A Note About Marching To Different Beats

Henry David Thoreau once said:

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Depending on the context, this can be good advice. Still, it’s good to remember that if you march to the beat of a different drummer, don’t be surprised if people think that you have no rhythm.

There Was a Casablanca TV Series

Looking up the credits of an actress in a Murder, She Wrote episode, I discovered that there was a Casablanca TV series made in 1983 (she guest starred in an episode). It only ran for five episodes, though the reviews for the DVD on Amazon say that this was a pity because it was actually good.

I’m skeptical.

There is a clip of the title sequence on YouTube, which uses the song As Time Goes By as the theme song for the show:

I’ll admit that it looks better than I expected, though it still doesn’t fill me with confidence. At the time of writing, the DVD is out of production and used copies are going for $80 and up, so I’m not likely to find out for myself what it was really like. This sort of thing is the reason why copyright should have a relatively short initial term (like 20 years) and require active renewal in order to be extended, if extensions are really necessary. It would be really interesting to find out what the heck this show was, and I really doubt that anybody is seeing royalty checks from it these days anyway.

Supposedly this was a prequel show to the movie, focusing on the small, local adventures of Rick. It’s kind of crazy that this got as far as having one episode made, let alone five!

A Comment on The Butler Did It

On my recent post The Butler Did It: Poirot Style, I got an interesting comment from Paul. It brings up some points which I would like to discuss at greater length.

Somewhere I heard the phrase “nobody’s a hero to his valet” which could apply to his butler.

So I disagree that a murder by the butler is out of bounds because the butler is an employee “thus” not personally connected to the victim.

An employer could very well give an employee Very Good Reasons for the employee to want his boss dead.

And yes, a valet or a butler could quit (although getting a good reference might be a problem), but have other reasons to not quit.

One thought on the butler, as I understand the job, the butler manages the household staff so might likely know “when the best time/place to kill somebody without witnesses”. 👿

On the subject of no one being a hero to his valet, I believe that this is because the man is an object of professional aid to the valet; he is passive while the valet helps him to dress. The valet, though a servant, is an intrinsically superior position during the performance of his duties. This is not precisely the same for a butler, who would not, in the ordinary course of things, lay his hands upon his master. Which brings us to the last point, about the butler managing the household staff. This will depend to some degree on the particular household, as the jobs of servants were somewhat elastic with the actual number of servants present.

In Victorian times and through (about) World War II, butlers did tend to be in charge of the servants in midsize to large households. They did not tend to be present in smaller houses, and in the very great houses there might be a steward who was in charge of the domestic staff with the butler taking on his more historical role of being in charge of the wines, or somewhat more expansively, of the food and drink. (The term “butler” comes from words in older languages meaning, basically, bottler, i.e. one in charge of the bottles.) Murder mysteries don’t tend to be set in the mansions of kings or similar, though, so I think it would be reasonable to presume butlers will be in charge of the household staff and thus in a good position to arrange a time that is especially convenient for murdering someone. But this, in fact, raises something of a problem in choosing the butler as the murderer—it makes it too easy for the murderer.

I know that most most of the rules of detective stories focus on not making it too easy for the detective, but it is actually the case that if one makes it too easy for the murderer, it spoils the fun. Murder mysteries are meant to be a human drama, and in a human drama the reader sympathizes with both sides of the puzzle. We want the detective to win, but at the same time we do also need to be able to see ourselves in the role of the murderer, if for no other reason than we have to think like him in order to try to catch him before the detective does. A murderer who merely has special powers (such as being able to arrange everyone to avoid witnesses) is too unlike us. And then there’s the even more basic problem that the puzzle has to be difficult to solve or there’s no fun in solving it. That’s why the dumb police detective always arrests some poor servant, since the servants have obvious opportunity. Abusing a position of trust is too easy.

All that said, I think that Paul is right that the butler could make a reasonable choice for the murderer within the bounds of the murder having to be personal. Off the top of my head, he could know that the victim was carrying on some evil that he thought needed to be stopped. The employer taking advantage of serving women would work for this. The butler could know that his employer committed some heinous crime and got away with it (but without sufficient legal proof to ensure a conviction). The butler could do it for the sake of a child that the victim was mistreating, or even just to bring the inheritance to the adult child from whom help was being cruelly withheld in getting started in the world. The butler could even secretly desire to have an affair with his master’s wife and hope that by killing his master he will have cleared his chance to take his master’s place.

