The Detective Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox

If one reads about the golden age of detective fiction (roughly, the inter-war period, circa 1919-1939), one is apt to come across some of the formulations of rules for detective fiction written then. As I’ve noted, detective fiction has from its inception been a self-referential genre, and it was talked about even more outside of the pages of the mystery novel than inside them.

One of the most famous lists of rules is the Decalogue (ten commandments) set down by Fr. Ronald Knox. They are:

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. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
8. The detective must not light on any clues are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

I propose to go through each of these in one post per rule (which I will eventually link here) and discuss them. In aid whereof, this page which has some of Fr. Knox’s own commentary on his rules (years after he wrote them) will be especially interesting.

I should note that in general I agree with the Decalogue. My intention is not criticism but consideration—to look at the purpose of the rule and as such when it can be broken in good faith.

Murder By Poison

Though I’m only about halfway through writing Wedding Flower Will Do for a Funeral (the second Chronicle of Brother Thomas), it’s good to put some thought into when the next book will be—murder mystery plots are the sort of thing it’s nice to kick around for a while instead of having to come up with in a moment. Accordingly, I bought a book on poisons for mystery writers. I hope to review when I’m done with it, but I wanted to talk about the subject of poison as the murder weapon.

(I should note that this is thinking out a variety of alternatives, and is not aiming at any single conclusion; it’s more like a walk through a workshop than an essay.)

Poisons kill, but they do so in a variety of ways. Some kill quickly, others slowly. Some kill very painfully and some just put the victim to sleep and a short time later into eternal sleep. And as I was reading over descriptions of the effects of various poisons it occurred to me that some poisons have greater differences between them than there are between some of those poisons and more conventional weapons such as knives and bullets.

One of the great differences in poisons is a question of detection. That is, how hard is it to discover that the victim was poisoned? Poisons which cause the victim to writhe in agonizing muscle spasms for days before finally killing them, for example, are not likely to be mistaken for death by natural causes. So why use such a poison?

(Before answering that question I should note, in passing, that these tend not to be popular poisons in television mysteries because they don’t give the opportunity for the detective to spot the clues which indicate poison that most people have missed. If the detective confidentially whispers to the police that a victim taken suddenly ill right after dinner and who thrashes about for several days before finally was probably poisoned, he’d be liked to get a sarcastic, “How did you work that out, then?” if it’s a British show or, “Thank you captain obvious” if it’s an American show. Good television, this does not make.)

I think that the best reason to use obvious poisons—except in the case of pure malice, that is, to want to see the victim suffer—is in order to frame somebody. The big problem that murder mysteries have is that of motive. Cui bono? Whose good? Who is it who benefits so much from someone’s death that they’d commit it in cold blood (and murder by poison almost certainly has to be in cold blood since the poison must be procured beforehand). There are generally only a few people who will benefit to any great degree from the death of a person; this narrows the field of suspects down quite considerably. Good for the detective, not nearly so good for the murderer. (And to actually go through with a plan for murder, one must expect to get away with it.)

There is still a problem with the frame-up: if the case against the person being framed isn’t air-tight the field of suspects will become very small indeed. This can certainly be made to work, but poisons introduce the problem that the murderer doesn’t have to be present when the victim takes the poison. While convenient, it renders alibis useless. (This can to some degree be worked around by contriving to make it seem like the time the victim took the poison was known.)

If the murderer is not trying to frame one of the few other people who will benefit from the death of the victim, an obvious murder which does not readily admit of an alibi seems very unlikely to appear a good idea. I suspect, then, that this is probably best used in revenge killings, and in particular those where the relationship between the killer and the victim is not generally known. In English cozies this is the classic case of the killer being the grandson of someone who the victim murdered forty years ago in Australia.

This can be done extremely well; I think most of the interest is going to lie in establishing the backstory and solving a 40 year old mystery in order to unravel the present mystery.

The other sort of poisoning—the gentle kind—results, I think, in a very different sort of murder investigation. Probably the most notable aspect of this is going to be the overturning of an initial conclusion that the victim died from natural causes. The most classic example of this is, I think, the elderly rich relative.

In many stories the climax of the investigation is the digging up of the body and testing it for poison, which is then found. There’s nothing wrong with that plot, but things get very hard if a monkey wrench is thrown into it. The obvious monkey wrench is the undetectable poison—and there are a few—but it’s interesting to consider the approach that Dorothy L. Sayers used in Unnatural Death. It suffered from the minor problem that the effect she relied on was exaggerated about 100-fold; as one reviewer put it the method would work but the apparatus used would be comically large. But that aside, since a poison wasn’t used none could be found. And the rest of the story tells us, I think, how stories about undetectable poisons have to go.

If the first murder was undetectable, the only real solutions is for there to be more murders, this time imperfect. The murderer had ample time and opportunity to plot the first murder, but latter ones will either be rushed or the murderer will relax because of the overconfidence created by success.

The murderer can be pushed into subsequent, rushed murders either by the detective—who seems to be getting too close—or by someone who witnessed an incriminating part of the murder and is now blackmailing the murderer. (It’s convenient for detectives how few fictional people realize that blackmailing a murderer is a very dangerous way to make money.)

In the former case, this can be done by way of the murderer having an unwitting accomplice—somebody who didn’t understand the significance of an action they knew the murderer did or may have even done at the murderer’s request. The impetus comes when the detective is starting to ask questions which might make the unwitting accomplice realize the significance of what they know. The tricky part about this is that the detective can’t do this on purpose or he’s guilty of the unwitting accomplices’s death. It’s not easy to pull this off even unintentionally, though, since the brilliant detective should—because of his brilliance—foresee the probable outcome of asking the questions he’s asking.

All things considered, I think the cleaner way is for the second victim to blackmail the murderer. The downside is that the detective is thus being handed a piece of luck outside of his control, which isn’t satisfying. On the other hand, this is true of (basically) all possible clues. The murderer’s bad luck is the detective’s good luck. If the murderer committed the perfect murder, the detective couldn’t solve it.

On the one hand, this feels like a cheat. On the other hand, it is appropriate; to murder is imperfect and imperfect people do not do things perfectly. Murder is a sort of short-cut, and people who take one short-cut will take others, too. The real trick is to keep the sort of short-cuts taken that help the detective in-character with the murder itself.

Detective Sidekicks

In his Decalogue (ten commandments) for detective fiction, Fr. Ronald Knox’s ninth commandment was:

The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

The Watson in a detective story is generally understood to be a stand-in for the reader, and not without reason. I’ve been wondering how necessary a Watson character is, so I’d like to look at the functions of a Watson:

  1. To have someone to whom the detective must explain this thinking and actions.
  2. To have someone for the detective to talk to.
  3. To have someone who looks up to the detective.

Regarding the first, it can be very helpful for the detective to need to explain himself. How the detective thinks is interesting and apart from having to explain himself we mostly won’t know. It is always possible to give him a habit of thinking out loud, of course; one sees this a bit with Chesterton’s Father Brown (who generally doesn’t have a Watson character).

Regarding the second, this is acknowledging the truth that it is not good for man to be alone. But the companion of a detective does not need to be a reader stand-in and often is better if he isn’t. My favorite example of this is Harriet Vane in the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. She’s not on Lord Peter’s level, but she’s also not—generally—a reader stand-in.

I should mention that Harriet Vane only appears in 4 of the Lord Peter books; Lord Peter’s companion is more often his friend, Charles Parker. Parker is more of the typical Watson character; I suppose my marked preference for Harriet Vane is sufficient to give my opinion of this.

Regarding the third quality of a Watson, this gets to a somewhat tricky aspect of art—most of conveying grandeur is done not by conveying it but by conveying how people react to it. Grandeur is a very difficult thing to show; people being impressed is much easier to show. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the line, supposedly said by Katherine Hepburn, describing Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers, “He gave her class and she gave him sex [appeal]”. It’s true, though not literally so.

Fred Astair had sex appeal, but Ginger Rogers (in how she acted her roles, I mean) recognized it and made it intelligible; she reacted to him as if he had sex appeal, making it clear he did. Ginger Rogers had class, but Fred Astair (again, in how he acted in his roles) treated her as if she was classy, making it clear to the audience that she was. Much of either—how we in the audience know them—is by the reactions to them.

And so it is with the brilliance of the detective. The detective must actually be brilliant or the Watson will only come off as a farce. But if the detective is brilliant, the Watson failing to understand and being enlightened will show the detective’s brilliance off.

Now, when it comes to how necessary these are, I think that the second—companionship—works fairly well, if not better, with an equal. The first and third do require someone who is not an equal, but they don’t need to be an associate of the detective. There will always be bystanders present who can take an interest in what the detective does, and he will suffice to ask questions and be impressed. There is even a potential benefit to this approach in that Watson might be a one-off, but if the detective is constantly running into people who are impressed with him, it lends credence that this is the normal reaction to him.

Of course, the two can be mixed; third parties can relieve the Watson of his duties on occasion in order to spread the work around.

I don’t really have a conclusion, here, other than to say that I don’t think that a Watson is strictly necessary. They’re a good option, but not, I think, a requirement.

A More Modern Recording Alibi, Still Feels Wrong

This is an follow-up to Alibi by Recording. Discussing that post on Twitter made me think of a more modern version of using a recording to convince someone that the murderer is in a place when he’s actually somewhere else committing the murder.

Instead of merely recording a conversation which would be overheard, the murderer could record a series of responses and use voice recognition to map a tree of responses to what a microphone hears. Thus the murderer could actually have a conversation with someone—through a locked door. Something like this:

Janice: [knocks] Are you working late again?

Bob: Yes. I have to get these reports done for tomorrow.

Janice: Can I get you some coffee?

Bob: No thanks, I already got myself some coffee. In the big mug. It’s going to be a late night.

Janice: OK, I’ll leave you to it.

Bob: Good night.

Janice would swear to the police that she had a conversation with Bob while Bob was really off murdering his Aunt for the inheritance she was leaving him. Since these sorts of programs can have a history, it could eventually go to some default response like “I’m sorry but I have to concentrate on work. I’ll talk to you in the morning.”

Not foolproof, of course, but that most interesting murders are at least a little bit daring.

I still think that this would be a completely unsatisfying reveal to a modern audience. And yet it would be very directly analogous to, say, the murderer of Roger Ackroyd using a phonograph of the deceased to convince people that the deceased was alive when he was already dead (as happened in the Poirot story, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).

And I maintain, as I did in my previous post on the subject, that it’s because a technological solution is simply not very interesting. We’ve got technology up the wazoo and back out again, these days. What we find very interesting is the human element.

