The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba

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

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

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

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

Review: The Rage Against God

I just finished reading Peter Hitchens’ book, The Rage Against God. It’s an interesting book—and I do recommend it—but it’s very much not what I expected. For one thing, it’s a far more personal book than I expected. Which may well speak more to my expectations than to the book; the subtitle is “how atheism led me to faith.” But what I think I was more legitimately surprised about was how much the book was about culture.

The Rage Against God is divided into three parts:

  1. A Personal Journey Through Atheism
  2. Addressing the Three Failed Arguments of Atheism
  3. The League of the Militant Godless

Chapters 1-5 are about England’s (I suppose technically I should say Brittain’s, but I’m not sure) declining society, and how much Christianity was woven into England’s culture so that as people became disillusioned with their culture they threw Christianity out as well. In many ways in these chapters the eponymous rage against God seems to be primarily a displaced rage against parents. In fact Mr. Hitchens mentions something I’ve seen noted by many other rebels born in the generation he was: they never expected to get away with it. And they seem to carry with them a deep sense of betrayal that the adults let them get away with their rebellion. In essence, they are angry at the authority figures in their young lives for being so small. This is very specific to England, but while America did not suffer the decline of its status as a once-great power, it did suffer from the realization of how awful racism is that had a very similar effect in undermining authority, and at approximately the same time. And I’m told that other european countries had their own losses in confidence because of the authority figures who led them into devastating wars.

None of this is something I can relate to; having grown up in the 1980s there was no longer anyone left to respect so it was not possible to lose my respect for them, and I think that this is true of others of my generation as well. It is an interesting window into the atheism of an older generation, though.

Interestingly the three arguments which Hitchens addresses in part 2 are largely cultural ones:

  • “Are conflicts fought in the name of religion conflicts about religion?”
  • “Is it possible to determine what is right and what is wrong without God?”
  • “Are atheist states not actually atheist?”

The second question need not be cultural, but his answer is largely cultural, in that he draws the answers from failed societies. Which is, of a course, a legitimate and persuasive answer, but it is a social answer rather than a personal one.

The third part is a more in-depth look at what the viciously atheist regime of the Soviet Union was like, and the degree to which modern atheists seem to be calling for exactly what was done there, though without being willing to admit that it’s what they’re calling for. This is a problem I’ve encountered with atheists myself. They’re generally quite unwilling to think through their ideas and more infuriatingly often pat themselves on the back for being unwilling to do so, though usually with some sort of positive spin. But Mr. Hitchens brings up, if obliquely, a very pressing problem in a democracy, or really anywhere with changing demographics: how people behave when a minority may have no predictive value whatsoever as to how they will behave if they are in the majority. And as any even casual student of history knows, every regime requires an executive branch—whatever it is named—and that executive branch will be staffed not by the general population but by people who desire power. The question, therefore, is not what the average person will do if given power, but what they will tolerate a co-believer with power doing.

Review: A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto

In a sense this is a companion review to my review of How to Catch and Kill a Crackhead.(check it out for disclaimers/full disclosure). You can get Ed Latimore’s A Not So Friendly Guide to The Ghetto in a bundle with How to Catch and Kill a Crackhead for $9.97 (at the time of this writing) here.

A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto is an interesting book. Of course, I suspect I would find anything Ed writes interesting, so that’s not really saying anything which distinguishes it from his other books. However, unlike Ed’s other books, I’m not sure how to review this one. It seems to be one part travel guide, one part ethnography, and eight parts social commentary. The social commentary is about a community I’m not now, nor have ever been, a part of, so I don’t really have anything to say about it. It’s interesting to read because Ed is a thoughtful guy, but that’s about it, for me specifically.

The travel guide aspect of the book can be summarized very briefly: don’t go there. That’s also nearly a direct quote.

The ethnography aspect of A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto is probably the most interesting part to an outsider like me, or at the very least the most accessible part. And it does not paint a pretty picture. The most noticeable characteristics described in the ghetto is the presence of extremely violent people who make life difficult and dangerous for everyone else. They are violent on a very high level precisely because they don’t lead long-term sustainable lives. Ed mentions that many of these violent people have a life expectancy of about 23. He doesn’t say so explicitly, but one gets the sense it’s that long in part because such people spend most of their time after the age of about 16 in prison where they don’t get to shoot or stab each other (nearly so often).