I think that if one wanted to take this approach, it would be important to make sure that the butler is noticed as a character. He would need to be active during the investigation. Doing things outside of his duties, and speaking not only when spoken to. If he remained entirely passive and looking like the normal servant, who is there in the typical mystery only to furnish some alibis and clues, the typical reader would, I think, feel he had been treated unfairly. Yes, the reader is hoping that the writer will try hard to trick him, but at the same time the trickery has to be of a certain sort. A double-bluff, such as having somebody else frame the murderer for the crime, is a great sort of trick. Bluffing that someone is out of bounds when they’re not isn’t the right sort of trick. In real life someone might creep over to his neighbor’s house during a dinner party to murder him, hoping to throw suspicion on the guests. In a murder mystery, if someone dies during a dinner party in an mansion and it isn’t one of the guests, but it is revealed in the last page that the detective found the neighbor’s footprints, the writer has played foul. Granted, I’ve emphasized it by having the writer play double-foul by not revealing the clue which incriminated the neighbor, but even if there were some tracks leading to the neighbor’s house, if they were not cunningly planted by a dinner guest in order to make the absurd suggestion that it was the neighbor, the reader would still justifiably feel aggrieved. It’s not on any of the lists, but we do need some reason to doubt that the murderer committed the crime. Having an obvious criminal and not going with it because the detective is too clever for his own good is the stuff of parodies. (Quite literally. If you want to read such a parody, The Viaduct Murder is an excellent example of exactly this.)

I think that a decent example of what I mean about how to do this well can be found in the Poirot story which my previous blog post was about: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman. In it the butler is quite prominent. We get all sorts of information from him which he volunteers beyond the scope of the ordinary butler. He stayed to overhear a conversation with his master; a thing which no ordinary butler would have done. He is an obvious suspect, but manufactured for us a still more obvious suspect. Moreover, there is evidence in the beginning to make us suspicious of the butler’s story, such as the last course not having been eaten by anyone, and the telephone having been on the receiver, requiring the dying man to have replaced the receiver as he gasped out his last breath. These incongruities make us notice the butler early on, such that his being the culprit is a shock we were prepared for. Moreover, he did not merely hide in his job. He took an active role in the misdirection after the crime. He was caught, not by process of elimination, or by fingerprint identification as being a notorious criminal, but by having made mistakes which Poirot noticed and caught him by. This, I think, is the sort of template to follow if one wants to write a mystery in which the butler did it.

The Butler Did It: Poirot Style

I have a series of posts about the onetime common phrase, “the butler did it”. The first was The Butler Did It? The short version is that it’s curious that this phrase exists since it’s hard to find examples, in mystery novels, of when the butler actually did it. In the series I present a few theories as to how this could be, as well as look at the few examples I could find of when the butler actually did it. I had thought that I was done with this series, but I just came across another example! (Without counting, I think that brings me up to four.) If it’s not obvious, by the way, spoilers will follow, so if you haven’t read the Poirot short stories yet, go do that before continuing.

The story in question is The Adventure of The Italian Nobleman. It was first published in The Sketch magazine, issue 1604, published on October 24, 1923. This is a scant three years after the publication of the first Poirot story, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. According to Wikipedia, Agatha Christie wrote these short stories for The Sketch at the suggestion of its editor, Bruce Ingram. (The Sketch was an illustrated weekly journal which began its run in February of 1893.) It came towards the end of the group of short stories which would later be collected in the book Poirot Investigates, though of course we can’t be sure that it was not written earlier and merely published later.

Before proceeding, in the interests of full disclosure I should note that, technically, the murderer is not, very strictly speaking, a butler. He is a “valet-butler.” I think I am not being unreasonable in saying that this is close enough, though.

The structure of this story may be closer to the quintessential “the butler did it” than the other examples I can think of, with the possible exception of The Door by Mary Roberts Reinhart. In The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman, the butler had obvious access to the victim but concocted a complicated story which implicated someone who had a more obvious motive. The pursuit, at least by the police, of this other man, distracted us from considering the butler’s story too closely.