Alibi By Recording

I was recently thinking about the way that the TV version of Poirot sometimes re-sets the stories in the 1920s. (Poirot stories were generally written contemporaneously, spanning the 1920s through the 1960s.) It makes sense on television for a variety of reasons—including that the 1920s were far more visually interesting than most of the decades which followed. That said, it is curious because the sorts of plots one finds change somewhat over the decades.

Nowhere is this so obvious as in the case of murder by ingenious invention. It was a common enough plot in the golden age of mysteries but seems to have fallen out of favor more recently. And a particular kind of ingenious invention has really fallen into disuse these days: the alibi by recording.

In the golden age of fiction it was a not uncommon plot that either the murder’s presence or the victim’s being alive when he was already dead was established on the basis of an overheard conversation which turned out to be a recording. (Both give the murderer an alibi, though in different ways.)

I’m curious why this has fallen out of fashion. (And of course I don’t mean that it never happens—I can think of a few TV mysteries which have employed the murderer using a recording to fake being on a stage giving a presentation when they ducked out for a minute to commit the murder. But I think that’s more properly regarded as a variant of the being-on-stage alibi rather than the recording-alibi.)

There was a certain amount of fascination with the progress of technology which one finds in the 1920s because it was an era of rapid technological progress. But our era is also one of rapid technological progress. More so, in absolute terms.

I think, though, that we’ve become exhausted with technological progress. It’s not merely that we wonder whether all the change is actually for the better—we do, but so did the people in the 1920s. In many ways more than we do, actually, since they had just come off of the horrors of the first world war and its deadly machines and poison gasses. Nuclear annihilation isn’t much of a threat any more, though technically it is still possible.

It’s also not that technology has become the realm of the specialist. It was always the realm of the specialist. It wasn’t ordinary people who invented gadgets, and it took more expensive equipment to record a phonograph in the 1920s than it does to record voice on a cell phone now.

I think it’s rather that we have a sense that life doesn’t change nearly as much as one would think it does. I don’t mean that life is mostly the same minute-by-minute. That would be ridiculous. We do far more driving and far less walking; we are constantly stimulated by electric devices and never has mediocre music been nearly as omni-present. But we remain human beings with much the same problems; our problems are just far more convenient and fast-paced.

Being so inundated by technology, we find it boring. These days (with expensive software) one could edit video to remove somebody from a security camera recording. So what? That’s not an interesting reveal. It’s really no more interesting than a mystery about wizards involving the reveal that the murderer used an invisibility spell.

What’s far more interesting in murder mysteries is the human element.

I should also note that this is probably also partially a result of short stories being mostly dead and gimmics (by which I mean clever murders) being far more the domain of short stories than they are of novels. Not that the murders in novels aren’t clever, only that they’re not generally based on one large reveal. That said, as I’ve argued in the past, structurally speaking, television murder mysteries are much closer to long short stories than they are to novels. So murder mystery short stories have generally moved to television from the written word.

And even there, recordings are not a popular alibi.

Dysfunctional Families in Murder Mysteries

I was recently watching the Murder, She Wrote episode It’s a Dog’s Life with my eldest son and it occurred to just how much dysfunctional wealthy families are a staple of murder mysteries.

It’s not the wealthy part that’s at all surprising—it’s well known that the two most common motives for murder in detective fiction are sex and money—but the dysfunctional part. Or at least that they’re obviously dysfunctional.

This is probably more a staple of modern detective fiction like Murder, She Wrote than it is of golden age detective fiction, I should add, though one can certainly find it in golden age detective fiction too.

The reason I find it a little surprising is, roughly, two-fold:

  1. It’s somewhat at odds with the idea of concealing the murderer
  2. It makes the victim less sympathetic

Curiously, that last part is papered over quite frequently—almost as if the authors don’t notice it. But it’s simply not avoidable. One child turning out badly could be attributable to free will but a parent who badly spoiled all his children is, simply, a bad parent.

You can see this same problem in The Big Sleep. The old man who hires Philip Marlowe was—according to the story, and if I recall correctly, according to the old man himself—a radically selfish man who didn’t actually raise his own children. Granted, in that story the wayward child didn’t kill its father, but still, it made the old man very unsympathetic. It also made Marlowe’s loyalty to him incomprehensible. Why be loyal to a man who’s only reaping the results of his own bad behavior?

The other problem with with this approach is that—however suited it is for coming up with a convincing murder—it makes for unpleasant detection. If everyone is distasteful, the story of finding out which of them committed the crime will be distasteful, too. The solution to this is frequently to have a lone sympathetic character in the story, but this also raises problems.

The first and most obvious is what on earth the sympathetic person is doing in the company of the others. Decent people rarely associate with awful people for the pragmatic reason that awful people try to drag everyone else down with them. There’s also the somewhat more subtle psychological fact that awful people rarely like decent people. And if they’re thrown together by being in the same family, this then requires an explanation of why on earth one turned out differently than the rest. (I think that having different mothers or different fathers is a semi-common solution to this problem, but it introduces real issues of judgment. There’s no judgment call more important than picking a good parent for your children.)

Getting back to the first point, there’s also the issue of creating overly obvious suspects. The wife and child of a rich man are the obvious suspects in a murder mystery under any conditions—the eternal question is cui bono? (Who benefits?) So in a sense making the family dysfunctional is shifting the question from “could it be them” to “is this a head-fake or a double-head-fake?” Which is a legitimate sort of mystery, but it is a bit limiting because it means the story almost certainly will focus on opportunity and alibis. I will grant, however, that it can be a good way of distracting from other people with motives—inheritors are not always the only people who benefit from a rich man’s death.

None of the above is meant to say that this situation cannot be made to work, only that it’s got some inherent difficulties that are often overlooked.

Gaudy Night

I recently finished re-reading Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. It is the second to last of her Lord Peter Wimsey novels and, in fiction at any rate, may reasonably be considered her magnum opus. (As a warning, this is not a review but just the jotting down of some thoughts. It is meant for those who have read the book or who don’t mind spoilers. If you’re neither person, you would be best advised to put his post down and go read Gaudy Night. As the standard joke runs: go do it now. I’ll wait.)

Reading Gaudy Night is always a mixed experience for me. On the one hand, it’s a a triumph of a book. It’s got some of the most vivid, living characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. It’s got an excellent plot which is excellent both as a mystery and as a story of the characters who are caught up in the mystery. It has an excellent setting. It is very well told. It has fascinating and important themes. It handles the long-running romance between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane with great skill and brings it to a very satisfying conclusion.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is related to why the atheistic children of atheists can’t tell good stories. This might sound strange to the people who know that Dorothy L. Sayers was a very well educated and intelligent Christian woman. There are better examples of it, but her book The Mind of the Maker, for example, is none the less a good example of the fact.

The problem is that there are limits to how good a story even a Christian can tell with atheistic characters. The atheistic child of atheists is far more limited because he simply has no good stories to tell. Atheism is the supposition that life is not, in fact, a narrative, but merely a meaningless set of coincidences. Such a person can suspend his disbelief, but he will simply have nothing to suspend it for. His parents will not have told him any really human stories, and being an atheist himself he will not have encountered them, either.

A different, but related, problem faces the Christian who is writing a story entirely about atheists. It is that all good stories must flow out of the characters in them. Characters who do not generate the story but to whom the story simply happens are not characters but mere props, possibly of the seen characters and possibly of unseen characters. And the most you can get out of atheistic characters is seeing the problems of life.

Atheists cannot have answers to any of the problems of life for the very simple reason that atheism does not allow for the possibility of meaning in life. (They will whine to you about “the meaning they give their life”. It is nothing but awkward when an adult tells you about the games of pretend they like to play. I mean that literally, by the way. The meaning an atheist chooses to give to life exists only in his mind and goes away as soon as he stops creating it. This is no different than pretending to ride a giant seagull named Harry.)

All themes raised in a book with only atheistic characters—or where the only non-atheists are fools—can thus never say anything about the themes it brings up except to point out that some false answer or other is not true. This can be valuable but it cannot be satisfying. It’s going to dinner and being told that the ham is poisoned. It’s good to know. One leaves just as hungry as one came, though.

One of the great themes of Gaudy Night is that principles hurt people. But it leaves unexplored—or only implicitly explored—that a lack of principles hurt people even more. And, more to the point, that it is only principles that make living worthwhile in the first place.

For example, when Annie was complaining that the lie her historian husband had told never hurt anyone, no one pointed out to her that the only reason he had even had his job in the first place was because he was trusted to tell the truth. If they were to abandon the principle that the truth mattered, he’d have lost his job, instead of by being the wrong man for the job, but by there being no job at all.

Instead they talked of how the truth is important than personal attachments. And so it is; anyone who loves father and mother more than Christ is not worthy of him. But this is a Christian idea—as is, really, the university. I don’t mean that students coming to wise men to learn is Christian—one obviously finds that throughout time and place. Rather, the idea that all of the truth is sacred is a uniquely Christian attitude. You simply don’t find it outside of Christianity; everyone else takes the far more reasonable position that there are big truths and little truths and the latter are inconsequential compared to the former. Most people hold that here’s one truth of overriding importance and everything else should give way beside it. It is not truth that Christianity elevated. To love some truth is simply to be human. It is the elevation of little truths that is uniquely Christian. Christianity is unique among the religions and philosophies of the world for raising up the lowly. All sane men agree that life is a hierarchy; the unique contribution of Christianity is not that the lower should serve the higher, but the higher should also stoop down to serve the lower. The very strange thing about Christianity is that the son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

And this is what is uniquely Christian about a university. It is the attitude that facts which don’t matter, do matter. Which is why in our own time the universities are disintegrating before our eyes. Some take refuge in engineering; others take refuge in pretending that their incredibly minor disciplines are central to life. Most are simply taking advantage of the shade while the building is still standing. But anyone with eyes can see that the thing won’t be standing for many more decades.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ time the conclusion was not yet so obvious, but the problem was certainly visible. The thing which prevents Gaudy Night from being a completely triumph is that, in the end, no one answered Annie. They didn’t answer Annie because no one had an answer. They didn’t have an answer for her because they didn’t have an answer for anyone. Atheists have no answers. It’s why they always feel so daring when they ask questions. They know, on some level, that merely asking questions will take a sledgehammer to the foundations and it will be discovered that the whole edifice is painted cardboard.

In the end, I think it’s very symbolic that the problem was dealt with “medically”. They had no arguments, they had only force. But they didn’t even have the courage of their convictions to use the force; they had to pay someone else who would soothingly pretend that they weren’t using force.

In a sense this conclusion was merely true to life. The events of the story take place in its year of publication: 1935. World War II was four short years off, but you could hear it coming in Gaudy Night. The project of living a Christian life without being Christian was coming to a close. Which ultimately makes Gaudy Night a book about failure. It’s a very good book, and a very important book. But this limits it. Failure is, in this world, only a prelude. The true story of life is, ultimately, about victory.


