the idea, one CSI in an episode titled Who Shot Sherlock? The other is a Murder, She Wrote episode from the eighth season titled To The Last Will I Grapple With Thee.

I watched that episode of Murder, She Wrote, as I didn’t remember it. It’s a good episode, though a bit strange because most of the cast are Irish immigrants; most of the cast except for Jessica Fletcher and the Police Lieutenant speak with an Irish brogue. It’s one of the episodes set in New York City when Jessica is teaching classes as some university. There’s an Irish ex-policeman who moved to America to start a new life, with his adult daughter, and he’s pursued by a career criminal from Ireland, with whom he had a long history including having tried to win the hand of the same woman, who tries to frame the ex-policeman for his murder. He uses a weight on a string tied to a heavy weight to hide the gun in the open cavity of an unfinished wall, but Jessica spots the marks the gun made on the wall and deduces what happened. It turned out that the career criminal had an inoperable brain tumor, and since he had so little time left, he decided to make one last attempt to get back at his old enemy.

He is explicitly likened to Ahab in Moby Dick, and a part of Ahab’s final speech is quoted. It’s worth quoting in full (if you haven’t read Moby Dick, Ahab had dedicated his life to veangeance against the white whale, who has just rammed Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, and the ship is sinking).

I turn my body from the sun. What ho, Tashtego! let me hear thy hammer. Oh! ye three unsurrendered spires of mine; thou uncracked keel; and only god-bullied hull; thou firm deck, and haughty helm, and Pole-pointed prow,—death-glorious ship! must ye then perish, and without me? Am I cut off from the last fond pride of meanest shipwrecked captains? Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!

The most famous of the lines is, of course, “to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee”. (It was also quoted very well by the dying Khan, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, as Khan self-destructed his ship to try to kill Kirk. Ricardo Montalbán was a good actor.) You wouldn’t think that Murder, She Wrote could pull this sort of true drama off, but somehow it did.

I’ve never seen CSI and have no intention of seeing it, so I can’t comment on it, but I find it curious that the only place this murder device has been used was in long-running TV shows, which have a huge demand for material, and only after many years. And in the Murder, She Wrote episode they played somewhat fast and loose with the wall having an open cavity in it. They never really showed us that it had that feature.

I wonder why this is. Is it just that copying the greats feels cheap? But copying the greats is usually the best strategy for a writer, at least while making it one’s own. Mediocrity borrows, genius steals, and all that.

Perhaps it’s just that the disguised suicide of The Problem of Thor’s Bridge is so recognizable? If a body was found on a bridge with a chip in the stonework, a modern audience might scream if the detective does not immediately dredge the lake or stream for the gun. Yet, I have not seen even variants of this—murdering someone and then dropping the gun over a bridge with a rock on a rope to disguise the murder as suicide-disguised-as-murder. With modern materials one need not even use a rock a a counterweight. Elastics, springs, and other things would expand the range of hiding places for a murder weapon. It is, at least, an interesting direction to explore.

What Bad Guys Get Right

Recently, I wrote about Writing Villains and Satanic Banality and Bad Guys Who Think They’re the Good Guys. In the latter, I mentioned an annoying habit some writers have where they mangle bad guys thinking that they’re good guys into bad guys actually being good guys. This leaves them with the problem of coming up with who the real bad guy is, and they usually do a bad job at this since the real bad guy’s motivations and actions are (typically) an afterthought. The way I put it, when explaining how the good guy was convinced that another good guy was actually a bad guy, was:

There’s only one way to do this, and Miss Bennet hit upon it in Pride & Prejudice when she was trying to exculpate both Mr. Darcy and Wickham: interested people have misrepresented each to the other. But there is a problem with this. As Elizabeth Bennet observed in reply, if you cannot clear the interested people, one will be obliged to think ill of someone. It is not an accident that in this sort of story the good guy inevitably discovers that he’s actually working for the real bad guys. The only other way out is the way the X-Files took: behind each good guy who seems to be a bad guy is some other apparent bad guy responsible for the deception. Every time you peel the onion, there’s another layer. If one doesn’t go that sort of unsatisfying route—perhaps because one is writing in a book or movie and not a TV story with hundreds of episodes coming down the pike—then what we end up with are villains who had plausibly convinced the good guy that they were good guys who are performing their evil for no real reason. They always want to take over the world because it’s there, or kill off three fourths of the population of the world because by some convoluted logic this would drive the share price of their company up by fifteen percent.

I want to go into a bit more depth on why the bad guy killing three fourths of the world to drive a stock price up by fifteen percent makes no sense despite the thing making a bad guy a bad guy being a fundamental error about what is good. Or, in other words, I want to discuss what it is that bad guys get right. Having them get the things wrong that they would get right is as bad as having them get nothing wrong.

The key to knowing what mistakes a villain will necessarily make and those he would never make comes from knowing which other beliefs about the world the villain will hold at the same time as he is considering his fundamental mistake. I probably need to pause here to explain what I mean.

When a person makes a mistake about the world, they will inevitably believe something else which contradicts that mistake. That is because there is only one completely consistent set of beliefs about the world—the correct ones. But a person who makes a mistake is unlikely to make all of the mistakes required to be completely consistent with that mistake; in general that would involve believing all sorts of weird things, like dogs not existing or trees being a figment of one’s imagination. For those who have not studied logic, there is a problem that immediately arises: anything follows from a contradiction. What this means is that if you believe two contradictory things, you can logically derive, through entirely valid logic, any conclusion that you want. You can, but the thing is: people don’t actually do that.