Having said that, I should perhaps take a moment to defend the idea of a quintessential “the butler did it” story. If the thing can barely be found in literature and mostly exists mostly as a joke, what right do I have to claim that there is such a thing as an ideal of it? And yet, I think that we can take a stab at it because of some of its features.

In particular, “the butler did it” seems to be describing the murderer being the person least suspected because he is akin to the furniture. S.S. Van Dine’s reason for prohibiting servants from being the criminal, though overstated (and a touch snobbish), gives some insight here:

11. Servants–such as butlers, footmen, valets, game-keepers, cooks, and the like–must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. It is unsatisfactory, and makes the reader feel that his time has been wasted. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person–one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion; for if the crime was the sordid work of a menial, the author would have had no business to embalm it in book-form.

I think that it’s actually related to another prohibition, number seventeen, which states that a professional criminal must not be the murderer. The unifying theme is stated in rule number nineteen, that the motive for murder must be personal. What all of these things are getting at is that there must actually be some connection between murderer and victim. It’s not enough merely to have been in the same place at the same time. This is what the butler doing it gets wrong (most of the time). A butler’s relationship to his employer is, by definition, that of an employee. This is the opposite of having a personal connection to the victim.

There are exceptions to this, of course. He could have taken on the job of butler merely to gain access to his victim, as part of a revenge plot. He could be a long-lost relative who will be an heir to the victim. There are, undoubtedly, other such schemes for which buttling gives the murderer an excuse to get near his victim. They will all have in common that being the butler is merely a cover story, even if he did actually buttle. What they also have in common is that—this trope aside—the butler is not someone you would ordinarily suspect of having a relationship with the victim. People do not, customarily, employ their relatives. Therefore, if you suspect the author of playing fair you will tend to not suspect the butler.

And here we come to what I think is likely to be the reason for this trope existing, that is, what the trope of “the butler did it” really means. I think that it means that the murderer is the person we least expect because the story is structured so that he would be one of the people who is normally “out of bounds.” (To borrow a sporting metaphor.) I’ve mentioned before in this series that I think that the trope was probably far more common in plays that in novels. If plays were the TV shows of yesteryear, it makes sense that they would tend to be written by hack writers who would try to be clever but would have trouble being really clever. Thus they would be more prone to pick someone the audience has no reason to suspect, like the butler. They can’t just have it be the butler, though, because they would seem random and hence unfair. As a compromise, they then reveal (without warning) that the butler is actually a long lost cousin or an illegitimate nephew or some such. The adage that the butler always did it probably, then, was conceived in response to this sort of plot device. It is advice to expect a hack plot in which the least likely person can be relied upon to be the culprit, though with some contrived connection as an excuse.

If my guess is correct, The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman does not really fit the mold. Its butler is too much in the foreground. Apart from the suspect for whom we have only the butler’s word was there, the butler is in fact the only person with the opportunity to commit the murder. Mrs. Christie is, in this way, playing fair with the audience more than the prototypical butler-did-it story would. The butler is a legitimate suspect, and we are distracted from him only by his own ingenious misdirection. If one stops to think for a moment, one would suspect the butler.

So, all things considered, I’m not sure if it’s right to classify The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman as a butler-did-it story. The butler did do it, of course. That’s not at issue. The question is whether he did it in the right way. With that the question, I don’t think that it’s an example of the trope, if the-butler-did-it even can be called a trope. Still, it’s worth mentioning, since, after all, the butler did do it.

What Intentional Plot Holes Look Like

Yesterday, I asked the question, Are Plot Holes Like the Dark Side? This brought in some interesting comments on the idea of intentionally including plot holes. As my friend Alexander Helene said, “I never thought plot holes were deliberately used for the sake of ease. I always figured they were unintentional.”

I want to clarify that I don’t think that anybody says to himself, “Man, these plot holes I’m including will make audiences think I’m a genius! Muahahahaha!” Intentional plot holes look different.

