The Problem With Fair Play In Mysteries

In the golden age of mystery writing there was the idea that a murder mystery was a game between the author and the reader. The author would give all of the clues necessary and would win if the reader couldn’t guess the solution before the detective reveals it; the reader would win if he guessed first.

The idea was all over the place at he time. For example, you can see aspects of this in Fr. Ronald Knox’s 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction. Most of the rules ensure that the necessary evidence is actually given to the reader.

Fair play is a great idea, and makes for good books. The only problem is that it—mostly—doesn’t actually work for its intended purpose.

The problem with “fair play” in murder mysteries, as a game, is that there are usually too many degrees of freedom. Ambiguity can be resolved in too many ways. For example, it is possible that the murderer managed to pretend to come into the room he was already in, but then it was also possible someone in the séance circle holding hands with the victim could have let go and stabbed the victim before he could cry out. Neither is probable and neither is impossible. Which is more likely? The reader is not really solving the problem, but instead reading the mind of the author.

This sort of ambiguity comes up a lot because ambiguity is the heart of mystery. If there’s only one interpretation, there’s nothing to detect, or at least there’s no value in the detective being brilliant. More than that, there is always ambiguity so long as there is a next page—it is always possible that the next page will contain new evidence which changes the meaning of evidence which showed up before.

On the flip side, if sufficient evidence to obtain a criminal conviction is given prior to the suspects gathering in the accusing parlor, the game will be too easy. If there is insufficient evidence for a conviction, the solution will be unsatisfying. It seems like there should be a happy medium, but there isn’t. The most common attempt is for the detective to withhold from the reader some conclusive peace of evidence and only present it when the formal accusation is made. This does not solve the problem, though, because it is almost always the case that a different piece of conclusive evidence could be given for at least one other suspect. In short, if there is any point in guessing, there will always be more than one reasonable guess.

Fair play doesn’t really work for its intended purpose, but it does make for good book.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is that fair play unites the reader with the detective. The second is that fair play forces the writer to make the mystery mysterious because it is clever.

When the author hides clues from the reader, it means that the reader doesn’t know why the detective does what he does. The detective, himself, becomes a mystery. In this case the reader is united, not to the detective, but to the Watson. (To some degree this explains the original Watson, who was, in theory, the author of the stories and hence they were from his perspective.) On the plus side, this multiplies the mysteries. The downside is that it makes the detective an unsympathetic character, in the strict sense that the reader cannot sympathize with him.

Interestingly, Sherlock Holmes was originally meant to be an unsympathetic character in the other sense—aloof, unapproachable, eccentric in the extreme. It did not last; Holmes was humanized, over time. Part of this was that there were often sub-mysteries which Holmes would explain, allowing us to get close to the detective.

The other aspect of fair play—that it forces the writer to write good mysteries—is also important to a good novel. A mystery in which the mystery is maintained only by withholding clues is, generally, a very simple mystery. If there is nothing much for the detective to think about, the solution will not be very satisfying when it is finally offered.

Another effect fair play has on plot construction is that it forces the author to be careful with the rate at which clues are given, and the circumstances which produced them. If the author has to reveal what the clue is when the reader has time to think about it, it being unreasonable for the culprit to have left the clue will stand out more.

For these reasons, and probably for others, too, fair play is as important now as it ever was. I think we merely lack the societal explanation which was never really adequate, even in its own day.

Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral Due in Mid-March

Russell, one of the owners of Silver Empire Publishing, the publisher of The Dean Died Over Winter Break, said that he should have Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral (the second chronicle of Brother Thomas) available in Silver Empire’s bookstore in mid-March, with wide availability (Amazon, etc) by the end of March. I will, of course, post when it is actually up.

Murder for Quid Pro Quo

It has been said that the two main motives for murder as sex and money, especially money. The problem this produces is that it tends to make it relatively obvious who the murderer is—whoever gets the money or gets the lover.

One of the traditional solutions to this problem is for the murderer to invent a clever way to kill the victim without being there. Another is for them to fake an alibi, or to fake the time of death so that they can establish an alibi.

The final of the classical solutions is for the murderer to have an accomplice. This produces the problem of motive for the accomplice.

Probably the simplest solution is economic—for the accomplice to share in the proceeds through the primary murderer’s discretion afterwards. Other motives involve love, a shared desire for revenge, and being tricked into it without understanding what was going on (then either not being aware of the significance of the help or being afraid to speak up).

An interesting alternative was used in the Death in Paradise episode, A Dash of Sunshine (Series 2, Episode 6). Here, the murder was perpetrated entirely by an accomplice, in exchange for the murderer having murdered the accomplice’s victim in another country, several months before. That is, each murder was committed by a person with no connection to the victim, as a quid pro quo. This was a very interesting setup, as it led to some unusual qualities in the murder.

Ordinarily, a murderer who has no connection to the victim is impossible to catch. In these modern days of DNA evidence, that may be somewhat less true, if the murderer has been foolish enough to use an online DNA service, or if a close relative has. Even there, though, that isn’t tremendously useful if there was no other evidence linking the murderer to the crime. Moreover, it’s not overly likely to be present.

There was a time, in the dawn of forensic science, where fingerprints were new technology and criminals did not know to wear gloves. That time did not last long. Similarly, there was a time when criminals did not know to avoid letting their DNA get onto a crime scene, but they do know it now. Admittedly, avoid fingerprints is easier than avoiding leaving any DNA, but at the same time, it’s not that hard. Gloves will do it for anything that one touches, and beside that, some simple precautions like wearing pants and a long-sleeved shirt, and ensuring that one’s hair doesn’t shed (a hat, a hair net, etc) will generally suffice. It’s not like the police are going to swab every inch of the floor in the hope of catching a stray skin cell. Tests cost money.

DNA evidence is much more of a problem for the mystery writer in crimes of passion, where the murderer would not have thought to take precautions beforehand. On the other hand, it is far more likely in crimes of passion that here will be an innocent excuse for why the murderer’s DNA is present at the crime scene. If a man lives in the same mansion as the victim, it is of no significance that his DNA was found in the same room as the victim. It would almost be odd to not have found it.

All that allowed for, it is still nearly impossible to catch a murderer with no connection to his victim. This makes the quid-pro-quo murderer very difficult to catch—unless the murderer makes a mistake and leaves physical evidence, the only way to catch him is through his connection to his partner—the one who benefits.

Interestingly, in the Death in Paradise episode, the killer made mistakes and left forensic evidence and this is how the detectives caught the pair. Perhaps the biggest of these mistakes was killing the victim in his own rental house. This was especially odd as the other murderer had made the reservations at the rental house, meaning that they cooperated in the terrible decision to proceed with a link from the murderer to the victim. It was explained, and I think reasonably, that the murderers were careless because they were arrogant. They assumed that across the ocean, in a country with a minimal police force, a staged robbery would be accepted as such and murder would not be suspected. It was still a terrible idea, and one that they didn’t make with the first murder, back in England.