This reminds me of the Coolio song, Gangsta’s Paradise. All of it is an interesting song, but I’m especially reminded of the lyric, “I’m 23 now will I live to see 24 the way things is going I don’t know.”

Where this hyper-violence comes from is an interesting question. Ed doesn’t give answers, but he seems to (implicitly) reject the cycle-of-violence answer which a lot of people like. I don’t mean that he suggests it’s causeless, but rather he doesn’t seem—and this is my read of him, not anything he said explicitly—to believe that the violence is an unavoidable trap that those trapped by it can do nothing to escape. Some of the social critique may be relevant here, and can be more broadly applicable than just to the specific community being directly discussed by considering what behaviors and trends in the reader’s community—whatever community that might be—might lead to similar encouragements to violence in the least stable members of that community.

And while the book is certainly an interesting one, it is not without flaws. In the copy I bought the typography changed in chapter 7 and from then on the chapters had two numbers, both their correct number and a number starting over from 1. I asked Ed and he said that he would probably fix this going forward. It also feels like chapter eight might have originally been meant as the first chapter, in that it reads like an introduction that was not re-written when it was moved. I found that a bit jarring. It is also a short book—distributed in PDF format it has 35 pages, and would have fewer if the last third wasn’t double-spaced. And while I’ve certainly read enough business books to be appreciative of  an author not padding them out in order to justify a higher price, there were things I wish that Ed had covered. For example, he discussed in some detail how little money many of the bad-decision-makers he talks about come into possession of each year, but he never explains how they make it work. A person who takes in $5000 per year and has to pay $250 per month in rent has only $166 per month left over to afford food. If they make further bad decisions such as buying $2000 rims for their aged lexus, it’s unclear how they can survive since they now have $-0.67 per month for food and can’t photosynthesize. (Further, even if they could photosynthesize, the year-round uniform of sweatshirt, jeans, and timberland boots Ed describes would prevent sufficient light from reaching their skin.) Some explanation of how this actually works out in practice would have been very interesting.

Another fascinating question which gets no treatment here is why the normal human tendency in chaotic situations towards organization by a warlord doesn’t operate here. This of course is the problem with anarcho-capitalism, or really any form of anarchism. The moment you have anarchy, you will get government emerging in the form of weak people supporting the best warlord around, making him strong enough to subdue the other war-lords or keep them at bay so that the important parts of life which require stability (growing food, raising children) can happen. After a generation or two, the warlords will provide enough functions of government as to be indistinguishable from government. After a few more generations, they will simply be government.

The suggestion that no one in the hood has a job (which I take to be painting with a very broad brush) may account for not needing peace to grow food, but however critical Ed is of the parenting which goes on in the hood, parenting does go on, which means that a fair number of people have a huge incentive to support whoever will bring enough peace to let that parenting happen. So why doesn’t this work? Does the presence of police from outside the hood remove the preferable warlords inside the hood? Do the skills required to be such a warlord also enable one to just ditch the whole problem, leaving behind only those incapable of such organization? This last possibility has some resonance with Ed’s advice on how to deal with loud bad-decision-makers in a movie theater: go to a different movie theater. I think it would be grossly unfair to demand Ed have all the answers to why things are they way they are, but some speculation on the subject would have been very welcome since he’d probably have come at the problem from an interesting angle.

It would also have been interesting had there been a section on how people who don’t make exclusively bad decisions but who nevertheless grow up in the hood—people like Ed himself—navigate the violent environment they can’t escape from until later in their lives.

Before I conclude, the modern world being what it is, there is a warning I should probably give about A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto. A good introduction to that warning is the disclaimer found at the beginning of the book:

Please note that the use of the term “nigga”, “nigger”, and other close synonyms are in reference to uneducated, unemployed, unmotivated, ignorant black individuals, not the African American race as a whole.

On the plus side, if this bothers you, I can report that according to my calculations the word “nigga” only makes up 2.5% of the words used (by contrast, 3.8% are “the”). That’s slightly misleading in that I didn’t count usages of variants such as “niggernomics” or “nig worth”, but it gives you a rough idea, I think. Basically, this is not a book for people with delicate eyes. (Nor delicate ears, if you tend to sound words out to yourself, I suppose, but in that case you could probably put your fingers in your ears when you see the words you dislike coming up.)