There are various ways to work around the problem that anything follows from a contradiction (I discuss one of the more common ways in my post Kant’s Version of Knowledge), but they all have the basic feature that the world becomes fractured to the person who believes the contradiction. The fracture lines are the contradictions. On one side of the contradiction, the person believes a fairly consistent set of beliefs which they only apply when that truth value of the contradiction is relevant. On the other side is another fairly consistent set of beliefs, many of which contradict the first one, which are only applied when the other side of the truth value is relevant. It is the selective application of universal worldviews which is how the person avoids having to deal with the contradiction.

Let’s get back to our hypothetical bad guy who would do anything to raise the price of his company’s stock. His fundamental error is that he takes the price of his company’s stock to be a much greater good than it is. When he is worshiping at the altar of the stock market, he sets the value of human life at zero, or close enough to that. So why is killing three fourths of the population off not something this villain would do? Because it would cause the price of his company’s stock to plummet in the long term. When thinking about the exaggerated value of a stock price, the villain would certainly include those things which are consistent with valuing a stock price, and knowledge of what raises and lowers a stock price most certainly are compatible with exaggerating the value of the stock price. No one would worship the price of stock but ignore what actually affects the price of stock. In fact, his worship of stock prices would lead him to know better than most men what makes stock prices go up and what makes them go down.

There are two things that affect the value of stock more than the performance of the individual company. They are, roughly in order of importance:

  1. General demand for stock
  2. Market stability

If three fourths of the population die off, markets will be horrifically unstable. This will push what investors remain away from the stock market and into things with more stability, like gold. But in our apocalyptic scenario, and more to the point, if three fourths of the population of the world die off, there won’t be many people left to buy the stock and most of them will be putting all of their money into surviving the post-apocalypse hellscape, not into stocks, if the stock market were even to survive.

If you were to ask anyone, “would killing three fourths of the population of the world off be good for the price of a stock, any stock?” If they were at all knowledgeable about stocks, they would answer “no”. The more knowledgeable, the faster and more emphatic the answer would come. If you found a man so twisted by over-valuing the price of the stock of a company for which he works, he will answer your question before you’ve even finished asking it, since you are causing him to think about the thing which is to him the most painful in the world—the price of his company’s stock dropping like a rock.

None of this in any way contradicts that, at least when he’s thinking about his true love—stock prices—he would set the value of human life near zero. He might not care whether men live or die, but he would care very much what those worthless men would pay for his stock. Something that kills off a few people, he would not mind at all. Something that kills off enough people to affect the markets, he would not give a hearing to.

Now, to fully consider the nature of the fractured mind that results from moral error, none of this means that the villain would not care about the lives of people he interacts with in ways that do not affect stock prices. When that beloved subject is sufficiently far from his mind—and no one can concentrate on one thing forever—he will, mentally, live in a very different world. He will live in a world in which people have value apart from what they will pay for a stock. He might be quite fond of the person who makes the best smoothies at his favorite juicery. He might be quite fond of his wife, or children, when he is home and not working; he might be a dog lover when he is on vacation. He might be strongly in favor of welfare for the poor, when he gives them a thought, at a party.

None of these things are required, but they are all entirely realistic. I nearly said “consistent,” which they would not be. They would be a highly realistic inconsistency, though.

The final thing required, to understand this mentality, is to understand what happens when conflicts do arise between the two worldviews. What happens is that one will win, but it will very rarely win completely. The victory will look like a subordination of the less dominant worldview to the more dominant worldview. But to understand what this subordination will look like, it’s important to bear in mind that the mistake is real and thus the thing which is regarded with exaggerated value really is regarded as having that value. In our example, the villain really does believe that his company’s stock price is of truly enormous importance, far beyond individual human life. When the world view where the person who makes his favorite smoothie contradicts, such as the person being put out of work by a corporate merger, his love for the smoothie maker will subordinate to the value of the share price. That is, he will make out some way that this suffering has value, and that value given by the increase in share price.

Here, if one was writing this character, some knowledge of how corporations actually work would be quite valuable. Unfortunately, writers (especially Hollywood writers) seem to live in an almost perfect ignorance of the stock market, apart from having heard a few terms and know that stocks are bought and sold. There are only two ways in which the price of a company’s shares actually benefit the company, and only of them actually benefits the company. The first is that the company can raise money by creating new shares to sell (diluting the value of the existing shares, but in theory it being worth it to existing shareholders because the value created exceeds the dilution incurred). The other is that shareholders vote for the board of directors, who pick the CEO and determine his salary, and they have a strong tendency to reward CEOs who drive up stock prices and punish CEOs who let share prices fall. That affects behavior, but it doesn’t actually do the company any good. (There is also the fact that a sufficiently high share price protects a company against a hostile takeover, since no one would have the money to buy the company, but this is not typically very relevant.)

The person who worships the stock price will know that this allows the company to gain funds to expand the business, so he would probably rationalize the smoothie guy’s suffering as being for the greater good by pointing to how the increased efficiency makes more capital available to the corporation to grow and provide its services. The mere fact that growth and increased services are secondary goods to the stock-price-worshiper does not mean that he is unaware of them, and this knowledge will be very useful to him when trying to reconcile his love for the smoothie maker with his greater love for the stock price which was increased by the merger.

In short, when faced with this, he will not say that the smoothie maker’s doesn’t matter, but that his (involuntary) sacrifice is for the greater good, and so the smoothie maker, in accepting his fate, is noble and should be praised. He might even try to help the smoothie maker out, so long as there’s a way he can do it which won’t hurt his company’s share price.

A person worshiping a stock price is a somewhat silly example, though not so silly that it has not been done before in fiction. However that goes, it does serve to show how the villain’s thought process works. And if you ever wondered how Hitler could be a vegetarian who loved dogs and also a mass murderer, this is how. Rest assured, he had theories as to how his mass murder was really, truly, in the end, humanitarian. Villains always do.