I can’t think of any examples of the other way around—of finding the connection between the murderers then finding the connection between the killer and the victim. Given how many murder mysteries have been written in the last 100+ years, it probably has been written, of course, but it would be interesting to write the second.

Poirot’s Voice

In Masters of Mystery, by H. Douglas Thomson, there’s a chapter called The Orthodox Detective (as opposed to “the realistic detective story,” “the domestic detective story,” “the thriller,” etc). Curiously, it is entirely about Agatha Christie. I suppose that this is almost fitting, as in 1930 she was something of a genre unto herself.

In some ways, she still is.

Anyway, there’s a section where Thomson talks about Poirot’s voice, in the sense of how he speaks, and he translates a small section from the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze into how it would read as a Poirot story. I think he does a excellent job of it, so I wanted to quote it here as it’s very interesting to compare and contrast.

In Silver Blaze:

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing int he night-time.”
“That was the curious incident.”

In translation:

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“There is the dog,” he said. “Always I think of that dog in the night. Always it perplexes, that one. It is of a mystery the most profound.”
“But the dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Précisément,” he replied softly. “That is the mystery, mon ami.”

Thomson goes on to note that when Poirot is in the thick of things, his language becomes more direct and even “mon ami” gets softened to “my friend”.

This is intentional on the part of Christie, she talked about it outside of the stories and even Poirot occasionally talked about it within his stories. Poirot tended to speak in Frenglish in one of two circumstances:

  1. When he wanted to disarm people. A man who has difficulty speaking the language will presumably have difficulty understanding the language and so he can’t be much of a threat.
  2. When he was dealing with people who disliked foreigners. He found that with such people the best way forward was to be very frankly a foreigner and so to give them the opportunity of forgiving him for it.

To some degree Poirot’s being a Belgian refuge from “The War” (i.e. World War I) served to explain why he was a private detective rather than a police officer—he had been a police officer in his native country but could hardly become a police detective in England.

His being a Belgian refuge also helped to make him interesting, and moreover, exotic enough to feel realistic in the unrealistic genre of the murder mystery. Unfortunately—or fortunately, as one sees it—crimes are rarely plotted out with brilliant intricacy and still less often are they unraveled by a brilliant detective who puts together the clues which other people miss. Whether this is because of the rarity of the brilliant crime or simply the rarity of catching the brilliant criminal, we cannot say for we do not know. It may be that brilliant people never commit carefully planned out murders. It may be that carefully planned murders happen all the time and people either do not suspect that the deaths are murders or the patsy who was framed is framed successfully and pays for the crime he didn’t commit, or perhaps these are just unsolved crimes where we know the crime was committed but have no leads.

Be that as it may, the brilliant detective solving a murder simply does not happen in real life (or at least nowhere near often enough for a man to build up a reputation, to say nothing of supporting himself on the proceeds of investigating such crimes). This creates a sort of tension in detective fiction because the fun comes from most of the story being realistic.

The solution generally seems to be to make the detective eccentric in some fashion. Not just any eccentricity will do, however. It has to be an eccentricity which pervades his interactions with his fellow creatures. If the reader’s normal experience of the detective is outside of the reader’s normal experience of real life, then the unreality of him being a detective at all is much easier to forget.

Starting a Cast List

So despite the fact that I’m supposed to be taking a break, I’ve begun work on the characters and plot of the third chronicle of Brother Thomas, tentatively titled He Didn’t Drown in the Lake.

The murder takes place at a rustic resort in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York where there is no internet, no cell reception, and not even any electricity. I’ve worked out who the victim is, who the murderer is, and why it was done. I’ve still to figure out how it was done, but I’m working on the other characters, first, since that may well impact how it was done.

So now I’m working out a list of who will be vacationing at the mountain resort. There are a lot of possibilities. So far, I’m considering having two novelists on a writing retreat, one in his twenties and the other in his forties.

Fun times.

Forgotten Literary Influences

As I’ve mentioned, I’m reading the book Masters of Mystery: A Study of the Detective Story, written by H. Douglas Thomson in 1931. One of the things which I’ve been getting out of it is an idea of what the popular mystery novels were at the time, which I’ve never heard of.

For full disclosure, the mystery authors I’ve actually read something by, from the early days and the golden age of mystery, are, in no particular order: Edgar Allen Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, Fr. Ronald Knox, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, S.S. Van Dine, and Mary Roberts Rinehart.

It’s not a long list, and not all of them have been by recommendation. I read Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue because it was the first detective story. I read S.S. Van Dine’s The Benson Murder Case out of curiosity since Van Dine had written up a set of rules of detective fiction I’ve seen referenced numerous times on Wikipedia. I read The Door by Mary Roberts Rinehart because it was supposed to be the origin of the phrase, “The Butler Did It”. (See my series on that phrase, if you haven’t read it yet.) And I’ve read most of Fr. Knox’s mysteries, but I started because he was a friend of G.K. Chesterton and because he wrote a famous ten commandments of detective fiction.

So if we subtract those, the mystery writers from that era which I’ve actually read because someone recommended them to me are: Conan Doyle, Chesterton, Sayers, and Christie. In my youth, that was my impression of the time period.

As I grew older, I realized that there must be other mystery writers of the time period that I was just unfamiliar with, but it was only in recent years that I came to appreciate just how popular a genre mystery was in those days, both to read and to write.

The thing which really drove it home to me was a short story entitled What, No Butler? about the accidental detective, Broadway. Here’s what I wrote about it at the time:

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.

What caught my attention was the reference, not to novels or even to magazine stories, but to plays. I know of literally one detective play, The Mousetrap, by Agatha Christie, which I only know about only because I was reading the wikipedia article about Ms. Christie. (Incidentally, it is the longest running play ever put on, being continually put on since 1952. Its 25,000th performance was in 2012.) There is evidence, though, that detective plays were fairly common.

This escaped me in no small part because plays have largely gone away as a form of common entertainment. Aside from high schools and community theater, plays are mostly a broadway affair for wealthy people and tourists in NYC. (This is not quite true, as there are actually plays elsewhere, but it is approximately true.) Back in the day, however, they seem to have had more of the role of television, these days, with plays being frequently written and performed for only a short time to be replaced by others. Television is a superior medium for this sort of fast-paced churn of mediocre writing, so it is natural that it would have eliminated it. But in that vane, we might take all of the episodes of a show like Murder, She Wrote to be somewhat representative of what plays of the era might have been like. Here today, gone tomorrow, and only meant for an evening’s entertainment.

Another blind spot in my knowledge of the time were short stories printed in magazines. Because novels are the dominant form of written fiction in our day, I tend think primarily of the novels written during the early days of detective fiction, or of collections of short stories. But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, magazines had enormous circulations and were apparently where the real money was in writing fiction. Even novels which we read today as novels, from the time period, were frequently originally published as serializations in a magazine. But of course short stories were extremely popular.

