Benjamin Kit Sun Cheah on Wuxia

Over on Twitter, Benjamin Kit Sun Cheah wrote a very interesting thread on Wuxia (Chinese heroes) and the meaning of this genre. He kindly gave me permission to quote it in full here since that’s much easier to read than a Twitter thread if you’re not used to Twitter.

Among the hottest fiction trends today, and the genre I’m working on next. I’ve been looking into the genre for years, but everywhere I looked I found too many power fantasies, too few actual wuxia. It shows a lack of understanding of the genre. Wuxia should be the stuff of legends. Highly-skilled warriors in a milieu of danger and respect. Adventure in exotic realms. A world where you can earn your place with your sword. But beyond that, wuxia has one more element: Ethics.

It’s right there in the name. Wuxia is commonly translated as ‘martial hero’ into English. The meaning of ‘hero’ is well-known. ‘Martial’ has a neutral connotation. It means the ways of war. The meaning of wuxia seems obvious: a hero who uses martial arts. But this is not what wuxia means in Chinese. Chinese is a logographic language. Every ‘word’ is a written character that carries certain meanings. Every character in turn is made up of radicals. Radicals are smaller characters that convey pronunciation, and most importantly, MEANING. Keep this in mind.

Wuxia is a transliteration of 武侠. 武 carries the meanings of ‘martial, weapons, military’. 侠 means ‘chivalry, gallantry, hero’. But this is in English. In Chinese it carries a much, much deeper meaning. 武 is composed of two major radicals. 止: Stop 戈: A dagger-axe, an ancient Chinese weapon. (When used as a radical, the word loses a stroke.) Therefore, the true meaning of 武 is: to stop the dagger-axe. The English ‘martial’ has a neutral connotation. 武 has an innately noble purpose: to stop the dagger-axe, to defend and protect.

Morality is hard-coded into Chinese martial arts. The Chinese took it very, very seriously. Some Chinese martial arts masters worked as police officers, soldiers, and bodyguards. Others were civilians, but they assisted the police in arresting outlaws. Others ‘took back the art’ by defeating (and crippling or killing) bandits who had trained in martial arts.

侠 is an interesting case. This is the simplified version of an older word: 俠. 侠 has two radicals: 人: man 夹: squeeze, pinch, wedge, carry under your arm This implies that 侠 is ‘a man who wedges’ or ‘a man who carries’. 夾 from 俠 can be interpreted in two interesting ways. The ‘official’ interpretation I’ve seen is of two smaller men lifting up a larger man. My other, artistic interpretation is a large man wedging himself between two others. With this artistic interpretation, if we look at 俠 again, we see this: A man who places himself in between a tall man (on the left) and two smaller men (behind him). A big man protecting two smaller men with his body. What is the deeper meaning of 侠? A man who lifts up and supports other people. This is how the Chinese viewed chivalry and gallantry. Or, if you look at it artistically: A man who shields the innocent with his body.

Put these characters together and we get the meaning of the true meaning of 武侠: A man who stops the dagger-axe and supports others. Martial skill is thus used to protect the innocent, NOT to puff up your ego. To be a hero is to help others, NOT to merely be strong. Many stories tagged as ‘wuxia’ miss that. Without this element of ethics, of a hero willing to shield others from the dagger-axe with his own body, there is no wuxia. Today, there are ‘dark wuxia’ stories where the MC is a VILLAIN, which defeats the genre altogether!

With this in mind, let’s examine Xianxia. Xianxia is the transliteration of 仙侠. 侠 is known by now. But what about 仙? English says it means ‘immortal, fairy, sylph’. But that’s not quite what it means. 仙 has two radicals: 人: Man 山: Mountain A 仙, an immortal, is thus a man who goes up to the mountains. But why? Isolated in the mountains, free from the concerns of the mortal world, a man can tap into the abundant qi of nature. Through cultivation, a Daoist becomes an immortal. Through cultivation, a Buddhist gains enlightenment. They do not gain superpowers.

More precisely, these powers are NOT the point of cultivation. They serve as way markers. Confirmation that you are on the right path. And, if needed, skills TO HELP OTHERS. To pursue powers at the expense of your own development is to lose the Way and fall into delusion. Not only that, the archetypal xian is a hermit. He goes up the mountain AND STAYS THERE. Cultivation is a long, difficult, tedious process. He needs to be free of worldly distractions. Why would he climb down the mountain?

The answer, for this genre, is 侠. What is the deep meaning of xianxia? A man who goes up the mountain to cultivate himself and gains powers along the way, then climbs down the mountain to use his skills to help others. Modern-day xianxia show ‘heroes’ gaining power, beating up bad guys, attracting a girl, gaining more power, ad infinitum. This is a power fantasy, with optional harem elements. The purpose of power is not MOAR power. It is to be used to help others – or not at all. Without this moral element, a wuxia / xianxia story is not wuxia / xianxia. It is a mere power fantasy. But it is the dominant trope today. A mere aesthetic to dress up a hollow fantasy, no more. A shadow of the true meaning of the genre.

Only one thing left to do: Overturn the heavens and the earth. SAGA OF THE SWORDBREAKER, coming 2021 / 2022.

I have a small comment of my own to add, which is that you see the sort of perversion of a genre which Benjamin has described almost anywhere in which you see vivid world-building, no more than ten to twenty years later. It will inevitably come about when there are people who grew up with the world-building but who reject the heroism in it for the various reasons that people reject heroism. (Mostly it’s because they’re bad people and contemplating great virtue makes them feel bad about their vices, rather than encouraging them to increase their virtues, but that’s a topic onto itself.) These people, having spent so much time in such worlds in their imagination, long to tell their own stories in the same setting, though not at all to tell the same sorts of stories.

