I was talking with a friend about the subject of Christian Esotericism after watching a video in which Jonathan Pageau talked with a few others about the subject and he mentioned the old esoteric idea that King Solomon used the power of God to force demons to build the Temple. I found this a very strange idea not merely for the obvious reasons, but also because it just doesn’t make sense. If God wanted to delegate the construction of the temple to some creatures and it wasn’t to men, why would he give this privilege to demons? Why wouldn’t he give this privilege to angels?
God certainly doesn’t need to delegate the construction of the temple to anyone. Aside from it being the obvious consequence of God’s omnipotence, it’s also quite visible in the way that God was often worshiped on mountains, and God made the mountains. God had no qualms about making places to worship Him, he just refrained from making all of them, giving it as a privilege to some creatures to imitate, in a small way, the mighty places of worship that God made.
Why on earth would God force this privilege of imitating Him onto angels who rejected Him, rather than give it to angels who would want it?
This, ultimately, seems to be the problem with Christian esotericism—it’s just esotericism, with Christian trappings. At the end of the day, there’s no good reason to make a deal with a devil, even if you think you can cheat the devil. (Yes, the magicians thought that they were merely forcing the devil to do their bidding rather than making a deal with it, but really that’s just a deal in which the devil doesn’t get anything. If God were actually guaranteeing the devil’s good behavior, then you’re actually forcing God to do your bidding and the demon is just a puppet. It’s an even worse idea to try to control God than it is to try to make a deal with a devil.)
My recent musings on the coincidences that went into Mystery Science Theater 3000 being a success got to me to thinking about coincidences in murder mysteries. The general rule is, of course, that coincidences may not help the hero of a story, and this was codified in Fr. Knox’s decalogue in rule number six. It would be a fool’s errand to try to count up which rule was most often broken, but I suspect it might be this one.
I should clarify that I mean broken but not to the benefit of the story. Agatha Christie managed to break several of the rules in ways that produced a good story, but not this one. (There are two examples I can think of in Agatha Christie’s work that involve coincidences, one in Poirot and one in Miss Marple. In the case of Poirot, she even went to the trouble of saying that Poirot considered the case a failure because he would not have solved it except for the coincidence.)
Having said that, I don’t think it’s impossible to use coincidences in mystery stories. One tolerable example of this is a coincidence which brings the detective in to the case. A good example of this is the Lord Peter Wimsey novel Unnatural Death. Lord Peter learns of the case by the accident of being seated in a restaurant next to someone who was telling a friend about it. He then weedles his way into an acquaintance with the man who told the story and sneakily gets enough information about it out of the man that he can begin investigating. Thus even in this coincidence Lord Peter has to do work to really get started.
This kind of coincidence is tolerable, I suspect, because it’s just a somewhat exaggerated form of the sorts of coincidences which are necessary for the detective to be involved at all. If Sherlock Holmes is to be called into a case, the murder must take place in London, or at least in England. If a man murdered another in the central African jungle in the cleverest possible way, Sherlock Holmes would never hear of it. This is even clearer in terms of time; if a man in the 1980s murders another, Sherlock Holmes could not possible have heard of it, at least Holmes as written by Conan Doyle. Nor would a fiendish plot ever come to the attention of Holmes which happened upon a whaling ship at sea which was lost in a storm before it ever reached port, with all hands dying. For a detective to embark upon a case, many things need to be coincident with his location in time and space. To add on top of this someone happening to talk about the mystery at lunch with a friend at a table next to the detective is just more of the same.
So what are we to make of the sort of coincidences which are more than this but less than just giving the detective the solution?
One of the more difficult ones are coincidences which look like they help the detective but are actually misleading. Probably the best example I can think of, here, is in the story Have His Carcass. Harriet finding the fresh blood seems to be helpful in pinning down the time of the murder with unusual precision but actually confounds the investigation almost until the end of the story. It definitely was quite interesting in that story, though I think it would be difficult to pull off well.
Then there are the coincidences which only seem to be clues, but actually aren’t.
These are often quite interesting when they happen prior to the detective getting on the scene. Red herrings are probably the most obvious example of this. Finding out that the maid’s earring was in the parlor where the body was found because the butler had been stealing jewelry and secretly hiding it in the chandelier above the door (which was never used) is, properly speaking, untangling a coincidence from the main problem.
Red Herrings are not the only such coincidence, of course. Sometimes things look weird for the murderer to have done because the murderer did not do them, but at the same time the person who did is not available. There might be a book missing from the library because someone—perhaps a neighbor—borrowed it a week ago and no one (still alive) knew that or noticed it then. It’s possible that someone was mistaken about which book is missing, and the person who borrowed it didn’t say anything because they were asked about the wrong book and weren’t told why they were asked, so couldn’t tell that there might be a mistake. Perhaps the police are withholding the evidence that the book is missing because they don’t want to tip off the murderer that they know, and so the person who could have easily told them didn’t know to come forward. All of these would work well in a story.