Of these blind spots, I was to some degree cognizant. What Masters of Mystery really drove home to me was the great number of popular detectives even available in novels which I had never heard of.

I had seen a few references to Dr. Thorndyke in the Lord Peter Wimsey stories—it turns out that he was a character in Dr. Austin Freeman’s popular detective stories. There were many others I had not heard of, though, and the push and pull of what constitutes the ideal detective story, as each writers takes in his turn to write his own detective, is quite interesting to see.

Possibly the most interesting to me at the moment is Mr. A.E.W. Mason’s Inspector Hanaud. First appearing in a story published in 1910, he is thought to have had some influence on Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, especially when it comes to physical description, but also to brilliant intuition and a psychological approach. Interestingly, in looking this up to confirm some points on Wikipedia, I ran into this:

Poirot’s name was derived from two other fictional detectives of the time: Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Hercule Popeau and Frank Howel Evans’ Monsieur Poiret, a retired Belgian police officer living in London.

So it seems that perhaps the second most famous detective of all time (the most famous being Sherlock Holmes) drew very heavy inspiration from a number of sources, most of which (aside from Holmes) have been long forgotten.

It is yet more evidence that it is not originality which matters, but the quality of execution.

That said, Agatha Christie was a very original writer. Not, precisely, in her subject matter, but in her approach to it. She managed to pull off things which others could not. Perhaps the greatest example of this is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Prior to this, Fr. Knox, in his decalogue, had given two rules which are here relevant:

  1. (1) The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  2. (7) The detective himself must not commit the crime.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd broke both, and did so not only well, but even fairly. So well and so fairly that in a 1938 commentary on his rules, Fr. Knox said:

The second half of the rule is more difficult to state precisely, especially in view of some remarkable performances by Mrs. Christie. It would be more exact to say that the author must not imply an attitude of mystification in the character who turns out to be the criminal.

One such ingenious story would be enough for everyone, but Mrs. Christie pulled off at least a second, with her Murder on the Orient Express. This one did not break one of the rules of the decalogue, but it did break the generally unstated rule that there should be one or two murderers. Instead, Mrs. Christie pulled off a story in which everyone (with a few minor exceptions) did it. Every suspect (and several non-suspects) turned out to be guilty. Her originality consisted not in the idea—”everyone did it” is the sort of thing anyone might think of—but in figuring out how to make it work.

This is something those of us writing today should take to heart. In English class in high school we hear much about originality and genius. The reality of writing novels is that what really matters is doing a good job.

One of the Great Mystery Endings

As I’ve mentioned, I’m reading the book Masters of Mystery: A Study of the Detective Story, written by H. Douglas Thomson in 1931. It’s an interesting book that I will share more from soon(-ish), but there was one little snippet which stands on its own and which I just have to share.

The reprint of The Leavenworth Case attracted some attention. A post-prandial pronouncement of Mr. Baldwin was presumably the origin of this venture, for on the jacket we read in bold black type from some continental foundry:

“Mr. Baldwin—speaking at a dinner of the American Society in London on the 29th of November, 1928, said: ‘An American Woman, the successor of Poe, Anna K. Green gave us The Leavenworth Case, which I still think one of the best detective stories ever written.'”

Something must have been wrong with the dinner. The Leavenworth Case is not by any means a first-class detective story. The detection is singularly elementary. The plot is hopelessly drawn out, and the melodrama is a sample of unnatural and stilted writing. It may be unfair to cut out a sentence or two from its context, but the climax cries aloud for glorious isolation:

“A silence ensued which, like the darkness of Egypt, could be felt. Then a great and terrible cry rang through the room, and a man’s form, rushing from I knew not where, shot by me and fell at Mr. Gryce’s feet shrieking out, ‘It is a lie! A lie! Mary Leavenworth is innocent as a babe unborn! I am the murderer of Mr. Leavenworth. I! I! I!”

I know nothing about The Leavenworth Case, and even my deep curiosity about all things will likely not involve me actually reading the thing. It is interesting to contemplate, however, that such a story was not only written, but published, and a room full of people who had just eaten was told that it was one of the finest detective stories ever written.

There is hope for us all.

The Early Days of the Detective Story

As I mentioned, I’ve been reading the book Masters of Mystery: A Study of The Detective Story. The first chapter deals with the question of whether the detective story is literature, and if so, whether it is good literature. There are two things that particularly caught my attention: the enormous popularity of the detective story, and the basic morality of the detective story.

The first is very interesting because I’ve seen it in detective fiction from the era, but I never knew what to make of that. The example which most leaps out at me is Harriet Vane’s reception by the dons in Gaudy Night. A great many of them had read her books and were fans. It almost has the same feeling as the near-universal name recognition of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. In Jessica’s case, however, we know this to be a tremendous exaggeration. It was more plausible in the case of Harriet Vane, though, because television had not yet been invented and talkies (movies with recorded dialog) were only in their infancy. It is, therefore, interesting to see a description, if, granted, from an interested party, of how widespread was the interest in detective stories around the time of 1930. It was popular with educated people, with common people, with respectable people—in short, there was no notable group of people not reading detective stories at this time.

The other interesting thing which leapt out at me was the critique of the detective story as dangerous to morals, and the response that the detective story was, fundamentally, a moral story. That is, the detective story takes as given the ordinary moral framework of right and wrong and man’s duty to do right and to refrain from doing wrong. This interests me so much, not because it is a revelation—it is, after all, obviously true—but because I’ve seen it used as an explanation for why the detective story is so enduringly popular even until our own times (I write this at the end of the year of our Lord 2019).

It has been argued (possibly even by me) that the detective story and its modern television cousin, the police procedural, is the only modern story in which basic morality is taken for granted. It is curious to see that this was to some degree true even in the early days of detective stories.

An example given as contrast was An American Tragedy, which was the only assigned reading in highschool I never finished. I just couldn’t stand the book; I made it about halfway through and gave up, reading the Cliff’s Notes instead of finishing the wretched thing. The short short version of it is that a young man makes all sorts of awful life choices during the great depression and is eventually executed for murdering a woman he seduced (in order to be available to marry a rich woman). The main character is a bad man who learns nothing, and the book does not even appreciate the justice of him paying for his crime.

It was published in 1925.

Bad books have been around for quite a long time.

Talking of the Past in the Past

A few years ago a dear friend of mine gave me the book Masters of Mystery: A Study of The Detective Story, and I’ve finally started reading it. I’ll be writing about what it says about the detective story in another post; here I want to talk about something interesting in the timing of the book, and of the introduction which came later, as the copy I was given is actually a reprint.

Masters of Mystery was written by H. Douglas Thomson and originally published in 1931. The reprint and its foreward were made in 1978, three years short of the book’s fiftieth anniversary.

The book itself was written at an interesting time, given that 1931 was only the middle of the golden age of detective fiction and had yet to see most of the work of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, to name just two giants of the genre.