(This is a reason, by the way, that you will tend to see a golden age in which a type of new fiction has some particular excellence at the beginning, but then the genre becomes a swamp in which it is still possible to find diamonds. At first, people enter the genre to tell the sorts of stories this new fiction lets them tell especially well. Later, people who are used to the genre it want to tell all sorts of stories that have a superficial resemblance to the originals, and most of them are bad because they do not fit. The diamonds are those stories telling stories which do actually fit the genre.)

Hollywood Rat Race is Quite Interesting

Earlier I mentioned I got the book Hollywood Rat Race by Edward D. Wood Jr. of Plan 9 From Outer Space fame. I don’t have time for a full review now, but I do want to say that for people interested in the history of film, it is definitely worth reading.

It’s a weird book, which I suppose is no great surprise because it was written by a very weird man. Equally famous for Glen or Glenda, a semi-autobiographical movie about crossdressing in which understanding for people so afflicted is pleaded to the audience, Hollywood Rat Race more than once comments fairly negatively on men and women who dress in such a way that one cannot tell the difference between them, and also on men who wear women’s clothing. There’s something very curious there, because Ed Wood had publicly admitted to wearing women’s underwear many years before he ever started writing this book, so it’s not like he could have been trying to draw attention away from himself. (A lot of public hypocrisy around moral issues is frequently much less about actual hypocrisy and more a smoke screen by the vicious in the hope that publicly condemning their vice makes them less likely to ever be suspected of it.)

This is but a small part of the book, though. The various ways in which people who want to be stars are taken advantage of when they get to Hollywood is the main subject, at least by page count. It’s actually primarily financial predation, though he does talk about other types, as well. This is intermixed with advice on practical matters like having a 24 hour messaging service because you can’t carry your phone around with you in your pocket and how to get room and board cheaply. Some of this includes very practical advice, like taking into account the cost of gasoline to go to a further away grocery story with slightly better prices.

Also quite interesting is a section on just how great movies are. It begins by being against actors, writers, etc. who rail against Hollywood, and this section really shows just how much Ed Wood loves movies. I think that this is why people like me who love Mystery Science Theater 3000 so enjoy laughing at Ed Wood’s movies—we’d love to make movies too and if the best we could afford to do was a movie in which the grave stones are cardboard and the airplane steering wheels are artfully cut paper plates, we’d make that movie. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, a thing worth doing is worth doing even if you can only do it badly. In laughing at Ed Wood’s movies, we’re laughing at a friend, and in so doing, we’re laughing at ourselves.

There’s also a very curious reminiscence of when Bella Lugosi felt bad because he learned fans didn’t know whether he was alive or dead, and so Ed Wood put together a public appearance for Bela, who used it as a springboard into comedic performances in Las Vegas. Just how much Ed Wood loved Bella comes across.

It’s a very quirky book. I’m not sure if it was ever edited past basic grammar. I believe it was unfinished at the time of Ed Wood’s death. For example, there’s a chapter in it which consists of three paragraphs, none longer than three sentences, all of which fit on a single page.

There is no earth-shattering insight in this book, but I none the less recommend it, at least if you like movies. It’s an unfinished and not-well-organized book about a bygone time, but it is very personal about a curious figure.

The Pleasure of Sarcasm

Somehow or other, my ten year old son discovered my blog post The Least Jedi, wherein I make fun of one of the worst movies of all time, point-by-point. He’s actually having me read it to him in place of a bedtime story and finds it very funny. (This is not actually the first time; he made me watch The Last Jedi with him, and now has me reading it to him again.)

This got me to wondering why he’s enjoying it so much. I think that part of it is the same reason I enjoy Mystery Science Theater 3000—I’d love to be involved in making a movie so much I’d be willing to help make a bad movie. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “anything worth doing is worth doing [even if one can only do it] badly”. But I think that there’s another aspect to this, too.

Sarcasm is not polite. Sarcasm about a work of art, however, is (except in particularly grumpy company) not impolite. It can be very mean to make fun of a person, but it is not mean to make fun of a movie. And the problem with politeness, especially from a child’s perspective, is that you never quite know what people who are being polite really think.

I think, then, that part of the pleasure of sarcasm, especially for younger people—who, after all, are the people who generally enjoy sarcasm the most—is that one can take it far more at face value than most of the things one comes across. It is a vacation from veiled meanings and subtle hints. In sarcasm, we find good and bad openly called by their names.

There is a lesson, there, for people who write sarcastic things. They have a special appeal to children for a reason; it behooves us to make sure to write them very well, since children will absorb errors when they see them far more than will adults.

Twitter Has a Lot of Complaining

Something I’ve noticed about Twitter is that I frequently come away from it feeling less emotionally balanced than when I went to it. The obvious thing to do, therefore, is to figure out why, so that I can figure out what to do better, or at least how to approach it or whether it’s possible to approach it usefully. The first thing I notice when I consider this is that Twitter—by which, of course, I mean the tweets of the people I follow on Twitter—contains a great deal of complaining.

This is a little bit odd because I’ve generally selected people to follow on the basis of having said something insightful or something funny. So the first question is: what did I do wrong in how I’ve selected people to follow?

The answer there seems to have several parts. One of which is just that it’s far easier to complain than to come up with anything insightful to say. When people run out of insight, they may simply turn to complaining because it’s better than nothing. Another explanation is that there simple are people who one needs to turn retweets off for, because they will retweet things that they will not write. That’s easily done, and not the majority of what tends to cause my day to be worse after going to Twitter. I think that another part of it is that there are people who have valuable things to say, but minimal self-control when they themselves become upset. I don’t think that there’s anything practical to do with these people other than to unfollow or mute them. A happy medium is actually to only read lists, and just leave these people off of the lists.

There are also people who have valuable things to say, but fundamentally misunderstand the medium in which they are saying them. Twitter is called “micro-blogging” for a reason, though people frequently think of it as merely conversing with friends. This dissonance can produce things that would make sense if heard only by the person to whom they were written but are highly liable to misunderstanding in public, where they actually are. Much of the above about people with little emotional self-control does apply, though on rare occasions it may be helpful to point out to these people that they are making public statements that really are meant for private audiences; since this is, fundamentally, a mistake, they may possibly be helped.