And all joking aside, it did make me uncomfortable. I’m not used to language like this and it is jarring to hear it used frequently. If you can’t guess, I’m a white guy who grew up in the suburbs where most everyone over the age of 14 got along with each other well enough that for the most part that the only thing the police did was give people traffic tickets. This fortunate circumstance does come with some limitations of experience, and in my relatively sheltered youth it would have been less shocking to hear someone declare their fealty to their lord Satan than it would have been to hear somebody sincerely use racial epithets as a criticism. However incomplete—or if you prefer, unrealistic—a view of the world this gave me as a child, it should speak to how weird it felt to me to read a book where at least 2.5% of the words were some variant of “nigger”. On the other hand I’m confident that Ed is not a racist and I was willing to trust him that there were good reasons for his choices. And having finished the book, I think that there were. I’d say it kept it real, but I don’t know if that would be using the phrase correctly. So instead let me quote the movie A Man for All Seasons, where Will Roper asked Sir Thomas More for permission to marry More’s daughter:

More: Roper, the answer is no and will be no as long as you’re a heretic.

Roper: Now that’s a word I don’t like, sir Thomas.

More: It’s not a likable word; it’s not a likable thing.

Ultimately, so long as people know what words mean, unlikable things will be described by unlikable words. So there’s some value in using unlikable words; it keeps one from getting too complacent in the mere sound of speech and forgetting what is really meant. Ed is describing the sort of people who have attacked him throughout his childhood and nearly killed him more than once. That’s not something one should be comfortable with. Plus, as Ed said later in his disclaimer:

Besides, I’m black. I think that means I can get away with it.

In summary, though it is a book with some production issues which is ultimately disappointing in its brevity, I recommend A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto. Half of $9.97 is not much money to get a perspective on a part of America which (statistically) most of us have never experienced, written by someone who’s read Aristotle extensively. Unless you’re a superhero of thrift, you will probably have often spent more money to get less value. If you’re interested in following my advice and buying the bundle, instructions are here.

Review: How to Catch and Kill a Crackhead

Ed Latimore’s book How to Catch and Kill a Crackhead is an interesting book. Currently it’s only available as an ebook bundle with A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto, which I haven’t read yet. (As of this writing the bundle costs $9.97, available at the link above.)

To give context to my review, like many people, I’ve become familiar with Ed through Twitter. He largely tweets about what you might call self-improvement, if you can get past the hackneyed phrase. But to put this in context, I once asked him if he had a favorite Greek philosopher and he replied that he’s only read Aristotle and Seneca extensively. In my reading of him, he’s about achieving excellence (ἀρετή) by dominating one’s passions through reason, not blowing sunshine up people’s asses in the form of “motivation.” I rather like that. Also, he did an interview with me about making wisdom intelligible. So, if you can’t guess, I’m a fan of his. If you want to call that a bias, I won’t object to the term. I am, in general, biased in favor of anyone with wisdom to share.

How to Catch and Kill a Crackhead is, if the title didn’t give it away, not a serious book. It is properly called farce, I believe. Certainly much of its humor is intentionally absurd, which I enjoyed because I delight in absurdity. Ed also delivers it in a deadpan style somewhat reminiscent of British comedy like Monty Python. I happen to be very fond of deadpan humor, as well, so I laughed out loud while reading it more than a few times. In fact he pulled this dead-pan tone off so well that it took me a little while to figure out that it wasn’t merely an attention-getting mechanism prior to getting down to the serious part. Once I figured that out I started thoroughly enjoying myself.

The basic conceit of the book (stated nearly on the first page) is that crackheads are not mere drug addicts, but in fact an alternative sort of vampire. He takes this premise completely seriously throughout the book, describing the crackhead’s powers of flight and sleeping upside-down by their feet, and how to deal with the problems that can cause when one is in areas they inhabit. The  later part of the book is for aspiring vampire crackhead hunters, giving tips on required equipment as well as the ideal party to assemble for battling vampires crackheads.