Further making it an interesting time, detective fiction was not that old. Granted, the first detective stories are generally reckoned to be Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin stories, the first of which, Murders in the Rue Morgue, being published in 1841. There seems to be fairly little—in English—before Conan Doyle published Sherlock Holmes in 1887. 1931 was a scant 44 years later. That is enough time for much to have happened, but it was still early days.

We come, now, to the foreward which interests me, being written a slightly longer time in the future, and taking a historical look at how Masters of Mystery held up. It was written by a E.F. Bleiler, who according to Wikipedia was “an American editor, bibliographer, and scholar of science fiction, detective fiction, and fantasy literature.” He worked as an editor at the American publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons at the time of the reprint, but as he only left Dover in 1977 and it was Dover that did the reprint, it is possible that he wrote it while an editor at the publisher. He may have been, therefore, less an expert sought out for his opinion and more a man who happened to be around.

He praises the book, but also notes some weaknesses. Some may be fair, such as noting that Thomson leaves off much about the early days of detective fiction—for the understandable reason that not much was known, especially then and even now, of it.

He makes the somewhat odd claim that Detective mysteries were at the time Thomson wrote predominantly “house party” crimes. This is odd in that it’s simply false if predicated of the famous stories of the time. It was a common enough setting, but among the detective stories which have come to us at the time of my writing, it certainly did not predominate. How common it was amongst the stories which have long since been forgotten, I cannot say.

The really interesting claim, though, is rooted firmly in its time:

Thomson’s critical standards were often a function of his day, but two more personal flaws in his work must be mentioned. His worst gaffe, of course, is his failure to estimate Hammett’s work adequately. While Hammett-worship may be excessive at the moment, it is still perplexing that Thomson could have missed Hammett’s imagination, powerful writing, and ability to convey a social or moral message. Related to this lacuna is Thomson’s lack of awareness of the other better American writers of his day, men who stood just as high as the better English writers that he praises. It was inexcusable to be unaware of the work of Melville D. Post, F.I. Anderson and T.S. Stribling. It is also surprising, since all three men were writers of world reputation at this time.

To deal with the last, first: I’ve never heard of Post, Anderson, or Stribling. F.I. Anderson does not even have a wikipedia page. Such is the short duration of fame, I suppose, that a man can be castigated for not talking about famous men 48 years after his book that, 44 years later, are generally unknown.

Dashiell Hammett, I do of course know of. That said, it is funny to me to speak of Hammett as some sort of master that everyone must talk about. I’ve met exactly one person who seriously likes Dashiell Hammett’s writing, and I don’t even know his name—I struck up a conversation with him while waiting to pick up Chinese food one night.

I suspect that Hammett’s reputation in the 1970s was a product of the success of the movies based upon his books. The casting for The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man were excellent, and anyone having seem them—as an editor working for Dover in 1977 almost certainly would have—cannot help but read the tremendous performances of the actors into the words on the page. If one does not picture Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, much of the magic is lost.

Again, I should note that in the main Blieler’s foreward is positive and mostly about how Masters of Mystery is worth reading. I was merely struck by how much the retrospective criticisms of it were a product of their time, but were phrased as if they were now timeless.

Taking a Page from Scooby Doo

It strikes me that an interesting plot for a murder mystery would be to borrow a page from Scooby Doo and to have the murderer disguise a murder by taking advantage of a local legend.

Of course, this is hardly original to Scooby Doo. This basic structure for a plot can be found in The Hound of the Baskervilles, published some 67 years before Scooby Doo began his crime fighting in the classic TV show, Scooby Doo, Where Are You!

We live in a different time from either, which would make a somewhat different approach necessary, but I think it’s interesting to consider how, and why.

Scooby Doo originated at a time when there was tremendous interest in the “paranormal.” I’m not sure exactly when it started, and I think it had mostly died down by the 1990s, but for a while, in America at least, there was great interest in things like the Loch Ness monster, the Bermuda triangle, alien abductions, big foot, and such-like. I think that there was a relationship to the great popularity of self-help, self-actualization, consciousness-raising, and other such things that gave rise to a lot of cult activity. People knew that there was more to the world than the official explanation (that is, what they learned in public school and what was said in newspapers), and searched for it in some very strange places.

Scooby Doo, Where Are You! took this cultural pervasiveness as a starting point, and just ran with it. The eagerness of people to believe in more than the oversimplification they learned as children made for a ready setting to find strange things behind every tree and under every rock. (Scooby Doo was also a comedy, of course, so the American preference for exaggeration in comedy must also be taken into account.)

The Hound of the Baskervilles, by contrast, comes from an age which is more content with the simplistic answers that a rationalist oversimplification tends to give. Coming before the two world wars, when technology turn on its creators and the promised heaven-on-earth of Science became hell-on-earth, people had a different sort of relationship to Science than they did shortly after the second world war, which was when Scooby Doo was written and set. Given the long stretch of comparative peace within the United States, our modern time has come much more to hope in Science once again, and accordingly to be more content with rationalistic oversimplifications, so I think that we are culturally closer to The Hound of the Baskervilles. So we must look closer to the roles that the putatively supernatural plays.

Rationalistic ages tend to reject superstition, but very curiously they do it for a very different reason than Christian ages do. To the Christian, superstition is sinful because it is primarily a means of trying to step outside the natural order to control it. Bear in mind, that in a Christian context things like Angels are natural; a properly Christian distinction between natural and super-natural is created and creator. To a Christian, only God is super-natural. So stepping outside of the natural order largely means things like consorting with fallen angels, who are willing to abuse their power for their own dark ends. Superstition is sinful, then, because it is trying to be something one is not, and abusing the natural order in order to do it.

So to take an example of a superstition, trial by combat or trial by ordeal are both superstitious because they are an attempt for force the hand of God’ to serve men’s purposes. This is inverting the natural order; we were given senses to find out who is guilty, but the superstitious does not want to use our senses and our reason to determine guilt. So the superstitious man resorts to something which he thinks will give him control and force the world to do his will, that is, to tell him guilt without taking the trouble to determine it.

(Laziness is very ingrained in fallen humanity, and it took the Church many centuries to finally extirpate trial by combat and trial by ordeal.)

Also worth noting is that the first casualty in such abuse will tend to be a person’s reason; in order to act badly one must also think badly. Thus superstition always goes along with lousy reasoning; it must in order to seem like a good idea. Hence also why we get the sort of immense practicality of the monk who was trying to help a woman who said that she had the power to fit through keyholes. He locked his door, took the key out, then chased her around the room hitting her with a stick and telling her to get out of the room if she could. It might be difficult to get past a Human Subjects Review Board these days, but it’s a sound experimental design, and proved the point quite well.