Then we come to the cases of coincidences that do actually help the detective, though they are not merely handing him the solution. Can these work?
I want to say that they can—the safe answer is to never say never—but it’s hard to think of how it can be done. One obvious answer is for the help to be trivial. The problem with that solution is: then why bother at all?
I suspect that the answer has to be something that preserves the detective working hard and being the only person who could solve the crime even with the luck. I suspect that the best way for this to work would be for the detective to manufacture his luck. That is, it is only through his knowledge and effort that he was in the place to receive the luck at all.
A good example of this would be reasoning that if there was evidence to prove who did it, it would be of a particular kind that would then have fallen in a particular place. Since it is not there to be found, if it ever was there it must have been picked up by a particular kind of person and so if he circulates word among these people—or interviews them, or some such—the evidence will fall into his lap. I have a memory that Sherlock Holmes did this, perhaps more than once. I can’t place the story, but I have a memory of more than one person coming, hat in hand, saying that he heard that Mr. Holmes was looking for someone who saw something-or-other, and he did, and getting rewarded for it.
The other, I suspect inferior, kind of luck would be something coming completely out of the blue, but only the detective understands its true significance. An example which comes to mind, though it is a very imperfect example, since it wasn’t discovered by luck, would be the evidence given by the nanny in the Poirot story Five Little Pigs. The nanny thinks that the evidence she has proves the guilt of Caroline Crale (which is why she withheld it), when Poirot knows that it proves Caroline’s innocence. If that kind of evidence were to come to the detective, even by accident, I think it would still work.
To bring this back to where I started: I think that coincidences are acceptable only when something unusual and special went into taking advantage of them. This is very much true of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Yes, a lot of unusual circumstances came together to make it possible, but it was a special group of people who took advantage of those circumstances and made it happen. Most people would not have made something great in the same circumstances.
In a sense, of course, all things can only happen when they did. Still, it’s interesting to consider how much the circumstances that led to Mystery Science Theater 3000 existing. (These thoughts were triggered by coming across some DVD special features as I was curating my MST3K DVD collection.)
MST3K began when Minneapolis-local UHF station KTMA needed programming but had all but no budget.
That in itself is an interesting sentence to unpack, because a lot of younger people won’t know what a local TV station is, nor what UHF was. (It has been very interesting explaining this to my twelve year old son who has become a fan of MST3K.)
For those who don’t know, in the 1940s when television got started through the 1980s, TV was broadcast over radio waves. This meant that the station was a building with a tall tower, atop of which was a very powerful radio antenna (ranging from the kilowatts to the megawatts, depending on the station, its budget, and its radio license). A given station could reach, depending on geography and other factors, from a dozen miles to a few hundred miles. There were a few nationally broadcast channels; this meant that they sent their signal out to many stations throughout the country which would broadcast it over their radio transmitters simultaneously. (For a long time there were only three; ABC, NBC, and CBS.) Most TV channels were local, though, typically only viewable from a single city and its surrounding area.
The first radio spectrum allocated to television was higher frequency than that allocated to radio, which was in part a necessity because it needed far more bandwidth, which can only be found higher up in the spectrum. This was still all fairly low frequency, though, as the technology to easily transmit and receive at higher frequencies was harder to make and, in practice, out of reach. Early TVs could only receive these low-frequency channels, channels 2-13. Later on the technology to broadcast on higher channels came about and began to be incorporated into television sets. These channels (channels 14-83) were called UHF channels, for “ultra high frequency”. On early radio TVs these were received somewhat differently and were thus less convenient than the lower frequency channels. This coupled with the shorter propagation of high-frequency radio waves meant that UHF channels tended to have a smaller audience than the standard channels would get.
KTMA (which was the radio call-sign of the station broadcasting in the Minneapolis area on channel 23) began as a station for broadcasting local sporting events. This niche fits a UHF station fairly well since only people relatively close will care about local sporting events anyway. That said, it didn’t really work. (There were other things relating to subscription television that also didn’t work.) Thus around 1988 Jim Mallon was hired as the station director to try to make it viable. There were a few packages of movies that had been purchased to try to broadcast something but because they were the cheapest ones possible they were the worst movies available that no one else wanted.
To make KTMA financially viable, Jim Mallon needed to create some extremely cheap local programming that was at least better than the stuff they were licensing. Jim had roots in the local comedy scene and made contact with Joel Hodgeson. Joel had the idea for MST3K and KTMA having a vault of the worst movies available for license was a great fit. Joel also had contacts in the local comedy scene, and pulled in J. Elvis Weinstein and Trace Beaulieu to co-star with him. At this point all of the riffing was ad-libbed during the live broadcast. (Supposedly Trace and J. Elvis were making $25 a show.) The show was popular but not enough to save KTMA, which was heading into bankruptcy and canceled it. Joel thought that there was something to the show, though, and had enough material to put together a 4 minute pitch tape. He put this together because he’d heard that the newly forming Comedy Channel on cable TV desperately needed programming, and Joel happened to have worked with the president of the forming channel so had a contact and a path of trust.