These explanations that the villain has of how his villainy is really virtuous will always seem convoluted, but only to outsiders. They will not appear convoluted to the villain himself. They seem natural to the villain because he has learned to live with a fractured mind; to reconcile contradictory worldviews. It only seems convoluted to outsiders because they have not learned this mental agility.

Bad Guys Who Think They’re the Good Guys

This post is a followup to my post on Satanic Banality And Writing Villains. In it, I said:

These sorts of mistakes are often confused for rationalizations, that is, for excuses made to others. This is to mistake the nature of evil. The evildoer really believes these things, precisely because in his sin he has missed what he’s aiming at. When trying to write a realistic villain, this sort of mistake is not optional. Villains are villains precisely because they are wrong about some moral judgement. These mistakes will have consequences beyond merely doing evil, precisely because the villain actually believes these moral errors.

This phenomenon is why it feels realistic when the bad guy thinks that he’s the good guy. Unfortunately, that trope in stories is very often misunderstood by people who do not understand what evil really is. It is quite true that bad guys will often think that they are the good guys. What isn’t true is that they seem like the good guys to anyone but themselves.

This mistake has resulted in a great deal of bad storytelling, where the bad guys are shown to actually have a point. Instead of them having mistaken evil for good and thus be pursuing evil as good, they have, in fact, correctly having identified a good and are legitimately pursuing it. But if that’s the case, why on earth is the good guy in the story fighting these other good guys? There needs to be some explanation for why the good guy thought that the other good guy was actually a bad guy.

There’s only one way to do this, and Miss Bennet hit upon it in Pride & Prejudice when she was trying to exculpate both Mr. Darcy and Wickham: interested people have misrepresented each to the other. But there is a problem with this. As Elizabeth Bennet observed in reply, if you cannot clear the interested people, one will be obliged to think ill of someone. It is not an accident that in this sort of story the good guy inevitably discovers that he’s actually working for the real bad guys. The only other way out is the way the X-Files took: behind each good guy who seems to be a bad guy is some other apparent bad guy responsible for the deception. Every time you peel the onion, there’s another layer. If one doesn’t go that sort of unsatisfying route—perhaps because one is writing in a book or movie and not a TV story with hundreds of episodes coming down the pike—then what we end up with are villains who had plausibly convinced the good guy that they were good guys who are performing their evil for no real reason. They always want to take over the world because it’s there, or kill off three fourths of the population of the world because by some convoluted logic this would drive the share price of their company up by fifteen percent.

There’s rarely a satisfying explanation—in the sense of an explanation where the villains actions could plausibly be connected to his goals, even according to the mistakes he is making. To use the example of killing off most of the world driving the share price of his company up by fifteen percent, the fundamental mistake the villain is making, that is, the evil he is mistaking for good, is the share price of his company being all-important. This is a dubious mistake for someone to make, but it is possible. One can become idolatrous about almost anything. But given this mistake, it is not plausible that the villain would think that killing off three fourths of the world (say, with a bio-engineered plauge of super-locusts) would actually be good for the price of his company’s stock in a way that’s useful to his goal. Sure, in the extremely short term the stock would go up, but it would shortly thereafter crash when no one has the money to buy shares any more since they’re busy eating the rats which died of starvation. His mistake is about the good of his company’s share price, not about how markets work. In fact, his idolatry of his company’s share price would make him the last person who would misunderstand how markets respond to major events. The problem—apart from many writers not understanding how markets work themselves—is often due to the real villain’s character and motivation being an afterthought, because it’s all revealed in the last few pages (or last few minutes).

(It should be noted that this goodguy-as-badguy plotline is largely driven by misunderstanding why a badguy thinks that he’s a goodguy, but once this mistake was made it appealed to writers who want to personally rebel against goodness in order to indulge in some evil of their own, and so to make the world more comfortable for their evil they want to make readers (or viewers) distrustful of the institutions which exist to guard against the sort of evil they wish to indulge in. I think that they merely stumbled on this from the structure, rather than set out to undermine these organizations and incidentally got—partially—closer to a better plot.)

None of this sort of the-good-guys-are-actually-bad-guys would seem necessary if the writer recognized that evil is fundamentally a perversion of good. In grasping at the shadow rather than the substance casting the shadow, the one doing evil does not plausibly think that he’s doing good. He merely thinks that he’s doing good anyway.

The villain will have reasons for his evil deeds, but they will be bad reasons. This is necessarily so. It is not possible to have a good reason for a bad decision.

Writing Villains and Satanic Banality

One of the best videos on my YouTube channel is called Satanic Banality. It’s only tangentially about what is commonly called “the banality of evil”. It is really about the concept of “satanic grandeur” and how evil always looks small from the outside, it only looks impressive from the inside. If you haven’t watched it, I’ll embed the video in case you’re interested:

The applicability to writing is in making realistic villains, and especially in showing that they’re evil in realistic ways. In daytime cartoons for children, villains are shown to be evil by just choosing to be evil for the sake of Evil, then laughing about it. This works well in cartoons for children because children need things intelligible more than they need them realistic. Children only pick up on the broadest strokes, like that evil should be opposed. For children, at the level they understand them, cartoons are actually highly realistic.

In fiction for adults, who understand the narrative in much greater detail, we need it to be realistic on all of the levels that the adult reader understands it. This is the real reason for the addage “show, don’t tell”. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with telling the reader something, it’s just that if you do that in place of showing, you will have a contradictory character. If you tell the reader that the man is evil but then show him being humble, gentle, courteous, kind, thoughtful, brave, reverent, etc.—this is bad writing because he isn’t actually evil.