Rationalistic ages, by which I mean ages which believe themselves to know everything, and approximate this by refusing to acknowledge the existence of anything they do not know, hold a radically different view of superstition. To them, superstition is anything which is super-natural where nature is defined as, basically, what they know. Thus to a rationalist, the super-natural is anything outside of his knowledge. (This is why things like big-foot will be considered supernatural even though they are supposed to be exactly as much flesh-and-blood as a Spaniard or an orangutan.)

The problem which rationalists have is that on some level they do know that they do not, in fact, know everything. They are confident, but they know that their confidence has no basis in reality. The only way to prove a negative is by contradiction; the Christian has a contradiction to people being able to achieve total power by stepping outside the natural order. (That contradiction is the providence of God; demons tremble at the name of Christ, etc.) But the rationalist has only the fallacy of ignorance (assuming that an absence of evidence is evidence of absence). Material fallacies are not very comforting at night, when it’s cold and hard to see, and one hears a sound which one cannot identify.

Thus rationalistic ages will always lend themselves to superstition (in both senses, really). Fear will never leave a man forever, and if he has no comfort from a higher power, he has no protection. There’s a section from Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man which describes it quite well:

Superstition recurs in all ages, and especially in rationalistic ages. I remember defending the religious tradition against a whole luncheon table of distinguished agnostics; and before the end of our conversation every one of them had procured from his pocket, or exhibited on his watch-chain, some charm or talisman from which he admitted that he was never separated. I was the only person present who had neglected to provide himself with a fetish. Superstition recurs in a rationalist age because it rests on something which, if not identical with rationalism, is not unconnected with scepticism. It is at least very closely connected with agnosticism. It rests on something that is really a very human and intelligible sentiment, like the local invocations of the numen in popular paganism. But it is an agnostic sentiment, for it rests on two feelings: first that we do not really know the laws of the universe; and second that they may be very different to all we call reason. Such men realise the real truth that enormous things do often turn upon tiny things. When a whisper comes, from tradition or what not, that one particular tiny thing is the key or clue, something deep and not altogether senseless in human nature tells them that it is not unlikely.

So when it comes to writing a story about someone using a legend as a disguise, the best place to put it will be in a group of rationalists. Some will violently protest against it, but all will be liked to be haunted by it. You can see this sort of thing in Chesterton’s story The Blast of the Book, where there is a book which is supposed to have some dark power to make the people who read it disappear. It is followed around a bit, with various people disappearing from it, and it turns out to be a practical joke by the subordinate the main character of the story (Professor Openshaw, which is, of course, a rationalist).

There was another long silence and then Professor Openshaw laughed; with the laugh of a great man who is great enough to look small. Then he said abruptly:

‘I suppose I do deserve it; for not noticing the nearest helpers I have. But you must admit the accumulation of incidents was rather formidable. Did you never feel just a momentary awe of the awful volume?’

‘Oh, that,’ said Father Brown. ‘I opened it as soon as I saw it lying there. It’s all blank pages. You see, I am not superstitious.’

Chesterton might, I suppose, be accused of poking fun at his enemies in this fashion, but it is actually rather good psychology. In the same way that one cannot write a devout Catholic racked by guilt—if he is so racked, he will go to confession and discharge the guilt—it does not work to write a devout Christian trembling in superstition. If one is really devout, one would make the sign of the cross, invoke the name of Christ, and open the thing one is not supposed to open. Or, failing that, take it to a priest to have a blessing said over it or perhaps an exorcism performed. A simple nameless dread does not make sense because the Christian has a definite idea of what to do with things he does not personally understand, because while he doesn’t know all the particulars, he does know the hierarchy.

Now, there is what might be called a middle ground, which we can described as undiscovered beasts. It is possible that there is a sixty foot long alligator swimming in the swamps by some campground, and the thing to do with alligators, even with large ones, is to not stand next to them. Everyone should be cautious of an insect with a poison so deadly one sting can kill twelve grown men. While these things would be superstition to the rationalist, they would not be superstition to the Christian, and would be things to investigate the within the ordinary course of probability. Demons do not leave footprints, but sixty foot alligators do.

Legends of a species of sixty foot alligators in a deep, unexplored swamp are of course possible, but do not lend themselves as well to detection, I think, for the simple reason that faking their presence requires the sort of effort that a single person is not likely to be able to put into things. Making footprints that big, and tail-tracks, and such-like would be time consuming and difficult.

This sort of unknown beast is very doable, but is more problematic in that it’s the sort of thing which should be observable, and moreover would make a lot of people interested in observing them. And since they should be observable, the perpetrator will be almost obligated to provide some physical evidence of the beastie. If there is a hyper-deadly wasp in the area, blaming deaths on it will not be very plausible unless somebody swats one of the things and it can be analyzed to find its hyper-deadly poison. Moreover, by the time one is faking the cause of death in a remote area, one might as well fake a more conventional cause of death, or even just find a way to inject the poor victim with a real disease, like tetanus or malaria or what-not. Or poison them plus give them a real disease.

So I think that the thing one would want to fake, as a murderer, would be the sort of supernatural which would not leave physical evidence of its crimes. Ghosts, etc. are a much better patsy than an undiscovered beast; they leave off all sorts of problems of having to produce evidence afterwards.

I think that the time is ripe for such stories again.

Sherlock Holmes and the Valley of Fear

I recently read the fourth and final Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear. It’s an interesting book, or in some sense two books, the first of which I know to be interesting and the second I’m not really interested in reading.

(If anyone doesn’t want spoilers, now’s the time to stop reading.)

The book begins with Sherlock Holmes working out a cryptogram by reasoning to the key from the cipher. It’s a book cipher, which has many pages and two columns, so Holmes is able to guess that it’s an almanac. This is clever and enjoyable; the message decodes that something bad is going to happen to a Douglas in Birlstone. Shortly after they decrypt it, a detective from Scotland Yard arrives to consult Sherlock Holmes about the brutal murder of Mr. Douglas of Birlstone. The plot thickens, as it were. This is an excellent setup for what is to follow.

When Holmes arrives, we get the facts of the case, that Mr. Douglas lives in a house surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge, and was found in his study with his head blasted off with a sawed-off shotgun fired at close range. Any avid reader of detective fiction—possibly even at the time, given how detective fiction had taken off in short story form by 1914, when The Valley of Fear was written—will immediately suspect that the body is not the body it is supposed to be. However, Conan Doyle forestalls this possibility by the presence of a unique brand on the forearm of the corpse, which Mr. Douglas was known to have had. This helps greatly to heighten the mystery.

The mystery is deepened further by the confusing evidence that Mr. Douglas’s friend forged a footprint on the windowsill which was used to suggest that the murderer escaped by wading in the moat—which was only 3′ deep at its deepest—and ran away. Further confusing things, Dr. Watson accidentally observes Mrs. Douglas and Mr. Douglas’ friend being lighthearted and happy together.