The most common kind of intentional plot hole is the mysterious event which the author intends to figure out later. “Man, wouldn’t it be cool if the space wizard was off on a far away planet with a cryptic map leading to him? [I’ll figure out why on earth he left his friends to the mercies of the Sith but left a very hard-to-find map behind later. I’m sure there’s some good reason which could explain it. I need to get on with the story now.]”

This sort of thing is much worse, of course, in TV shows, where the authors have already published the really cool stuff by the time they come to trying to figure out how to explain it. Perhaps the best example of this is the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Best of Both Worlds Part I. It is the final episode of season 3. It ends with Picard having been assimilated by the Borg and the Enterprise about to fire a super-mega-ultra blast from its main deflector dish which is powerful enough to destroy the Borg cube and which they haven’t seen before so they have not yet adapted to it. So what do the writers do when they come back at the beginning of Season 4 and need some way of getting out of this mess?

They decide that since Picard knew about it and was assimilated, the Borg could just pre-adapt to it, so the mega-ultra-hyper weapon of doom… does nothing and they move on as if nothing happened. This is what an intentional plot hole looks like when you can’t avoid dealing with it. The episode goes on to have to deal with the insuperable problem of the Borg as created in part 1 by the absurd idea that the hive mind can be given a “sleep” command, which it obeys because the way hive minds work is accepting commands as if they’re a computer from a single drone. It was stupid, but the entire episode had to be stupid, because the lack of planning had foreclosed all non-stupid possibilities.

It’s not that the writers of The Best of Both Worlds set out to foreclose every non-stupid possibility for how the episode would end. They just kept upping the stakes and raising the tension and introducing cool stuff without any thought as to how it would work with what they needed to do later on in the episode. This is the normal pattern for intentional plot holes. The writers don’t think of them as plot holes, they just make them plot holes by refusing to think about them. It is, however, the same thing which makes these cool ideas that makes them plot holes.

There is an analogy to sin, here. Sin is hamartia, missing the mark. It is aiming at something but not hitting it. In particular, the person, when sinning, desires some good he mistakenly thinks that he will achieve by sinning. What he gets is, instead, and evil. Sinners are always surprised by this evil because it was not their intention. They are not innocent of it, though, because they could have foreseen the evil that they have wrought, but refused to look, honestly, at what they were actually doing.

In like manner, the author putting plot holes into his writing to make it more interesting does not intend for them to be plot holes, as such. He merely aims for the interest that they lend to the story and does not think about them as actual parts of the plot that are supposed to cohere with the rest. He focuses on the details and ignores the big picture. This intentional ignorance is why he doesn’t realize that the plot holes he is introducing are plot holes, much like the man who cheats on his wife with another man’s wife does not intend to adulterate both marriages. He only aims for the pleasure of intimacy. Both go in roughly the same way, too—it was great until everything fell apart.

(Because this is the internet, I should probably explicitly state that I do not think that writing a story with plot holes has the same degree of evil as adulterating two marriages, though the way that society is going at present perhaps some day soon this disclaimer will be taken to mean that I do not have the audacity to say that adulterating marriages is more than a matter of taste, whereas plot holes are objectively evil, if only a very minor evil. However one wishes to take that, the two are similar in kind, not in degree.)

Knight Rider and Driverless Cars

I was recently passed this interesting tweet which embeds a few seconds of video where you can see how the special effects department of the old 1980s TV show Knight Rider pulled off KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand, a super-advanced car, voiced by William Daniels) doing his super-high-tech driverless driving.

This sort of thing happened a lot in special effects, in the days before everything was done with CGI. Special effects people tended to be ruthlessly practical and also to have an excellent sense of exactly what would show up on the televisions of the day. And the televisions of the day were not great.

The actual technical specifications are complex, but, approximately (in America), televisions had about 640×480 pixels, and only drew half of them at any given time (even rows were drawn in one frame, odd rows in the next frame, alternating, so that any given row was drawn 30 times per second). Then when you combined the various aspects of transmission and manufacturing, colors weren’t as precise so the whole image would be fuzzier. You got a decent image, but you didn’t see details. Special effects people knew this very well.

The result is that high-definition blu-ray editions of early special-effects-heavy TV shows actually do something of a disservice to the show. In Knight Rider, you can see the guy driving the car when it was supposedly driving itself. In Star Trek you can see that the rubber texture on the gorn’s suit. These really don’t enhance one’s enjoyment of the show.