This brings me to satanic banality as a writing tool. Something important to remember about evil people is that they are always vastly more impressed with themselves than everyone else is. This does not mean that they are vain. They may or may not be vain—vanity consists in wanting others to recognize their greatness. But whether they are vain, they are quite impressed with themselves. They think that their vices are actually virtues. This comes from the nature of evil.

Evil is not a positive thing, but a privation of good. It is like a shadow cast by being; it looks like it has a shape, but it has no actual substance. A person who is evil is trying to act like the shadow is real—as if it can be touched and picked up and used. Thus, to them, what they do when they are evil looks magnificent. It must, or they would not try to do it. To those who see the shadow for what it is, they look banal. To somewhat mix a metaphor, imagine someone shadow boxing who thinks he’s beating the shadow that he’s hitting, and is therefore a great warrior. In his mind, he’s magnificent. To those watching, he cannot be impressive, because they can see that he’s not hitting anything.

This does not mean that the villain is bad at everything he does, of course. It means that the villain is going to think himself grandiose precisely where he is evil. He may not care whether others think he is great—that is, he may or may not be vain—but he will at least expect that they will think him great, or will expect that the smart ones will. This will be one of his weaknesses, since he will be wrong. (If he’s not wrong, here, it will be because he thinks that there are no smart ones, which will be a different sort of weakness.)

The other thing is that the villain will do things that just seem absurd. He will make statues to himself for things that he didn’t do, but thinks that he did. The Kim family in North Korea is a good example of this; you can find monuments they’ve built to themselves about how much of a champion of the people they are, what great movies they’ve made, etc. They are an extreme example, but it’s not hard to dial this back if one wants a less evil sort of villain. A warlord who wants to take over the world will think that he is bringing peace, and may well build statues to himself as a protector of the people. A cheater at sports who has not been caught will think of himself as as great role model for children. A thief will think of himself as enforcing justice, being a Robin Hood who robs from the rich and gives to the poor (in this case, himself). (They never consider that Robin Hood actually robbed from a rapacious government to give to those who were overly heavily taxed.)

These sorts of mistakes are often confused for rationalizations, that is, for excuses made to others. This is to mistake the nature of evil. The evildoer really believes these things, precisely because in his sin he has missed what he’s aiming at. When trying to write a realistic villain, this sort of mistake is not optional. Villains are villains precisely because they are wrong about some moral judgement. These mistakes will have consequences beyond merely doing evil, precisely because the villain actually believes these moral errors. Working these sorts of systemic errors into the villains actions will make him far more realistic, as well as adding a great deal of depth and insight into the story.

Lord Peter Short Stories: The Necklace of Pearls

The Necklace of Pearls is a short story about a pearl necklace given by Sir Septimus Shale by his daughter, its theft, and Lord Peter Wimsey’s finding of the necklace and catching of the criminal. It follows the general structure of a detective short story, giving us the setup, the crime, the production of clues, and then on the last page the solution, and as a puzzle, it is enjoyable.

One does not really read a Lord Peter story for a mere puzzle, and The Necklace of Pearls does provide some comedy of manners. The main point of comedy is the Christmas traditions of Sir Septimus. A brief quotation from the beginning of the story will make this clear:

Sir Septimus Shale was accustomed to assert his authority once in the year and once only. He allowed his young and fashionable wife to fill his house with diagrammatic furniture made of steel; to collected advanced artists and anti-grammatical poets; to believe in cocktails and relativity and to dress as extravagantly as she please;d but he did insist on an old-fashioned Christmas. He was a simple-hearted man, who really liked plum-pudding and cracker mottoes, and he count not get it out of his head that other people, ‘at bottom’, enjoyed these things also. At Christmas, therefore, he firmly retired to his country house in Essex, called in the servants to hang holly and mistletoe upon the cubist electric fittings; loaded the steel sideboard with delicacies from Fortnum & Mason; hung up stocking at the heads of the polished walnut bedsteads; and even, on this occasion only, had the electric radiators removed from the modernist grates and installed wood fires and a yule log. He then gathered his family and friends about him, filled them with as much Dickensian good fare as he could persuade them to swallow, and, after their Christmas dinner, set them down to play ‘Charades’ and ‘Clumps’ and ‘Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral’ in the drawing-room , concluding these diversions by ‘Hide-and-Seek’ in the dark all over the house. Because Sir Steptimus was a very rich man, his guests fell in with his invariable programme, and if they were bored, they did not tell him so.

This juxtoposition of modernist furniture in steel with an old-fashioned English Christmas is very hard to appreciate for an American in 2020. The traditional English Christmas is not my tradition, even in mutated form, and steel furniture seems almost the height of stupidity. We have some steel in our kitchen; an aesthetic whose aim is to suggest the appliances are fit for a commercial kitchen, where stainless steel is used because it is easy to clean and no one really cares whether employees have anything pleasing to look at while they work in oppressive heat. Other than that, steel is rarely seen in an American household, so it seems, rather than modern, merely in bad taste.

There is the further remove that people don’t really want to be modern any more. Even extremely modern things, like smart watches, almost go out of their way to at least partially disguise themselves in inconspicuous colors. In the 1930s, new technology was promising. In the 2020s, it’s commonplace and best known for its frustration, addictive properties, and general propensity for making people less social and less happy. (This is actually somewhat unfair, as technology does enable all sorts of great conversations to happen, but general regard is not always fair.)