If you like Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, consider checking out my own murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

Outraged Detectives

I’ve been watching the British detective show Death in Paradise. It’s about a British detective who is assigned for a few years to the fiction Caribbean island, Sante Marie. It’s a great premise in that it involves beautiful people with beautiful accents investigating murders in beautiful places, so there’s very little to not like.

Due to the difficulties of the shooting schedule (the actors have to live in Guadalupe for 6 months out of the year), they’re currently on their third detective. It’s made for an interesting study in character since the setting and formula (and many of the supporting characters) are the same.

So far my favorite detective has been the third, Jack Mooney, who’s an Irishman. Granted, I’m something of a sucker for anyone who will talk about God sincerely, but somewhat apart from that he had a very friendly, jovial style. The first detective was serious but detached. The second was bumbling and clueless and solved mysteries largely as an intellectual exercise. The third started off as more grounded. He was a widower with a teenage daughter whose faith in God let him weather all storms.

But unfortunately TV writers—who are mostly miserable wretches, from what I gather—can’t really write happy characters. The effort at pretending to be healthy is too much for them, I suppose. Anyway, they shipped his daughter off to university and gave him angst over it. Worse, they’ve significantly toned down his joviality. And what’s really disappointing me is that they’ve starting having him scold the murderers.

Outraged detectives are fairly common, but I’ve never seen an instance of it which didn’t strike me as a mistake. I think that it originates in the idea of trying to write realistic characters, but it’s doing so about the wrong thing.

Consulting detectives—whether independent or technically on the police force—are extremely unrealistic. Murders which are caught are almost never clever, either in their commission or afterwards. For all we know there are brilliant murders carried out that are never detected, but they are never detected. Murder mysteries as a genre invents a combination of the two which simply doesn’t happen, and moreover makes it common enough for someone to specialize in it. This is fundamentally unrealistic.

The other thing is the real-life context: people read murder mysteries for fun. The main detective being outraged at the murderer—without whom the reader would not have had several hundred pages of fun—is simply not pleasant. It’s effectively scolding the reader for enjoying the book. Or in the example I started with, for having enjoyed watching the TV episode. Now, there are all types of people in this world. There are people who pay others to insult them while they do calisthenics; I assume that there are people who want to be lectured about how they shouldn’t have enjoyed the book they just read. That said, I think the world would be a better place if this were an under-served market.

The Unpleasantness At the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers

Following my reviews of Whose Body?, Clouds of Witness, and Unnatural Death, I re-read the fourth Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. This time old General Fentiman is discovered dead in his high backed chair in the smoking room of the gentleman’s club called the Bellona Club. I believe that “Bellona” comes from the Latin root bellum, meaning war, as all the members seem to have been in the army and served in some war or other.

Old General Fentiman’s death would have been remarkable only for life imitating art—there were (apparently) plenty of jokes at the time about someone dying in a gentleman’s club and no one noticing because of the rules against disturbing other members—except for the very curious circumstance that his aged sister had died at about the same time and the terms of her will left her fortune to her brother only if he was alive at the time of her decease; should she have outlived him her fortune was to go to a distant relative to lived with her. The general’s family solicitor happens to be the same Mr. Murbles who is the family solicitor of the Wimseys, and he asks Lord Peter to investigate to see if a definite time of death can be established for the old man.

The mystery takes a few twists and perhaps the same number of turns and introduces a new friend of Lord Peter—the sculptor Marjorie Phelps—who we’ll meet again in Strong Poison. It’s a bit less conventional than the first three Lord Peter mysteries, but I recommend The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. An exploration of English upper class society in the 1920s is always interesting. Incidentally, the title is partially a reference to this—people keep referring to the old General’s death as “unpleasant” or “the unpleasantness” so often Lord Peter starts remarking on it. It’s a decent mystery, and though not one of Sayers’ best, it’s quite enjoyable.


If you like murder mysteries and especially if you like Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey stories, you might like murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

tddowb


(If you haven’t read the story and don’t want spoilers, stop reading here.)

(In what follows, I discuss the structure and execution of The  Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club with the purpose of learning from it because it is a good story. Everything I say should be understood as an attempt to learn from a master mystery writer. Criticism should in no way be taken as disparagement, as I dearly love the Lord Peter stories.)

The first and most curious thing to note about The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is that it is really two (connected) stories. The first half of the book is the story of trying to figure out when old General Fentiman died. The second half is trying to figure out who murdered him. This is an interesting choice in that the first half of the book feels less important than it really is. It also has the effect of shifting who the important characters are halfway through the book. In the beginning it was Major Fentiman and the mysterious Oliver. Well, the somewhat mysterious Oliver. He’s not really a very plausible character on one’s first read through the book, and I think it’s nearly impossible to suspend one’s disbelief about him on subsequent read-throughs. It doesn’t help that Lord Peter doesn’t believe in Oliver either. On the other hand, this does give the book a twist, and it gives the characters a chance to act in ways they might not have had murder been suspected from the beginning.

Now, this sort of twist can be done in one of two main ways:

  1. The solution to the early mystery is provided by solving the murder.
  2. The solution to the early mystery leads us to the mystery of the murder.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is a variant of #2. Technically the early mystery (when General Fentiman died) is solved shortly before the murder mystery is discovered, but Lord Peter has arranged things so that the exhumation of the body proceeds anyway and the murder is discovered. Upon consideration, this may actually be a third way for this twist to be done:

3. The sleuth investigates the early mystery as a pretext for investigating what he believes is a murder but can’t yet prove is.

Once it is discovered that General Fentiman was poisoned, it is revealed that Lord Peter expected it and wrangled the exhumation of the body specifically to prove it. I do wish that Lord Peter wasn’t quite so subtle about it, though, as the early investigation doesn’t feel connected to the murder investigation, at least on my first two readings. So when Inspector Charles Parker congratulates Wimsey on having handled the case masterfully, it feels a little un-earned.

Which brings up the subject I find very interesting of the good Inspector. This is the second to last book in which he plays a major role, and he only plays that roll in the second half of it. Since the early mystery about when old General Fentiman died was not a police matter, Parker had nothing to do with it. Now, one could chalk this up to the limitations of a police officer as a friend to a sleuth, but this need not be the case at all. Charles Parker was a good friend of Lord Peter; the two could have discussed Lord Peter’s case over cigars and wine at Lord Peter’s apartment. And yet Sayers didn’t do that. And in the very next book we get introduced to Harriet Vane, with whom Lord Peter falls instantly in love. (In fact, I believe he fell in love with her prior to the first page of Strong Poison.) I can’t help but wonder if Sayers tired of Charles Parker, or simply felt he was deficient as a foil for Lord Peter. In any event, he had given her good service and she in turn gave him a good retirement—he would be promoted to Chief Inspector and marry Lady Mary Wimsey.

I think that part of the problem with Charles Parker was that Sayers never really let him become interesting. She gave him a trait which had the potential to be very interesting, but didn’t commit to it. I mean, specifically, that he read theology in his spare time. So far, so good. The problem is that he didn’t seem to learn anything from it. He never talked about it—even when it would be relevant. I don’t think that Sayers would have had any difficulty in writing such a character since she was a religious and well educated woman. Yet still, she didn’t. For whatever reason she seemed most fond, and most comfortable, with writing non-religious or even irreligious characters. At least intelligent ones. She had no real trouble with the middling or unintelligent religious characters. The one exception I can think of being a priest in Unnatural Death. He was very well done, though he only appeared for a page or two.

Of course, the lesson seems to be a rather obvious one: always commit to your characters. Whatever their traits, commit. And if you can’t commit to a character, pick a different character.

Speaking of characters, like Clouds of Witness, there’s an extremely unpleasant character in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Which, I suppose, does at least fit in with the title. I’m speaking, of course, of Captain George Fentiman. I suppose that he was to some degree a commentary on World War I, but I found the constant fighting with his wife—and nearly everyone else—was wearying.

I don’t mean to suggest that such an unpleasant character serves no purpose, however. Captain George was a suspect, and so his aggressiveness and anger do serve to cast suspicion upon him. For that matter, Farmer Grimmethorpe was a minor suspect in Clouds of Witness. But in neither case were they really developed as suspects. Grimethorpe was given a good alibi, and in any event he would have been far more of a suspect had the victim been beaten to death, not shot at close quarters. Simlarly, Captain George would have been far more of a suspect had old General Fentiman been, well, shot at close quarters, not poisoned.

Further, Captain George pretty clearly had no opportunity to murder old General Fentiman. It is hardly plausible that he kept a fatal dose of digitalin on hand should he happen to run into his grandfather on the street in a place he would never have expected to meet him and to then somehow talk the old man into taking it in a place (a taxi cab) where it is most unnatural to eat or drink anything.

I think that when it comes to lessons for writing murder mysteries, if one is going to give a character traits which make them unpleasant to read about, it is best to make them a highly credible suspect. This can also make some tension where the detective would be only too happy for the unpleasant character to be the murderer, which makes them second guess evidence against the character because they are worried about confirmation bias. It can also serve to make the detective more virtuous when he exonerates someone he has come to dislike. At the same time this can become a trap of making a suspect too obvious so that he isn’t suspected; which can make for a good twist where the unpleasant, angry man did actually commit the murder.

(Incidentally, a complication one doesn’t see too often is an accessory after the fact who is the brains of the operation. One sees often enough an angry man who does the brutal work collaborating with an intelligent man who designs the murder for him, but an intelligent accomplice who enters only to clean the murder up is, I think, uncommon.)

When it comes to the murder in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, I’m not sure what to make of it. It is established very early that the old general went to Dr. Penberthy shortly before he died, and therefore that Dr. Penberthy had basketfuls of opportunity to poison him. And of course as a doctor he had ample access to digitalin. The only thing he lacked was a motive. And the motive he had was comprehensible enough, though it does feel rather a lot like coincidence. Granted, an explanation is given, though it’s one that’s guessed at. Being old General Fentiman’s doctor, he heard about the family quarrel that would result in Lady Dormer’s money going to Ann Dorland, and so he made her acquaintance and seduced her. But this is still a bit far fetched since the old man never spoke of his sister and I don’t see why he’d take the doctor into his confidence on a matter too painful for him to ever speak of. Especially since he blamed his sister and didn’t feel any guilt he needed to try to rid himself of.

Granted, it’s often a good idea for the murderer to be connected to the deceased in a manner that is not generally suspected. Still, Penberthy just never felt like he was enough of a character to me to justify the secret engagement. I think it’s that he never showed up except in his official capacity as a doctor. This puts him in the same class a butlers and other servants; one fails to suspect him not because one is misled by a clever disguise but because one knows nothing about the character at all, and as mysteries go, everyone whom one knows nothing about is interchangeable.