Holmes then finds some additional evidence which convinces him of what really happened, which he does not tell us or the police about, which is not exactly fair play. He then he sets in motion a trap where he has the police tell Mr. Douglas’ friend that they is going to drain the moat. This invites the reader to guess, and I’m not sure that we really have sufficient evidence at this point to guess. That’s not entirely true; we have sufficient evidence to guess, but not to pick among the many possible explanations of the facts given to us. It turns out that the dead man was the intruder, but it could have turned out otherwise, too. The facts, up till then, would have supported Mr. Douglas’ friend having been in on the crime, for example. That said, the explanation given does cover the facts very well, and is satisfying. It does rely, to some degree, on happenstance; none of the servants heard the gunshot, except for one half deaf woman who supposed it to be a door banging. This is a little dubious, but investigation must be able to deal with happenstance because happenstance is real.

We then come to the part where Mr. Douglas is revealed and the mystery explained, and which point the narrative shifts over to explaining his history in America and why it was that there were people tracking him from America to England in order to murder him. This, I find very strange.

It is the second time in a novel that Conan Doyle did it. The first time was in A Study in Scarlet, where the middle half of the book (approximately) took place in America. I really don’t get this at all.

I suspect it makes more sense in the original format of the novels, which were serialized in magazines. It would not be so jarring, in a periodical magazine, to have to learn new characters, since one would to some degree need to reacquaint oneself with the already-known characters anyway. Possibly it also speaks to Conan Doyle having not paced himself well, being more used to short stories, and needing to fill the novel with something else.

The very end of the book, when we return in the present in England, is a very short epilogue. Douglas was acquitted as having acted purely in self defense, but then is murdered by Moriarty when it was taking Holmes’s advice to flee England because Moriarty would be after him.

That the book takes such an interest in Moriarty is very curious, given that it was written in 1914 while Holmes killed Moriarty off in 1893. Actually in 1891, but The Final Problem was published in 1893. Holmes was brought back in 1903, in The Adventure of the Empty House, where it is confirmed that Moriarty died at the Reichenbach Falls. So we have a novel which is clearly set prior to the death of Moriarty, establishing him as a criminal mastermind, almost 15 years after he was killed off. What’s even stranger about it is that Moriarty barely features in the story. He’s in the very beginning, mentioned only in connection to the cryptogram and as having something to do with the murder, but he nor his men actually tried to carry out the murder. His involvement was limited to finding out where Douglas was, so the American who was trying to murder Douglas could try. He naturally makes no appearance in the story of Douglas’ adventures in America, and only shows up in a note at the end of the book:

Two months had gone by, and the case had to some extent passed from our minds. Then one morning there came an enigmatic note slipped into our letter box. “Dear me, Mr. Holmes. Dear me!” said this singular epistle. There was neither superscription nor signature. I laughed at the quaint message; but Holmes showed unwonted seriousness.

Moriarty is indicated to have killed Douglas off the cape of South Africa, and the book ends with Homles’s determination to bring Moriarty to justice.

Which would be a great setup for Holmes bringing Moriarty to justice in a later book, but we already read about it in an earlier book. It doesn’t really help to flesh the character out, it’s not really needed for the plot of the book, and it serves to end the book on a note of failure rather than of triumph. I do not understand it. Perhaps its purpose is to help increase the grandeur of Holmes’ previous victory over Moriarty? But that is a strange thing to do. Perhaps it was the reverse—a note of caution to fans of Holmes that no man, not even Sherlock Holmes, is omnipotent?

Investigating Suicides

One of the popular plots in detective stories is the investigation of a murder which has been—so far—successfully disguised as a suicide. It’s a popular plot for a reason, offering some very interesting possibilities for stories. It does, however, come with some requirements on the stories containing it, which I’d like to discuss.

The first and most obvious requirement which faux-suicide poses is that of means. People tend to kill themselves in one of a limited number of ways, and in any event must kill themselves in a way that is plausible to do alone. A man cannot shoot himself in the back with a rifle from a great distance. Further complicating the faux suicide, the murder weapon must be plausibly accessible to the victim when the body is found. Dead men do not move murder weapons. The murderer must then have access to the body after the murder in order to plant the murder weapon in some fashion. This precludes, or at least makes very difficult, the locked room murder.

Of course, that’s really just a challenge to the writer, and there have been some clever solutions. I think my favorite is a room that had both a deadbolt and a latch; the murderer locked the dead bolt but left the latch unlocked then broke the door open, staged the suicide, then locked the latch. When the detectives broke in, they assumed that the deadbolt was broken then, and not already broken. That was quite clever. (This is the Death In Paradise episode at a nursing home.)

The limitations on the means of suicide are more strict, though. For example, any poisons used must be very fast acting. Poisons like arsenic which cause pain for days before death finally comes are simply not plausible as a means of suicide. Elaborate traps which catch the victim by surprise are also implausible. Simple drowning is right out.

Additionally, the means of murder have to be something one can force on a person without leaving bruising that will contradict the idea of suicide. It will not work to knock a man unconscious with a frying pan before staging his suicide with a gun. Sedatives are the easy way out, but they’re a gamble because a toxicology report will then prove that it was not murder. Another alternative is providing an explanation for bruising will also work, such as pre-mortem bruising, faking the victim changing his mind at the last minute, or damaging the body post-mortem such as by throwing it off of a cliff.

The second sort of requirement which faux-suicide imposes is on the conditions of the victim, pre-mortem. The victim must have some sort of plausible reason to have killed himself. This significantly limits the sort of victims one can have. It would be very difficult to disguise the murder of a successful man in good health as suicide, for example. It’s not impossible, of course, but the attempt will tend to involve faking a scandal which would ruin the man’s life. It’s doable—it’s certainly doable—it just introduces other problems which need to be solved in order to make it work.

The final requirement imposed by a faux-suicide is about the detective: why on earth is he investigating the crime? If it’s suicide, what is there to investigate? The perpetrator of the crime is already known.

Proximally, there’s only one reason: because someone thinks that the faux suicide was not suicide. In a sense this is just a sub-case of the more general case of there being someone who is widely accepted as guilty, but there is someone who does not accept their guilt. In both cases, there can even be a confession (a suicide note, in the case of the faux suicide). That said, I think that there are enough differences to consider the faux-suicide on its own, rather than just as a special case of the more general pattern.

The reasons for the detective investigating the faux-suicide seem to me to come in roughly two main classes:

  1. Some of the facts of the scene of the crime are inconsistent with the suicide theory.
  2. Someone who knows the victim does not believe they could have killed themselves.

There is a very good example of #1 in Death in Paradise. Detective Richard Poole does not believe that a woman could have killed herself because she had only drank half of her cup of extremely expensive tea. (He also thinks it unlikely she could have drowned herself by sheer force of will, and she drowned but had no bruising anywhere on her, nor any sedatives in her system.)

Another example of this is the death of Paul Alexis in Have His Carcass. His blood being liquid and there being only one set of footprints—his—up to the flatiron rock suggest suicide, but on the other hand it seems implausible for a man with a full beard to buy a cutthroat razor, then take a train (with a return ticket) and walk 5 miles to sit on a hot rock for several hours before cutting his own throat with the razor.

