The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba

The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba is a very strange Lord Peter story. It’s primarily an adventure story, though it has minor elements of mystery to it. The mystery is primarily about how Lord Peter plans to get out of the trap he walked into, so in a sense it’s backwards from the normal situation in which somebody has used their intellect to mess things up and the detective uses his intellect to put them back together; here Lord Peter has used his intellect and we watch the villains try to match wits with him. As I’ve noted in other reviews of short stories, this will contain spoilers. That said, I don’t think that the story will be all that surprising.

The story begins with the announcement of the death of Lord Peter Wimsey on a hunting trip in Tanganyika. I don’t really like that sort of device, myself, though it’s really just an annoyance because no one believes for a moment that Lord Peter was actually killed off at the beginning of a Lord Peter Wimsey story. But this device also stretches one’s imagination to the breaking point. It seems very out of character for Lord Peter Wimsey to pretend to be dead for over two years in order to catch a criminal gang. Granted, it is supposed to be a superlative criminal gang, but at the same time it is limited to 50 members who don’t know each other. And this presents real problems.

Even granted that most of its members are among the most capable in the world—and Lord Peter got in pretending to be an ex-footman whose only real value was in knowing the household routine of a number of great houses—fifty people is still not enough to silently carry out executions in prisons and other things like that. To carry out executions in a jail one would need at an absolute minimum two men on the inside. But they can’t work together if they don’t know each other, since they would have to act with the authority they have. The rule that no one knows who anyone else is (save Number One, who knows everyone) severely limits the sorts of conspiracies which can be undertaken. Also a problem for the gang is that there is more than one jail in London. I suppose this could be solved by having assassins who can sneak into and out of the jail to perform an execution, but that does nothing to restore credibility to the story. The society does not train people in secret schools and with only fifty members most of whom are skilled at performing robberies, they will have more than a hard time recruiting uber-assassins. The problems go on; fifty men can do a lot, but they can’t be everywhere, especially in England during the interwar period when telephones were relatively new inventions.

Which brings us to the science fiction element of the story: the voice-activated sliding door. Certainly this is very possible today, and if one is willing to stretch a bit it is possible that it could have been done using the technology of the 1920s. How one could do it using the technology of the 1920s that allows more than one try, I don’t know, and certainly the explanation of a needle tracing vibrations gives no clue. That mechanism could work once, perhaps by depositing a conductor. Actually, come to think of it, if the needle and the trace were conductive, the thing could be hooked up to a timer which will activate if the needle closes the circuit for a minimum amount of time. That could give most of the desired properties, though I will also note that the thing would require an enormous amount of precision. Granted, Lord Peter could pay for such precision, but delicate and experimental machinery is an odd thing to gamble a man’s life on. Granted, a very bad man. In any event such technology lacks the wow factor it would have had to readers in the 1920s. And further, it seems a bit gratuitous. Maybe it’s just a long history of wildly complicated plans in fiction together with most plans that are even mildly complicated going terribly wrong in real life, but the whole thing seems needlessly elaborate without having a corresponding coolness to make the reader not care about the over-elaboration. This may perhaps be related to the way that such a door would now just be expensive but not at all technologically difficult; that would remove the coolness but not the original elaborateness. Alas, not all stories are meant for the ages. On the plus side, the ones that aren’t tell us more about the time period they were written in, since they don’t transcend their time.

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face is a short story featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. According to this book it was originally published in 1924. (Incidentally, in googling for the original publication date I discovered this interesting chronology of Lord Peter’s life. Also curious is that it appears to have been republished in Great Detective volume 1. So far as I know it was first collected in Lord Peter Views the Body in 1928. Short stories, at the time, seem to have lived interesting lives.) As usual with short stories, this post about it will contain spoilers. Go read it now if you haven’t yet, it’s not the best story but it’s worth the time.

As with some of the other Lord Peter short stories, The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face is fairly long. In my copy which isn’t small it takes up 30 pages. Like The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of the Contention it almost verges into being a novella, and it feels like it. As I’ve said the classic murder mystery short story involves a complicated setup, the sleuth announcing that he’s solved it (letting the reader know he’s gotten all the clues he’s going to get) followed by the sleuth explaining the solution. This has been endlessly varied, of course, but it does generally hold. There’s far more story and characterization in The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face, and it takes its time to allow one to enjoy them. In many ways this story could easily have been written as a full-length novel; it would have taken fairly little re-jiggering to add in some additional characters as well as false trails and smaller mysteries to solve—without fundamentally altering the structure. As it stands it is somewhat reminiscent of Have His Carcase, though only in the setting of the murder—a lonely beach near a seaside resort with a body discovered with only one set of footprints. Have His Carcase was considerably more mysterious, since there was the lingering question of whether the death was suicide which was not a concern here, but I can’t help but wonder if Sayers liked the setting enough to do it over again.

The story also features her odd fascination with artists and their single-minded devotion to the truth of their art. I’d call it a theme except it’s really just taken as a fact that is relied upon but doesn’t mean anything. I’m mostly ignorant of art history, but the inter-war period was I think the last time when such an idea might have been tenable. I don’t think that it was long afterwards that art transcended beauty, then meaning, and when meaning left so of necessity did truth. I believe technique has also been left behind, though of course one can always find people painting in older styles which aim for things like beauty using disciplined techniques. In my very limited experience, however, these people don’t tend to be as pretentious as artists are reputed to have been in the early 1900s. I think part of it is that the early 1900s saw artists trying to replace religion in the fashion of the superman which Nietzsche had identified as necessary for mankind to continue after the death of God. Those artists who seek beauty these days tend, I think, to be religious, and consequently see no need to try to replace God.

Be that as it may, the most interesting part of the story, from the perspective of considering all of Sayers’ work, is that Lord Peter lets the murderer get away with the murder because of some combination of the victim being a bad man and the artist being a great artist. Now, I’m often fond of endings where the detective solves the case but does not bring people to punishment because that would not be the best balance. This is perhaps best epitomized when Sherlock Holmes lets a thief go because he has already suffered enough, and explains to Watson, “Scottland Yard does not retain me to supply their deficiencies.” I may write such a story myself, some day. This ending is very unsatisfying, though, because the man being a good painter seems rather the reverse of a reason to let him get away with murder. That said, much of my reaction is a reaction to the odd sort of idolatry shown towards art in much of what I’ve read from the early 1900s, so I may perhaps not be judging it fairly. On the other hand, when Lord Peter says:

“What is Truth?” said Jesting Pilate. No wonder, since it is so completely unbelievable….I could prove it…if I liked…but the main had a villainous face, and there are few good painters in the world.

I actually rather doubt the “I could prove it” part. It’s true that he could prove parts of his story—with some detective work he could probably prove that the painter was in the same seaside area as the murder, and he could probably prove from the painter’s painting several years ago of the beach where the murder took place that the painter had been there years before. But beyond that, I don’t think that Wimsey could prove much. There was no hard evidence linking the painter to the murder scene on the day of the murder; the best he could do is hope that the owner of the garage where the murderer dropped off the victim’s car could recognize the painter, but at best that would be difficult in an era when photographs are hard to come by. And though it wasn’t something talked about much in Wimsey stories, witness identification of people who the witness doesn’t know is notoriously unreliable. So, while Wimsey could probably put together a case, it would be a very circumstantial one at best.

Though re-reading the lines I do suspect that Wimsey was primarily motivated by how the victim had it coming, and less that the artist was a great artist; it was established that the victim was a bad man, though not a criminal. It is, none the less, very unsatisfying. A detective letting a murderer go should not be done lightly, and here it almost feels like Sayers simply took the easy way out after painting herself into the corner of not having any really hard evidence. That said, real-life jurious are notoriously willing to convict people based upon relatively flimsy evidence. Then again, fiction is supposed to be more believable than real life.

In short, it’s worth a read, but I doubt I’ll be re-reading it much.

The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head

I recently got a collection of Lord Peter Wimsey short stories. I’ve already reviewed The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of the Contention. It has elements which remind me of the current pulp revolution, which made me curious as to its publication. Unfortunately, publication information is not easy to come by; why books which collect short stories don’t see fit to include this information I cannot fathom. Anyway, this book says that The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head was first published in volume 61 of Pearson’s (a literary magazine) in June of 1926, so I don’t know if it would technically count as a pulp, but despite being about Lord Peter Wimsey, it definitely has pulpy elements. Since it’s approximately impossible to discuss short stories without giving spoilers, I will simply give a spoiler warning here and then discuss the story with spoilers. I do recommend the story—it was an enjoyable read.