(For those who don’t know, Cable TV largely replaced broadcast TV because it had much higher quality and, having vastly more bandwidth, it had far more channels on it. People would pay a subscription fee to their local cable TV provider to cover the cost of physically running cables out to everyone’s house. Cable Channels would broadcast their transmission over satellites which the local cable providers would receive on satellite dishes and distribute over physical cables. Adding channels didn’t require licensing radio spectrum and there weren’t issues of radio interference that caused visual and audio static.)
The Comedy Channel picked up the show; as (IIRC) Trace Beaulieu put it, they represented 90 minutes of inexpensive pre-packaged content to a network that rapidly had to create 24 hours of programming in a genre that is notoriously best when short. At first the network tried to interfere a bit, but it didn’t have time to interfere much and rapidly MST3K was popular, took care of itself, and was produced in the mid-west which was inconvenient to travel to so they mostly left it alone. (Things would change a little bit when they got canceled on the Comedy Channel and moved to the SciFi channel, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)
This is quite a string of coincidences that could only really have happened when they did. There hasn’t really been another time when people would invest the sort of money into a TV station which needed programming like in the UHF days; enough to pay a bunch of people, not enough to pay them much. There hasn’t been the same sort of cache where talented people who dreamed of being on TV would work for peanuts because at least they were on TV. There is rarely that kind of money available to hire talented people who will work for peanuts with so little oversight. Even when you have something like this, it’s almost never the case that when the first one evanesces (as such things always will in this world) a second such opportunity, with a larger budget, shows up.
I don’t want to overstate my meaning; weird and unlikely things happen all the time. This one was just especially weird and unlikely, and extraordinarily a product of its time.
There was a time during the late 1980s and much of the 1990s when computers were tremendously exciting because they were getting better at an unbelievable pace. Though from an intentionally comedic perspective, the later portions of Weird Al’s parody song All About the Pentiums captures some of this spirit (link because they don’t allow embed).
You’ve gotta be the dumbest newbie I’ve ever seen You’ve got white-out all over your screen You think your Commodore 64 is really neato What kinda chip you got in there, a Dorito? You’re usin’ a 286? Don’t make me laugh Your Windows boots up in what, a day and a half? You could back up your whole hard drive on a floppy diskette You’re the biggest joke on the Internet
And again, later:
My new computer’s got the clocks, it rocks But it was obsolete before I opened the box You say you’ve had your desktop for over a week? Throw that junk away, man, it’s an antique Your laptop is a month old? Well that’s great If you could use a nice, heavy paperweight
When this song was written we had had about a decade of computers being approximately twice as fast every year, though I think that CD-ROM played a big part in this general sort of impression, too. To see what I mean, I want to run through a very brief history of processors.
In 1982, Intel released the 80286, more popularly called the 286. It was used in a variety of things at a variety of speeds, so for simplicity I’m going to focus on where I met it: the IBM PS/2. It had 1MB of RAM and the CPU ran at 10MHz.
The 286 was succeeded by the 386, though at the time it often took years for these things to work into consumer hardware. We had our 286-based PS2 in about 1988, while the 386 came out in 1995. We got a computer with a 386 somewhere around 1990. That ran at about 20MHz, and was faster at executing instructions even at the same clock speed. The 486 was released in 1990 and started at 25MHz in the computers available to us some time later. In 1992 the DX2 was launched, which was a 486 running at 50MHz. Shortly thereafter a version at 66MHz was launched. These were over twice as fast as the initial 486, since being on the same architecture the clock speed mostly tells you the performance.
In 1993 the DX4-100 as well as the next-generation Pentium were launched, and again performance lept up, somewhere around doubling. The Pentium Pro would follow in 1995 and the Pentium II in 1996. By the time of the Pentium II, not only was the architecture faster at the same clock speed, but clock speeds had reached up to 450MHz (lowest was 233MHz). The Pentium III was released in 1999, and would have clock speeds that, in the high-end models, reached up to 1.4GHz (the lowest was 400MHz). By now there were becoming issues with fetching data from RAM that meant that increased clock speeds didn’t linearly increase processing power, but the increased processing power around now was still almost beyond comprehension compared to what it was a mere ten years before.
However, it was still small compared to how big an improvement CD-ROMs were. To see this, we have to consider what (in a sense) they replaced: the floppy disk. While there were several formats of floppy disk, the dominant one in the mid to late 1980s was the 3.5″ floppy disk. Here’s a decent picture of them from Wikipedia:
(For those wondering about the name, the floppy disk was inside of the hard plastic case. The metal door slid to expose the floppy disk to the drive that read it.)