Have His Carcass also gives an example of the latter category—a wealthy widow who was engaged to Paul Alexis thinks it is impossible that he killed himself and begs Harriet Vane to find out who murdered her intended husband.

The first category is, I think, far more common than the second sort. I can’t, off hand, think of any examples in which a detective investigated a murder solely on the strength of someone thinking it impossible their friend committed suicide. The closest I can come to that may be Five Little Pigs, in which Poirot investigates an old murder because the convicted woman’s daughter is certain her mother is innocent. Her certainty comes from a letter from her mother assuring her daughter she is innocent. This, and that her mother always told the truth. In that story, though, Poirot did not accept the mother’s innocence and was explicit that he would tell her if his investigation made him think the mother did it.

It seems, then, that a faux suicide usually requires some amount of inconsistent facts in order to be a viable story. The question then becomes how to balance these facts such that the detective understands their meaning but the authorities do not. In a sense, this is just a sub-class of the problem of how to give clues the detective understands but others don’t; still, again, I think that it is worth looking into the specific case.

I think that, as a rule, the evidence in favor of suicide should be the main physical evidence, while the evidence against should be the more subtle psychological evidence. This is certainly the common pattern, at least, but I think it makes sense since small psychological inconsistencies are easier to brush away as explained by information not present. People occasionally do strange things, and suicide is almost definitionally the strangest. No one kills himself more than once in his life.

But, then, why does the detective—who knows better than anyone that life is sometimes just unaccountably strange—place such high value on the evidence which others dismiss?

One common answer is that the detective has a compulsion to make sure that everything is neat and orderly and makes sense and is explained. This is not very satisfying, though, since this trait must be selectively applied as life is very rarely neat and orderly, with everything having an explanation which makes sense.

Another approach, which is better but still not great, is that the detective has a hunch. It’s not really satisfying because it violates rule #6:

No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

That said, this is a fuzzy line. One man’s unaccountable hunch which proves right is another man’s feeling that he can’t articulate but bears further examination.

One variation of this which is not so much a hunch is giving the detective highly domain specific knowledge. “No deep sea diver would ever drink tea at this time of day”—that sort of thing. The problem is that unless one can prevent the authorities checking up on this, they will be immediately forced to conclude the suicide was not suicide. (This is sometimes dealt with by making the authorities very pig-headed or otherwise very budget-constrained, so that they will jump at the chance to classify every death as a suicide so as to avoid having to investigate it. It an be pulled off, of course.)

I think what probably works out the best is inconclusive evidence that the suicide is fake combined with someone other than the detective acting as the driving force. The detective may not have unaccountable hunches, but others may. This sets up the interplay that the other person is sure that it wasn’t suicide, while the detective can only see some evidence which supports this conclusion but at least does justify further investigation. By making the motive force a hunch, there does not need to be sufficient evidence to justify the hunch. This allows the faux suicide to be generally taken as suicide without all of the people involved being dimwits. Unless the murder mystery is also a comedy, it is preferable to populate the world with reasonably intelligent people.

Dragnet

Something I find interesting on occasion is to look up the history of television shows. Television is a very young medium. Though the device itself was invented in the 1930s, the Great Depression and the second World War and its attendant economic privations meant that televisions were not widely owned until the late 1940s. Without an audience, not much was made to broadcast to it. It was, therefore, really the early 1950s in which television got its start.

This makes it easy to research, but also makes the chain of influences fairly short.

Dragnet actually started as a radio drama, starring Jack Webb as Detective Joe Friday. In 1951, it became a television show, with much the same cast as the radio drama, though his partner had to be changed out part way through. This show lasted until 1959. It was later revived in 1967, this time in color. This is the version which I think most people are familiar with, that stars Harry Morgon as Detective Bill Gannon alongside Jack Webb reprising his role as Joe Friday. Certainly it’s the version I’m most familiar with. It lasted until 1970.

There were other versions made, but none with Jack Webb since he died in 1982 (at the age of 62). In 1987 there was a comedic movie starring Dan Ackroyd and Tom Hanks. It’s almost a parody of the original, though it is not a mean-spirited parody and I can testify that it is a lot of fun. In 1989 there was a short-lived series called The New Dragnet, and in 2003 there was an even shorter-lived revival series called LA Dragnet.

Though Dragnet was not able to survive in the modern world of police procedurals, or possibly just it was not able to outlive its star, Jack Webb, it did have an enormous impact on television. Counterfactuals are impossible to state with certainty, but it seems likely that police procedurals would not have the form they have today if Dragnet had never happened.

Episodes of Dragnet, which are (surprisingly) easily found on YouTube, are interesting to watch. The detectives are in the homicide division, so in a very technical sense the cases are murder mysteries. However, they are not detective stories in the sense of Poirot or Agatha Christie. The detectives do a lot of work, of course, but they don’t really do anything particularly clever. They just keep talking to people until they get enough facts to convict the murderer.

What I find curious—given that I’m a huge fan of detective fiction with genius detectives and write some of it myself—is that, bare-bones as Dragnet is, it still satisfies the impulse to see a mystery solved. This is true of modern police procedurals as well. In both cases, they feel somewhat like empty calories—enjoyable while watching but they don’t really have any substance which sticks with one.

This is not true of the great detective stories. Murder on the Orient Express, Have His Carcase, Saint Peter’s Fair—these stories really stick with one. There are interesting ideas in them to chew on long after one’s read them.

But it’s a testament to the human craving for the solving of mysteries that even Dragnet, which was told in an almost deliberately un-entertaining style, still makes you want to watch to the end to find out what happens, if you watch the beginning. This may partially be a testament to the power of charisma, though. I can watch Harry Morgan in just about anything.

The Two Kinds of Evidence in Murder Mysteries

In murder mysteries, there are two kinds of evidence: evidence which tells the detective what happened, and evidence which can get a practical result from society. The practical result is often a criminal conviction, but it need not be; a wedding being called off, the payment of an insurance policy, or the settling of a will all require similar sorts of evidence.

Of the two, it is the former type of evidence, not the latter type, which is of interest to the reader.

The main distinction between the two types of evidence is not really one of the strength of the evidence, that is, of the level of certainty which it conveys. In fact, one of the common features of murder mysteries is the early presence of highly convincing evidence which will convict an innocent person unless the detective uncovers the truth. No, the distinction is not in certainty. The distinction is, rather, what is required knowledge and understanding is required to apprehend the true meaning of the evidence.

Convenient names for the sorts of evidence of which we are speaking might be complex evidence and simple evidence. Complex evidence requires extensive background knowledge and understanding of human nature. Simple evidence does not; it tells its story plainly. (Using this terminology, we can say that it is common for murder mysteries to, early on, have complex evidence which appears to be simple evidence.)