(This is your last chance to go read it before spoilers, just so you know.)

We might loosely divide the story up into three acts. In the first act Lord Peter is in an old book shop with his ten year old nephew, who buys a damaged version of an old book which would be valuable in good condition. In the second act, a man approaches Wimsey and tries to buy and then steal the book. In the third act, Wimsey goes off to the home of the original owner and discovers that the book may be the key to a family legacy of pirate treasure.

The first act is rather prosaic, and has probably the most familiar elements of Lord Peter novels—interesting characters and engaging dialog. One gets the most flavor of Lord Peter’s banter when he is not active, so this is the part of the story which has the most Lord Peter flavor.

In the second act we get to see Lord Peter’s burglar alarms which, given the publication date of 1926, verge on being science fiction. The action was over relatively quickly, but in an expert fashion which reminded me of the supreme competence of the man of bronze, Doc Savage. Not nearly as over-the-top as Doc Savage, but then compared to Doc Savage most things are barely a fifth of the way up. Still, a theme in short stories from the time seems to have been hero worship; short stories are often forced to do a lot of telling rather than showing and there was clearly an appetite for the glories of achievement through hard work in those days. There was also, interestingly, a reference to Sexton Blake (in the quality of the rope-work used to tie up intruders). Mystery has always been a self-referential genre; it is a very long-standing tradition for fictional detectives to reference other fictional detectives as fiction. I think it works within mystery fiction better than it would in most other genres, which do better to pretend that their genre doesn’t exist within the fictional world in which they’re set. Science fiction characters should not, as a rule, read science fiction novels, just as sorcerers shouldn’t read fantasy novels and people in a love story shouldn’t read romance novels. (There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but I suspect that these are sensible rules.)

The third act takes place in the decaying family estate from which the book came to the book seller. It’s also interesting to note that while modern retrospective dramas such as Downton Abbey or The Crown take place in families which still have money and therefore can afford the miniature villages which great houses could be—if they could afford to employ most of the villagers—when mysteries of the early 1900s were set in great houses, it was usually in great houses that were falling apart from (relative) poverty and neglect. This is no accident, of course. A house that is lived in has its secrets, but many of them can be found out simply by asking, and even the ones that can’t are often at least partially known by people who weren’t supposed to know them. A house that had been lived in requires investigation to find out most of its secrets. There’s also a much wider scope for motives to strange actions in a decaying great house since a functioning great house takes care of most of its occupants’ needs.

In The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head, the almost mandatory unkempt gardens  and Chinese pagodas symbolizing the bad taste of someone who came into money later in life are actually a key to the mystery. This is, I think, a good example of Chesterton’s dictum that the culprit should be, whenever possible, someone we would never suspect. Chesterton warned of the problem of there being only one person we’ve never suspected making that person the obvious culprit, of course, and praised Conan Doyle’s story Silver Blaze as being the best example of this trick (spoiler alert), since the horse’s presence is completely explained by the owner keeping horses for racing. In the same way, though the scenery isn’t a murderer, it is hiding the treasure and I think it a very good construction that the scenery we assume exists only to denote the conventional bad taste of a progenitor actually served the progenitor’s purpose; in a man-made lake the burier of the treasure actually made his little Islands to correspond to an ancient map in an ancient book. This may be the only example I know of in which the treasure map came first and the treasure was buried according to it. It is an ingenious device for disguising the treasure map.

Overall I strongly recommend this short story; unlike the previous one I reviewed I do expect to re-read it on occasion.

The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of the Contention

I was recently given a complete collection of the Lord Peter Wimsey short stories. Some of the Lord Peter novels are among my favorite detective fiction—especially those involving Harriet Vane—but oddly I hadn’t really enjoyed the few Lord Peter short stories I had read. My mother—who introduced me to Lord Peter—gave me the collection saying that it was a mixed bag and I had the bad luck of picking the worst of them.

As I’ve mentioned before, in detective fiction short stories have a very different structure than novels do, not merely because the normal differences between the two media, but because a completely different sort of story is possible in a short story. Specifically: the puzzle. A short story permits a complex setup which is then unraveled in the end to the (possible) astonishment of the reader but a novel simply doesn’t permit of that sort of story. The thread can’t be stretched that far without breaking; there is no possible excuse for the detective spending so long without revealing what he knows. (TV shows have this problem, though TV episodes are more similar to short stories, and solve it by having the detective suddenly remember or realize something, in order to give the viewer time to figure the solution out.)

The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention is interesting in that it’s almost a very short novela rather than a long short story; certainly it lingers on the characters and atmosphere in a way that is more the domain of novels. The characters and atmosphere being one of the strengths of Lord Peter this is a point in its favor, but it never really fleshes the characters out enough for any of them to be really likable. I know that likability can be overrated; perhaps it’s better to say that we never really learn enough about the characters for any of their concerns to matter. Lord Peter views his surroundings with a sort of detached air and nothing counterbalances this. This is true of almost all of the Lord Peter stories, but in the good ones he has some other character to counter-balance this with attachment. Even where that isn’t Harriet Vane, as in, for example, Clouds of Witness, there is still the fact that people Wimsey cares about care whether Wimsey’s brother will be hanged for murder. Here, Wimsey doesn’t want to be involved and gets dragged in by others who don’t want to be involved either. This doesn’t ruin the story, but it certainly doesn’t help.

The mystery itself is really several (related) mysteries, but they’re not at first obviously related to each other. Even that would be fairly normal, except that there is no particular reason to solve the first mystery except for the sheer curiosity of Lord Peter. Granted, a ghostly coach passing in the night would arouse curiosity, but at the same time the solution simply drops when Lord Peter discovers it. It has no significance at the time. In fact that’s probably my real complaint: the story never sets up the mystery properly; everything happens and then we’re presented with the mystery and its solution in rapid succession. On the other hand, I will say that I appreciated Lord Peter ruling out a supernatural explanation of the ghostly coach no on a priori grounds since that would be unsound, but because the apparition didn’t bother his horse at all, as one would expect a ghost to. It was a nice touch of rationality in a character who does not believe in the supernatural (Sayers famously said that Lord Peter would consider it an impertinence to believe he had a soul).

Overall I enjoyed reading the The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention, but it’s hard for it not to be marred by comparison to Sayers’ best work. I recommend reading it, but I doubt that I will reread it often.

Consulting Detectives and the Police

(In this post I’m going to consider the relationship between a consulting detective and the police, from the perspective of writing about them. Nothing in this post is meant as literary criticism of any examples which are considered.)

In most murder mysteries, the police are investigating the murder, which presents the writer the problem of what the relationship between the police and the detective will be. Authors have chosen all over the spectrum, from the police seeking out the help of the consulting detective to the police actively trying to deter the consulting detective. (This has even been true of murder mysteries in which the main detective is the police! In that case it takes the form of his superiors respecting him to his superiors assigning him elsewhere and forbidding him from investigating.)

Authors will also change things up. In The Cadfael Chronicles stories, Sheriff Gilbert Prestcote is mildly antagonistic to Cadfael, whereas his successor Hugh Beringar is a good friend of Cadfael’s and though competent himself, values Cadfael’s opinion highly (it would probably be more accurate to say because he is competent himself). In Murder, She Wrote the different locations for the murder allowed them to try out the entire spectrum, though for some reason the Cabot Cove sheriffs tended to be more on the skeptical side. Perhaps the actors in question were just better at scowling than they were at smiling. Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot had excellent reputations and friends in high places which tended to make the police friendly for them. Dorothy L. Sayers solved this with Lord Peter Wimsey by making the police deferential to his title of nobility. Philo Vance was a long-time friend of the district attorney. That’s only a small sampling and it’s all over the place. Clearly anything will work, but it leaves the question of which is best?

Of course, to even ask the question that way is to highlight that the real question is what sort of stories do the points on the curve allow you to tell? It’s always easiest to start at the extremes. If the police are highly antagonistic to the detective—e.g. the detective is the prime suspect and there is an arrest warrant out for the detective—this tends to be more conducive to stories with a lot of action/suspense. In the examples I can think of (The Fugitive and Minority Report come to mind) most of the focus is on whether the detective will be caught before he can prove he didn’t do it. This also tends to raise the stakes by having an innocent person in danger of being punished for a crime they didn’t commit.