This stored 1.44MB of data. Hence the Evil Overlord rule, “all important data will be padded to 1.45MB”—so the hero couldn’t copy the critical file onto a floppy drive and escape with it, as often happened in movies from a very specific time period. The 1.44MB 3.5” floppy disks were not overly expensive, but they were not super cheap and they were cumbersome. They also were not fast. It would take close to a minute to read all of the data on a floppy disk, though there was some variability. Software would come in boxes that had multiple floppy disks. Early games might be on three floppies, while later games might be on seven or eight. I remember the first time I played around with installing Linux, it took about twenty floppy disks.
Then some time around the later days of the 486 came the widespread availability of affordable, if still expensive, CD-ROM drives. These had a capacity of 650MB and a read speed of 150 Kilobytes per second, making them almost eight times faster than a floppy drive, but more importantly, they had the capacity to store as much data as 450 floppy drives. Hard drives of the day were often in the range of only 200 or 300 MB, so these amazing disks had as much capacity as two to three hard drives, which were the enormous storage vessels we had been copying floppy disks to in order to install software for years. It was an amazing revolution. Computers were getting faster, but doubling speeds at every 18 months (though it seemed faster at the time) by 1992 they were less than 100 times faster than they were in 1985. With the CD-ROM, we had something that could store over 400 times as much data in a portable format as the year before they were introduced. It was a revolution in what could be distributed with software. Games quickly began shipping with far more art, for more screens, and actual music. I remember getting a demo copy of the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica on a single CD, complete with pictures.
DVDs would come out in 1996, though those were movies that came out and it took a year or so for DVD-ROM to really start being used. They were a revolution in movies for various reasons I won’t get into here, but in computers they only represented an increase in storage, and the change was not nearly as great. A single-layer DVD could store 4.7GB and a dual-layer DVD could store 8.5GB. Taking the bigger of the two (which were common), that was thirteen times the capacity of a CD-ROM. That’s a big improvement, but nothing like the CD-ROM’s 450x improvement over the floppy disk. I think that DVD-ROM also made less of a splash because, while almost nothing fit on a single floppy disk, quite a large number of things fit on a single CD-ROM and even more things fit on two CD-ROMs, which were not much harder to package than a single one. Still, it was more than a ten-fold improvement in capacity.
(As a tangent, where we are on the s-curve of technology can be seen in Blu-Ray disks, which had capacities of 25GB and 50GB for single an dual-layer disks. This represents only a six-fold increase in storage capacity over DVDs.)
So while computers got faster, the explosion in storage, for a time, outpaced the explosion in speed. While we tend to forget how much of a revolution CD-ROM was in its day, I do think that it made a large contribution to the heady sense of technological improvement accelerating almost beyond comprehension.
Of course, these days, a two year old computer is still pretty new and quite capable. I’m buying a new laptop this summer to replace my five year old laptop, but only because I’m tired of the palm-detection not working and because I’d like a bit larger screen. It still has enough storage and is fast enough for what I want to use it for. It’s rare to bother with physical disks for data storage these days (except for buying movies), but while WiFi keeps getting faster, it’s hard to care, even for tech nerds like me, because it’s been plenty fast enough for everything everyone does with it for years now. WiFi 6 is cool and all, but the total amount of time it saves in a day is, perhaps, a few seconds.
This is, by the way, something that people who looked at pure technological capacity tended to miss, back when they expected unbridled growth to continue. Eventually, technology reaches a point where it can do most of what people want it to do, so the additional benefits of improved technology become smaller. At the same time, at some point improved technology becomes more expensive (typically after improvements are figuring out how to do what one is already doing better, and when they come from new, more difficult but now possible ways of doing what one is doing). At some point, the additional benefits aren’t worth the additional cost, and while the technical ability to improve technology exists, the money to do that improvement isn’t there. This is rarely a sudden stopping-point; more often it’s a gradual slowing down of improvements.
Yesterday evening, a YouTube atheist whose channel is named “TheSkepTick” (he’s British or from some commonwealth country so he means a check mark, not a blood sucking insect) made a video about one of mine. (Specifically, about the first in the Stupid Things Atheists Say series.) Since his videos get several thousand views, this has result in hundreds of comments from angry atheists telling me how stupid I am, how I understand nothing, that I’m projecting, etc. etc. etc.
I’ve no interest in watching the video, but I was mildly curious who TheSkepTick was since I’d never heard of the channel before, so I searched him up on YouTube. Then I looked at his About page. This is the part that’s too funny to not share.
A brand new channel, making Atheism & Skepticism more accessible to a wider audience. A lot of the atheist community, in my mind, sound REALLY smart, because of the huge words and fast paced rebuttals they use. It’s not all like that, you can be like me, not overly intelligent, and look at why people believe things, then question it, simply, yet effectively.