There is also a problem with Outrage Quoting. This is harder to know what to do with; one thing that helps is to block the idiots who are frequently quoted. And, of course, using lists, muting, and unfollowing are all options.

Ultimately, I suspect that the correct approach is just to narrow down yet more carefully the list of people whose tweets I see and to double-down on my rule about only reading twitter via Tweetdeck using lists.

Still, I think it’s also worthwhile to do some introspection on why I’ve broken down on that rule I imposed on myself; what am I looking for? I’ve got more than enough to do, I certainly don’t need Twitter in order to stave off boredom. I’ve got enough to read (and write) that I shouldn’t have time to be bored in the next twenty years (God willing). It could be looking for human contact, or hoping to find people to help me think through some topics that I’m thinking about. I could just be craving a certain sort of stimulation, since the current environment requires more patience than I’m used to practicing.

Were Plays the TV of Previous Centuries?

Being, as I am, a fan of English Literature from previous centuries, especially of Pride & Prejudice and golden age detective stories, something I couldn’t help but note is that if anyone was near London (or another big city), going to plays was a common form of entertainment. Something else I’ve learned, in doing research about early detective stories, is that a lot of detective stories and tropes seem to be from plays more than novels.

Putting these together, I’ve begun to wonder whether plays were not, speaking broadly, the television of yesteryear.

In my own experience of plays, these are either some of the cream of English writing, as in the case of Shakespeare, or else are at least fairly time-tested things that are quite expensive and one travels a long distance to see. But plays are not generally talked of that way in earlier British fiction; they were as often a spur-of-the-moment thing as planned, and if planned, just an alternative to something like having people over for dinner. What is, or at least was, talked of like this in my experience is television.

Further, there are parallels. People usually didn’t seem to expect the plays to be very good, and they really didn’t expect them to last. And, indeed, most plays did not. As far as I can tell, the typical play had a short run in a small theater, and then everyone local had seen it and they’d move on.

If this is the case, it makes sense that plays would be frequently formulaic, since they were written on tight schedules and without any expectation of being remembered, and so it would be possible for the theater critic in the story What, No Butler? to say that in all the plays he saw, the butler always did it. (I’ve got a bunch of posts about the trope that the butler did it, btw.) This would be a lot like saying that in Murder, She Wrote the businessman’s wife did it. (There is, by the way, a hilarious formula for a typical Murder, She Wrote episode that illustrates some of what I’m talking about.)

Obviously, there are differences between plays back in the day and television today, even apart from the technology. Television shows have long runs of consistent characters, and occasionally the episodes try to be consistent with each other. (After Babylon 5, it became common to have a “show arc” where there was a long-running story that would make up some and occasionally all of each episode. In a sense these are just a return to the days of the serials, though.)

That said, I think that this might be a useful interpretive key to understanding the attitudes characters would show toward plays in older literature. Even more importantly, I think, it suggests that when trying to work out the development of genres like mystery, it means that by not having access to many of the plays people were seeing, we’re lacking one of the major influences on writers of the novels and short stories that we do have access to. In some ways, it might be like, in the future, trying to understand the development of Science Fiction through the present time without having seen Star Trek or Babylon 5. People who, in the early 2000s, write science fiction novels certainly have seen these influential things and moreover expect that their audiences to have seen them, too. It would be interesting to get a hold of some of those short-lived detective plays from the 1900s.

Video Games Are Great and Dangerous

A wag I know one described the characteristic masculine and feminine addictions on the internet as:

Men play video games to pretend to be good at doing things. Women use social media to pretend to have friends.

I’m going to leave the second half of that alone, but the first half is interesting. Video games, at least for males, are great and dangerous for really the same reason: they have a much lower effort-to-reward ratio than real life does.

I should clarify that by “real life” I mean skills that still work when the electricity is out. For example, lifting heavy things, carving wood, playing a piano, flying a kite, boxing, riding a bicycle (fast), shooting a bow and arrow, building a miniature ship inside of a bottle, dancing, building a fire from gathered wood and starting it, etc. All of these skills, and many, many more, take a very long time to get good at, typically with a long time at the beginning which has little result besides besides frustration.

In video games, by contrast, one can typically learn the relevant skills to get some rewards within an hour, and often within a few minutes. It is true that they will sometimes have skills which are difficult to master, but even those tend to only require hundreds of hours to master, not tens of thousands, and they almost never involve enduring physical pain along the way.

All this is correct for video games for their intended purpose: relaxation. Video games, used well, are fun. They are a restorative to a weary soul who has been ground down by the trials and tribulations of doing real things, in situations and environments which were not designed to be enjoyable. The quick fun and easy rewards help one to remember the slow enjoyment and eventual rewards of good work in the real world.

The problem is something that really is more dangerous to young men—it is possible to become so used to the ease and comfort of video games that the difficulty of real life becomes insurmountable. Without the rewards of accomplishment coming on the schedule a young video game player has been trained to expect them, he may face crushing disappointment. Instead of being a restorative to a fallen creature in a fallen world, enabling him to face the world in which he lives, it may be an impediment which makes it harder for him to do real things.

As in all things, the trick is to use things in the right way and to avoid their pitfalls.

Lepers And Social Distancing

A curious thought occurred to me recently with regard to how we talk about lepers in the bible, and especially in the new testament. It’s fairly common to hear about how lepers were feared, had to stay outside of society, etc. and this is often connected to people in modern times who are on the outskirts of our society. Jesus was not afraid of lepers, and so we should not be afraid of those on the outskirts of society, either. (That this means that, among others, we should love neo-nazis and KKK members and the like is rarely mentioned, though, nor is the fact that love does not always look like acceptance, as it would not in those cases.)

What this modern approach seems to miss is that ancient people avoided lepers because lepers had a communicable disease. They weren’t outcasts because they looked different, or had a different culture, or pronounced words in a strange way; they were outcasts because being too close to them might cause one to catch a serious disease. That is, people practiced social distancing from lepers.