On the other end of the spectrum, the police enthusiastically ask for the detective’s help and will do anything the detectives tells them to. Some episodes of Murder, She Wrote come to mind. Some of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories come close to it as well. Come to think of it, so do a few of the Sherlock Holmes stories. The stakes tend to be lower—though not always; Lord Peter had police cooperation in Strong Poison but Harriet Vane was on trial for a crime she didn’t commit—and most of the action tends to be the actual investigation. This tends to open up more space for theorizing and collaboration. Unless it’s an ongoing murder story—where live characters keep turning into dead bodies—these stories are more likely to have a slower pace and focus more on dialog than action.

(It is of course possible to change locations on this spectrum throughout the story. A detective, once cleared, can be welcomed by the police. A detective who had full access can turn into a suspect (this is especially easy to do if there are ongoing murders). A story can start more in the middle and once the detective proves useful, they can become more welcome. Etc.)

I think that my own preference is for the friendlier side of the spectrum. I enjoy collaboration more than I do conflict. Conflict can certainly be interesting, and is often easier to make interesting than collaboration, but I think that collaboration done well has a greater potential for interest. Individuals are interesting, but people are more themselves in community. Of course, it must be a true community. False community obliterates the individual for the sake of the group, while real community brings each individual to the fullness of themselves, respecting each one’s unique virtues. (As a technical note, I mean their unique natural virtues. Moral virtues are—in an ideal world, at least—not distinct between people. All men should be perfectly honest, but each one’s identical perfect honesty will have a different natural content because they know different things.)

A friendly relationship between the police and a consulting detective is not easy to pull off, however, especially if one is striving for realism. There is something of a natural antagonism between a consulting detective and the police, and further there is a natural reticence the police will have in sharing information which is not public. Still, the police will certainly consult outside experts, and police departments have been known to consult psychics for help. In The Dean Died Over Winter Break the relationship was probably more neutral than welcoming, but the police were reasonably friendly. Still, the information mostly flowed from the detectives to the police, and not the other way around. In the circumstance, it seemed the most natural thing.

One of the more plausible ways of insinuating the consulting detective with the police involves the police being short on resources. Resource shortages have a number of effects on people, most of them tending to increase flexibility. People with too few resources tend to see the upsides of shortcuts and other sorts of flexibility more clearly than do people with enough resources to get everything done. They tend to be less worried about possible downsides, because the downsides compare to the downside of simply not getting their work done. Moreover, the people who are responsible for the short-staffing cannot credibly threaten to replace the overworked person with someone else. Finding people willing to be overworked is not easy, and in any event finding new people for a job is both difficult and expensive. Worse for the person responsible for the short-staffing, since overworked people often make mistakes and don’t get everything done, disciplinary issues will have come up before, and the overworked person will probably have gotten used to the toothlessness of any threats made. Thus by the time the consulting detective comes around, offering to take some of the work off of the overworked police detective’s shoulders, the upside will be all the more obvious while the downsides will already be known to be minimal. And since the worst case is that the overworked person finally stops being overworked, the downsides will seem especially minimal.

Also viable for making police collaboration with the consulting detective plausible is for the forensic evidence to be scant. Really it’s not just the forensic evidence, but all of the evidence in which the police are the best at obtaining: cell phone records, bank records, the sort of evidence for which warrants are generally attainable, etc. If the police don’t really know anything of value, they have very little to lose in a relationship with the consulting detective. The flip side of the fairly impressive powers to subpoena phone records, etc. is that they are bound by rules which private citizens are not. Moreover the police are bound to enforce all rules, though of course in practice they don’t always do so, but this makes the police scary since in the modern age virtually everyone is guilty of some crime or other. We have so many laws its impossible to know what they all are, and some of them run counter to common sense (especially copyright laws). Children and pets offer all sorts of judgement-based ways in which the police could make a person’s life miserable even if they haven’t technically broken any laws; a great many people are rightfully wary about anyone as powerful as the police. None of this applies to a consulting detective, who has no power and is therefore relatively safe. Further, with no superiors to whom a person can complain, a consulting detective is in a less vulnerable position if they take liberties with people who have valuable information (providing those liberties are within the law).

There are of course plenty of other ways for a consulting detective to get along with the police. Friends and relatives on the police force have been used innumerable times. If a consulting detective is likable a police detective might simply take a liking to them. Having a mutual friend and helping the consulting detective for the sake of the friend is certainly possible, as is there being someone in authority over the police who wants the consulting detective working on the case.  My memory might be deceiving me, but I think I’ve even seen it work for the consulting detective to—in effect—blackmail the police detective into sharing information. Since precedent is a powerful thing, I’ve also seen it done to bootstrap the consulting detective into a relationship with the police by some means which would only work once—a relative of the deceased having (politically expensive to use) power over the police, for example—which leaves the police eager to work with the detective again. I think that the choice of these techniques, if one wants to go this way, is going to depend on the detectives. In the case of my detectives—The Franciscan Brothers of Investigation—the choice varies with who it was that called the brothers in. In The Dean Died Over Winter Break, since it was the university president, this acted as something of a middle ground. The police were neutral, but they were not hostile, while the university president’s authority gave them full cooperation with the university staff, which was probably more valuable to them. In future mysteries, it’s likely to be different based on who is asking for help.

Review: The Benson Murder Case

Having become interested in American writers during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (primarily because of research into the phrase The Butler Did It), I came across S. S. Van Dine and his detective Philo Vance. Since Philo Vance had been described as one of the most popular American detectives of the 1920s and 1930s, I bought a copy of The Benson Murder Case. Though I thought that it was merely OK as a story, it was certainly historically interesting.

The first thing which struck me about Philo Vance was how very reminiscent of Lord Peter Wimsey he is (Whose Body was published three years before The Benson Murder Case). Vance was educated at Oxford, at around the same time as Lord Peter, and has many of the same mannerisms, such as ending a declarative sentence with the question, “what?” Vance also uses a monocle, though he doesn’t wear it constantly as Lord Peter does. He is fashionable, wealthy, travels in high society, and dresses extremely well, just like Lord Peter. Whereas Lord Peter is knowledgeable about art and his real passion is music, Vance is knowledgeable about music and his real passion is art. Both like to quote classic literature while investigating cases. If so far the main difference between them seems to be their name, that is misleading. There is a significant, though subtle, difference, and I think that it traces back to their authors.

Willard Huntington Wright (S.S. Van Dine was a pen name) was a Nietzsche scholar. Dorothy L. Sayers was a devout Anglican, and even published some theology. Both detectives seem to lack any belief in God, and Sayers even went so far as to say, in private correspondence, that she thought Lord Peter would think it an impertinence to believe that he had a soul. Yet there is something religious in the character of Lord Peter. He did not believe in God, but he did believe in beauty. He might have been a worldling, but he knew somewhere in the back of his mind that it wasn’t true that the world is enough, and it saddened him because the better thing which beauty hinted at seemed unattainable. By contrast, Philo Vance might have been a celebrated art critic and collector, but he gave no indication that he actually saw any beauty in the world. The proof of it was that there was no sadness in his character. Lord Peter had suffered; Lord Peter’s heart had been broken, not just serving in World War I, but in other parts of life, as well. Philo Vance, by contrast, seemed to have an intact but very small heart. He does not seem to have suffered anything besides boredom, and as Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, “The man who has not suffered, what can he possibly know, anyway?” Joy is a greater wisdom than sadness, but there is no wisdom at all in being bored. As Chesterton put it:

There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.

There is also the curious element in the story of how Philo Vance lectures his friend, the district attorney, on the nature of investigation. This was a common feature of early detective fiction, especially contrasting proper investigation with how the police went about investigating. It started with Poe’s explantion of C. Auguste Dupin’s ratiocination in Murders in the Rue Morgue,  was a common feature of Sherlock Holmes stories, and featured in a great many others of the time, too. So much so that Chesterton wrote a very interesting conversation about the very phenomenon in The Mirror of the Magistrate, published in The Secret of Father Brown:

“Ours is the only trade,” said Bagshaw, “in which the professional is always supposed to be wrong. After all, people don’t write stories in which hairdressers can’t cut hair and have to be helped by a customer; or in which a cabman can’t drive a cab until his fare explains to him the philosophy of cab-driving. For all that, I’d never deny that we often tend to get into a rut: or, in other words, have the disadvantages of going by a rule. Where the romancers are wrong is, that they don’t allow us even the advantages of going by a rule.”

“Surely,” said Underhill, “Sherlock Holmes would say that he went by a logical rule.”

“He may be right,” answered the other; “but I mean a collective rule. It’s like the staff work of an army. We pool our information.”

“And you don’t think detective stories allow for that?” asked his friend.