There are amusing references to pop culture as well as role playing games, comic books, and literature, generally used to good effect, though I missed some of the pop culture references. A few of them are also dated; I asked Ed and he wrote his circa 2007. That also means that he wrote the book in his very early 20s, which does show occasionally in the humor. That is to say, the jokes are occasionally a little juvenile, though mostly I think in cases where Ed couldn’t resist the joke rather than as a crutch, which makes them less cringey since there’s a sort of innocence to them. (At he time of this writing I’m in my late thirties, so naturally I only have limited appreciation for jokes which speak most to late teenagers. We all have our weaknesses.) That said, this is a small minority of the jokes and I think the humor will appeal to most everyone with a sense of humor.

Some of the humor also seems to rely on some familiarity with what Ed calls—in this book—the ghetto. I can only say it seems that way since utterly lacking this familiarity I can only guess that such familiarity would help (that is, it would require knowledge I don’t have in order for me to know for sure). However, this is also a minority of the jokes, and though I sometimes felt like I was just missing something, the book was mostly accessible without this background. Certainly, it would be hard to speak English and have less familiarity than I do with “the hood,” so if you also lack such familiarity,  I wouldn’t let it deter you from giving the book a read. It might be better for someone with such familiarity, but it was still quite good without it.

The times being what they are, I probably should mention that there are some jokes which reference what might be called statistical observations about ethno-linguistic groups of people (both people of color and people of transparency). If you use a sensible definition of racism like “regarding an individual not primarily as an individual but primarily as a member of a group”, then there is nothing racist in this book, because Ed is far too sensible a person to make that sort of stupid, elementary mistake. On the other hand, if you use a definition of racism which is basically anything that professional tut-tutters would tut-tut one for, this might not be the book for you. On the third hand, if you use a definition of racism which involves formulas, then the fact that Ed identifies as black might be significant in your calculations, which I will leave to you to work out.

In summary, this is a unique and funny book which I recommend giving a try if you like absurdist humor with the occasional nerdy reference delivered with a straight face that wouldn’t be out of place in a poker tournament.

God’s Blessings on January 19, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the nineteenth day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I recently read Brian Niemeier’s free short story, Izcacus. It was an interesting read, both while I was reading it and afterwards. It’s a good use of fifteen minutes. Unfortunately short stories lend themselves to short reviews, because (when well written) they’re so tightly written that talking about them gives away too much information. At least I have that problem. Russell Newquist would probably find a way around it, as he’s very good at writing reviews, I’ve noticed.

But I am going to talk about Izcacus, so this is your warning that there will be spoilers. If you don’t like spoilers, stop reading here (until you’ve gone and read the story, at which point please come back).


Or here, that would work too.


Even here, really. But that’s it. The next paragraph will have spoilers in it, so stop reading now if you haven’t read it and don’t want to encounter spoilers.


I should begin by saying that I went in knowing that Izcacus was written as an attempt to bridge the gap between religious vampires and scientific vampires. So I didn’t some at it with perfectly fresh eyes, as it were. That will naturally color my thoughts on the story, but probably it has a bigger impact on my reaction to it than my considered thoughts about it.

The first thing I find interesting about Izcacus is that it uses what my friend Michael referred to as epistolary narration. That is, several characters narrate the story in the form of emails, letters, blog posts, journal entries, and most interestingly letters to a dead brother. It’s by no means an unheard of device, but it’s not overly common, and as Michael reminded me, it is also the narrative device in Dracula, by Bram Stoker. I doubt that coincidence is accidental, though I haven’t asked Brian about it. He uses the device well and avoids its weakness—it can easily become very confusing to have multiple narrators—while taking advantage of its strength. In particular, it allows a lot of character development in few words, since the voice of the character tells you a lot about them. Not merely the words they choose or their commentary, but also what they choose to talk about and what they leave out. Editorial decisions tell you as much about a person as creative decisions, if they tell it to you more subtly.

Second is that one of the problems that every horror author is faced with in the modern world is that horror and modern technology don’t blend well. I don’t mean that they can’t, but a person with a cell phone can—in normal circumstances—call for help so that they won’t feel alone. Of course, that doesn’t always do much. (There was a news story a while back about a russian teenager who called her mother on the phone while a bear was eating her. She died before any help could arrive. More locally, there was a hunter who shot himself with a crossbow and called 911 but was dead before they arrived. If a broadhead cuts a major blood vessel, you can bleed to death in as little as about 45 seconds. I’ve seen a deer pass out in about 20 seconds.) But there is still a big difference in mood between knowing that help is on its way and won’t arrive in time versus not even being able to call for help. By setting the story on a remote mountain without cell service, and further where they had to trespass russian law to even be, this problem was solved very neatly. There are plenty of very remote places in the world and if you haven’t told anyone that you’re going there, no one will ever come looking for you there. (One reason why the Pennsylvania hunter safety course emphasizes telling people where you are going hunting and when you will be back, every single time.) Structurally, I really like this.