I recently ordered a copy of The Documents in the Case and it arrived today. It’s going directly onto the bookshelf as I have no immediate interest in reading it. This is for several reasons. The main reason is that it is written in the form of a series of letters. That’s not necessarily bad, but it takes the right frame of mind to deal with as it has at best a resemblance to a narrative flow. It was done fairly well in the beginning of Busman’s Honeymoon, but that section was mercifully short.
The Documents in the Case was published in 1930, putting it between Strong Poison and Five Red Herrings. It was a collaboration with Robert Eustace, who provided the scientific knowledge, and is quite a departure from Lord Peter. Interestingly, Sayers had intended to kill off Lord Peter in Strong Poison, or rather to retire him and cease writing about him. She proved unable to do so, as she couldn’t get Harriet to agree to marry Lord Peter and when she humanized him for Harriet’s sake she found she made him interesting to her. She probably did not know that at the time that she wrote The Documents in the Case, though, which makes me wonder whether it was originally intended as a new direction, rather than a one-off experiment.
The Five Red Herrings was published the next year, in 1931, and is far and away my least favorite of the Lord Peter stories. Far from humanizing Lord Peter none of the characters in the book were human beings. Have His Carcase came the next year, 1932, and brings a far more human Lord Peter Wimsey, so this was not far off. I’d wonder if The Documents in the Case marked the beginning of Sayers considering a turn toward a more strictly puzzle-oriented type of mystery, except that she actually referred to it in her essay in Titles To Fame as a step in the right direction of making her detective novels more novels than detection.
I did read a page or two, out of curiosity, and came across something very interesting. The woman writing the first letter (after a brief cover letter to the attached documents giving us the barest sense of what’s going on) mentions that in England at the time (the letter is dated 9 September 1928) there were two million women more than men. Presumably this is related to World War 1, though looking it up only about a million men from the British Empire died in World War 1 (I say “only” in regard to the supposed surplus of women). If true, this would certainly go decent way to explaining the loosening of sexual morality at the time, though it had certainly been happening prior to the start of World War 1. I’ll have to look into this more to see whether it really was the case.
There’s a fun old-timey song called It’s Only A Paper Moon. There’s a version of Erin McKeown which I really like:
According to Wikipedia it’s an old jazz standard which was written for a 1932 play, The Great Magoo. It was about a womanizer who fell hard for a Coney Island dance hall girl. She briefly becomes famous when a recording of her singing It’s Only A Paper Moon becomes famous on the radio. According to an L.A. Times review of the play, “both lovers are Olympic-caliber boozers who swan dive into the gutter at the least hint of a romantic reversal.” Apparently it only ran for eleven performances.
The song featured the next year in a movie called Take A Chance, then waned in popularity until it was covered by popular singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole in the WW2 era.
Here, by the way, is a 1933 recording of it:
I like Erin’s version better.
It’s got a very interesting theme, which is, roughly, levels of reality. This was something that came up in a discussion between Jordan Peterson, Jonathan Pageau, Bishop Barron, and a professor whose name escapes me at the moment. They were discussing religious experiences, and how everyone who has them (however they do) describes them as more real than everyday experience. It stands to reason that if a person truly encounters the divine, they will feel the world something of a shadow in comparison. What this song gets at, though, is that the same thing applies even within creation. Some things are just more real than others.
The particular that it discusses is romantic love, of course; that is, after all, the subject of about 99.8% of all popular songs. Still, it’s true as far as it goes, even if it doesn’t go very far. It goes quite a lot farther than the people who believe that sub-atomic particles are the ultimate reality go, though, and that’s the era that this song was written for.
If you’ve never encountered it, there is a very funny list of movie tropes which goes by the name Top 100 Things I’d Do If I Were Evil Overlord. If you’d like to read all 235 things on the list, it’s here.
Some of my favorites include:
The artifact which is the source of my power will not be kept on the Mountain of Despair beyond the River of Fire guarded by the Dragons of Eternity. It will be in my safe-deposit box. The same applies to the object which is my one weakness.
Another great one, though now dated:
Any data file of crucial importance will be padded to 1.45MB in size.
For those too young to get the joke, floppy disks were often used in movies of a certain era (before the internet) to transport crucial information in movies, such as the plans to a super-weapon or the evidence that a villain committed crimes. In the sorts of movies we’re talking about from this era, it was common for heroes to secretly get access to the villain’s computer and copy this information onto a floppy disk. The hard-cased 3.5″ floppy disks which were the most common for this purpose had a capacity of 1.44MB.
Another great is:
One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation.
Though I think that my all-time favorite is:
I will not waste time making my enemy’s death look like an accident — I’m not accountable to anyone and my other enemies wouldn’t believe it.
I tend to paraphrase this one when quoting, though, to “I will not waste time making the hero’s death look like an accident. My friends won’t care and my enemies will not believe it anyway.”