“Well, let’s take any imaginary case of Sherlock Holmes, and Lestrade, the official detective. Sherlock Holmes, let us say, can guess that a total stranger crossing the street is a foreigner, merely because he seems to look for the traffic to go to the right instead of the left. I’m quite ready to admit Holmes might guess that. I’m quite sure Lestrade wouldn’t guess anything of the kind. But what they leave out is the fact that the policeman, who couldn’t guess, might very probably know. Lestrade might know the man was a foreigner merely because his department has to keep an eye on all foreigners…”

Philo Vance takes it one step further than this, claiming that the police methods are not just ineffective, but counter-productive. It’s a theme which Vance hits upon so often as to come across as supercilious. Typical murders are not fiendishly cunning, and forensic evidence, though circumstantial, is actually useful. (I’m going to get into spoilers at this point, so if you want to read the novel for yourself without knowing who did it, I suggest you go read it now.)

Much of Vance’s point is made by the police being rather unbelievably thick-headed. Their first suspect is a woman whose handbag and gloves were found at the scene of the crime, and who chucked two cigarette buts into the fireplace. The victim, Benson, was known to have gone out with some woman the night he was killed (he was killed shortly past midnight), and that’s the sum total of evidence which the police have upon which they conclude she must have murdered him. That plus she got home at around 1am, might possibly have gotten the murder weapon from her fiancé, who presumably owned a military colt automatic pistol because he had been in the Great War.  Oh, and Benson was known to make inappropriate advances to women. Somehow this added up to her cold-bloodedly shooting him in the forehead from six feet away while he was seated. Had he been killed defensively, this might have been plausible, but why a woman who went to dinner with him would execute him in this fashion is never so much as broached.

There is also the evidence of who the real killer is, which is rather conclusive. Benson normally wore a toupee and was never seen without it; ditto his false front teeth. Both were on his nightstand, and he was wearing his comfortable slippers and an old smoking jacket on top of his evening clothes without a collar. (In clothing of the time, collars were separate items from the shirts, and would attach by a button. It was therefore possible to take the collar off, and in fact when someone was at leisure and didn’t need to be presentable, they would often do that very thing for comfort’s sake.) The housekeeper is positive that the door was locked, for it automatically locked, and moreover that the doorbell was never rung. The windows were barred against break-in. Despite all of this evidence that the victim was on intimate terms with his murderer—he let the murderer in himself while in a state of comparative undress, without bothering to put his toupee and false teeth back on and was sitting down and even reading a book when he was shot—the police never ask what any of this evidence means, even when Vance more-or-less points it out to them. No explanation for this incredible thickness on the part of the police is given, except when Vance mentions that there are height and weight requirements to joint the police force, but no intelligence requirement.

This also basically gives away who the murderer is. This goes doubly so because of the form of the fiction. Vance is a genius who is always right, and Vance declares he knows who the murderer is five minutes after looking at the crime scene. Granted, it is revealed later on that Vance knew the murderer for many years, and thus knew his personality—which I would normally call cheating—but the evidence which points to the murderer is so clear apart from odd psychological theories that this foreknowledge on the part of Vance is fairly irrelevant. As of chapter 2 or 3, I forget which, there is only one suspect, and all that remains for the rest of the book is to watch Vance disprove the red herrings for the district attorney. In general it would be possible for some other character to be introduced who also knew the victim on such intimate terms, but since Vance was always right, and Vance knew who the murderer was, that possibility was foreclosed.

It is especially interesting to consider this in light of Van Dine’s Twenty Rule for Writing Detective Stories, published in 1928 (two years after The Benson Murder Case). You can argue that he violated #3 (no love interest) because there was an affianced couple who would have not been able to marry had either of them been executed for the murder. He borders on violating #4 (none of the official investigators should be the culprit), since the old friend who asked the district attorney to personally investigate turned out to be the murderer. He violates #16 (no literary dallying with side-issues) a few times blathering on about his theories on art at such a length I skimmed the section. Also curious is that his adherence to rule #15 (the clever reader should be able to finger the culprit as soon as the detective does) made the book rather anti-climactic. In essence he took a short-story murder mystery and then inserted an entire book’s worth of padding in between the investigation and the revelation of the murderer.

As an addendum, as I was googling around to see whether anyone else talked about the similarity between Vance and Lord Peter, I found this blog post about S.S. Van Dine and his sleuth Philo Vance, which is a different take than mine, to be sure, and has some interesting historical information in it.

The Butler Did It Again

(This is a follow-up to a series of blog posts on the subject, the most recent being here.) As I was reading another article on the origin of the phrase, “the butler did it,” my attention was drawn to the story The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner, by Herbert Jenkins. Published in 1921, it preceded The Door by nine years. (Interestingly, Herbert Jenkins owned the publishing house which published P.G. Wodehouse’s books, most famously the stories of Jeeves and Wooster.) I tracked down a copy and read it. (There’s a free ebook version of the book Malcolm Sage, Detective on kindle, which collects all of Jenkins detective stories—if you want to read it I suggest you do it now because there will be spoilers below).

Jenkins’ detective was Malcolm Sage, who was at least vaguely in the mold of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, by which I mean that he was both very observant of physical details and very eccentric. All of  the stories about Malcolm Sage were short stories, which is very significant to understanding the relationship of this story to the phrase, “the butler did it”.

Novels and short stories are very different things in any genre, but this is especially true of murder mysteries. Novels tend to focus on the unraveling of intertwining mysteries, which is to say the elimination of red herrings. This is somewhat necessitated by the length of a novel; each red herring forms a sort of sub-mystery, which allows one to enjoy the solving of mysteries over and over throughout the course of a novel. There are exceptions, of course. It is possible to combine a mystery with some other genre where the other genre takes up most of the page count. Adventure is the obvious example; a mystery/adventure works well where each clue is the reward at the end of an adventure. To some degree the Hardy Boys books were like this, and to a lesser extent this is often true of the Cadfael stories. The Virgin in the Ice and The Summer of the Danes are both great examples of where the adventure takes up more pages than the mystery. (Both are excellent novels.)

For related reasons—though there are notable exceptions—murder mystery novels don’t tend to focus on figuring out a single ingenious mechanism for concealing the murder(er) for which the evidence was present at the crime scene. By contrast, this is extremely common in short stories. Among other things, they don’t have the space for disentangling red herrings. Short stories which were printed in magazines tended to be extremely short, sometimes only a few thousand words. It also is simply the right size for that sort of game.

The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner is a locked-room mystery. There is one obvious suspect: a nephew of whose impending marriage the deceased disapproves and who will be disinherited on the morrow. The butler was the last to see the deceased alive, and the body was discovered in the library, with all of the doors and windows locked from within. The deceased was staged to look like suicide, and the local police take it at face value. Malcolm Sage makes numerous measurements and observations, and also directs that the photographer attached to his detective agency take a number of photographs. Malcolm Sage is so fond of photographs as evidence that he gives a lecture on their importance to the local police detective inspector. Eventually he reveals that the butler, who had only been working in his position for six months and was highly praised for the excellence of his work, is the culprit. Sage had taken supposedly exclusionary fingerprints from everyone, and used those to find out that the butler had a criminal record and was still wanted. Further, he explained that the butler had put a small metal rod through the hole in the key’s handle and using a string attached to it turned the lock by pulling on the string with the door closed. Once the key turned far enough, the metal rod fell out of the hole in the key’s handle, and he used the string to pull the rod under the door and retrieve it.

Unlike the butler in The Door, this time at least the butler was actually taking advantage of his role as butler in committing the murder. His master didn’t think anything about his coming from behind because it’s the sort of thing that butlers do, and moreover he had an excuse for being in the house after the rest of the household had gone to sleep because he lived there. So at least in this case butling was relevant to the butler’s commission of the crime.

None of the articles I’ve seen so far have cited The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner as having had any influence on the phrase, but then again none of them have cited any evidence for why The Door did have influence, either. It leaves me wondering whether any of this is actually relevant to the phrase I’ve been considering. It might well not be. With murder mysteries having been quite popular ever since Sherlock Holmes first studied scarlet, I assume that there were a great many short stories in the weekly and monthly publications of the early 1900s which have largely been lost to the sands of time. In the days before television and even before radio plays were particularly popular, theatrical plays were quite popular. Wherever there is a maw gaping for novelty, there will be people trying to fill it. Certainly this is the source that the character Broadway cited as his authority that all murders were committed by butlers in the 1933 short story, What, No Butler? I’m disinclined to think that much of the source was movies, though I don’t have any hard evidence for that. Murder mysteries don’t lend themselves well to silent films, though I have no doubt that somebody tried it at least once. The Jazz Singer was the first talkie, in 1927. Talkies took over quite quickly, as I gather, dominating film no later than the mid-1930s and probably in the early 1930s, but that’s rather close to when What, No Butler? was written to have embedded itself in the culture as a common trope by then.