In these modern times of COVID-19, we have an exceedingly similar practice with people who have COVID-19, though with our modern understanding of diseases and the conditions of transmissibility, we do admit some exceptions who are wearing a great deal of anti-germ-armor (“PPE”). Medical personal in body suits with respirators aside, people with COVID-19 are outcasts, except we phrase it, “they should self-quarantine”. If someone with COVID-19 comes to a hospital, we expect them to call ahead to warn the staff, and to come through a different entrance, which is a slightly more technologically advanced version of clapping a bowl and calling out “unclean!”

If Christ were conducting his earthly ministry today, there would undoubtedly be COVID-19 patients who came within six feet of him hoping to be cured, and instead of lecturing them to maintain social distancing, he would, undoubtedly, cure them. But he would not come within six feet of someone with COVID-19 because he doesn’t recognize human prejudices and is not afraid of human superstitions—disease is not a human superstition and people with a communicable disease can actually spread it. He would come within six feet of people with COVID-19 because, as Lord of the world, he is Lord of diseases, too. As the one through whom all things were made and nothing was made apart from him, COVID-19 could not hurt him. The one who can make the blind see and the lame walk and clense lepers cannot be harmed by disease, unless he were to choose to permit it.

In short, Jesus did not care about social distancing with lepers because his miraculous power made him immune to communicable diseases. The closest parallel I can think of was when he angered a crowd who brought him to the top of a cliff to throw him off, but it was not his time, so he just walked away from them. This was a demonstration of Christ’s power, not an instruction that Christians should treat angry mobs as if they aren’t dangerous. In like way, Christ was not afraid of lepers because he could cure them, not because communicable diseases are, to use another modern phrase, fake news.

Murder She Wrote: When Thieves Fall Out

The second episode of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote, is titled, When Thieves Fall Out. It’s a very unusual episode of Murder, She Wrote.

The episode begins with the owner of a car dealership firing a drunk salesman. After that we meet a rather enigmatic character. I’m not sure whether to call him the protagonist or the antagonist, and in many ways the episode isn’t sure, either.

His name is Andrew Durbin. It’s a bit complicated, but we learn his backstory: he just got out of prison for a murder he claims he didn’t commit 20 years ago. He had been a hitchiker, and a wealthy businessman was giving him a ride. A car swerved almost into their lane and they swerved to avoid it, crashing. The businessman was injured and Durbin ran to a nearby farmhouse for help, but they didn’t hear his banging on the door. When he got back someone had bashed the businessman’s head in with a rock, and $100,000 in bearer bonds were missing. At that moment the police showed, and he was taken to be the murderer, and was convicted.

He’s back in Cabot Cove because he recognized a kid in the car (in a prom outfit; it was prom night) that ran them off of the road, and he wants vengeance and to know who the driver is.

The kid turns out to be Bill, the owner of the car dealership.

Somewhere around here, the car dealership owner recognizes that some weird things are going and her husband is very scared, so she goes to Jessica for help.

Andrew Durbin goes to the car dealership and says that there seems to be some electrical trouble with his car.

Bill says that he’s busy and will need some time to get the repair done. He suggests that Andrew come back at 9pm to pick up his car. Andrew agrees. Jessica shows up and talks to Bill, but not much really comes from this. He denies everything. Jessica leaves, and Bill calls a confederate—presumably the other person in the car, that fateful night.

Interestingly for a Murder, She Wrote episode, while we’re pretty sure that someone is about to be murdered, we don’t really know who.

It turns out to be Bill, which is an interesting turn of events because it leaves the field so wide open for who the murderer could be. One obvious suspect is the man with whom he had an appointment at around the time he was killed, Andrew Durbin, but it turns out that Durbin has an air-tight alibi. He was eating dinner for 2 hours at a restaurant where several reliable witnesses could vouch for him.

The alibi is useful, structurally, but it’s also very curious that Durbin never showed up to the appointment. It’s somewhat implied, later in the episode, that this was really a setup; he expected this to stir up Bill’s confederate and get him to kill Bill. It’s never explained in detail, and doesn’t make all that much sense as a plan. Unless he figured that Bill’s killer would be sloppy and get caught, this plan would most likely result in the trail going cold and Durbin’s only hope of justice being extinguished. That said, for whatever reason he does it, he never shows up and is careful to have an excellent alibi for before, during, and after the murder is committed.

Convinced that Durbin is both innocent and telling the truth, Jessica interviews Bill’s old high school friends who were with him that night.

They lie to Jessica, of course, in order to protect Bill’s memory, and say that he was with them the whole time. Eventually it comes out that Bill was drunk and left early. There’s some further investigation and a sub-plot where one of Bill’s old football friends who is pretending to have been crippled in a car crash and is suing Bill turns out not to be crippled and to only be scamming.

I probably should have mentioned earlier that high school football was a big theme. All of Bill’s male friends from high school were on the football team with him, and they were the only team from Cabot Cove who ever won the state championship. This is important because it turns out that the driver, and the murderer both of Bill and of the driver 20 years ago was the beloved high school football coach.

There was actually a pretty good line from his confession, when he talked about how the business he had invested his share of the $100,000 into went bust almost immediately: “I guess I should have known that nothing good would come of that money.”

What really makes this episode special, though, is that it doesn’t stop here. Later that night, as Jessica and Amos are having dinner, Andrew Durbin shows up at Jessica’s doorstep to thank her.

Jessica says that she wishes he wouldn’t. She acknowledges that he was telling the truth and spent 20 years in prison unjustly, but he knew what would happen when he came. He replies that he did warn her that he was after justice.

“I can’t help but think that justice could have been served in a better way.”

Then he gets one of the all-time great lines in Murder, She Wrote.

“Oh? Well you give it some thought, Mrs. Fletcher, and when you figure out what could have been, let me know.”