The obvious exception to the above is where one learns about the culprit under a different identity, learning more and more, until one starts to suspect the service characters of being the other identity. I’m talking about plots where long lost cousin Ernesto, who will inherit, took a job as the butler (having shaved his famous mustaches) in order to poison his wealthy relative and intends to inherit from afar and fire the domestic staff so that they won’t recognize him when he takes possession. That sort of thing is tricky, but can be made to work. Agatha Christie did it well in Murder in Mesopotamia. Chesterton also did it well in The Sins of Prince Saradine, though a short story has different rules than a novel does.

This does not apply to Penberthy, though, since he is revealed to have been Ann Dorland’s fiance on the same page that it was revealed that she had a fiance.

I’m also a bit dissatisfied with Ann Dorland’s appearance at Marjorie Phelp’s apartment. When Lord Peter asked Marjorie about Ann, she barely knew the girl. That makes Marjorie a strange confidant to fly to when Ann thinks she’s about to be accused of murder.

On the other hand, Ann Dorland is a pleasingly interesting character. Intelligent but innocent, we meet her in the position of having made many mistakes but is able to learn from them quickly with a bit of guidance. Her likability redeems many of the circumstances surrounding how we meet her and I think ultimately pulls the story together. In that last part it’s especially important to notice that the character, though largely a plot point in the beginning of the story, becomes a real character with real personality in the end. There’s a good lesson in that, which is to make sure to give even minor characters their own personality. It doesn’t have to be a lot, and more importantly it doesn’t even have to be at he beginning. One shouldn’t push that too far, but when the reader learns about a character’s personality, their memory fills it in for them earlier in the book, too. (It is important that the author know who the character is early on, though, so that the character is consistent when he is finally developed.)

And in the book we come once again to the murder committing suicide rather than facing justice. It’s not really the suicide that I dislike so much, but the way that Lord Peter approves of it and worse, helps it happen. Granted, Lord Peter isn’t Christian and so it’s not out of character for him, but I don’t like having my nose rubbed in how he isn’t Christian. I suspect that’s what really gets me about it. It’s one thing to enjoy the virtues which pagans have, but it’s quite another to have to look at their vices.

Lord Peter Wimsey is Very Rich

Lord Peter Wimsey has many things of dubious realism going for him, but the one which concerns me at the moment is his great wealth. Sayers never explicitly says just how wealthy Lord Peter is, but there’s no indication made that considerations of expense ever stop him from doing, well, anything. From a reader’s perspective, his wealthy is effectively unlimited, though it is generally used with restraint. Lord Peter never buys an apartment building or a cruise ship for the sake of a plot, say.

There are two aspects to Lord Peter’s wealth which concern me at the moment, and both of them are related to the writing of detective fiction. There’s no obvious order to address them in, so I’ll start with his wealth. Since his wealth is kept within limits, it’s not unrealistic in a science-fiction sort of sense, and it is somewhat justified by Lord Peter’s being a member of the aristocracy—a Duke’s son, in fact. That said, this is England at a time when the aristocracy was disappearing as it lost its money after having lost its justification for existing with the rise of the professional army. Hints are occasionally dropped, therefore, that Lord Peter used a smaller amount of money he had as a Duke’s son to invest and build much greater wealth.

This is of course possible, though it conflicts somewhat with Lord Peter’s experience of the Great War as a young man and his long recovery afterwards. Further, businessmen are often busy; work does not do itself or we’d all be rich.

However, here we come to the big question about realism: what is realism for, in fiction? After all, if we wanted complete realism we’d put down our book and live our own life. There is nothing more authentically real than that. And further, murder mysteries are almost inherently unrealistic. Almost none of the crimes which are found out have any planning behind them. Intelligent, hard-working people almost always have better things to do that to murder friends and relatives. I say almost, because this is not always true. I’ve read that back during its glory days, poisoning people was almost the imperial sport of Rome. But in modern times, murders are almost always either acts of passion, acts associated with organized crime, or possibly (since we don’t know) simply undetected. If anyone does plot complicated murders, they almost always get away with it.

So having a consulting detective at all is fairly unrealistic. Having him be very rich and investigate mysteries because he’s eccentric is no more unrealistic—it’s just unrealistic in a different way. For the most part no one cares that consulting detectives are unrealistic because if you didn’t simply ignore that unrealism, you wouldn’t have a mystery novel at all. Being rich is not so necessary, but it is a lot of fun. In fact, this is why Dorothy L. Sayers gave Lord Peter so much money (quoted from the Wikipedia page):

Lord Peter’s large income… I deliberately gave him… After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it. I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes. It relieves the mind and does no harm to anybody.

And Lord Peter’s wealth is not fun only for the authoress, it’s fun for the reader, too. While certainly not necessary for detectives in general, it is necessary for the character of Lord Peter, and I think that is sufficient justification for it.

(If it’s not clear, I have hang-ups about realism in fiction which I’m trying to reason through.)

And I think that this bears on the writing of fiction generally, and detective fiction specifically. Most of the fun comes from the unrealistic things which go into the making of the make-believe. But those are not themselves the fun; the fun consists in the realistic treatment of these unrealistic starting points. And this is where many people go wrong—instead of limiting the unrealistic elements to the premises of the story, they introduce further unrealistic elements into the plot, to rescue them from the difficult work they’ve set up for themselves. That in fact destroys the fun precisely because it is, in effect, undoing the premises. An unrealistic solution to unrealistic premises is in effect a rejection of those premises.

And I think that this is the key to finding other fun—having other characters who are unrealistic, but in compatible ways with the main unrealism. In such circumstances, comic relief often consists of an entirely realistic person trying to cope with all of the extraordinary things around them. But the key is that they have to be dealt with as extraordinary, not as unrealistic.

Anyway, just some thoughts for now, not at all settled.

The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers

I’ve been re-reading the Lord Peter Wimsey stories in order, and having recently finished Strong Poison (review of it and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club coming soon), the next book is The Five Red Herrings. Unfortunately, this is my least favorite of the Lord Peter novels, and forty pages into it, I’m doubting that I will finish it a second time. Which is very odd because I love Dorothy L. Sayers’ writing and I love Lord Peter Wimsey. But I just don’t like this book.

I did some serious consideration to try to figure out why, and I finally realized that none of the characters are described—or at least are not described for a long time. The first real description of anyone we get is when Lord Peter draws up a list of suspects, and notes some physical characteristics about them. They still don’t have personalities at that point, and physical description in a dry list is just hard to remember.

Actually, what I said above is not quite true. We do get a fairly length description of the murder victim, Campbell, for the first two chapters. Unfortunately, he’s so unpleasant a character that I feel downright grateful to the murderer for putting an end to Campbell so I no longer have to read about the wretch. Instead of being intrigued by Lord Peter’s detection that the death was not an accident, I felt annoyed. If it was a murder, the murderer did the world a favor. Lord Peter should have left well enough alone.

In fact, that could have made the book more interesting if Lord Peter actually grappled with his detection and how much rather he’d not have done it. But of course, that brings up a problem with Lord Peter not being Christian, and so couldn’t really come up with any sort of reason for the world not being better off without Campbell.

Anyway, the non-descriptness of the book continues for quite some time, at least. It apparently was written for friends as being a time-table mystery, and it feels in many ways like an extremely extended logic puzzle rather than a story proper. If the name isn’t familiar, I mean the list of clues together with a table, like this:

logicpuzzle

I used to love doing logic problems, especially with my Aunt who would buy the magazines with them in duplicate so we could each have one as we worked them together. The Five Red Herrings is like this, except with the clues going on for hundreds of pages and (spoiler alert:) some of the clues turn out to be wrong anyway.

A contemporary review somewhat sums this up:

The first edition was reviewed in The Spectator of 1931 by MI Cole. He found the impregnable alibis of the rather indistinguishable artist suspects, and the elaborate examination of timetables, ticket punches and so on, to be really taxing to the intelligence. Lord Peter Wimsey and the author’s usual pleasant fantasies have retired into the background leaving a “pure-puzzle” book which is disappointing, dry, and dull. He acknowledged, however, that it has been appreciated immensely by puzzle fanatics who possess “the type of mind that goes on solving crossword puzzles for ever and ever”.

There are bits and pieces of Lord Peter’s personality which come through, but not very much or often. If you’re buying this in an Lord Peter omnibus, then by all means give it a try in case you like it better than I did. Otherwise I’d strongly recommend re-reading one of the other Lord Peter stories instead.

I should add, though, that The Five Red Herrings is a great title for a murder mystery.


If you like mystery novels, and especially Lord Peter Wimsey novels (with interesting characters who are described), you might like my murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

tddowb

Review: Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers

Unnatural Death is the third Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novel which Dorothy L. Sayers wrote, following Whose Body? and Clouds of Witness. We are still several books away from Sayers’ best work—the Harriet Vane trilogy—but Unnatural Death is still very good. It is a solid, though flawed, mystery filled with interesting characters which Sayers writes extremely well.

The premise of Unnatural Death is that Lord Peter and Inspector Parker accidentally make the acquaintance of a doctor in a restaurant. Their interest is piqued when he tells them the story of trouble he had because he insisted on a post-mortem (examination) for a woman with cancer who died suddenly, several months at least before the disease should have taken her. No cause of death was found in the post-mortem but Lord Peter suspects murder and sets out to prove it, as well as to figure out who murdered her and why.

Unnatural Death is very much worth the read and I do recommend it, though it does have its flaws. The biggest of these flaws is that much of the mystery hinges on the murder method, and once it is revealed it would not work as described. However, something similar, if far less practical, would work, so I think that the book can be forgiven on those grounds. The pacing is also somewhat off. Progress is made in the case and then stalls out in an unsatisfying way, only to plunge us into an almost breathless final act. Patience with this is rewarded with a satisfying ending, however. In short it is not one of Sayers’ masterpieces, but if one goes into it with the right expectations it is a very enjoyable mystery.


If you like murder mysteries and especially if you like Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey stories, you might like murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

tddowb


(If you haven’t read the story and don’t want spoilers, stop reading here.)

(In what follows, I discuss the structure and execution of Unnatural Death with the purpose of learning from it because it is a good story. Everything I say should be understood as an attempt to learn from a master mystery writer. Criticism should in no way be taken as disparagement, as I dearly love the Lord Peter stories.)

Sayers starts out Unnatural Death in a manner she would repeat more than once in her short stories: by not naming Lord Peter for quite some time. If I recall correctly, Lord Peter’s name isn’t mentioned until the end of Chapter 2. I’m not sure what the purpose of this is within Unnatural Death as it’s fairly obvious who the pair discussing crime in a restaurant are. It’s possible that it was just Sayers being playful. Also possible was that it was meant to tell the story partially from the perspective of the doctor. This approach I really can’t figure out. I’ve never liked it when Sayers did it, but evidently she did given how often she used it. I can’t help but wonder at the purpose.