I’m left where I was before, wondering where this trope came from. Perhaps I’ll be successful in tracking down contemporary reviews of The Door, which might be illuminating, but unfortunately a quick google search didn’t turn up anything. I might have to resort to going to the library!

So, The Butler Did It

I’ve been reading Mary Roberts Rinehart’s murder mystery The Door, which I talked about here and here, at five and twenty two chapters in, respectively. This was started off by my wondering about the phrase, “the butler did it”. I’ve finally finished the book, so this post will finish off my review of The Door, and also discuss the idea of the butler being the murderer. I’d warn you about spoilers, but, well, I think that you already know that the butler did it. I might spoil a few side-mysteries too, though, so caveat lector.

The book was in its entirety written in the style of the memoirs of someone who observed a very strange situation. I am used to murder mysteries and detective fiction being, roughly, synonyms, but The Door is very clearly a murder mystery while it is not at all detective fiction. There is a police detective—who does solve the case—but almost entirely outside of the narrative. Several members of the family play at a little detecting, but only occasionally. Only one of them does anything which does not simply anticipate a later discovery, and that was to effect a useful introduction, rather than any actual detection.

The story also maintains the style of foreshadowing hints until the end, abandoning it only as the police detective explains the solution, which is the last thing that happens in the book. I’ve concluded that I don’t like this style. It feels at best overwrought, and at worst like an attempt to spice up a dull narrative with chopped up bits of other parts of the same narrative. I don’t mean that all foreshadowing is bad, of course, but The Door seemed to use foreshadowing in place of a compelling plot.

There is also the very strange question of the narrator, Elizabeth Jane Bell, who narrates the story in a very personal way. Throughout the story alternately laments the tragedy, investigates it, and destroys evidence to try to protect the family. It’s that last part which is especially hard to reconcile with the narration; why on earth would she be narrating all of these scandalous details in a memoir when the character of herself within the memoirs would want all such scandal wiped out? Whether you take the inconsistency between herself in the story and herself as narrator to be a problem with the character or a problem with the narrator (I took it as the former), it is still an unsettling problem.

There is also the problem of the family which Elizabeth Jane was trying to protect. Her niece Judy was never really under any suspicion having, as I recall, an alibi from the beginning. She was the only really sympathetic member of the whole family other than Elizabeth Jane herself, and she mostly from a general pleasantness which seemed to be a combination of decent manners, comfortable circumstances, and little ambition. The rest were detestable. Towards the end I was hoping that the murder would be solved after the good-for-nothing Jim was executed, just so the wretch would be out of the story. The other characters were similarly unpleasant, which left me very unsympathetic to the family’s desire to avoid scandal, which was to a fair degree their only major motivation in anything that they did. But this brings up an interesting point in murder mysteries in general: it’s hard for likable characters to be suspects.

The mystery in a murder mystery obviously depends on there being more than one suspect. More properly, on there being more than one credible suspect. The problem is that a character can fail to be credible as a suspect by being too likable. It’s very difficult to write an enjoyable story about a good person who stoops to murder but then cheerfully covers it up. It’s that much harder to write several characters who are all credible in that way; to pull it off one must write good characters with depth, rather than the common approach of paper-thin automatons who are good merely because they’re not tempted by ordinary temptations. It’s much easier to make suspects credible by simply making there be nothing to which they won’t do for gain.

Another important distinction between suspects in a mystery is between those with an obvious motive and those without an obvious motive. Very often this does not line up well with the moral probity of the characters. In order to put an innocent person in peril (to heighten the tension) a morally upright person will get an obvious motive, while a moral degenerate will get none. This helps to spread the doubtfulness around, to be sure, but because both of these suspects have something obviously going for them as suspects, it is especially common to make the culprit someone who is not very morally offensive (apart from their murders) who has a hidden motive. Which brings us to the butler.

How much was the butler a character and therefore a potential suspect? It’s hard for me to say fairly because I already knew that he did it, of course, but doing my best to be fair, I would say somewhat, but not much. Joseph (the butler) gets progressively more tired, worn out, and on edge as the story progresses, which certainly was a clue (that he was running around doing things while everyone else was asleep). He had originally come from one of the victim’s household’s, which should have been a clue but actually wasn’t—his prior connection to the rich victim had no significance as far that was revealed in the story. Nothing was ever made of him having the opportunity for the murders, because they happened at times when everyone had opportunity, and the house was small enough that a butler’s ability to be unnoticed had no significance. In fact, all three murders happened outside of the house, so his position as butler was—if anything—a disadvantage. He had to sneak off to commit them, or commit them while he was off-duty. The one time his being a butler was an advantage was when he answered the door when one of the victims came to see Elizabeth Jane but he turned her away because Elizabeth Jane was sleeping. Any butler might have turned her away, and any murderer might have learned of her coming and consequently resolved to kill her before she could tell what she knew.

On balance, the disadvantages of Joseph’s being a butler far outweighing the advantages makes Joseph’s being a butler fairly irrelevant to his being a murderer. It’s really just his profession. Most murderers have a day-job and there’s no particular reason it shouldn’t be butling. In this case his being the butler of the narrator was something of a camouflage; it meant that she didn’t notice him. Also his many years of loyal service made her affectionate of him, and this combined with the murders happening nowhere he was supposed to be and her always thinking of him as having no existence past being her butler disguised him as a suspect. But it didn’t disguise him totally. One of the themes of the book is how little one really knows of the people one thinks one knows, and the fact that Joseph had a wife somewhere but Elizabeth Jane had no idea where does actually highlight this blindness in a way that makes it fair game for the reader to not be so blind. In fact, I would argue that line by Jane Elizabeth is a well crafted notice to the reader that Joseph is a potential suspect.

Further, if the test of victory in the contest between the reader and the writer of a murder mystery is that the writer wins if the reader doesn’t guess who the murderer is but blames himself rather than the writer for it, then I believe that The Door has the potential for victory. Reading it through while knowing what to look for, I think that Rinehart did play fair with the reader. Certainly it seems possible she knew who the murderer was from the first, and did not merely cast about for someone she hadn’t already ruled out when she came to the ending. So I don’t think that there’s any cogent criticism to be made of her choice of murderer. (Except, perhaps, that it’s a little odd for someone who engages in fraud, forgery, and conspiracy—which eventually leads to multiple murders to cover those up—to have no criminal history, but instead a long and unmarred career in positions of significant trust.)

So when we come to the question of whether it is legitimate that, as Wikipedia puts it (as of the time of this writing), “Rinehart is considered the source of the phrase “The butler did it” from her novel The Door (1930), although the novel does not use the exact phrase.” Not only does the novel not use that exact phrase, it doesn’t use any even somewhat similar phrase. I’m going to quote the reveal in the novel, but I need to mention a little context first. Joseph had been mysteriously shot in the collar bone about a week before, but he was not killed and recovered enough to come back to his duties, though with his arm in a sling. Elizabeth Jane had, therefore, given him leave to go on holiday to recover. We have not learned up to this point who Joseph’s wife is, but we can mostly guess it was a woman who figured into the plot somewhere else, who we knew to be dying of inoperable cancer. We’re picking up with the tail-end of the explanation given privately to Elizabeth Jane by the police detective. During the explanation he had been calling the murderer “James C. Norton”, which he told her was the pseudonym the murderer had used to procure a safe deposit box. So, with that said, here is the reveal in the novel:

“So we got him. We’d had his house surrounded, and he hadn’t a chance. He walked out of that house tonight in a driving storm, and got into a car, the same car he had been using all along; the car he used to visit Howard Somers and the car in which he had carried Florence Gunther to her death, under pretext of bringing her here to you.

“But he was too quick for us, Miss Bell. That’s why I say I bungled the job. He had some cyanide ready. He looked at the car, saw the men in and around it, said, “Well Gentlemen, I see I am not to have my holiday—”

“Holiday! You’re not telling me—”

“Quietly, Miss Bell! Why should you be grieved or shocked? What pity have you for this monster, whose very wife crawled out of her deathbed to end his wickedness?”

“He is dead?”

“Yes,” he said, “Joseph Holmes is dead.”