This came to mind because twenty some-odd years ago I wrote a script that randomly picks one of the quotes to be the “evil overlord quote of the day” in my email signature, and yesterday someone else recognized it and commented on it, reminding me that I did it.
I came across a very interesting video which is a conversation between Jonathan Pageau and Jordan Peterson where they discuss the problem of perception—how it is possible to perceive objects.
After listening to it for the second time, I realized that they are discussing from a different angle a problem that I’ve presented to atheists and they’ve never understood. Instead of the problem of perceiving objects I tended to refer to it as the problem of defining human beings within a materialist framework, and the consequent problem that this has for morality.
The basic problem I would present is: how do you define a human being in terms of subatomic particles in such a way that it’s distinct from a corpse? If you can’t—and you certainly can’t—you can’t define what murder is, and if you can’t define what murder is, you can’t say why murder is wrong. The same problem applies to all other moral aspects; good luck defining fraud or theft or arson or trespassing with the intent to commit a crime with a firearm in terms of sub-atomic particles. It’s not just that if God is dead all things are permitted. If God is dead, no things are definable and consequently nothing can be forbidden.
What Jonathan and Jordan are discussing is the same thing, but from a more epistemological perspective. They actually started, more-or-less, with why there is no such thing as a general-purpose robot. There is no such thing as a general-purpose robot because in order to interact with things you need to be able to perceive things and distinguish them from their environment, and though it comes naturally to us when you look at what we’re doing in order to be able to build a robot to do it, it turns out that the perception of objects is inextricably linked with purpose. (E.g. whether it matters that the right hand side of the table is separable from the left-hand side depends on whether you want to put something on it or use it for firewood.) People tended to be so used to their purposes that they couldn’t imagine not having the same purposes, and thus assumed these purposes were fundamental and therefore universal, but when examined it turns out that this is just a failure of imagination. (In part, this is why it takes so many years to produce an adult human being, behaviorally speaking.)
It’s a very interesting conversation (despite being called a lecture for some reason), and I recommend watching it in full, more than once. They really get into some of the interesting consequences of how perception and purpose are inextricably linked from each other.
As Edward Feser has observed, classical liberalism is all about toleration, but in the end, the only thing it will tolerate is itself. It is a bit of a long argument, but the short version is that the Paradox of Tolerance means that liberalism needs to be intolerant of whatever will threaten its toleration, and that turns out to be, approximately, everything else.
Classical liberalism, as it morphed into contemporary liberalism—more often called “progressivism” or “woke”, though none of these are well-defined terms—has increasingly discovered what it can tolerate and what it can’t. It can tolerate fornication, divorce, adultery (with a few qualifications), drug abuse, all manner of sex-like acts which have no relationship of any kind to procreation, and quite a few other things, though it cannot tolerate slavery, rape, or murder (if the victim has been born more than a few minutes ago). It can tolerate telling other people how to be happy as long as they have asked and the answer is a generally acceptable one.
If one casts one’s eye over the things that modern liberalism will tolerate, there are clearly no principles involved. People occasionally make an attempt at “as long as it doesn’t harm anyone” but abortion clearly harms people. (It’s no answer to say “but we define the victims as not people” since the victims of slavery were defined as not-people too, and liberals don’t excuse that for a second.) Divorce harms people, though some liberals do try to get around this via pretending that it doesn’t. Adultery obviously harms people. For that matter drug abuse clearly harms the one abusing the drugs, but the principle is generally “so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone but the person doing it”. Something that points in the right direction, I think, is that liberals who live in low-crime areas are often tolerant of crime, even including violent crime. This is especially true of white liberals and black-on-black crime. And that last part, I think, gives it away.
Modern liberalism tolerates whatever does not inconvenience the liberal. I don’t mean that liberals are inconsistent and suspend their principles whenever they are personally inconvenienced. I mean that this is their principle, to the degree that they have a principle. Many of them do not even pretend to have principles anymore; at best they have slogans which everyone recognizes that they don’t mean literally or figuratively. They do not pretend to aim for a common good; rather their entire criteria for what can be tolerated is “what does it matter if it doesn’t hurt you?” These purely selfish individuals do need to negotiate with each other because no man is an island, so they must cooperate in banning things that the people they need demand be banned; they are particularly willing to do this if they have no interest in doing the things their allies want banned. All of this makes sense as long as you realize that their principle is unenlightened short-term self interest.
I can’t stress enough that I am not accusing contemporary liberals of being hypocrites. My whole point is that they are not hypocrites.
For people who have a large amount of surface area relative to normal, such as tall people, fully drying off after getting one’s whole body wet (such as in a shower) can be a little challenging, since towels become less absorbent the more water that they hold. One solution to this is to get towels with more capacity to hold water, such as plusher towels. The problem there is that plush towels are not always absorbent. Some I’ve come across seem to be nearly water repellent.