I’m not sure what the solution is, or if there even is one. Not that many shows from the age of special effects are really worth watching, these days, so it’s not too big a problem.

One thing that helps a bit when I watch the bluray of Star Trek with my eleven year old son is that we watch it on my computer monitor while we sit on a couch twelve feet away. You can’t see the textures on the gorn suit quite as well on a 28″ monitor when you’re that far away.

Are Plot Holes Like the Dark Side?

In Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Luke famously asks Master Yoda if the dark side of the force is more powerful than the light side of the force. Yoda’s answer is no, it’s not more powerful. It’s only faster. That is, one gains power more quickly on the dark side, but there isn’t more power to be gained. And, of course, that faster power comes at a price.

I’ve been wondering if there isn’t something analogous in writing, where plot holes make interesting stories easier to write.

In one sense this is obviously true. Shoddy workmanship is easier than good workmanship. On the other hand, Rian Johnson supposedly worked for weeks on the opening word crawl for Star Wars Episode VII: The Last Jedi, and the first two sentences contradicted each other. Shoddy workmanship requires less effort, but apparently it is not always the result of less effort. In any event, this isn’t what I’m wondering about.

There are two ways in which something being easier is interesting. The first is that easier things, if one keeps the results the same, require less effort and are thus more comfortable. It’s in this sense that doing a bad job is easier than doing a good job. The other way in which something being easier is interesting is if it allows one to produce better results. A lever is a good example of this: a lever allows a man who is pushing his hardest to push more weight. Or to give another example, a wheel allows a man who is pulling as hard as he can to pull far more weight. This is what I’m wondering about.

Do plot holes allow a writer of a given skill level to write a more interesting story than his skill level would normally allow?

Obviously, I mean before one gets to the end and finds out that the implicit promises of an explanation will not be fulfilled.

What makes a story interesting are questions which are raised and which the story (implicitly) promises will be answered at the end. One of the most intriguing questions which can be raised is an apparent contradiction which admits of some deeper explanation which shows that the appearance is deceiving and the contradiction is not really a contradiction. In Silver Blaze, Holmes draws the inspector’s attention to the curious incident of the dog in the night. But the dog did nothing in the night, which is, itself, the curious incident. How can this be? There seems to be a contradiction here.

The solution of this apparent contradiction is that the dog would have barked had a stranger been about, so his doing nothing was positive evidence that no stranger had come by. The apparent contradiction of an interesting-nothing was paid off, and paid off well. So well, it was imitated so often as to make its way onto a list in 1920 of tricks that should be dropped for being too well-used (Silver Blaze was first published in 1892).

Plot holes are contradictions in a story. As such, they have the appearance of being a contradiction. Until the story is over, however, the reader cannot know that there will be no explanation of them. They thus make the story more interesting, as the reader keeps trying to guess what the solution will be. This can go badly for the author, but it need not. It will only go badly if the reader remembers the plot hole when the story is over.

There are two main ways of making the reader forget that there was a plot hole in a story:

  1. Distract the reader
  2. Give a bad explanation

In the first case, if there are enough twists and turns and the characters no longer are concerned with the events in which the plot hole occurred, the reader may simply forget the plot hole entirely. This will work better with readers who have bad memories, but they certainly can be found. (It probably works better in movies and television.)

In the second case, if the author only gives part of the bad explanation and has the characters are seen to accept it, many readers won’t pause to think through the rest of the explanation and how it doesn’t work. The more quick-witted readers, as well as the more dogged readers, will, of course, but there are plenty of readers with little patience and not much more wit.

If the author is able to disguise his plot holes in this manner, he will have gotten the advantage of his book being more interesting while the reader was reading it. The use of this technique—possibly without the author even realizing what he is doing it—might well enable him to write books which, to an inattentive reader, seem far more interesting than they really are. In this way, plot holes may be like the dark side of the force. It’s not that they let one write better stories—clearly they don’t do that—but they may make it much faster in the learning of the craft of writing to write stories which capture readers’ interest.

And this may be why we see stories with plot holes so often.