And with that I believe that I fainted. [that’s the last line in the book]

There is nothing there remotely similar to the exact phrase, “the butler did it.” As you can see, there was nothing there even related to him being a butler. There were a few things which happened in the house that his living in the house enabled, but much of the criminal activity actually in the house was not in fact Joseph’s doing. The door referred to in the title was a hotel door where a fraud was performed, and was not in the house in which Joseph was a butler. It was not even in the same city as the house in which Joseph buttled. Except possibly as a violation of the tacit convention that the butler is the one person who never, ever commits the murder(s) in a murder mystery, his being a butler is utterly irrelevant either to the murders or to whether one suspects him of those murders.

After a bit of research, I found what seems like evidence that Damon Runyon’s What, No Butler? was first published in Collier’s Weekly, August 5th, 1933. That is not so early that the joke that the butler always does it was necessarily common by the time that The Door was published, three years earlier, but I think it does suggest it. Given what the book actually is, and the timing of it relative to jokes about the butler always being the culprit, I really doubt that The Door was in any way the origin of the phrase. It’s not impossible, but I’d really like to see better evidence for it besides this being the first (and nearly only) book which anyone can find in which a butler actually did it.

 

The Butler is Still Doing It

As I mentioned, I’ve been reading Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Door. Right now I’m in Chapter 22 (page 266 of 381). When I had finished the first two chapters I said:

It will be interesting to see where the story goes. So far, it promises to be complicated.

I am at the moment rather unclear as to whether I would call the story complicated. There are a reasonably large number of characters, and in a sense there’s a lot going on, but mostly what’s happening is all detail work and hand-wringing. So far three people have been murdered, three people have been assaulted and knocked unconscious, and the narrator herself has been locked in the basement all night. And yet it doesn’t much feel as if anything has really happened.

Now, it is possible that since I already know that the butler did it, things are not as suspenseful as they would be the first time I read through. This is likely to be the case, and though it piques my interest to look at the clues which are given to see how well we’re able to guess who the murderer is, I can’t really read it giving equal weight to red herrings. But at the same time, in good detective fiction red herrings are essentially mini-mysteries. Part of the task of detection is to unravel the intertwining mysteries.

Which actually brings me to one of the big problems I have with The Door. There is no detective. The Door is, basically, the memoirs of a woman who was present while a mystery happened and was eventually solved. She had, at the time, some interest in figuring out what happened, but not a great deal. She actively destroyed evidence at one point, and bellyached about it interminably before it turned out to have been pointless. And all of the memoirs are filled with description of how emotional everyone looked and how anguished it later turned out to be. Which brings me to her use of foreshadowing.

The Wikipedia page on Mary Roberts Rinehart says that she “is also considered to have invented the ‘Had-I-But-Known‘ school of mystery writing, with the publication of The Circular Staircase (1908).” I’m coming to wish that she hadn’t. In The Door it takes the form of never-ending hints about what terrible things were to happen, together with confirmations or denials of things discovered in the present. It seems to me that these are used primarily to liven up the story whenever it gets slow, which it does quite often. But spicing up bland food (already cooked) is not often very successful, even with food, and the effect after a while is somewhat akin to “DANGER! SUDDEN DROP!” signs placed periodically along a bumpy railroad to convince you that you’re actually on a roller coaster. Worse, when you finally get far enough along in the narrative to see the description of something which was foreshadowed, it’s typically underwhelming. When this has happened a few times, one becomes very skeptical of fresh foreshadowing.

Which also brings up the problem of the constant use of foreshadowing. To stretch the metaphor a bit, two thirds into the book you shouldn’t be foreshadowing any more, you should have moved on to the actual shadowing. (I know the metaphor is really from the shadow which precedes a back-lit person into a room, but it works better here if we take it to be like watching someone draw a picture, and there is some vague outline shadowing done before the picture begins in earnest, and real shadowing must be done to make the picture look realistic.) The book feels a bit like one of those songs that’s all introduction without ever getting to the main part of the song. I’ve given up hope that the preparation was for anything but the last chapter, and I’m almost a little inclined to be sympathetic to Raymond Chandler’s complaint that in a conventional mystery all of the scenes exist solely for the ending. Certainly that’s not true of Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, or Ellis Peters, though Chesterton is a somewhat unfair comparison because all of the Father Brown stories were short stories, which are artistically very different from novels. (Chandler’s complaint is also not true of Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie, but it’s not quite so entirely wrong of Christie as it is of the others.) But perhaps Chandler had only read Mary Roberts Rinehart’s novels. That still doesn’t excuse his own detective stories, but perhaps it does contextualize them, at least.

With respect to the question of whether the butler is a legitimate suspect, at the moment I’m actually inclined to say no. There is enough evidence sprinkled throughout that might line up to him, but outside of one small moment when he helped the main character to burn a piece of evidence that her cousin might have been the murderer, he really has no personality or other characteristics. Curiously, this is not true of the prime suspect’s manservant, who actually is enough of a character in the story that one might reasonably suspect him. So this is not a case of the servant/rich person divide, but simply one of the character not being rendered as much of a character. I think that it’s mostly that anything that the butler has done so far falls entirely within the stereotype of the faithful butler; as such he really is like a piece of the furniture. Now, a butler would not need to violate the stereotype to a great degree in order to qualify as a legitimate suspect; we really just need someone in the story to treat him as human. It would be enough for someone to suspect the butler, even if it’s just a fellow servant who reports some suspicious activity of the butler to the detective.

To give an example of something very similar being done well, in Gaudy Night Dorothy L. Sayers makes the college servants all very credible suspects. The college professors are not very willing to accept this, but it is very much painted as the contrast between their social prejudices and their conscious desire to avoid their social prejudices which in the end keeps them from looking at the servants as credible suspects. To the reader, however, they remain very much within the realm of possibility throughout the book.

There is still about a third of the book for me to get through, so there is certainly time for things to change, and I’m curious to see whether it in fact does. In fairness the murderer is described from the outset as being very clever and cunning, and a clever, cunning murderer would not be an obvious suspect right from the beginning.

The Door

It has been claimed that The Door, by Mary Roberts Rinehart was the origin of the phrase, “The butler did it.” Published in 1930, it’s the only example of a serious (as opposed to satirical) mystery in which the butler actually did do it. When I read Wikipedia’s entry on Mary Roberts Rinehart, it described her as the American Agatha Christie, in that she sold a great many copies of her books. No one, so far as I know, has actually come close to Agatha Christie, whose books have sold something like 2 billion copies, but still, Rinehart was apparently quite popular in her day.

So I became curious. Most of my exposure to American mystery so far has been the hard-boiled detectives which I didn’t like at all, so I was curious what an American attempt at the sort of mystery which I like better would look like. I’m also interested to see what the mystery story in which the butler did it looks like. Obviously I won’t get the full effect since I already know who the culprit is, but even so, it will be interesting to see how it was constructed.

I’ve read a little over five chapters so far, and Rinehart has an interesting style. She makes heavy use of foreshadowing. I think that this has two effects. One is to suggest a well-designed plot, since the author clearly knows enough about what happened later to talk about it now. The other is closer to making a virtue of necessity, since without the foreshadowing the story would so far have been deadly dull. For some reason Rinehart introduces most of the characters and places right at the beginning, without having much of anything for them to do yet, so the foreshadowing helps us to know that they are actually relevant.

It’s also interesting to note that she makes use of the dogs not barking proving that a culprit was known to the dogs. It is fairly realistic to dogs, though it’s often somewhat unrealistically used because dogs often can’t tell who someone is until they see him, and will bark when they first hear him, or when a noise wakes them up, etc. Detectives often take probabilities as certainties, so it’s a common fault, and so far not much of anything has been made of the dogs not barking.

It will be interesting to see where the story goes. So far, it promises to be complicated.

Analysis of Detective Fiction

Detective fiction is a curiously self-referential genre. Other genres may discuss themselves, for all I know, but this does seem to be a very common theme in detective stories. Sherlock Holmes talked about C. Auguste Dupin, Dorothy L. Sayers talked about the plot to one of the Father Brown stories in Busman’s Honeymoon, and both Agatha Christie and Sayers introduced successful female mystery writers as important characters into their stories. Moreover, more than one popular mystery writer wrote a list of rules for detective fiction, and The Detection Club had this initiation oath:

Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?

It makes sense that a genre so thoroughly about analyzing people and situations should consider itself; indeed it does this both of curiosity and necessity. The necessity arises from the sort of game which is typical of mysteries, where the author “wins” if the reader does not guess the villain, but does blame himself and not the author once the detective’s reasoning is revealed. Once a trick has been used, readers are on the lookout for it and will probably spot it again. Conversely, because they are on the lookout for it, that expectation can be used to hoodwink the reader. Since both authors and readers play this game, both must analyze the stories written so far.