The first mystery which Lord Peter needs to solve is the identity of the doctor and his patient. This is an interesting choice on Sayers’ part because it didn’t serve any large structural purpose in the plot; Lord Peter would have had to send Miss Climpson to visit Leahampton anyway, so it was not necessary in order to bring her into the story. This may serve simply for realism, then, as doctors tend to be reticent to give details of their patients to strangers.

And of course Unnatural Death introduces us to Miss Alexandra Katherine Climpson, whose most famous performance is probably in Strong Poison. She is a very interesting character both in herself and in her broader role. For various reasons, a great many of the early detectives in fiction were male, though quite often written by women. In fact three of my favorite detectives (Poirot, Lord Peter, and Brother Cadfael) are male detectives written by women. But however good the reasons were for most of the very early detectives being male, they were not essential. Women are inquisitive and social, but what hey tend to lack that the detective requires is free time. One obvious solution to this problem is age: old women have social skills sharpened over many decades and quite a lot of free time to go with them. And with this observation, we have Miss Climpson. (Lord Peter put it in a more in-character way, but I think you can see the wheels turning in the authoress’s head as he explains it.)

It’s also interesting to note that Miss Marple would first appear in a short story a year after Unnatural Death was published and would first appear in a novel two years after that. The characters are not particularly similar past both being old spinsters, but it would be interesting to know if there was any influence.

Miss Climpson represents a very interesting complementarity to Lord Peter. They are both clever with great skill at conversation, yet they engage in very different conversations. Both also command instant respect; Lord Peter because of his rank and Miss Climpson because of her age. They are also both experts at sizing people up in a few sentences, within their respective spheres.

On the other hand, she might be better considerd a counterpoint to Charles Parker. Both of them get saddled with the grunt work of things like looking up every death certificate in a county or every lawyer in a London neighborhood. They are both at the direction of Lord Peter, though Inspector Parker has some modest independence.

Putting them together, I think that Miss Climpson is something new. Looking over the various roles played by people in detective stories, the roles her’s bares some resemblance to are partner and subordinate who gets stuck with the gruntwork. Yet her role is neither of those; she might be best described as a sort of sub-contractor. It’s an interesting role.

Speaking of roles within a detective story, Inspector Charles Parker’s role stays much the same as it was in Clouds of Witness and Whose Body?, though it is slightly diminished because there is not an official crime as far as the police are concerned. And here we come to a bit of a limitation of Parker as a constant companion to Lord Peter. Being a policeman grants him all sorts of privileges and access Lord Peter would not have on his own, but it also comes with limitations. If Parker were more of an equal to Lord Peter intellectually, this would not be a problem as Parker could at least converse with Lord Peter about the problem. And to be fair, a bit of that does go on, but Parker simply doesn’t contribute much. His main contribution is to throw cold water on all of Lord Peter’s conjectures. And that’s not really long-term sustainable.

That said, most murder mysteries do feature a body, so it’s hardly an insurmountable obstacle for Inspector Parker as a companion to Lord Peter. Ultimately I suspect that he was replaced by Harriet Vane because she was simply a better fit.

Miss Climpson’s investigations prove very useful, though the downside to her mode of intelligence gathering being gossip means that one needs to read through a fair amount of gossip. Sayers does a good job of rendering it tolerable, but at least to me it was not the highlight of the book.

With the advertisement Lord Peter puts in or the Gotobed sisters and the subsequent murder of Bertha Gotobed, the plot shifts gears. What had started as a cold case mystery suddenly became an ongoing mystery. I have mixed feelings about ongoing mysteries, though I should note that they’re popular for good reason. They are, however, not nearly as calm as mysteries about crimes which are completed by the time the narrative begins. Much of that will come down to mood and temperament on the part of the reader. Having, as I do, three young children, I always appreciate calm since every day of real life is an adventure.

In this case the ongoing murders make good something Lord Peter says several times in the book—that murderers can cover up their tracks so excessively as to leave more clues than had they not covered their tracks. And indeed this happens here, with each murder (or attempt) getting progressively more daring and sloppy. This is very well for Lord Peter and Inspector Parker, who in the end do not have enough evidence to charge Miss Whittaker for her original crime.

Which brings up the issue of the method which Miss Whittaker used to kill her victims.  It is true that air bubble introduced in the blood stream can kill a person, but from everything I’ve heard and read they have to be very large bubbles. Small bubbles—I was once assured by a nurse—are no problem at all and simply dissolve away without causing any harm. The reason why one always sees doctors (in TV, anyway), holding syringe up and flicking it to get the air bubbles out has to do with accurate dosing, not with the bubbles themselves being a problem. Ultimately I don’t know the exact quantity of air which would be necessary to kill a person, but it’s large. This is not an insurmountable problem for a murderer, as one could ultimately hook up a bicycle pump to an IV. Such an apparatus would be a bit silly and take away some of the sinister element of a merely empty syringe, but it would be doable. One would tend to suspect that such a thing would be detectable by the large quantity of air to be found in the circulatory system, but Miss Whittaker did tend to kill people in ways where their body would not be examined for some time, and I suspect that between blood settling and gas absorption, it seems at least plausible that such a method of killing would be hard to spot unless it was looked for.

On the other hand, I can’t recall ever having heard of this method of killing people since, either in fiction or in reality, which suggests that it is not really a practicable method of killing people. Which, it must be noted, is just as well, since it’s good for people to be hard to kill without leaving a trace. Both for the sake of fiction and for the sake of reality.

The other curious element of Unnatural Death is the way that in the end, Miss Climpson is very nearly murdered. What’s particularly curious about this choice is that she is both put in danger by a series of coincidences and saved literally at the last moment also by coincidence. Had Wimsey and Parker been sixty seconds later in breaking into “Mrs. Forest’s” flat, Miss Climpson would have been dead. Given that they had no idea that Miss Climpson was in any danger, this is very fortunate indeed. But on the other hand, it was pure luck that Vera Findllater had confessed to a priest that she had lied for Mary Whittaker and moreover written down notes to her confession complete with an street name in London, and moreover had dropped the note in a place that Miss Climpson found because she had dropped something in the same place. And had this string of coincidences not been enough, she still would have been safe had she not spotted Mary Whittaker (dressed in her disguise as Mrs. Forest) on the street. And that would not have been sufficient had Miss Climpson had an unerring memory for backs.

I must confess that I’m very dubious about the claim that while faces may be confusing, backs are unmistakable even in disguise. I’ve mistaken enough strangers from the back that this just doesn’t seem plausible to me.

So, ultimately, what to make of this string of improbably coincidences culminating in a last-moment salvation from death? Sayers did make it work, but I don’t think that it’s something to emulate. Improbably coincidences are most at home in comedies and Greek tragedies. The events starting with the faked gang-attack are probably my least favorite part of the book, as they really feel like they’re part of a different story. They’re well written, of course, but when I re-read Unnatural Death I tend to read this part very quickly.

In the final act of the story, Mary Whittaker kills herself. This seems to happen fairly often in Lord Peter stories, and I’m really not sure what to make of it. It’s seems far more accepted than makes sense for a putatively Christian society, though really devout Christians seem pretty think on the ground among people of action in Lord Peter stories. I find this part very distasteful, though I’m not sure that there’s much to learn from it other than “don’t do it”. Dorothy L. Sayers was, from what I’ve read, a devout Christian, so I’ve really no idea what to make of suicide coming up so often and so little remarked upon. Perhaps Brittain of the 1920s was more pagan than is appreciated today.

Lucky Detectives

Within detective fiction, luck plays a very strange role. In traditional hero stories, luck should always favor the bad guy so that the good guy can win by the exercise of virtue. For this reason, luck helping an investigation is disappointing—it feels like cheating.

The problem in detective fiction, however, is that all clues which allow the detective to solve the mystery are pieces of luck because they are mistakes on the part of the murderer (or other culprit). A perfect murder simply couldn’t be solved.

Because of this the detective must be lucky, and the writer of the mystery has to figure out how to deal with this luck. I’ve seen it dealt with in a variety of ways, most of which work. Of the methods for dealing with this luck, I think that hanging a lampshade on it is probably the least satisfying. That’s usually of the form

Inspector Lieusew had no idea what made him think to stop and enter the ordinary-looking dry-cleaner’s shop, but later he was glad that he did.

Of course I’ve seen it done far more skillfully, as in Chesterton’s first (and excellent) Father Brown story, The Blue Cross:

He alighted at Liverpool Street, however, quite conscientiously secure that he had not missed the criminal so far. He then went to Scotland Yard to regularise his position and arrange for help in case of need; he then lit another cigarette and went for a long stroll in the streets of London. As he was walking in the streets and squares beyond Victoria, he paused suddenly and stood. It was a quaint, quiet square, very typical of London, full of an accidental stillness. The tall, flat houses round looked at once prosperous and uninhabited; the square of shrubbery in the centre looked as deserted as a green Pacific islet. One of the four sides was much higher than the rest, like a dais; and the line of this side was broken by one of London’s admirable accidents–a restaurant that looked as if it had strayed from Soho. It was an unreasonably attractive object, with dwarf plants in pots and long, striped blinds of lemon yellow and white. It stood specially high above the street, and in the usual patchwork way of London, a flight of steps from the street ran up to meet the front door almost as a fire-escape might run up to a first-floor window. Valentin stood and smoked in front of the yellow-white blinds and considered them long.

The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen. A few clouds in heaven do come together into the staring shape of one human eye. A tree does stand up in the landscape of a doubtful journey in the exact and elaborate shape of a note of interrogation. I have seen both these things myself within the last few days. Nelson does die in the instant of victory; and a man named Williams does quite accidentally murder a man named Williamson; it sounds like a sort of infanticide. In short, there is in life an element of elfin coincidence which people reckoning on the prosaic may perpetually miss. As it has been well expressed in the paradox of Poe, wisdom should reckon on the unforeseen.

Aristide Valentin was unfathomably French; and the French intelligence is intelligence specially and solely. He was not “a thinking machine”; for that is a brainless phrase of modern fatalism and materialism. A machine only is a machine because it cannot think. But he was a thinking man, and a plain man at the same time. All his wonderful successes, that looked like conjuring, had been gained by plodding logic, by clear and commonplace French thought. The French electrify the world not by starting any paradox, they electrify it by carrying out a truism. They carry a truism so far–as in the French Revolution. But exactly because Valentin understood reason, he understood the limits of reason. Only a man who knows nothing of motors talks of motoring without petrol; only a man who knows nothing of reason talks of reasoning without strong, undisputed first principles. Here he had no strong first principles. Flambeau had been missed at Harwich; and if he was in London at all, he might be anything from a tall tramp on Wimbledon Common to a tall toast-master at the Hotel Metropole. In such a naked state of nescience, Valentin had a view and a method of his own.