Jessica is at a loss for words. He turns and leaves, and she closes the door. She then leans against it, thinking.

And there the episode ends.

Something I touched on in my blog post about how Jessica Fletcher is an oddly libertine scold is that she has an extremely strong but highly selective sense of indignation. She deplores violence but not, in general, any of the things which tend to make it necessary.

She dislikes, tremendously, that people she cared about were made to suffer. This is understandable, but it is a fault in Jessica that she didn’t rise above her feelings and stick to her principles and acknowledge that Durbin was in the right. Instead, she resents being made to be the one to find them out. In short, she is entitled to grieve, but not to be indignant, and Durbin’s final line points out to her how little she is entitled to her indignation.

Jessica does not learn from this moment, of course. First, because she’s written by television writers. Second, because Murder, She Wrote was episodic, with episodes not being related to each other. Frankly, I think it’s really more the former than the latter, though. All that said, it’s pretty satisfying for Jessica to get a comeuppance, for once.

Apart from all this, it’s an interesting episode. Detectives investigating long-ago mysteries is interesting, because the evidence is so limited (at least when people don’t oddly good memories about things long-past to which they hadn’t attached any great significance at the time). This is done much better in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, but it’s an unfair comparison. That was a novel; a 48 minute long TV episode cannot be as good. It does partake of some of what made that novel so good, though, even if it takes the easy route and uses photographs instead of people’s partial memories.

Dorothy L. Sayers on Gaudy Night, Preliminary Thoughts

As I mentioned, I’ve gotten a copy of Dorothy L. Sayers essay in the book Titles to Fame, in which she discussed the creation of her novel, Gaudy Night. I’ve read it over twice, and will be writing a more in-depth analysis of it, but at the moment I wanted to give some preliminary thoughts.

One of the things which leaps out at me is that she described the nature of detective stories in the early 1920s as being very focused on plot, to the exclusion of character. They were not supposed to be “serious”. Especially interesting to me is that she gave, as the exception that proved the rule, G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. He introduced philosophy into the detective story, but he was also an acknowledge master of paradoxes, and popular detective stories which were philosophical were simply one more paradox in his rather large bag of them.

She goes on to describe a trend, from the twenties into the thirties, of detective stories becoming more fleshed-out stories and less pure puzzles. This trend I find interesting, because, depending on whether you count the detective story as starting out with Sherlock Holmes or C. Auguste Dupin, it didn’t really start as a pure puzzle. In fact, even if you count the detective story as starting out with C. Auguste Dupin, you can still observe the trend of moving more toward pure puzzles, with the final Dupin story being entirely about reasoning from newspaper articles.

Be that as it may, it does raise an interesting question: why would people prefer detective stories that were pure puzzles, without real characters?

Before attempting to answer that, I think it worth noting that I’m not sure that Ms. Sayers was entirely correct. My evidence for this is hardly conclusive, but for example I can find no major support for it in the book Masters of Mystery, published in 1930. That was a few years too late to be in the full sway of what Ms. Sayers is describing, so it does not suffice. On the flip side of the 1920s, the 1907 The Red Thumb Mark and 1911 The Eye of Osiris Dr. Thorndyke novels were both almost as much love stories as they were detective stories. They are even further in time from the early 20s than Masters of Mystery was, though. The only thing with which I am familiar and which is right about that time is The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which was published in 1920 (in the United States; early 1921 in England). I am afraid I must confess that I haven’t actually read the book—I’ve only read a handful of the Poirot stories—I’ve only seen the David Suchet TV production of it. While it certainly is not a novel of manners, nor is it Gaudy Night, neither is it merely a crossword puzzle in literary form. That said, a handful of further exceptions will not disprove a general rule, and most of the detective fiction of the time period has been lost to us in the mists of time.

To return to the question at hand, I think that there is an excellent reason for detective stories to have moved, for a time, in the direction of pure puzzles: they were new and people had not yet worked out how to do the puzzles. This was true both of readers as well as writers; both were figuring out what the puzzle inside of a detective story was.

When something is new, there is, of course, the pleasure of novelty, but there is also the difficulty of novelty. The structures which make up the new thing are unfamiliar, which makes initial learning easy, but the unfamiliarity of the structures of the new thing also makes it hard to do anything else other than learn them. Accordingly, it makes sense to prefer the things in a purer form.

To give an example of what I mean, early on a person may not be suspected by the reader merely because his presence seems obvious, though it might not have been necessary. Once this is learnt, however, it becomes possible to trick the reader by casting suspicion on a character by the trick of obviously diverting suspicion from him. Once this trick is learnt, it becomes unclear what sort of trick is being played, and so the reader knows to suspend his judgement merely because a character appears innocent.

There are many such examples that can be given; writers and readers have gone through bluffs and double bluffs and triple bluffs, until finally the rules of the game have been pretty well learnt by both and it is interesting rather than taxing to add in other elements.

To put the thing in another way, it took a while for Fr. Knox’s Decalogue to come about. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the issue with fair play is not really about a guessing game between reader and writer, but rather that it keeps the writer honest and makes the story a much better detective story. Once the rules of detective fiction were worked out, the detective story became good enough to make alloys of it with other sorts of stories.

I do not know that this is what happened, of course, and still less do I know, if this did happen, that this is why it happened. If it did happen, though, this does seem to me the most likely reason why.

Materialist Detectives

One of the things which I disliked about the second Dr. Thorndyke novel, The Eye of Osiris, is that all of the principal characters were Materialists. (For those not familiar: materialism, in this sense, is the belief that the only thing which exists is matter and its interactions; it denies things like God, the soul, free will, etc.) While the characters were not religious in the first book, it was far more explicit here and the book was, in consequence, less enjoyable.