Especially in their early days, detective fiction did not garner a great deal of respect, even sometimes from its authors. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually killed his detective off in order get more time to write historical novels, and SS Van Dine lamented once his real name was revealed that he would never be taken seriously again. Charges that murder mysteries are unserious literature, or make sport of death, or a host of other complaints about, though people who love mysteries abound more.

A Franciscan brother who is a philosophy professor and fan of murder mysteries (and spy thrillers) told me the following theory: in a murder, intelligence has been used for a wrong end, damaging the natural order of things. He benefited unjustly from his crime, and since no man is an Island, all of society shares in this unjust benefit. (It also shares in the unjust harm of losing the victim, but that can’t be repaired.) The detective, through a right use of reason, untangles the web which was tangled by the murderer, and restores the right order of things. Once the murderer is brought to justice, the unjust benefit is removed and neither the murderer nor society by extension enjoys unjust benefit any longer. Murder mysteries are, therefore, symbolic of our redemption from sin.

I rather like this theory as it explains several things. First, it explains why it is acceptable when the detective catches the murderer but lets him escape when the murderer was doing no more than justice. A good example of this is Murder on the Orient Express. I think it was especially well done in that Poirot propounds two theories, one the misdirection which was intended and the other the true solution, and leaves it to the train manager to decide which to present to the police. In this way reason is used to pursue truth, and judgment is left to mercy. When Sherlock Holmes lets Ryder go free in The Blue Carbuncle, it lacks a little of this perfection because Holmes allows mercy to overrule truth, though I think it is made up for when Holmes points out that he is not retained by the police to remedy their deficiencies. Both because it is a good line, and because it does locate Homles’ mercy in the context of a fallen world that is not always strong enough to handle the truth well. The detective exists to restore the natural order, but in a fallen world that restoration must perforce be incomplete.

The other thing which this theory explains is why I so greatly dislike hardboiled detective fiction like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. (The Thin Man wasn’t as bad, but it wasn’t as hard boiled, either.) Chinatown (the movie with Jack Nicholson) was similarly awful. The detective does nothing to restore the right order injured by a misuse of intelligence. He just gets by, often by misusing his intelligence, and leaves the world as badly off has he found it, if typically not particularly worse, either. (Please note that all of the stories I mentioned were very skillfully told; they are very well done versions of what they are supposed to be. My objection is not to their execution but to their goal; to what they are supposed to be should not be done.)

I think that this theory of my friend is largely correct, and that it also explains why it is that those of us who love detective fiction love it so very much.

The Butler Did It?

By an unimportant series of coincidences, I was looking up the origins of the phrase “The butler did it.” The top two relevant results I got were for a trope on tvtropes.com and an article on Mental Floss. The tvtropes article links a Straight Dope on the same subject. All three note that examples of a murder mystery in which the butler was the murderer are rare, but what’s curious is that all three mention a list of rules for murder fiction which SS Van Dine (the pen name of the author who wrote the Philo Vance mysteries) wrote for American Magazine. Though I do have a sneaking suspicion that the two more recent ones may be based on the Straight Dope answer, it is odd that all three cite these rules of detective fiction as if they are authoritative either to what makes a good detective story or to what common tastes were.

Murder Mysteries have been popular for more than a hundred years now, and the idea that there are rules that everyone follows, or that all fans of the genre follows, is absurd. There have been commonalities to detective fiction, to be sure. Giving the readers enough clues to figure out who did it is very common, and very popular, but by no means universal among enjoyable detective fiction. Paranormal, supernatural, and other sorts of detective fiction have been popular. Solutions which could not possibly have been guessed by the reader can be enjoyable as the gradual revealing of an answer. I don’t tend to go for those myself, but pretending that one author’s preference in the 1920s is somehow normative doesn’t accomplish anything.

Within the context of mysteries which aim to be solvable by the reader, most rules (such as Knox’s 10 commandments) aim to give guidance to mystery writers for thinking about the construction of their mysteries. The rules are not meant in an absolute sense, but rather to give sign posts where extra thought is probably required. If the butler, rather than one of the guests, is the murderer, the writer will need to include him as a character enough that the reader thinks that it’s within the spirit of the story to consider the butler.

Now, some might object that it is snobbish to think that the butler is not a possible suspect because he’s just a servant, and indeed it would be, but all problems come with unstated rules, and solving them relies on knowing what these unstated rules are. Consider the classic illustration for teaching people to think outside of the box: Four dots, arranged like the corners of a square, with the instructions to “connect these four dots using only three straight lines without lifting your pen, ending where you started”. The classic solution is to use three lines forming a right triangle where one side goes through two vertices and the other two sides go through one vertex each. This is supposed to surprise people and teach them to “think outside the box” because the rules never said that the end of the lines have to be on one of the four dots. “Don’t limit yourself!” The self-help guru says cheerfully.

The problem with this conclusion is that these sorts of problems are trivial if we’re not helping the person who stated the problem by figuring out what the rules they didn’t state are. No thought would be involved if I just picked up a paint brush and connected all four lines with one thick line. I could even hold my pen against the paper the whole time. Some versions of this mention to not fold the paper; but I haven’t see any rules against cutting and taping the paper. The rules never specified a euclidean geometry; one could easily draw a square then define a geometry in which there were only three straight lines. One could draw new dots and point out that the rules did specify which four dots were the four it was talking about. I could draw three unconnected lines with a pencil while never lifting a pen. etc.

The people who hold this question up as a major revelation are actually practicing a cheap parlor trick. They are really just asking you to try to read their mind and magically know which implied rule they are suspending without telling you. If you were to draw three straight lines plus one curved line, they would balk, rather than applauding you for your willingness to think outside the box in the way that they wanted you to.

The same problem can apply to the butler as the culprit. It would be too easy to assume that the servants are off limits as suspects simply because they all have the opportunity to commit the murder without being noticed, and since detective fiction so often focuses so heavily on alibis, figuring out who had the opportunity is often a large part of the puzzle. Hence this complaint in the tvtropes article:

The butler is the avatar of the most unlikely suspect that, of course, turns out to be guilty because the author wasn’t creative enough to come up with a better way to surprise the reader.

This is a problem only if the butler is the least likely suspect because no time was spent on the butler. Authors who don’t figure out the mystery ahead of the detective, and so who come to the reveal and then have to solve the puzzle for themselves, as it was written so far in order to come up with the ending can run into this. The butler is a good candidate both because he would be surprising since he wasn’t a real character up to this point, and because the servants all have means and opportunity for murder in a great house. This is cheating according to the rules the author implied; to do a good job making the butler the culprit, the author would have had to include the butler as a character in a way that made it clear he wasn’t off limits.

I suspect that this is primarily a problem in mysteries where the author doesn’t know who the culprit is, because it’s all too easy as the evidence is being discovered and alibis are being produced to have accidentally ruled out all of the actual suspects by the end. If that happens, the author will need to introduce a previous non-character who hasn’t been ruled out simply because the author hadn’t thought of the character as a suspect before. I can’t see how such a story can be well crafted; if the author doesn’t know what’s going on, it seems far too likely the story will be inconsistent and not hang together well, though for any technique there is probably someone who can pull it off decently.

But for an example of art criticism which simply wants there to be rules in order to make the task of art criticism easier, consider this from the Mental Floss article:

While The Door was a hit for Rinehart and her sons, who released it through a publishing house they’d just started up, her pinning the crime on the butler has gone down in history as a serious misstep…That The Door was a commercial success while flaunting a hallmark of what some considered lousy mystery writing made it an easy target for jokes. Stories and books like “What, No Butler?” and The Butler Did It soon turned murderous manservants into shorthand for a cheap ending.

Of course this attempt to invoke normative rules of fiction makes heavy use of the passive voice. “Has gone down in history as a serious misstep,” and “flaunting a hallmark of what some considered lousy mystery writing” buys authority with anonymity. There are indeed things which do not need to be attributed—that people will talk about the weather in default of another topic in common does not need to be established with evidence—but common opinion of literary techniques certainly doesn’t fall into that category.

This attempt to have rules of fiction, or more properly rules of art criticism, is not really about the fiction. It is about the desire for stability and intelligibility by a person not willing to do the work of understanding, or without the courage of owning up to their own prejudices and so attempting to displace those preferences onto everyone else.