In such cases he reckoned on the unforeseen. In such cases, when he could not follow the train of the reasonable, he coldly and carefully followed the train of the unreasonable. Instead of going to the right places–banks, police stations, rendezvous– he systematically went to the wrong places; knocked at every empty house, turned down every cul de sac, went up every lane blocked with rubbish, went round every crescent that led him uselessly out of the way. He defended this crazy course quite logically. He said that if one had a clue this was the worst way; but if one had no clue at all it was the best, because there was just the chance that any oddity that caught the eye of the pursuer might be the same that had caught the eye of the pursued. Somewhere a man must begin, and it had better be just where another man might stop. Something about that flight of steps up to the shop, something about the quietude and quaintness of the restaurant, roused all the detective’s rare romantic fancy and made him resolve to strike at random. He went up the steps, and sitting down at a table by the window, asked for a cup of black coffee.

As a side now, if you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend that you do. (It’s available online. Like all Father Brown stories it’s a short story, so it won’t take long.)

This is probably the best that I’ve seen the lampshade-hanging done and because Chesterton is a master, it works. But it’s not entirely pure lampshade-hanging. It has elements of what I think is the best approach, which is to have the detective earn his luck. Of course, in a strict sense one can’t earn luck because luck comes from God and all that comes from God is grace. But one can, through work, make oneself a fit vessel for grace—that is, a vessel without leaks that will not spill the grace poured into it.  (That too is, of course, grace, but life and language is easier if one just recognizes at the outset that all is grace and what is not distinct need not be pointed out in every sentence.)

The detective can earn his luck by doing the hard work to be in the right place to receive the luck. He can ask many questions that eventually turn up a useful answer. He can look into many places to find something there.

But there is an opposite danger, too, which the writer must avoid. A detective story is not interesting if the detective merely grinds his way through every possible place to look for clues. There is the tedium of that, of course, but tedium is very easy to elide. It takes only a few words to say:

After seven weeks of fourteen hour days spent knocking on every door in a five mile radius, Detective Inspector Drumwalt at last found somebody who had seen Wolfgang Gruenwald on the night he was murdered.

The problem to be avoided is not tedium for the reader. It’s a lack of imagination on the part of the detective. There’s no fun in trying to match wits with someone who evidently doesn’t have any.

There is of course a traditional solution to that, too, which is an army of people to do the grunt work for the detective. One can see this in the way CSI labs and uniformed policemen are used if the detective is himself formally with the police, but you can also see it in Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars.

This of course must be used sparingly and only for initial clues; the detective ceases to be the detective if somebody else hands him the solution together with conclusive evidence. In mystery novels—which need twists and turns before the solution becomes obvious to the reader—the solution to the problems raised by this solution is often to make the clues turned up by grunt-work misleading. This can often serve double-duty by putting an innocent person under suspicion and thus raising the stakes.

A popular way to play with that, by the way, is to have the evidence planted by the culprit to intentionally mislead the investigators. A clever murderer will make the evidence require some work to get, playing on human nature’s inability to believe that hard work does not come with rewards.

One of the great things about mystery novels is that at this point—130 years after Sherlock Holmes and 90 years after the golden age—every possible solution to every problem in the genre has been done straight, as a fake-out, and as a faked-out-fake-out. If you’re at all familiar with detective fiction, there’s really no way to guess which way the writer is playing it this time based solely on the form of what’s happened so far.

Suppose a suspect has confessed. Well, perhaps it’s a false confession to shield someone else, but it might also be a true confession with enough lies in it that it will be taken as a false confession and so suspicion will be thrown elsewhere. At this point, the mere fact that someone has confessed doesn’t tell you anything about who did it. This keeps things surprisingly fresh.

In fact, about the only think that you can be sure of, at this point, is that the butler didn’t do it.


If you like my discussion of murder mysteries, you might like my murder mystery, The First Chronicle of Brother Thomas: The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

tddowb

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

Clouds of Witness is the second novel featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, following Whose Body?. While my general recommendation is to start with Strong Poison, as my favorite Lord Peter novels are the Harriet Vane quadrilogy, Clouds of Witness would also be a good place to start with Lord Peter Wimsey if you’re new to him.

Clouds of Witness is a good, solid armchair cozy. There is a dead body in the first chapter, at an English hunting lodge rented by the Duke of Denver (Lord Peter’s brother) and occupied by several friends. The Duke was the first to discover the body, and is put on trial for having been the one who put it there. The victim was engaged to the Duke’s sister, and he can give only a very unsatisfactory account of his whereabouts at the time of the murder. In fact, most everyone at the hunting lodge contradicts the story of everyone else there. It is from this tangled situation that the title comes: the whole situations is fogged by clouds of witness.

Clouds of Witness has everything you expect in a Lord Peter Wimsey story:  detection, reasoning, speculation, wit, engaging characters, and 1920s England. I highly recommend it.


If you like Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries even half as much as I do, then you might enjoy my murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

tddowb


(If you don’t want spoilers, stop reading here.)

Analysis

(This analysis is an attempt to learn from a master. Anything which may sound critical should be read in the spirit of being a close examination of an excellent novel.)

Clouds of Witness is very interesting both as a second novel about a detective and as a followup to Whose Body?. There’s a lot to talk about, but what stands out to me the most is the character of Inspector Charles Parker. As in Whose Body? he is both Lord Peter’s sidekick and his partner in detection. This is a curious choice as the requirements of sidekick are different and to some degree contradictory to those of a partner.

That’s not to say that such a thing is impossible to pull off. Sayers pulled it off in the character of Harriet Vane, for example. But it feels like she hasn’t quite gotten the balance right in Charles Parker; one can never quite be sure which he’s being in any given scene. And the difference was really in the personality of the characters themselves. Or perhaps it would be better put that the difference was in their skill sets.

Harriet Vane was a mystery writer and her strengths were aligned with this. She understood human behavior well, she was clever, imaginative, and had a great command of language. She was quite intelligent, though not the match of Lord Peter. But the advantage which he really had over her was in experience. Being older and richer, he had a far broader experience of humanity than Harriet did. It made for an extremely good pairing.

Charles Parker’s skills were far more similar to Wimsey’s. Wimsey was established as being more observant than Parker, but Parker was observant. Wimsey had a lot of experience of humanity, but Parker—as a policeman—had a great deal of experience of humanity as well. Wimsey was skilled at research, but Parker was also good at research and had the resources of Scotland Yard behind him. There’s nothing in this which is inherently a problem, but it doesn’t allow the character to be strong at times and weak at times. Watson—the character who needs things explained to him—can’t be played by an equal. It will simply feel wrong that he needs explanations—or it will feel wrong when he doesn’t.

Now, I don’t want to overstate what I mean, because there is a significant personality difference between Parker and Wimsey—Parker is more methodical and cautious, while Wimsey is more inclined to speculate and take up theories provisionally. This has the benefit of making Wimsey need to prove his steps—to Parker, if not to himself—which helps to move the investigation along in a more orderly way which is easier for the reader to follow.

Above and beyond this, though, I suspect that Sayers became a bit surprised by Charles Parker. Especially in Whose Body? but continued in Clouds of Witness, it feels like his original purpose was to be an assistant to Lord Peter. Every writer of an amateur detective has the fundamental problem of why on earth the detective is permitted to go where he goes and do what he does. For much of the detection there can be trade-offs, because the amateur is not restricted by rules of evidence in the way the police are. But there are some places the detective really needs to go which are hard to explain. Viewing the body and scene of the murder being two of them.

There are a variety of solutions to this problem, but the author does need to solve it for the mystery to have any plausibility. And a friend in the police force who is in charge of the case does solve this problem very handily. And while in a certain (very limited) sense this is cheating, I suspect most readers don’t care because what they want to read is detection, not a spy thriller in a deerstalker hat. I know that, as a reader, I’m quite forgiving of improbable though logically possible things which let me get to the good parts.

And this felt like the role that Charles Parker was meant to fulfill. He had many of the requisite attributes—other than being a police inspector, I mean. He looked up to Lord Peter as a genius, thought Lord Peter highly likely to catch clues which he himself missed, and even told Wimsey about his cases.

But then a curious thing happened—Parker also turned out to be a close friend of Wimsey’s. This introduced a tension which built over the course of the novels: brilliant, well educated men don’t have dumb friends. And Parker wasn’t a dumb man. But the more intelligent Parker becomes, the less need he has of Lord Peter.

I want to say that Clouds of Witness was the high-water mark for Charles Parker, but I’m not sure why I want to say that because it’s not true, or at best true from a very narrow perspective. He features very prominently in the next book—Unnatural Death—in fact he’s on the very first page. But then a decent chunk of the book is about a detective in the employ of Lord Peter—Miss Climpson—rather than about Parker or Lord Peter.

After Unnatural Death comes The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, which also features Charles Parker heavily, but only in (roughly) the second half. Then comes Strong Poison, which is the last novel in which he really features heavily. He’s all but not in The Five Red Herrings and Have His Carcass. He is somewhat more present in Murder Must Advertise, then has a small role in The Nine Tailors. He isn’t in Gaudy Night and is only mentioned briefly in Busman’s Honeymoon.

So while Inspector Parker does have a fairly long run, he peters out in the end. I can’t help but wonder if his role as the official access-granter prevented the further development of his role as friend. The problem with being an access-granter is that he can’t be everywhere. A friend might visit a friend anywhere, but a police inspector would not have jurisdiction throughout the entire country and be assigned every interesting case throughout the country. It’s only a speculation, of course, but it’s something to think about in the construction of friends and assistants for a detective.

Setting aside the question of Charles Parker, the construction of Clouds of Witness is very interesting too. It begins with a brief connection to the previous novel, then jumps into a long recital of the facts of the case by way of a transcription of the inquest over the murder victim. This is an interesting approach to handling the exposition necessary in a mystery. Though it should be noted that mysteries have an enormous advantage over most other genres when it comes to exposition since at least some of the characters in a mystery don’t know what happened and want to know. So straight-up information dumps are often in-character.

But the same is true of a British inquest, at least as presented in Lord Peter novels, and that’s the device Sayers used. And I have to say that it was pretty efficient at communicating the setup in detail. Though not very quickly; it did drag on a little. It felt like we could have used a little more investment into the story before that many pages of facts delivered in rapid succession. Still, it is an interesting approach. In America we don’t have inquests, but we do have the grand jury which serves a similar function. Unfortunately, our grand juries our secret (I believe to protect the innocent in case the grand jury returns the verdict that there is not enough evidence to bring a trial). Probably the closest American version of this would be to have a trial end in a hung jury and a new trial scheduled. (Though Sayers had that option, too, in British courts and took advantage of it in Strong Poison.)