In order to achieve societal action, such as convicting the murderer in a court of law or getting some other legal effect, one must have simple evidence. However, simple evidence is, in murder mysteries, hard to come by. This is, of course, a selective effect. In the case where the murderer’s fingerprints are on the murder weapon, and the murderer was seen killing the victim by multiple witnesses who know the murderer personally, and the murderer was caught immediately afterwards—these are not the stuff of murder mysteries.

Detective stories have the structure of story-within-a-story: the murder is the interior story while its detection is the outer story. Within the outer story, it is frequently the detective’s main purpose in his investigation to try to uncover simple evidence about the inner story. This makes it curious that his success or failure at achieving this goal is (almost) irrelevant to whether the story is a good story.

An excellent example of this is the Poirot story Five Little Pigs. In it, the daughter of a woman who was hanged for murdering her father, seventeen years ago, comes to Poirot asking him to uncover the truth. She just received a letter from her mother, written immediately prior to her execution but entrusted by lawyers to be delivered on her daughter’s 25th birthday, telling her that her mother was innocent.

Poirot undertakes the investigation and interviews all of the people principally concerned. At the end, he explains how all of the evidence which had pointed to the guilt of the woman’s mother actually pointed to the guilt of someone else. That person speaks alone with Poirot, afterwards, and asks him what he intends to do. Poirot says that he will give his conclusions to the authorities, but that it is unlikely that they will pursue it and very unlikely that they will get a conviction. And that’s fine. It’s a very satisfying ending to the story.

But why?

I suspect that the answer (which may be obvious) is that complex evidence is fun, while simple evidence is not fun. It takes brainwork to understand complex evidence, while simple evidence is too easy to be interesting. What matters in a murder mystery is being interesting, not achieving results. Achieving results is, really, the domain of an action story, or possibly a drama. This is why detectives tend to hand their cases off to the police at the end of the story. It’s best if the tedious work happens off-screen.

But there’s an interesting complication to this.

It is not a good story if the detective (and hence the reader) merely finds out what happens without anyone else learning it. Why this is so relates to the detective’s role within the story. As I’ve said before, the detective is Christ figure: the world has been corrupted by the misuse of reason, and the detective enters it in order to restore order to the world through the proper use of reason. So while society need not act, something must be put right. That is, someone beside the detective must learn the truth and be better off for it.

A good example of this is the Sherlock Holmes story The Blue Carbuncle*. It begins with a curious set of coincidences which place the key evidence in front of Sherlock Holmes, and with some investigation he discovers who it was who stole the gemtsone. He invites the man to his room, and he comes. After Holmes confronts him with the evidence, he falls apart and confesses, sobbing. I’ll quote just the last part:

“Get out!” said he.

“What, sir! Oh, Heaven bless you!”

“No more words. Get out!”

And no more words were needed. There was a rush, a clatter upon the stairs, the bang of a door, and the crisp rattle of running footfalls from the street.

“After all, Watson,” said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies. If Horner were in danger it would be another thing; but this fellow will not appear against him, and the case must collapse. I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness. Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward. If you will have the goodness to touch the bell, Doctor, we will begin another investigation, in which, also a bird will be the chief feature.”

Here there are two aspects to the world which Sherlock Holmes has put right, even though he has produced no evidence for a jury. In the first, the man wrongly accused of the crime will not be convicted of it because the principle witness against him has fled. The second is less certain, but the true criminal may well repent of his crime since he’s seen what evil he’s capable of and still has a chance to make his way in society honestly.

This satisfies the role of the detective as Christ figure. In fact, it even has a curious echo (perhaps intentionally) of the story of Christ and the woman caught in adultery, and how he releases her from the punishment for her crime on the condition that she sins no more. Neither is, strictly speaking, a satisfying story, but they have something else to them—the idea that there is something better than justice. That’s a very tricky notion, because mercy should never be unjust—but at least in the story of the Blue Carbuncle, what was stolen is returned, and so justice is at least mostly satisfied in restitution.

Be that as it may, the primary point under discussion is satisfied. Holmes collects complex evidence which tells him (and thus the reader) the tale, and this is the interesting part. Achieving a practical effect from society is of minor concern.

(I suspect that part of the reason why The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle ends as it does is that, though it predates Fr. Knox’s decalogue, it violates rule #6 (“no accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right”). The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle is predicated upon a series of accidents, all of which help the detective. If he achieved a practical societal effect, his reputation would benefit by pure chance. By letting the criminal go, he remains in anonymity and so the accidents which help him produce only an interesting set of circumstances.)


*A carbuncle is a red gemstone, most often a garnet, so a blue carbuncle is something of a contradiction in terms. The story suggests it is a blue diamond, though it could be a blue garnet or even a blue sapphire.

Sherlock Holmes on Flowers

I like the Sherlock Holmes stories, though for some reason they’re almost never what I go back to re-read, while I do go back to Cadfael, Lord Peter, and Father Brown quite frequently. I think that part of it is that they are a bit intentionally antisceptic (moreso than most fans tend to admit). But there is in the story The Naval Treaty a part of which I am very fond and do very occasionally go back to:

“Thank you. I have no doubt I can get details from Forbes. The authorities are excellent at amassing facts, though they do not always use them to advantage. What a lovely thing a rose is!”

He walked past the couch to the open window, and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.

“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

I like this scene, both for itself, and for the light it throws on the character of Holmes. He is so often, in the modern age, portrayed like a logic machine, except in the case of religion.

It is a great mistake that moderns make to think that logic is on the side of atheism. Indeed, atheism is, in a very real sense, little else but the denial of logic. Atheism is the denial that our reasoning actually works, when we look on creation and see the unmistakable hand of the creator. Atheism is the denial that we are capable of thinking logically, when it comes to explaining away our own minds as just sex robots that happened, by an odd coincidence, to fall under the delusion we could think.

There is another way to see this. If you look at the beginning of the gospel of John, you have:

ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὖτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν.

In the beginning was the word, the word was with God, and the word was God. He was in the beginning. Through him all things came to be, and not one thing came to be but through him.

Now, the word translated as “word” is “λόγος” (“logos”), and it means an awful lot more than just “word”. If you look it up in an Ancient Greek-English dictionary, you’ll find it also means thought, argument, speech, rationality, and other, related things.

There is a very important relationship to the creation story in Genesis, where God spoke the world into existence. “God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.” etc. That is, the world was created according to a rational idea. This is what makes the world rationally intelligible. This is why human reason works to know truth—because the world was created according to reason.

If the world was not created according to reason, but was merely a cosmic accident of unthinking [there’s no actual word that means the irrational being that has to go here in the sentence because words are intrinsically rational], then human reason is a phantasm that does not work.

Human beings reject logic not because they are hard-nosed logicians who want evidence, but because they are soft-headed people who do not think adequately or because they are hard-hearted people who prefer darkness to the light.

If you ever find a man who is ruthlessly logical, you will find a man who believes in God.