One solution is to look to very high end towels, such as those made of bamboo rayon (rayon is basically a chemically spun cellulose fiber, so it’s what you might call a quasi-natural fiber). They’re soft and absorbent, but hard to find and expensive.
Then I discovered that the solution is to stop buying bath towels and to start buying “bath sheets”. They’re just big towels, but have a different name for some reason. These “bath sheets”, which I’ve bought and regularly use and like, measure 70 inches long by 35 inches wide, and they have plenty of capacity to hold water simply because they’re much larger, despite having an entirely ordinary amount of plushiness and absorbency. Ordinary “bath towels” tend to be around 54×30, which is only two thirds the surface area of the “bath sheet”. Put the other way, the “bath sheet” has 50% more surface area than the “bath towel”. That’s a lot of extra water it can hold while still feeling dry to the touch and thus drying one off quickly.
As a bonus, it’s also much easier to securely wrap a “bath sheet” around one’s waste even if one’s waste circumference doesn’t qualify one to be an underwear model.
I share this because it took me years to figure out that what I want are decent bath sheets instead of expensive, fancy towels, so I hope I can save you years to figure that out too. Unless you, dear reader, are on the smaller side, in which case “bath towels” probably serve you admirably, and this is only useful knowledge for giving gifts to those in your life who have more trouble getting things from tight places and fitting into airplane seats and the like.
On the tenth day of April in the year of our Lord 1988, the Murder, She Wrote episode Showdown in Saskatchewan first aired. It was the third from last episode in the fourth season. As the title implies, it takes place in Canada, making it the second episode this season to be set in the Great White North. (The first was Witness For the Defense.)
After some scenes of people driving in, we meet two of our main characters:
Her name is Jill Morton. She’s one of Jessica’s many nieces, which is why Jessica is going to be in this episode.
Here’s a better picture of the man she’s with:
His name is Marty Reed. As you might be able to guess, he’s a professional cowboy. Rodeo star is probably more accurate, since he does not in fact ranch cattle but ride ornery bulls and ornery horses and such-like.
After some discussion of dinner (and after-dinner) plans, Marty leaves and we meet another character:
Her name is Carla Talbot. She’s the wife of (aging) big time rodeo star, Boone Talbot. It comes up that it was Carla who invited Jill to spend the summer with her and Boone on the circuit; this places her in a difficult spot because she’s supposed to be watching over Jill, not being a pretext for Jill to live with Marty as if she was his wife. Jill’s mother has been calling Carla, making life difficult for her.
In the next scene, Jessica gets a call from Jill’s mother (Louise).
This was right after an establishing shot of Jessica’s home. I find this extremely domestic shot of Jessica quite interesting. They could have picked nearly anything for Jessica to be doing. They could have had her working at her typewriter or reading over galley proofs or reading a book or any number of book-related things. Instead, they chose to depict her cleaning her oven.
Jessica as detective is meant to contrast with Jessica as retired schoolteacher in Maine; with Jessica going to Canada there won’t be many opportunities to establish this dynamic. Taking a moment to lay it on thickly, here, works, I think.
In the next scene Jill is called to Carla’s trailer, but when she knocks, instead of Carla, Jessica comes out. Jill is pleased to see Jessica, but then realizes what she’s there for. Jessica owns up to having come in order to spy on Jill on behalf of her mother. They go for a walk to talk to each other. Jessica is compassionate and understanding, but also points out that Jill’s mother has a right to know what sort of a man Marty is, and what the situation really is. Jill doesn’t like it, but understands that Jessica is right.
Jessica meets Marty, who is very charming to her. We then meet another character:
His name is Luke Purdue. He works with Marty as some sort of partner/assistant. Marty invites Jessica to join them all for dinner at the restaurant that night, and she accepts.
At the restaurant there’s music and dancing. A rodeo clown named Wally introduces himself to Jessica by commiserating about not being able to go all night (she had begged off dancing again as the scene began, and he has a bum leg). Then we meet a new character:
His name is Doc Shaeffer. He’s the rodeo association’s official doctor, but Luke and the rodeo clown give him the reputation of not doing a good job. In fact, the rodeo clown used to be a rodeo player until he broke his leg and Doc Shaeffer set it wrong. In the present, Doc is drunk and ornery, and tries to force Carla to dance with him, but Boone intercedes, angering the doc. The Doc’s wife, Consuela, comes up to try to get him to back off. Doc does back off, though angrily, and Consuela apologizes to Boone.
A few minutes later, Doc comes over and issues a challenge: whichever of Boone and Marty can stay on Doc’s bull the longest gets $500 ($1206 in 2022 dollars). The bull is apparently an extremely mean bull, even by rodeo standards. Boone accepts, since it was a public challenge, despite this being an obviously stupid idea.