The mystery itself is the disappearance of the necklace, and there are really two parts to this mystery:

  1. Where did the pearl necklace go?
  2. Who stole the pearl necklace?

The short story only concerns the first question. Lord Peter searches carefully, with Sir Septimus following him as witness. This turns up a small, fine pin, of the sort that an entomologist might use to pin a butterfly to a display board. Lord Peter asks if anyone has a hobby of collecting beetles, and when Sir Septimus says that they don’t, Lord Peter knows where the pearls are, and how they were hidden there.

This is where we come to the weakness of a comedy of manners in a short story—we have too many characters and with many of their interactions being governed by their rigid manners, we can’t really get to know any of them well enough to guess who stole the necklace, or why. To be fair to the reader, neither does Lord Peter, so instead he sets a trap. I think that the game here turns into who can spot the person falling into the trap first. The only real downside is that, since we don’t know anything about the culprit—just the name of the guy who shows up in the trap—it’s not very satisfying.

The real payoff is the way in which the pearls were hidden. The villain cut them from the necklace and used the pins to hide the separated pearls among the mistletoe. At this point, I should note that European mistletoe has white berries, unlike the holly which is commonly used in the place of mistletoe in America, and is sometimes confused for it because of that. It’s an interesting technique for stealing pearls in a house so completely made of smooth, hard surfaces that there is nowhere to hide things.

Odd Short Stories

Having recently read through the collected Lord Peter short stories of Dorothy L. Sayers, I can’t help but notice that a few of them are fairly odd. The one which comes to mind as an example of this is the story where Lord Peter is driven in a car to a castle (or perhaps it was a mansion) to pick up some secrets from the scientist who lives there and upon entering meets another Lord Peter, whereupon the scientist proposes a wine identification contest to determine which Lord Peter is the real Lord Peter. (The real Lord Peter turns out to be the chauffeur. ) This is rather far off of the beaten track of Lord Peter stories. Granted, his expertise in wines does sometimes come up, but never before (or after) has it been critical.

Then it occurred to me: I have no idea where this story was published.

For all I know, Ms. Sayers wrote the story for a friend who ran a magazine called Wine Tasting Monthly. If that were the case, it would make perfect sense why she wrote such an unusual Lord Peter story. It would be fun for the (hypothetical) readers of Wine Tasting Monthly and would be very unlikely to confuse anyone who was merely an ordinary reader of Lord Peter Wimsey stories since they would be unlikely to ever see it.

I am, of course, just speculating. In fact, I doubt that I got it right; I think it more likely that not that this story was not written for Wine Tasting Monthly. It’s a good illustration, though, that there may have been context which makes oddities make perfect sense. Just to come up with another, to illustrate, perhaps there was an “adventure issue” of Detective Stories Weekly where the theme was seeing all of one’s favorite detectives but in an adventure story. The point is that with the right expectations, this story would be fun (and possibly funny) rather than just weird.

There’s a lesson in there…

Amatopia on Nihilism

Over at Amatopia, Alexander Hellene discusses nihilism, primarily in art. It’s a good post, worth reading. There’s one segment of it that I want to discuss, though, because I think that it somewhat misses the bigger picture:

But endless moping about the meaninglessness of everything isn’t a harmless amusement. It’s a dangerous idea that spreads despair and brutalizes people into looking into the sewer, metaphorical or otherwise, for meaning when they should be looking to something higher, whatever that may be. Instead of aspiring to lofty heights, those at the top would rather wallow in filth, and they want to drag you down with them.

There are two ways in which this misses the bigger picture.

The first is that, unless you believe in God, nihilism is true. That is, based upon one’s worldview, if there is no God, then nihilism is the correct conclusion. Atheists, as so much of the elites of American culture are, are either nihilists or lying to themselves.

This brings me to the second way in which it misses the bigger picture: if an atheist comes up with a meaning for his life, it will necessarily be an idol. You can see this in progressives/wokesters. They have decided that the meaning of their life is helping the downtrodden and oppressed. They would do far less harm, even to the downtrodden and oppressed, if they just wallowed in filth in the gutter. Everyone would be better off if atheists do not make up secular meaning in their life. That’s how people get to guillotines and death camps.

The biggest reason, though, that I think that it’s actually healthy to encourage atheists (who are the only people who can be nihilists) to take nihilism seriously is that it is here that they face their own beliefs directly and without disguise. It’s a commonplace observation that people rarely get out of self-destructive habits before they hit rock-bottom. Nihilism is atheists hitting rock bottom. The longer they go on pretending that everything is fine, the more entrenched in this mistake they will get.

In short, nihilism is a symptom, and it is a mistake to treat symptoms rather than the diseases that create them.

Just don’t let your kids watch the product of nihilistic artists until you’ve prepared them to see through it. But, you know, prepare them at an early age.

The Queen’s Square (A Lord Peter Wimsey Short Story)

The Queen’s Square, a short story by Dorothy L. Sayers featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, is a murder mystery set at a costume party. It’s a great setup for a murder mystery, but for some reason it doesn’t seem to live up to this. It’s not a bad story, of course, but it feels a little bit like Miss Sayers is going through the motions.

To recap briefly, for those who’ve not read the story and don’t intend to, Lord Peter is at a costume ball, and a bunch of people we’ve never met before are dancing several dances and talking to each other. Then the fiancé a woman discovers her corpse—she’d been strangled—and the police come and investigate. There’s a tangle of witness of who was where, when, then Lord Peter solves the case by figuring out that one of the guests was mistaken for another by a trick of colored light, the two guests costumes being identical except for color.

The initial part of the story gives atmosphere, a few introductions, and Lord Peter a chance to have a little conversation. Unfortunately, there are only two characters who are really introduced, and one is an older lady who has nothing to do with the rest of the story. The other is the victim, but other than being a “fast” woman, nothing revealed about her is much relevant to the story.