The main problem with Materialists as detectives is that their position is a false one with regard to the main activities of a detective. A detective detects, yes, but for a purpose. In a mystery, the world has become corrupted through the wrong use of reason, and the detective enters it in order to restore the world to its proper order through the right use of reason. It is true that detective stories sometimes aimed to be pure puzzles, as if they were a long-form version of a logic problem where “The baker is sitting next to the red haired man, and across from Sally”. That is simply false, though. The moment that there are characters who are moving through time, they must have motives; they must have a theory of the world and be acting according to it or against it, and thinking well of themselves or being self-reproachful. In short, once you have characters not not mere chess-pieces, they must be human. They might be failed human beings, as in the classic creature of pure habit who goes to work, comes home, watches TV until it’s bedtime, and repeats the process every day merely because it is his habit, with no more thought than we can perceive a rabbit gives to munching grass. But the very fact of telling us what a man does during the day tells us what he doesn’t do, by exclusion. In short, the pure puzzle does not work.

The Materialist cannot do anything other than a pure puzzle. To the Materialist, a human being is merely a clump of matter that happens to be more interesting than an equally sized clod of dirt for reasons of pure sentimentality. The mystery cannot actually be a problem, to the Materialist, because he has no theory of the world in which one organization of matter is superior to any other. He cannot be restoring the world to its proper order because it has no proper order. The Materialist, in truth, has no reason to do one thing instead of another; all he has are the tendencies he has inherited from men who did have a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

This problem is exacerbated in The Eye of Osiris because the person whom Dr. Thorndyke is helping cannot pay Dr. Thorndyke’s fee. Some reason must be put forth for Dr. Thorndyke helping, and since charity is not a permissible reason, as Materialists may neither give nor receive charity for reasons a little too involved to go into here, Dr. Thorndyke is in the absurd position of insisting that he is not in the least helping the old man intentionally, but purely as a by-product of satisfying his own curiosity in the case. In fact, he goes so far as to reject the old man’s thanks.

This is reasonably true to life; Materialists cannot actually exist in society with other Materialists, because their mutual philosophy leaves no room for human beings. It is not, however, interesting. The wretched state of the Materialist is true, so in that sense the book does embody a truth about real life, but it is an unpleasant truth. Unpleasant truths are not what we look for in mystery novels. We look to mystery novels, not for the temporary truth that the world has fallen, but for the eternal truth that the world has been saved. It’s hard enough to remember in this world of sin and woe; we don’t need our reminders of it to make it harder to remember.

The Eye of Osiris

So, I’ve read the second Dr. Thorndyke novel, The Eye of Osiris. I didn’t entirely expect to do that, but I was curious how Dr. Freeman introduced the inverted detective story (“howchatchem” as opposed to “whodunnit”). I didn’t find out, though, because it turns out that he didn’t do it in this novel, either. The villain was relatively obvious, but his identity was not revealed until the second to last chapter.

I doubt that there is a point to spoiler warnings on works so old that they were published before any reader of this blog post was born. Moreover, if one wants to read the story The Eye of Osiris in a state of total ignorance as to what the next page carries, it seems improbably in the extreme that one would read a blog post with that title, and whose first paragraph purports to be about that very book. That said, if such is your aim, dear reader, stop reading this post and go read the book.

Rather to my surprise, The Eye of Osiris is narrated, not by Dr. Jervis, but by another doctor whose name I forget. Whereas Jervis was unemployed and came into the employ of Dr. Thorndyke, this doctor—his name is Berkeley, I just looked it up—is filling in for another doctor, who owns a private practice, and who is now on vacation. Dr. Berkeley is young, and was taught in school by Thorndyke, which is how he knows him. Other than these variations, he fulfills much the same role that Dr. Jervis did in the first book. It is for Dr. Berkeley to become a friend of the household, to extract information about it from passing conversation, and to fall in love with the beautiful and intelligent young lady who lives in it. Dr. Jervis, presumably now married to the beautiful and intelligent young lady from the household of the previous case, has precious little to do in this story. This will sound more significant when the reader understands that about a third of each book is taken up with its respective doctor falling in love with its respective lady.

The mystery, itself, is interesting, though the chief of the mystery isn’t really who did it—there are only two plausible suspects, and one of them swears that the other didn’t know about the will which could be his only motive. To give the barest summary of the plot: a rich man, John Bellingham, called on his cousin, Mr. Hurst, after a month-long overseas trip, but when Hurst came home and checked in his study, Bellingham was not there despite the maid not seeing him leave. Hurst rushed over to Bellingham’s layer, Mr. Jellicoe, and together they went to Bellingham’s brother’s house, where Jellicoe found a scarab Bellingham always wore on his watch chain. Two years later, bones from an apparently dismembered body started showing up in pools and rivers in an area near to where the missing man’s house was. John Bellingham’s will left a few thousand pounds to Mr. Jellicoe, who shared Bellingham’s interest in egyptology, and left the bulk of his estate to his brother if he was burried within his family parish and to Mr. Hurst if he was not burried there. This bizarre will caused much confusion and trouble.

It’s fairly clear from the description—which also involved Mr. Jellicoe being the last person to see John Bellingham alive before his trip—that it was Mr. Jellicoe who committed the crime. Murderers really should be more careful than to find chance evidence themselves. (It was also clear that when “Mr Bellingham” called on his cousin after his trip, no one who would recognize him actually saw him.) What is unclear, though, is why the body was cut up into so many pieces, and why it was done with medical precision—it was severed in places an anatomist might sever it, and moreover it was done without any scratching on the bones. Why did the murderer take such care to dissect his victim?

Having some experience of butchering large vertebrates (deer), and hence being familiar with why one would cut the arm with the shoulder blade rather than at the ball joint, I partially guessed at the answer: the victim had done a good deal of rotting prior to his body being dissected. It turns out that the egyptology was more relevant to the plot than one might have suspected, and the body was not that of John Bellingham but instead a mummy which Bellingham had gifted to the British museum. John Bellingham’s corpse had been concealed within the cartonnage that concealed the mummy.