It is also interesting that given us all of the principle evidence, Lord Peter still has detection to do when he arrives. This is arranged in two stages because Inspector Parker has already done some of the investigation, but only after the local police have bungled the initial investigation, leading to the Duke of Denver being charged. This sequence of events sets up the main jeopardy of the story—the Duke’s life—while still putting the Parker and Wimsey in charge.

This also respects an observation of Chesterton’s (in The Mirror of the Magistrate):

“Ours is the only trade,” said Bagshaw [a police detective], “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.

By the arrangement of the local police bungling and Scotland Yard swooping in to help, the professional is given some of his due. It certainly is in keeping with the elements of realism Sayers weaves in to the Lord Peter stories. (Which, it must be said, form a counterpoint to Lord Peter himself, and keep him grounded.)

Parker and Wimsey of course find a number of clues which the local police overlooked, which is simply necessary to the story being a detective story at all. Their hottest clue is the footprints of Mary’s second fiance, Goyles, who wears a number 10 shoe, but I find it hard to be as enthusiastic as Lord Peter and Mr. Parker in their hunt for the fellow. It’s just not very plausible that a stranger came from far away to kill Cathcart whom he expected to find outside using the Duke of Denver’s revolver.

To some degree this must be chalked up to the eagerness of Lord Peter and Inspector Parker to exonerate the Duke of Denver, but I think it would have felt better if they were pursuing the owner of the number 10 shoes as an important witness since that was the overwhelming likelihood of what he was.

These investigations bring Lord Peter to meet Mr. and Mrs. Grimmethorpe of Grider’s Hole. Mr. Grimmethorpe is a curious character. He is a man so consumed by jealousy that he has become almost pure rage. I’ve always found him an intensely unpleasant character, though that is the point of him. And I suspect that he is actually realistic, given how often jealousy has led to murder.

I suspect that my dislike of the character is because he is a little out of place in an armchair cozy mystery. He is certainly not cozy. And he is important to the plot. He’s not quite central, but at the same time he’s not far from the center of the mystery and is at least tangentially related to (perhaps) half the plot. Given his relevance to the mystery, it would have been very difficult for him to be less involved in the plot. But there’s another reason why he had to show up once again towards the end, and it relates to the fundamental structure of murder mysteries.

A murder mystery is the story of a man who distorts the natural order by the wrong use of reason, put right by the detective’s right use of reason. It is the salvation of the world, in the manner of a medieval miniature. At the end of every good murder mystery, then, what is wrong must be put right. And Mr. Grimmethorpe of Grider’s Hole is very wrong. The book cannot end with him continuing to be the monster that he is, and it doesn’t. In the end he is killed trying to kill the Duke of Denver. (Or possibly Mrs. Grimmethorpe; I’ve read the passage several times and still can’t figure out exactly what happened.) There is not really any other possible outcome given the constraints of the situation.

Though it must be said that Mrs. Grimmethorpe is not right either. She has committed adultery. And indeed, so has the Duke. I find it odd how much this is passed over as inconsequential. Its only real significance seems to be that the Duke won’t say where he was when Cathcart was killed. Neither repents in any way of their sin; they basically simply agree to forget about it. Which is a resolution of sorts, but a very cheap resolution that is not really fitting. But leaving that aside, it’s rather strange just how cavalier everyone else is about the Duke having committed adultery. The characters all seem to think it inconsequential that he adulterates he marriage, and completely inconsequential whether news of his infidelity reaches his wife. No one seems to think any less of him for it.

I don’t know what to make of it. Perhaps it was plausible at the time. The 1920s is known as a very immoral time—a reaction against the stricter Victorian era, which was itself a reaction against the more morally lax Georgian period. (Clouds of Witness was published in 1926.) And that itself was a reaction against the era which came before it. And moreover every era is a combination of many threads; people are never uniform. (Also, curiously, the greatest saints tend to show up during the generally worst times.)

The conclusion of the mystery is also interesting, where Lord Peter tracks down Cathcart’s former lover in America then has a harrowing and dangerous trans-Atlantic flight to bring the evidence back to the trial. The audacity of this flight is, I think, lost on modern people who can safely travel the Atlantic in a jet which cruises several miles above the clouds for $100 per seat (one way, on a really good sale). As I mentioned, Clouds of Witness was published in 1926. The first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight was made in 1919 (and of the three teams making the attempt on the same day, two didn’t make it across). Charles Lindbergh had not yet become the first to cross the Atlantic solo—he would do that the next year in 1927. In 1926 going between New York and London by airplane was only just slightly more realistic than science fiction. It’s a curious thing to stick into a detective story. Consulting detectives are already quite unrealistic, though, so perhaps it does go together.

The one part of Clouds of Witness which I think was a mistake in what was otherwise an excellent book is the very end, where Inspector Sugg finds Lord Peter and Inspector Parker slobbering drunk—one comatose, the other talking with a statue. It’s not that I disapprove of drunkenness—I do, but that’s not my issue here—since after all saving the life of one’s brother after nearly dying excuses a lot. It’s that it’s very out of character for Lord Peter to want to lose himself in the manner that one loses himself in drunkenness. And if it’s out of character for Lord Peter, it’s even more out of character for Charles Parker. I suspect that it was meant as a comedic note to end on. Another possibility is that it was meant to humanize Lord Peter and make him more relatable. I don’t think it really does either. It would have felt far more in character if Lord Peter took Parker out to an opera or even if Parker invited Lord Peter to go with him to church and after all of the emotional exhaustion, Lord Peter went with him. (Of the two, the opera would be more likely.) Or even brought Parker to his flat and played music and sang into the wee hours of the night. And even if Lord Peter got drunk, Parker really shouldn’t have. A moment of sober conversation between Parker and Sugg over the drunk Lord Peter would have been more interesting than Sugg calling Peter and Parker a cab.

Acquiring Murder Weapons

Much of what drives the plot of a murder mystery are the problems with a murderer who wishes to avoid capture has to solve. In no particular order, the big ones are:

  • Finding an opportunity to commit the murder
  • Planning how to commit the murder
  • Acquiring the tools necessary for the murder
  • Committing the murder without (living) witnesses
  • If possible, having an alibi for the time of the murder
  • Disposing of the murder weapon
  • Disposing of the corpse (I’m including making it look like accident/suicide here)

(Some of these problems are really alternatives to each other; for example if one has an alibi for the time of the murder, one doesn’t need to bother with disposing of the body. If one can acquire the murder weapon in an untraceable way, one can leave it next to the corpse with a label “murder weapon” helpfully attached to it. Etc.)

In writing a murder mystery, these are the questions the writer needs to answer and—at least the way I work—before writing the actual mystery. Actually, let me back up for a second and explain by way of my theory of murder mysteries:

A murder mysteries is actually two stories: a drama told backwards, and a detective story told forwards.

I think it’s fine to write a murder mystery by the seat of one’s pants as long as it’s only the detective story one is “pantsing”. If you’ve written the drama (the murderer’s story) ahead of time, you can’t get into too much of a mess with the detective story. Where people go wrong is in not having first figured out the drama in its natural order so that they can gradually tell it backwards. (NOTE: there will be people who can successfully write murder mysteries in a completely different way. I’m not trying to lay down laws everyone must follow.)

That’s what I mean by needing to figure out the murderer’s solution to his intrinsic problems first. Once you’ve figured out how the murderer has planned his murder, you can then work out how the murder actually happened, at which point you now have a coherent story for the detective to detect. I find this order of doing things very helpful for two main reasons:

  1. This mirrors reality; it’s the order in which murders actually do happen. This means that there’s precedent for it being a workable system.
  2. One has complete freedom for the first decisions one makes. And it’s in the murder itself where plot holds are the most damaging to a murder mystery. Thus starting here gives one the fewest temptations to try to hide a plot hole in order to preserve what’s already been done.

This also lets you decide ahead of time, in a coherent way, what mistakes the murderer made (i.e. what evidence they left), so that you know where to direct your detective to look.

Types of Murder Weapons

So, the question I want to consider is how the murderer acquires the murder weapon. There are several categories which each have their advantages and their shortcomings:

  1. Ready to hand
  2. Store-bought
  3. Home-made

A ready-to-hand murder weapon, such as a kitchen knife used to murder someone in the kitchen, has the benefit of being untraceable, since there is an obvious explanation for what the kitchen knife was doing there. The downside is that such things are unreliable and so unlikely to be in a planned murder. (Of course, one can always abscond with the knife beforehand then bring it so that it looks like it was snatched up in the heat of the moment.) Ready-to-hand weapons are also very likely to be simple—knives, pokers, hammers, etc. People very rarely leave loaded guns, crossbows and bolts, etc. lying about. This means that ready-to-hand weapons will require one to get very close to the victim and use a great deal of physical force. This eliminates squeamish murderers. And most modern people are pretty squeamish.

A store-bought murder weapon is likely to be in good working order and quite possibly useful for killing at a distance and without much force. The downside is that they are—at least in theory—traceable. Guns, crossbows, etc. have serial numbers. Shop keepers have memories and many big box stores have comprehensive video surveillance. Acquiring these things in an untraceable way can be done, but it takes far more work and premeditation, since the best bet here will be to buy them on the secondary market, in cash, months or better yet years before the murder. This requires a very patient—or lucky—murderer.

Home-made murder weapons offer a good compromise between ready-to-hand and store-bought. Building supplies like plywood, hinges, rubber bands, and so on are basically untraceable. And there are a ton of very deadly weapons one could very realistically make. If you don’t believe me, just watch a few episodes of The Slingshot Channel. The downside here is that one requires a fairly competent murderer with at least a few tools. The problem this introduces is one of personality: people who are patient and good at problem solving just don’t seem like the murdering sort. However much of a problem the victim is, there’s probably also a non-lethal way around the problem they pose.

Accomplices Make Everything Easier

One practical way around most of the problems brought up in the murder weapon section is an accomplice. Even better for the problem of murder weapon acquisition is the anonymous accomplice. As long as the murder weapon isn’t directly traceable to a name (i.e. isn’t a new gun/crossbow recently bought at a gun/bow shop), this will greatly obfuscate the trail of the weapon. If the detective doesn’t know whose footsteps to retrace, he will have a very hard time retracing them.

An anonymous accomplice can also go a long way in solving the problems of personality introduced by the choice of a murder weapon. Two people can be more patient than one, an accomplice who wouldn’t murder anyone himself might still help a lover or friend to buy or make a weapon, and so on.

(In fact, the ability for two people to have two personalities is sometimes revealed in just this way—the detective is talking about the contradictions in the murderer’s behavior and someone says, “It’s like our murderer is two different people… wait a minute!”)