The gathering of clues by the police is somewhat lengthy and in a way reminds me of The Five Red Herrings. That, too, was a timetable mystery in which the timetable was wrong, and therefore didn’t really matter. I’m being a little unfair, here, because the basic setup is that the victim was seen at a certain time, but couldn’t have been killed after it. Of course, that means that it was not the victim who was seen but someone mistaken for the victim, which means that the solution to the mystery revolves around who could have been mistaken for the victim. That said, it is an examination of the time table that shows clearly that this must be, so the timetable is not irrelevant.

I actually wonder if I’m not reading this incorrectly. It is overly tedious to commit all of these details to memory, but perhaps the reader is not supposed to. Such stories may be intended more like logic problems, where one is meant to construct a table that helps to keep track of the relationships and x out all of the squares that cannot be, with only a single stroke through the boxes that we have evidence against but it’s not conclusive. Those are fun to do, though having grown up in the 1980s I was used to the tables being drawn for one in the logic puzzle books.

Lord Peter figures out the solution to the puzzle in the darkroom, when he sees a red thing change color when the red darkroom light is switched off and the white light is switched on. There was a colored lamp which threw red light into the hallway in which the victim was last seen, and this made red costume which was seen appear to be white. Or, possibly, the white costume appear to be red. I don’t remember exactly, now, and either is possible depending on how much ambient light the witness saw.

It’s by no means my favorite story, but it is worth reading. Something seems a bit off with its structure, however, as the various parts give us time to meet characters who never do anything, followed by an information dump which is mostly unimportant, followed by Lord Peter and Bunter doing some photography and Lord Peter realizing the key to the mystery. The story is disjointed and we don’t get to have much fun with Lord Peter or any of the other characters. Had the cast been a little smaller and the best characters had some involvement during Lord Peter’s investigation, I think it would have been a significant improvement.

All of this said, I wonder I wasn’t more correct in thinking that this was meant to be more like a logic puzzle and less like a story. There is a solution which is actually set off with some space, told as the policeman having told Wimsey about the criminal’s confession. One unfortunate aspect of the book in which I’m reading the short stories is that it gives no information about where they were originally published.

The People That You’ll Meet

I recently met an oddly aggressive person on Twitter (a shock, I know, please pardon me, dear reader, for not having warned you to sit down first) and that made me think of a line from the delightful song, I’ll See Your Six.

The line I’m thinking of is

The things you will run into
the people that you meet
Walking all alone along
a New York City Street.

Twitter can be much like New York City streets. You meet the strangest people there. For much the same reason; just as in NY during the time the song is referring to crime was rampant and largely not prosecuted, there are very few repercussions for being unnecessarily aggressive with people on Twitter. I don’t mean that as a call for greater policing of Twitter, mind. Just an observation on the relationship between inducements and behavior in our fallen world.

And possibly also the observation that, like in the song, it is well to travel armed—as is appropriate to the circumstances—in such places.

Benjamin Kit Sun Cheah on Wuxia

Over on Twitter, Benjamin Kit Sun Cheah wrote a very interesting thread on Wuxia (Chinese heroes) and the meaning of this genre. He kindly gave me permission to quote it in full here since that’s much easier to read than a Twitter thread if you’re not used to Twitter.

Among the hottest fiction trends today, and the genre I’m working on next. I’ve been looking into the genre for years, but everywhere I looked I found too many power fantasies, too few actual wuxia. It shows a lack of understanding of the genre. Wuxia should be the stuff of legends. Highly-skilled warriors in a milieu of danger and respect. Adventure in exotic realms. A world where you can earn your place with your sword. But beyond that, wuxia has one more element: Ethics.

It’s right there in the name. Wuxia is commonly translated as ‘martial hero’ into English. The meaning of ‘hero’ is well-known. ‘Martial’ has a neutral connotation. It means the ways of war. The meaning of wuxia seems obvious: a hero who uses martial arts. But this is not what wuxia means in Chinese. Chinese is a logographic language. Every ‘word’ is a written character that carries certain meanings. Every character in turn is made up of radicals. Radicals are smaller characters that convey pronunciation, and most importantly, MEANING. Keep this in mind.

Wuxia is a transliteration of 武侠. 武 carries the meanings of ‘martial, weapons, military’. 侠 means ‘chivalry, gallantry, hero’. But this is in English. In Chinese it carries a much, much deeper meaning. 武 is composed of two major radicals. 止: Stop 戈: A dagger-axe, an ancient Chinese weapon. (When used as a radical, the word loses a stroke.) Therefore, the true meaning of 武 is: to stop the dagger-axe. The English ‘martial’ has a neutral connotation. 武 has an innately noble purpose: to stop the dagger-axe, to defend and protect.

Morality is hard-coded into Chinese martial arts. The Chinese took it very, very seriously. Some Chinese martial arts masters worked as police officers, soldiers, and bodyguards. Others were civilians, but they assisted the police in arresting outlaws. Others ‘took back the art’ by defeating (and crippling or killing) bandits who had trained in martial arts.

侠 is an interesting case. This is the simplified version of an older word: 俠. 侠 has two radicals: 人: man 夹: squeeze, pinch, wedge, carry under your arm This implies that 侠 is ‘a man who wedges’ or ‘a man who carries’. 夾 from 俠 can be interpreted in two interesting ways. The ‘official’ interpretation I’ve seen is of two smaller men lifting up a larger man. My other, artistic interpretation is a large man wedging himself between two others. With this artistic interpretation, if we look at 俠 again, we see this: A man who places himself in between a tall man (on the left) and two smaller men (behind him). A big man protecting two smaller men with his body. What is the deeper meaning of 侠? A man who lifts up and supports other people. This is how the Chinese viewed chivalry and gallantry. Or, if you look at it artistically: A man who shields the innocent with his body.