The grand reveal, here, was done with x-ray photography of the mummy, revealing various features of John Bellingham such as a tattoo of the eye of Osiris on his chest as well as silver wire in his kneecaps from when they were surgically repaired after being broken. I think that this was a much more exciting reveal in 1911, a mere 16 years after x-rays were discovered and while they were still very much in their infancy as a technology.

Overall, The Eye of Osiris is a somewhat strange book. It’s enjoyable to read, though I did find myself skimming some of the more melodramatic parts of the romantic plot. Dr. Jervis, who was the best developed character in the first book, barely appears. Even Dr. Thorndyke shows up less than he did in The Red Thumb Mark. The scientific evidence, which in this case essentially means the medical evidence—is emphasized to an enormous degree over all other kinds of evidence. I suppose that this makes a certain amount of sense with a doctor both as the actual writer and the fictional writer of the story, but medical evidence tends to be the least interesting sort of evidence there is, with the possible exception of accounting evidence. And then there is the very strange ending where the crime is revealed, not to be murder, but merely to be concealing the body of a man who died by accident, together with casting suspicion upon innocent people for the murder of the man who wasn’t murdered. This was a very strange decision, since the book goes to some lengths to show just how uncaring of his fellow creatures Mr. Jellicoe was, but then instead of the strange events being the plot of Jellicoe they are merely his best attempt to avoid being convicted of murder for the accidental death of his friend.

I should note, though, that The Eye of Osiris, like The Red Thumb Mark before it, has the occasional clever wordplay. In fact, it may have a bit more of it. For example, in a probate court in which an interested party is trying to get John Bellingham declared dead:

“…As the time which has elapsed since the testator was last seen alive is only two years, the application [to presume death] is based on the circumstances of the disappearance which were, in many respects, very singular, the most remarkable feature of that disappearance being, perhaps, its suddenness and completeness.”

Here the judge remarked in a still, small voice that, “It would, perhaps, have been even more remarkable if the testator had disappeared gradually and incompletely.”

I doubt that I would recommend The Eye of Osiris to anyone, though neither would I counsel anyone to not read it. It is pleasant enough and is, at least, curious as an element of history.

Historical Research is Interesting

I recently paid approximately $10 to get a copy of a chapter that Dorothy L. Sayers wrote in the book Titles To Fame, which is an anthology book in which “Ten eminent novelists … give us the ‘biographies’ of their most successful books” (supposedly, according to the forward). I applied to and filled out a form with the Marion E. Wade Center to get the copy of that chapter. It was a most curious feeling, finding a document mostly forgotten that sheds insight into a subject which is not forgotten.

There was even a certain fitting aspect to this, in that the chapter is about the book Gaudy Night, which is about scholarship, and its plot even turns on a document which was found and stolen in a remote library. Further, Harriet’s cover story for her presence in Oxford is research into the life of the victorian era novelist Sheridan Le Fanu. (Le Fanu was an Irishman best known for ghost stories; I’ve only been able to find a little bit about his mystery stories, and I’m not sure, from the descriptions I’ve seen, that they’re really in the same sort of genre as what we commonly call mystery, i.e. where there is a detective and an explanation to which the reader comes to know. I suppose I will need to find some of his works and actually read them to find out for myself. That said, as an interesting tidbit, Le Fanu was writing primarily from the 1830s to the 1870s; Harriet investigating him in 1935 is actually rather like me researching Dorothy L. Sayers now, that is, in the year of our Lord 2020.)

I’m going to write at least one post and possibly several on the contents of the chapter. For the moment, I just wanted to mention the curious feeling that accompanies digging up things which have been mostly lost to time. It’s got a certain exhilaration to it which is often rendered accurately in golden age mysteries which feature Egyptologists and archaeologists more generally.

Servants in Mysteries

An extremely common feature of golden age detective mysteries is the presence of servants in a household. They acted as witnesses for the police, to place people at the scene of a crime as well as to provide alibis. They were also invaluable sources of information when discretely pumped. It is very difficult to come up with any modern equivalent, though, at least outside of exceedingly rich households.

In real life, servants occupied a curious niche in British culture during the early 1900s; with the rise of the middle class servants were relatively commonplace, since the middle class was comparatively wealthy and the transition from farms to a modern economy was still underway, supplying a large number of people who had few specialized skills but just as much need to earn a living as anyone else. This made servants affordable, and the middle class’s pretensions to be like the aristocracy, combined with a lack of the modern labor-saving devices, made servants indispensable of one could at all employ them.

From the detective writer’s perspective, they were enormously valuable, since they lived intimately with families to whom they rarely had any great allegiance. A brother might lie to protect a brother, or a mother her son, but there was no reason to suppose that a valet would lie to protect his master or a cook to protect her mistress. I can’t recall a single instance of anyone supposing that a charwoman would so much as j-walk for an employer.

In books, servants were not omniscient; it was possible to fool them or even to hide a body on the premises and dispose of it without their seeing. Neither were they disloyal. They would answer the questions of the police, so far as they were legally obliged to, but they did, in general, hold that repeating what they saw to strangers was no business of theirs. Discretion was important no less in maids than in doctors. However close to reality this was, it was plausible—if for no other reason than in keeping with other fiction from the timer period—and phenomenally useful to the detective writer.

The writers of mysteries has two opposing problems, and they arise out of the two principle characters of the mystery story. On the one hand, there must be sufficient evidence of the crime that the detective can detect it. On the other hand, there must be sufficiently little evidence of the crime that the murderer is willing to commit the crime at all. The near-ubiquity of servants, combined with their limitations, answer this need quite admirably, which goes a long way to explaining how frequently they showed up for the purpose.