Of course, this introduces its own set of problems since now the relationship must be explained. I think that the most typical motivations for the assistance are:

  1. Romantic interest
  2. Financial interest

Though this makes sense since they are the two big motivations for nearly everything and especially for nearly everything which is really bad. The other big motivation in human life is religious zeal, and while you probably could come up with a story in which a radical Muslim murders a Jew out of religious zeal, it would be hard to come up with a story in which he wanted to conceal it (though you could have friends do that over his objections) and in the current environment I doubt that such a story would be well received.

There is another way in which accomplices make things easier, though: being twice as many people they make twice as many mistakes—that is, they leave twice as many clues. Worse yet from the perspective of the murderer and better yet from the perspective of the detective, they can have the motivation to double-cross each other.

As with all solutions to a problem in a murder mystery, an accomplice solves some problems and causes others. This is why it’s better in real life to always do right, of course, because then all of your problems will at least be good problems to have, but in fiction it’s what has made mystery such an enduring genre.


If you enjoy murder mysteries, please consider checking out my murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

tddowb

Review: Whose Body?

Whose Body? is the first of Dorothy L. Sayers’ novels featuring her justly famous sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. There’s something which might almost be called a tradition in detective fiction that the first novel featuring the detective is not the place to start reading them, and though it is a good book, Whose Body? is not an exception. The author doesn’t really know his character in the first book, or more properly, characters—half of what makes a detective great are usually his friends and occasionally his enemies. As such things go, Lord Peter does come onto the scene in Whose Body? close to fully formed. Still, I would recommend start with Strong Poison or Cloud of Witness first.

With that out of the way, Whose Body? is a good mystery as well as a good Lord Peter story. It has a great deal of wit in it, both in wry observations as well as some excellent scenes involving Lord Peter’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver. The mystery unfolds at a good pace, with new things for the reader to think about coming regularly. There is also the pleasure of reading about Lord Peter’s 1920s luxury. Though set contemporaneously, they are now period fiction, and Dorothy L. Sayers paints the scene vividly enough to work as period fiction for the modern reader. It is certainly a must-read for any Lord Peter fan.

(If you don’t want spoilers, don’t read any further.)

Analysis of the Story

(Note: please take everything that I say following in light of Whose Body? being a good novel. The purpose of this section is to try to learn from a master (Sayers) at work. Anything which sounds like harsh criticism should be taken merely as economy of speech.)

In light of some of Sayers’ later triumphs—such as Have His Carcass and Gaudy night—in Whose Body? she is clearly still finding her way with Lord Peter and detective fiction in general in. It is important to bear in mind the relativity of that statement, because Whose Body? is still superior to most other writers’ polished detectives. But none the less, Whose Body? is more conventional and ultimately a little hesitant.

By more conventional, I mean that it follows the conventions of detective fiction more closely than do the other Lord Peter novels. Though that is a somewhat strange thing to say given that in 1923, detective fiction wasn’t that old. A Study in Scarlet (the first Sherlock Holmes story) was published in 1887, a mere 36 years earlier. Granted, detective fiction exploded after Sherlock Holmes, but the explosion was still in its relatively early days in the 1920s. But none the less there were plenty of conventions at the time, and Sayers did follow them more closely than she would later.

Part of this is also related to the distinction between short story mysteries and mystery novels. I’ve talked about his before, but the short explanation is that short story mysteries are quite commonly brain teasers, while novels are the story of a detective at work. This follows necessarily from the length. In the quintessential mystery short story, the detective comes onto the scene of a crime, takes in the clues, then realizes the solution to the problem and explains it. The shortness of the story allows the reader to take in all of the clues, then pause to consider them before finding out whether he guessed correctly. (This, by the way, is why in television shows the detective suddenly realizing the solution to the problem after somebody says something which stirs his imagination is so common. I.e. why there’s the classic, “wait, say that again. You’ve solved it!” moment. After laying out the clues, they had to give the audience time to think about it, and it can’t be a new clue which solves the case for the detective, so something has to be the trigger for the detective realizing who did it so we can get to the reveal.)

This is structurally impossible in a novel, however. If the reader is given all of the information he needs in order to solve the mystery in the first ten pages of the novel, the rest of the novel becomes pointless and the brilliance of the detective becomes impossible to believe when it takes him 200 pages to figure out what any intelligent reader already figured out. Accordingly, the clues have to be revealed slowly, throughout the book, for the book to remain interesting. That forces the book to be about the process of finding the clues, rather than purely about understanding the clues presented in a jumble.

(This, incidentally, is one of the problems in the first Filo Vance novel, The Benson Murder Case. The author presented us with all the evidence we needed to know who the murderer was in the first chapter, and so the rest of the book dragged on a bit. Granted, Philo Vance also figured out who the murderer was in the first chapter, which made it a little odd that he didn’t tell anyone until the last chapter.)

Whose Body? does not give us all the evidence we need up front, but it does give us enough evidence early on so that we can make an educated guess fairly early. This does not spoil the fun as subsequent evidence is required to really substantiate the guess, and we get the fun of finding it out along with Lord Peter. It does, however, lessen the impact of the red herrings. The biggest of which is Cripsham and his pince-nez which were found on the corpse. There are several pages spent on speculating about Cripsham after he answers the advertisement Lord Peter put in the newspapers, but none of it is really credible at this point. There’s far too much we already know and/or suspect about Sir Reuben Levy’s connection to the corpse in the bathtub, and the latter’s connection to—if not yet to Sir Julian Freke, at least to the hospital next door to the corpse. Granted, it’s a little unfair to hold against a book that it’s too well written to have the second half of the book make the first half of the book a waste of time, but mystery has always been a self-conscious genre. And it is, so the idea that the murder was committed by a character as yet completely unknown and wholly unrelated to anyone already in the novel is not really credible. The result is that the extensive speculations about Cripsham just feel like a waste of time. In fact the whole affair of the pince-nez was over-played. Since the body was clearly arranged by the murderer, it was not plausible that the pince-nez were any sort of solid clue. Since they had to be either a practical joke by, or an attempt at misdirection on the part of, the murderer, they were never going to lead anywhere directly. The only really plausible connection they could have to the murderer was pointing to the murderer’s enemy. As soon as the owner of the pince-nez was utterly unconnected with anything or anyone else in the book, they couldn’t really have pointed to the murderer’s enemy, so they had to be merely a practical joke.

The character of Inspector Charles Parker was very interesting in this book—it is perhaps his best role in any Lord Peter book. I can’t help but think that Sayers never really thought that Parker worked. He continued to appear in Lord Peter stories, but he got ever-smaller roles. I wonder whether this may have stemmed from the fundamental contradiction in the role which Sayers gave him and the way she began to characterize him. Parker read theology in his spare time, which was an extremely interesting thing for a police inspector to do. It also set things up wonderfully for him to be a contrast in personality with Lord Peter who, while well educated, was an instinctive atheist. As Sayers put it more than once, Lord Peter would have thought it an impertinence to believe he had a soul. That would be a fascinating contrast.

Unfortunately, Parker’s main role was to be the Watson to Lord Peter’s Holmes. What makes this so unfortunate for the characterization which Sayers started to give Parker is that the ninth rule of Ronald Knox’s 10 Commandments for Detective fiction is commonly held to be true:

The “sidekick” of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

That simply does not work for an interest in theology.

I should note that this is not actually a strict requirement for a Watson. The purpose behind this rule is that the detective must have some reason to explain himself. A beloved sidekick who doesn’t understand what’s going on and who constantly asks for explanations works very well for this job, hence it’s popularity. However, merely thinking differently will suffice. Thus an intelligent person with a different background from the detective works well. “I would have assumed it meant [plausible inference], but I’m guessing you conclude something different from it?” It’s more difficult since there must generally be two plausible inferences to pull this off, but it’s very doable. In fact, Sayers herself did this with the introduction of Harriet Vane. While not Lord Peter’s equal, she was generally the most intelligent person in any room he wasn’t in. But she had a very different background and personality from him, and so they complemented each other in just this way.

The only other thing I want to remark on was the interactions with Sir. Julian Freke. Lord Peter’s obsession with fair play and giving the murderer a chance to commit suicide before being taken was something I was glad that Sayers abandoned. I think she did it in only two cases. One was of course Whose Body? and the other was The Unpleasantness At the Bellona Club. It was perfectly fair to give Lord Peter his weaknesses, but this one just didn’t work. It wasn’t out of character, exactly, but neither did it feel like it was in character. Granted, Lord Peter tended to approach mysteries purely as a game, but  anguish at realizing that it was real was probably as unpleasant for the reader as it was for the character. The big problem being that this is all a game for the reader. Consulting detectives are not realistic. If one is going to indulge in them at all, one should see the fantasy through to the end. The detective has undertaken to put right, by a right use reason, what was put wrong through a misuse of reason. He may conclude that justice would be better served by letting the murderer go, but it is not right for him to conclude that justice would be better served by not serving it.

And to be fair to Sayers, she did abandon this line of thought pretty quickly. Whose Body? is the only time Lord Peter gave the murderer the opportunity of escape. In The Unpleasantness At the Bellona Club, he merely gave the murderer the opportunity to shoot himself before he was taken for murder and hanged. Granted, this is offensive to my Christian principles which holds suicide to be intrinsically evil, but it did at least still serve justice, if it served nothing better. And fortunately Sayers abandoned it entirely in her other stories.

Sir Julian Freke’s letter to Peter was also a little odd. First, it was strange he hadn’t prepared the bulk of it immediately after the murder on the assumption he would get away with it and the details should be preserved immediately for their scientific value. Second, it was largely a recapitulation of what we had already learned. Rather than being satisfying, I found it made for dull reading since we learned very little from it. It served in place of the denouement in an Agatha Christie where Poirot gathers everyone together and explains what happened, but with none of the revelation of when Poirot does it. There were no details commonly assumed to be one way but then put straight. There were barely any details even filled in—unless you count such trifles as the cotton wool placed under the surgical bandage to avoid bruising. Or that the bath running was to cover the sound of work rather than to actually bathe one of the corpses. And I think it’s telling that Sayers never repeated the many-page confession in her other books. Except possibly Inspector Sugg—who wasn’t really a character—no one learned anything from this confession.

In conclusion, Whose Body? is a fascinating first story for a detective. It clearly did a good job of introducing Lord Peter in 1923, and set the stage for some true masterpieces of detective fiction. It wasn’t uniformly great, as were some of Sayers later works, but where it was good it was very good. And I find it interesting that the character which changed the least in subsequent books was the Dowager Duchess. While Lord Peter took a little refinement through the books, Sayers really nailed the Dowager Duchess from the first page which contained her.


If you enjoy Lord Peter Wimsey stories even half as much as I do, please consider checking out my murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

tddowb