Put these characters together and we get the meaning of the true meaning of 武侠: A man who stops the dagger-axe and supports others. Martial skill is thus used to protect the innocent, NOT to puff up your ego. To be a hero is to help others, NOT to merely be strong. Many stories tagged as ‘wuxia’ miss that. Without this element of ethics, of a hero willing to shield others from the dagger-axe with his own body, there is no wuxia. Today, there are ‘dark wuxia’ stories where the MC is a VILLAIN, which defeats the genre altogether!

With this in mind, let’s examine Xianxia. Xianxia is the transliteration of 仙侠. 侠 is known by now. But what about 仙? English says it means ‘immortal, fairy, sylph’. But that’s not quite what it means. 仙 has two radicals: 人: Man 山: Mountain A 仙, an immortal, is thus a man who goes up to the mountains. But why? Isolated in the mountains, free from the concerns of the mortal world, a man can tap into the abundant qi of nature. Through cultivation, a Daoist becomes an immortal. Through cultivation, a Buddhist gains enlightenment. They do not gain superpowers.

More precisely, these powers are NOT the point of cultivation. They serve as way markers. Confirmation that you are on the right path. And, if needed, skills TO HELP OTHERS. To pursue powers at the expense of your own development is to lose the Way and fall into delusion. Not only that, the archetypal xian is a hermit. He goes up the mountain AND STAYS THERE. Cultivation is a long, difficult, tedious process. He needs to be free of worldly distractions. Why would he climb down the mountain?

The answer, for this genre, is 侠. What is the deep meaning of xianxia? A man who goes up the mountain to cultivate himself and gains powers along the way, then climbs down the mountain to use his skills to help others. Modern-day xianxia show ‘heroes’ gaining power, beating up bad guys, attracting a girl, gaining more power, ad infinitum. This is a power fantasy, with optional harem elements. The purpose of power is not MOAR power. It is to be used to help others – or not at all. Without this moral element, a wuxia / xianxia story is not wuxia / xianxia. It is a mere power fantasy. But it is the dominant trope today. A mere aesthetic to dress up a hollow fantasy, no more. A shadow of the true meaning of the genre.

Only one thing left to do: Overturn the heavens and the earth. SAGA OF THE SWORDBREAKER, coming 2021 / 2022.

I have a small comment of my own to add, which is that you see the sort of perversion of a genre which Benjamin has described almost anywhere in which you see vivid world-building, no more than ten to twenty years later. It will inevitably come about when there are people who grew up with the world-building but who reject the heroism in it for the various reasons that people reject heroism. (Mostly it’s because they’re bad people and contemplating great virtue makes them feel bad about their vices, rather than encouraging them to increase their virtues, but that’s a topic onto itself.) These people, having spent so much time in such worlds in their imagination, long to tell their own stories in the same setting, though not at all to tell the same sorts of stories.

(This is a reason, by the way, that you will tend to see a golden age in which a type of new fiction has some particular excellence at the beginning, but then the genre becomes a swamp in which it is still possible to find diamonds. At first, people enter the genre to tell the sorts of stories this new fiction lets them tell especially well. Later, people who are used to the genre it want to tell all sorts of stories that have a superficial resemblance to the originals, and most of them are bad because they do not fit. The diamonds are those stories telling stories which do actually fit the genre.)

Hollywood Rat Race is Quite Interesting

Earlier I mentioned I got the book Hollywood Rat Race by Edward D. Wood Jr. of Plan 9 From Outer Space fame. I don’t have time for a full review now, but I do want to say that for people interested in the history of film, it is definitely worth reading.

It’s a weird book, which I suppose is no great surprise because it was written by a very weird man. Equally famous for Glen or Glenda, a semi-autobiographical movie about crossdressing in which understanding for people so afflicted is pleaded to the audience, Hollywood Rat Race more than once comments fairly negatively on men and women who dress in such a way that one cannot tell the difference between them, and also on men who wear women’s clothing. There’s something very curious there, because Ed Wood had publicly admitted to wearing women’s underwear many years before he ever started writing this book, so it’s not like he could have been trying to draw attention away from himself. (A lot of public hypocrisy around moral issues is frequently much less about actual hypocrisy and more a smoke screen by the vicious in the hope that publicly condemning their vice makes them less likely to ever be suspected of it.)

This is but a small part of the book, though. The various ways in which people who want to be stars are taken advantage of when they get to Hollywood is the main subject, at least by page count. It’s actually primarily financial predation, though he does talk about other types, as well. This is intermixed with advice on practical matters like having a 24 hour messaging service because you can’t carry your phone around with you in your pocket and how to get room and board cheaply. Some of this includes very practical advice, like taking into account the cost of gasoline to go to a further away grocery story with slightly better prices.

Also quite interesting is a section on just how great movies are. It begins by being against actors, writers, etc. who rail against Hollywood, and this section really shows just how much Ed Wood loves movies. I think that this is why people like me who love Mystery Science Theater 3000 so enjoy laughing at Ed Wood’s movies—we’d love to make movies too and if the best we could afford to do was a movie in which the grave stones are cardboard and the airplane steering wheels are artfully cut paper plates, we’d make that movie. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, a thing worth doing is worth doing even if you can only do it badly. In laughing at Ed Wood’s movies, we’re laughing at a friend, and in so doing, we’re laughing at ourselves.