Incidentally, I looked up the two works cited. “What, No Butler?” seems to be a short story by Damon Runyon. I can’t find much information about it; according to Wikipedia it was in a book called Runyon on Broadway. It was performed on radio in 1946 and that performance is available on youtube. I don’t know when it was originally published. The story does have humor in it, but to call it satire seems like quite a stretch. Early in the story, the character Broadway (who I believe is a theater critic) says authoritatively upon finding out that a man was murdered that the butler did it. When he’s told that the victim didn’t have a butler, he insists that they have to find the butler, because in every play he sees with a murder in it, the butler did it. No one pays attention and he is dismissed because this is stupid advice. In the end we learn that the murderer was a neighbor of the victim, who heard that the victim was rich and so he broke in to the apartment with a duplicated key and killed the victim when he was caught in the act. When asked why he would stoop to robbery, he explained that he was out of work and wasn’t likely to get it again soon. He had served some of the best families in New York, and couldn’t accept just any old employer, because he was an excellent butler. Very clearly, in context, this was not a criticism of the butler as a culprit, but playing with the audience’s expectations to set up a joke.

In 1957 P.G. Wodehouse published a book called Something Fishy. When Simon & Schuster published it in America they used the title,  The Butler Did It. Wikipedia gave this plot summary:

The plot concerns a tontine formed by a group of wealthy men weeks before the 1929 stock market crash, and a butler named Keggs who, having overheard the planning of the scheme, years later decides to try to make money out of his knowledge.

(Tontines are in themselves an interesting read. It’s easy to see why they would show up frequently in older detective literature.)

According to the further description of the plot, Keggs is long retired by the time the book takes place. His being a butler is incidental to the story, so far as I can tell, and doesn’t seem like it can be taken as any sort of criticism of detective fiction where the butler is the murderer. This seems doubly true given that The Butler Did It was not the original title, and was only changed because it would resonate better with Americans.

And now that I mention that, it occurs to me that all of the discussion of butlers, from Rhinehart’s story to the supposed criticism of it is all American. Aside from Poe’s character of Dupin starting the genre of detective fiction, much of the most influential detective fiction is British. Now I wonder whether “the butler did it” is a primarily American phenomenon. In any event it does seem to be a very curious example of a saying without much basis, used at least as often to joke about the saying as even to say anything about detective stories.

If I had to guess, I suspect that it originated with someone who was complaining that detective fiction is very formulaic. If so, it is ironic that they picked to exemplify this putative formula a feature which is extremely uncommon in detective fiction.

Having said that, it occurs to me that this idea could even have originated to mean nearly the opposite. It could have started as a parody of the sort of person who doesn’t know how detective fiction goes, and who leaps to the butler as the obvious suspect because he had the means an opportunity for the murder. It would make a more effective criticism of a naive reader than of murder mysteries. “Pffh. He’s the sort of guy who decides ten pages in that the butler did it!” As it stands, I see no more evidence for any other theory of where the phrase came from.

 

Intelligent Murder Mystery Suspects

I’ve recently watched the episodes in the thirteenth and final series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, starring David Suchet. It included Curtain, which of course must be the last episode, but it had several episodes which differed very greatly from their source material. In particular, The Big Four and The Labours of Hercules.

The former was described by the screenwriter as an unadaptable mess, which it certainly seems to be looking at the plot summary. It is basically a spy thriller with dozens of characters set throughout Europe, which is not very viable for a TV show, even if it is nearly two hours long. The one which really interests me, though, is The Labours of Hercules. The original is a collection of twelve unrelated short stories, which the screenwriter turned into a single long-form mystery by taking one of the stories as the central one and using several of the other stories as the red herrings which one expects in a Christie novel. At this point, I should warn you that this post will include spoilers. You have been warned.

Given what a challenging prospect that is, the writer did a good job, but there were problems in the story which I do not think were avoidable for structural reasons. As everyone knows, a murder mystery must have suspects, with the plural being imperative. Every man having free will, anyone who was anywhere near the victim is a suspect, which is why an isolated setting—a mansion, a private island, etc.—is so interesting. Unless the author is cheating, the suspect list is known at the outset. When doing this, the author must be very careful to make all of the suspects believable suspects. That’s a universal criteria, but a murder in the middle of a city means that we see a great deal less of the suspects, so each one has far greater scope for unseen action, including accomplices we don’t know about yet, than people in an isolated setting.

The episode, The Labours of Hercules, was set in a hotel on the top of a mountain in Switzerland, with the funicular train that is their only link to the outside world having been shut down by an avalanche. Short of a ship in the middle of the Atlantic ocean or an aeroplane in the sky, it’s about as isolated as it is possible to get.

The central mystery, though Poirot stumbles onto it almost by accident, is the identity of a psychopathic killer and thief called Marrascaud. The mystery was set up in the beginning where Marrascaud managed to kill several people and steal several valuable items—one of them a large painting—from a crowded building, with disguised policemen and Poirot himself protecting them. From this we know that Marrascaud is a genius on a level with Poirot, and this forms the central problem once we get to the hotel.

As has been observed in countless murder mysteries, the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest; to hide a genius one must really put them amongst other geniuses, but the characters at the hotel were taken from other stories and thus had qualities appropriate to those stories, none of which involved unique genius. In this case, the beautiful daughter of Poirot’s former love interest who is fascinated with criminology stands out almost like a sore thumb; the only other person who comes close is the Countess Rossakoff, her mother, but it was very clearly established in the previous episode where we met the Countess that the character is not a murderer. Marrascaud kills for the pleasure of it, brutally, which is not something one degenerates to in old age. It is true that one can be cruel vicariously, through underlings, in old age, but it does not make sense as a personality change to go from an honorable thief to a psychopath who delights in killing.

An interest in criminology is also something of a red flag in a suspect. Though everything has by this time been used as a false flag in detective fiction, none the less the similarity of the violent nature of both crime and law enforcement is unavoidable. As the saying goes, the main thing which distinguishes a sheep dog from a wolf is who it bites. None of the other guests seemed sufficiently… canine.

I think that this is the reason why Conan Doyle put Moriarty as the mastermind, behind the scenes. The proxy of an evil genius need only be of ordinary intelligence, which makes it far easier for him to blend in. Indeed, executing a plan which requires greater intelligence than he himself possesses serves as a form of camouflage for the immediate villain. Still, as bumbling accomplices have long shown, it is best to choose someone intelligent enough to understand the plan once it has been created; an accomplice who can understand only his part and not what it fits into will make mistakes that will prove the undoing of both.

I think that fact is why some villains have tried to manipulate their accomplice into helping without realizing it; if done well the mistakes of the unwitting accomplice actually hide the involvement of the mastermind. I suspect that this is the ideal strategy for the criminal mastermind; it is the safest type of plan if a brilliant detective shows up. If done extremely skillfully, it is possible to conceal that there even is a brilliant plan at work; the brilliance can be disguised as coincidence.

Of course, mysteries can go the other way—the more realistic way—where the detective must make sense of genuine coincidences. The problem with writing this sort of mystery is that it is extremely difficult to pull off without the detective himself getting lucky. And while a comedic detective—Inspector Clouseau, for example, or taking the idea of a detective very loosely, Maxwell Smart—can stumble onto all of his solutions, it’s not entertaining if a serious detective does that. Though, I should mention that this is why Jessica Fletcher almost invariably figures out the solution of most episodes by chance. In order to make Murder, She Wrote accessible to a general audience, the writers would tend to throw in enough clues that one should be able to figure out the solution before Jessica does. Since Jessica does have to figure out the mystery, something must make her realize the solution, and because we the audience are supposed to already get it, it can’t be the last piece of critical evidence, but nor can it be slam-dunk evidence, because then you couldn’t feel smart during the reveal. So it’s usually something silly somebody says, and then Jessica says, “Wait, say that again? Of course! That’s it!” That’s not literally every episode, but it is basically a structural requirement imposed by the show’s relationship with its audience.

The solution to the mystery depending on figuring out coincidence without the detective merely getting lucky is typically easiest to pull off through exhaustive leg-work—checking every chemist’s shop in a 30 mile radius, that sort of thing. This is why that sort of mystery is most common when the detective is a public detective (i.e. a member of the police) rather than a private detective, or at least when the police and the detective are working together, rather than separately. And even then, Sherlock Holmes had his Baker Street irregulars.

The other approach, which is a compromise that keeps things closer to a  detective the reader can relate to, is for the detective to have something to go upon which through intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom allows him to rank coincidental possibilities according to an order they are likely to have happened, and to be right according to a Poisson distribution (basically, they usually get an answer by their third try to verify a coincidence, sometimes it takes a lot of tries, and because no one has infinite effort to give, sometimes they don’t get an answer). Fundamentally this is still the detective getting lucky, but it is a way for the detective to earn his luck. Since the detective doesn’t create the clues but only discovers them, that’s the best he can do in any case.