The mood is done well about isolation and danger and so on, but in general I’m far more interested in structure than mood—possibly because I have a very powerful and active imagination and can imagine the mood for myself even if it is not described, but my philosophical side rebels against plot holes. Pleasantly, there are no plot holes in Izcacus, which I appreciated. And the structure is very interesting indeed when we come to the central point of the story: vampirism. Izcacus, we find out, means “blood-drinker” in the local dialect, and the mountain climbers eventually find a cave with some old but suspiciously fresh corpses. And here is where Brian marries religious with scientific vampires. Vampirism is a form of demonic possession, but possession requires the cooperation of the possessed. And so the demons have created a virus—which walks the line between living and inanimate—as a means of entering healthy hosts. The virus acts in its natural fashion to weaken the host; by putting them in extremes of pain and weakness, the host becomes more willing to accept the possession which will rid them of the pain. And as the story (or rather, one of its characters) noted, after death the body becomes merely material. This is a very interesting take on vampirism, adding some very interesting technical detail to the mechanism of becoming a vampire. It’s not as blood-centric as vampirism traditionally is, and in fact one weakness of the story is that it isn’t made very clear why the vampires are called blood-drinkers at all. No one is exsanguinated that I can recall, and any wound seems to suffice for entrance of the virus. Granted, one of the characters was bitten on the neck, but another seemed to be infected by a cut on her shoulder. And this is somewhat inherent in the nature of blood-born viruses. If saliva will work for transmission, blood-to-blood contact will as well. (As will semen-to-blood transmission, but fortunately Izcacus is not that sort of story.) So while it’s an interesting step forward for the mechanics of vampirism, it seems to come somewhat at the expense of some of the (recent) traditional lore of vampirism. (Update: Brian clarified what I misunderstood.)

(That is not in itself bad, of course; I gather one staple of horror is re-interpreting older horror stories so as to create fresh lore; essentially producing a sense of realism by treating previous fiction as existing but inaccurate. Horror is not one of the genres I normally seek out, so I’m not very familiar with its conventions—or perhaps I should say its unconventions. And if you want to take that as a semi-punning reference to the undead, I’m powerless to stop you. But if you do, please feel a deep and lasting sense of shame because of it. That’s not really a pun.)

But, what it sacrifices in traditional vampire lore, it makes up for in the reason why anyone is going near the wretched things in the first place. My two favorite vampire stories are Dracula (by Bram Stoker) and Interview with the Vampire (the movie; I’ve never read the book, which a good friend has told me isn’t as good; the screenplay for the movie was written by Ann Rice who wrote the book, so it is plausible that her second try was better than her first). In both cases the vampires can pass as living men and come into human society on their own, though in Dracula he does at first lure Jonathan Harker to his castle in Transylvania by engaging his legal services. But it is really Harker’s legal services which are required, there, he isn’t interested in Harker as food (at least not for himself). In Izcacus the vampires are not nearly so able to pass in human society, so the humans must come to them. This is in line with other stories (most of which I haven’t seen or read) where the humans venture into the vampire’s territory. I think that there the lure is some sort of treasure, whether real or actual, but while greedy protagonists make for relatively pity-free vampire chow, they don’t make for sympathetic protagonists. In Izcacus there are really two motives which drive the characters; a noble motive which drives all but one of them, and a far more sinister motive which drives her. The official reason for this clandestine meeting is to recover the bodies of people who had died trying to summit Izcacus, while the hidden reason is to recover samples of the disease which was the reason the Russians sealed off access to Izcacus in the first place. Thus it is the backers of terrorism who are funding the expedition in the hope of retrieving such a virulent virus to be used as a bio-terrorism weapon (thinking of it only as deadly, and not as diabolical). I find that very satisfying because instead of a pedestrian tale like greed going wrong (who doesn’t know greed will go wrong?), it’s the much more richly symbolic tale of the problem with making deals with the devil. As Chesterton noted, the devil is a gentleman and doesn’t keep his word. The devil may promise power, but has no interest in delivering on it. I’m told there’s a line in one of the tellings of Faust where after selling his soul for knowledge, mephistopheles tells faust he doesn’t have that knowledge to give, whereupon Faust is indignant that he had been lied to. As I understand it, Mephistopheles basically said, “I’m a devil, what did you expect?” It’s one of the reasons why I’m so fond of the short form of the baptismal vows in the Catholic rite of baptism. “Do you reject Satan? And all his works? And all his empty promises?” It’s a terrible idea to expect the devil to keep his promises; it’s more his style to bite the hand he’s shaking.