Times have changed and servants no longer make any economic sense, outside of the homes of the unbelievably rich. The most significant factor here is that the transition in farming is mostly complete. In the United States, approximately 2% of the population are farmers; mechanization has taken its toll and the toll has been paid. Immigrants do supply a small stream of unspecialized labor, but even here the economy as a whole has developed enough jobs for people who can learn specialized skills that they do not concentrate in any particular industry. Even where they do show up in service jobs, these service jobs tend to be done on a contract basis. People no longer employ gardeners but lawn services. People rarely have maids though they may have a cleaning service. Much of the work a maid might do has been rendered doable in a short time by a washing machine, a dryer, or a vacuum cleaner. In short, live-in servants are no longer plausible. Are there any other professions which might fill the role?

I fear that, for the most part, there are not. Where people congregate they tend to pack in too closely, for the sake of efficiency, to make it easy for someone to slip something by the witnesses. Where people do not congregate, they tend to live only with people whose testimony is worthless for an alibi.

There are, of course, exceptions. Resorts will have people who work at them and at least temporarily live there, but who live in sufficiently low density that they will not observe everything which goes on. Museums, art galleries, libraries and the like also (sometimes) have approximately the right density of impartial witnesses, though they tend to be closed outside of business hours and over-packed with guests during business hours. That said, they will have slack times, of course. There are also some academic settings, such as a laboratory, that may work for the purpose, too.

All of these substitutes will have their peculiarities that will, perforce, change the stories set with them. This is no disaster, but it will make some of the spirit of the golden age mysteries harder to recapture because part of that spirit was the ordinariness that the extraordinary events took place in. One cannot make an extraordinary setting feel ordinary. Even if an volcanic observation post has the same density of impartial witnesses that a Victorian home might, it will need to be filled with the sort of odd people who might live an work in a volcanic observation post. Nearly anyone might be forced into the circumstances which make a job as a cook the only job they can get, but few people are forced by the need to avoid starvation into being a librarian. Modern writers, if we try to recapture the atmosphere of golden age mysteries, are forced to turn the characters who in the original would have been comic relief into everymen. Circumstances having changed, we must work very hard to have both the circumstances and the humanity that golden age mysteries had.

It’s a Hot Day Today

According to the tribal witch doctors we call weathermen, it’s going to hit 90 degrees today. Yesterday wasn’t too far from that, and where I live it tends to be at least fairly humid most of the time. Plus, I’ve just always dealt better with the cold than with the heat. But this put me in mind of something interesting—why people used to get up so early in the day.

There was a tree that had sprung up in the middle of a large bush and went unnoticed for long enough that its trunk was now about 4 inches around. This is close enough to the neighbor’s house that the tree was growing over the fence and getting in the way of her lawn crew. Both to be a good neighbor and for the sake of the lilac bush it was growing it, it was time for the tree to go.

I don’t own any kind of powered saw; when I remove small trees and thick branches, I do it with my bow saw. It’s not that hard, but it is work, and work creates heat. Generating a lot of heat isn’t much fun on a cold day, and it’s miserable on a hot day, so I decided to saw the weed tree down in the morning, before work, and before the heat of the day settled in. This got me to thinking about why it was that farmers—who for most of history was most of humanity—would get up at the crack of dawn. If you’re going to be doing a lot of manual labor, it’s far preferable to do it early in the morning, before the day has gotten hot. Once the day gets hot it takes a long time to cool off again, and often doesn’t cool much before the sun sets.

Whether or not people actually kept working throughout the day, there would have been basically no way for them to have continued to work at the same level of output as before it got hot. The human capacity for work is dependent on the environment. Of course where it gets really hot people have a tendency to eat a big meal then take a nap during the hottest part of the day. As the saying from tropical regions goes, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. Even outside of hot regions, though, it makes sense to take advantage of the times when one can actually put in hard work, rather than just slowly suffer.

This, I think, helps to explain why waking up late is so associated with laziness. If a man who works outside waits to get up until it’s hot, he’s not going to be able to get much nearly as much done in a day. There is, also, the issue of light availability; one does not do much farming by lamplight. I don’t want to entirely discount it, but especially in summer, there is just a ton of daylight available. Outside of farming and other outdoor labors, the issue of heat, in the days before air conditioning, is far more pressing than the issue of light. Even inside of buildings, it gets quite hot on a hot day. It may be delayed by an hour or two from how hot it gets outside, but having put in work inside of an unairconditioned building in summertime, it doesn’t stay cool nearly as long as one would like. Granted, one can still write as quickly in the heat, but many of the other trades still involve moving and pushing and pulling; things that generate heat.

I’ve no way of knowing if this really was it, but it does strike me that someone who waits to get out of bed until one can no longer reasonably expect him to do work would seem very lazy, and indeed might well be very lazy. (Programmers, who always work in air conditioned environments and who move exceedingly little while they do so are notorious for preferring to work at night, rather than during the day. Having a wife and children I’ve mostly adapted to working during normal hours, but it would be very easy to slip back to a more natural way of working…)

[Update: Paul, in the comments, pointed out that I got the phrase about mad dogs and Englishmen. It comes from a 1931 Noel Coward song, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and contains the refrain “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”, as well as descriptions of how everyone else is too sensible to go out in the midday sun. You an see Mr. Coward performing the song on YouTube.]

Does Anyone Use the WordPress.com Reader?

I’m currently hosting this blog on wordpress.com, but since I rent my own server anyway, I’m thinking of doing the work to move over to hosting my blog on my own server. WordPress does make a plugin for integrating in the wordpress social features, like the wordpress.com reader. It’s about $40/year to use, so, I’m wondering whether anyone actually uses the wordpress.com reader to read this blog. If you do, could you leave a comment letting me know?

Having a Character Read a Book

I had a reasonably major character who was waiting someplace for some other characters to arrive, and she was reading a book to pass the time. Then I decided to go for it. Not only am I going to actually say which book it is, it’s going to be Pride and Prejudice.

Not only is she going to like the book, I think she’s going to talk about it with the brothers.

For some odd reason, this feels almost transgressive. I don’t know why; there’s no rule against having a character read a good book. In fact, there are plenty of instances in golden age mysteries of characters talking about other fictional detectives. There’s no reason I can’t have the characters talk about an interesting subject on occasion.