There’s also a very curious reminiscence of when Bella Lugosi felt bad because he learned fans didn’t know whether he was alive or dead, and so Ed Wood put together a public appearance for Bela, who used it as a springboard into comedic performances in Las Vegas. Just how much Ed Wood loved Bella comes across.

It’s a very quirky book. I’m not sure if it was ever edited past basic grammar. I believe it was unfinished at the time of Ed Wood’s death. For example, there’s a chapter in it which consists of three paragraphs, none longer than three sentences, all of which fit on a single page.

There is no earth-shattering insight in this book, but I none the less recommend it, at least if you like movies. It’s an unfinished and not-well-organized book about a bygone time, but it is very personal about a curious figure.

The Pleasure of Sarcasm

Somehow or other, my ten year old son discovered my blog post The Least Jedi, wherein I make fun of one of the worst movies of all time, point-by-point. He’s actually having me read it to him in place of a bedtime story and finds it very funny. (This is not actually the first time; he made me watch The Last Jedi with him, and now has me reading it to him again.)

This got me to wondering why he’s enjoying it so much. I think that part of it is the same reason I enjoy Mystery Science Theater 3000—I’d love to be involved in making a movie so much I’d be willing to help make a bad movie. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “anything worth doing is worth doing [even if one can only do it] badly”. But I think that there’s another aspect to this, too.

Sarcasm is not polite. Sarcasm about a work of art, however, is (except in particularly grumpy company) not impolite. It can be very mean to make fun of a person, but it is not mean to make fun of a movie. And the problem with politeness, especially from a child’s perspective, is that you never quite know what people who are being polite really think.

I think, then, that part of the pleasure of sarcasm, especially for younger people—who, after all, are the people who generally enjoy sarcasm the most—is that one can take it far more at face value than most of the things one comes across. It is a vacation from veiled meanings and subtle hints. In sarcasm, we find good and bad openly called by their names.

There is a lesson, there, for people who write sarcastic things. They have a special appeal to children for a reason; it behooves us to make sure to write them very well, since children will absorb errors when they see them far more than will adults.

Twitter Has a Lot of Complaining

Something I’ve noticed about Twitter is that I frequently come away from it feeling less emotionally balanced than when I went to it. The obvious thing to do, therefore, is to figure out why, so that I can figure out what to do better, or at least how to approach it or whether it’s possible to approach it usefully. The first thing I notice when I consider this is that Twitter—by which, of course, I mean the tweets of the people I follow on Twitter—contains a great deal of complaining.

This is a little bit odd because I’ve generally selected people to follow on the basis of having said something insightful or something funny. So the first question is: what did I do wrong in how I’ve selected people to follow?

The answer there seems to have several parts. One of which is just that it’s far easier to complain than to come up with anything insightful to say. When people run out of insight, they may simply turn to complaining because it’s better than nothing. Another explanation is that there simple are people who one needs to turn retweets off for, because they will retweet things that they will not write. That’s easily done, and not the majority of what tends to cause my day to be worse after going to Twitter. I think that another part of it is that there are people who have valuable things to say, but minimal self-control when they themselves become upset. I don’t think that there’s anything practical to do with these people other than to unfollow or mute them. A happy medium is actually to only read lists, and just leave these people off of the lists.

There are also people who have valuable things to say, but fundamentally misunderstand the medium in which they are saying them. Twitter is called “micro-blogging” for a reason, though people frequently think of it as merely conversing with friends. This dissonance can produce things that would make sense if heard only by the person to whom they were written but are highly liable to misunderstanding in public, where they actually are. Much of the above about people with little emotional self-control does apply, though on rare occasions it may be helpful to point out to these people that they are making public statements that really are meant for private audiences; since this is, fundamentally, a mistake, they may possibly be helped.

There is also a problem with Outrage Quoting. This is harder to know what to do with; one thing that helps is to block the idiots who are frequently quoted. And, of course, using lists, muting, and unfollowing are all options.

Ultimately, I suspect that the correct approach is just to narrow down yet more carefully the list of people whose tweets I see and to double-down on my rule about only reading twitter via Tweetdeck using lists.

Still, I think it’s also worthwhile to do some introspection on why I’ve broken down on that rule I imposed on myself; what am I looking for? I’ve got more than enough to do, I certainly don’t need Twitter in order to stave off boredom. I’ve got enough to read (and write) that I shouldn’t have time to be bored in the next twenty years (God willing). It could be looking for human contact, or hoping to find people to help me think through some topics that I’m thinking about. I could just be craving a certain sort of stimulation, since the current environment requires more patience than I’m used to practicing.

Still Gonna Die

I can’t recall if I’ve mentioned this before, but this is a really great song:

There’s a slow intro that takes about 50 seconds before it gets to the song, which is upbeat and fun. The basic theme is it doesn’t matter what you do or how healthy you get, you’re still gonna die. The whole song is fun, but I’ve got two favorite lyrics:

You can search for UFOs, up in the sky.
They might fly you to Mars, where you’re still gonna die.

The other is in reference to the idea, popular for a while, of cheating death by disease by using cryogenics to become frozen and being thawed out at a later date when the disease is finally curable, to be able to live out the rest of one’s natural life then.

You can have yourself frozen, suspended in time.
But when they do thaw you out, hehehe, you’re still gonna die.

My third favorite lyric is probably:

You can get rid of stress, get a lot of rest, get an AIDs test, enroll in Est, move out west, where it’s sunny and dry,
and you’ll live to be 100 but you’re still gonna die.

It’s not a perfect song; the ending, in particular, where the moral they draw is that you should have some fun before you say bye bye, is so much less than it could have been. Still, the song is so well constructed you don’t need them to draw better conclusions for you; that’s easy enough to do for oneself.