Glory to God in the highest.

You Have the Right to Remain Innocent

I recently saw the news that the defense attorney / law professor who made the videos Don’t Talk to Cops (part 1, part 2) wrote a book on the subject. It’s called You Have the Right to Remain Innocent, and it’s a short and easy to read book which covers much of the same material, but in greater depth, with updates for recent caselaw, and without the speed-talking.

Since the basic thesis of the book is stated in its title, which is also a reasonably summary of the book’s actionable advice, it is reasonable to ask what is in the book which justifies opening the book to look at its pages. There’s actually a lot.

The book does starts with some caveats, perhaps most notably that he clarifies he’s talking about speaking with the police when they come to you, unsolicited, to ask you questions about the past. It is both a legal requirement and good sense to readily comply with the request to identify yourself and explain what you are doing in the moment, where you currently are. One of his examples is if you are breaking into your own house because you locked yourself out and a policeman asks you what you are doing, do tell him that this is your house and you don’t have your key. He mentions some other cases when you must talk with the police.

The other very notable caveat is that he takes some pains to point out that every member of society owes a great debt to the men and women who serve as police, who take personal risk to do a difficult job that keeps us safe. Throughout the book, he makes it clear that he isn’t talking about bad people, but (in the main) good people in a bad situation, which is the present criminal legal system in the United States. It is a system which sometimes convicts innocent people along with guilty people, and for reasons he makes clear throughout the book, his primary concern is giving innocent people the tools needed to avoid the pitfalls of this dangerous system. Good people make mistakes, and the mistake of a police officer or a prosecutor or a judge can cost an innocent person decades in prison. (He uses more than a few cases where the person convicted was later conclusively proved innocent by DNA evidence (often decades later) to show how wrong things can go for innocent people.)

The book has more than a few interesting insights into problems with the criminal justice system—perhaps most notably being the way that no living person has any idea even how many crimes are defined by the law, let alone what they all are—but I think its greatest value lies in the examination of particular cases where he goes on to show how even very trivial statements, which are true, can become damning evidence in light of other things which a person may not know and has no control over. The case where a man admitted to having dated a woman some time before the crime he was convicted of happened, in the neighborhood where that crime happened, helped to send a man later exonerated by DNA evidence to prison. Coincidences happen, but not all juries believe that they do.

And it is this sort of thing which is the main value of reading the entire book, I think. It is so very easy to slip into the mindset of wanting to give into the urge to cooperate, to be helpful, to be willing to answer any question which is not directly incriminating (and if I’m innocent, how could any question be directly incriminating?) which takes more than a little beating down by seeing over and over again how even minor admissions of completely true and innocent things can be disastrous. The book presents information, but I think equally reading it constitutes training. If one were ever to face a police interview it would be a very stressful situation, and when stressed we tend to forget what we know and fall back on our habitual reactions. Only through training ourselves by seeing many situations we could all too easily be in is it likely that we will remember to do what we should.

The final two chapters of the book, which are much shorter than the first, deal with the specifics of how to go about exercising one’s right to remain innocent in a practical sense. He covers many instances of how people have accidentally incriminated themselves when invoking their fifth amendment right, as well as how people have accidentally failed at refusing to talk to the police and asking for a lawyer. And again, it’s not so much knowing what to do that’s the real benefit of reading this book, but learning what not to do, and why not to do it.

The book is a short, easy read which is well written, and I think valuable for anyone living in America. I found it a valuable read even after watching the videos I linked above, and strongly recommend it.

Review: The Benson Murder Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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