The bull is in an open pen and no one actually manages to get on the bull. It chases them around and hurts Luke pretty badly. In Doc’s trailer, he pronounces Luke to have a hairline fracture in his leg, and he’s going to give Luke a walking cast. Marty was also hurt, though slightly; the Doc says that he got a concussion and he’s medically disqualifying Marty for the next day at least. When Marty protests, he tells Marty to leave before he medically disqualifies him from the whole rodeo. Marty storms off. He runs into Jill, who tries to calm him, but he yells at her too and then leaves.
That evening Boone is looking pensively at the bull when he notices smoke coming from the medical trailer. He runs over to it and it turns out to be very much on fire.
After calling for help, Boone goes in, calling to Doc. Instead of finding Doc, he stumbles over Luke, on the floor, who he drags out. Others run up and he tells them that Doc and Consuela are still in the trailer, but they only find Doc, who is dead. Consuela comes running up. She cries out when she finds out that he’s dead, and she cradles his body, sadly repeating “Doc, doc.”
The scene fades to black, and we go to commercial.
When we come back it’s the next day and the rodeo is starting. Amongst others riding through the gates to kick things off are the mounties. The camera zooms in on the mounty who will conduct the investigation into Doc’s death:
His name is Inspector Roger McCabe. He begins his investigation by interrogating Boone. He seemed to think it a suspicious coincidence that Boone was up and saw the fire. He also asks about their previous altercation with Doc. When Boone asks what’s up, McCabe says that the preliminary report indicates that the fire may not have been an accident, and if it’s not, he’s going to have a lot more questions so Boone should keep himself available.
Jessica runs into Jill, who is upset because Inspector McCabe is asking questions about Boone and Marty. She doesn’t seem very concerned about Boone, but is very worried about Marty. She hasn’t seen him since their fight the previous day (this is when Marty yelled at her when she tried to calm him down when he said that Doc suspended him for a day due to concussion). She asks Jessica to investigate, for Marty’s sake.
Jessica wanders around until she finds Inspector McCabe. At first, he’s none to pleased to see her (she crossed a police tape to find him), but his manner changes completely when he discovers who she is, as he’s read most all of her books. When she explains what she’s doing there, he invites her in to the scene of the crime, to fill her in on what’s known.
The fire was started on the couch, and didn’t actually get much farther than that.
The fire marshall found traces of a “flammable liquid” sloshed on the couch. Further, a crude time-fuse fashioned out of a matchbook and a cigarette was used to ignite the flammable liquid. Jessica notices a warped piece of plastic which Inspector McCabe explains was an x-ray. Possible, he suggests, used as fuel to help start the fire, though if so the perpetrator was unaware that x-ray film doesn’t burn well. Also, the window above the couch was found shut, but not locked.
Jessica asks if his theory is that someone tossed the flammable liquid and the time-fuse in through the window and didn’t enter at all. McCabe says that it’s a possibility. Neither of them seem to consider that it would be unlikely that the perpetrator also tossed an x-ray in through the window.
Jessica asks why someone would do this. To kill the doctor? To kill Luke? To frighten someone? Just to destroy the trailer? McCabe says that the reason is immaterial; the doctor died of smoke inhalation and everyone know that he had emphysema, so any way you look at it, it’s murder. I think he missed the point of Jessica’s question, but she doesn’t press it.
In the next scene, Jill finally finds Marty, who is flirting with (or at least being flirted with by) a blond woman in a shiny red shirt.
After getting rid of the blond woman, Jill demands to know where Marty was. His story is that he was playing cards with “some of the boys”, had a few beers, and slept it off. She doesn’t entirely believe him, but he points out that she doesn’t own him.
The scene shifts to the rodeo, where Boone rides a bronco. He looks like he does a great job. The announcer says that it wasn’t a great ride. (There’s a bunch of dramatic looking from Boone to Inspector McCabe, so I suppose McCabe was supposed to have ruined Boone’s ride by making him unable to concentrate.)
The scene then shifts to the hospital, where Jessica runs into Consuela (Doc’s wife). After expressing her condolences, and just as Consuela turns to leave, Jessica remarks that it was very lucky that Consuela wasn’t in the trailer when the fire started. Conseuela says that it was unfortunate, as she never let Doc smoke his cigars. Jessica asks if there was a particular reason she wasn’t in the trailer, and she says that she wanted no part of Doc when he was drunk, so after helping him with Luke she spent the night with a friend. At this point she picks up on Jessica’s questions being pointed and asks what’s up. This is a frequent thing in Murder, She Wrote—Jessica asks remarkably non-subtle questions as if she is being subtle. I never really understand it; it mostly just makes Jessica look incompetent. Given that she’s an older woman she should be able to make being nosy look perfectly natural. Maybe it’s just that I’ve recently been reading Miss Marple stories. Miss Marple never arouses suspicions.
Anyway, Jessica tells her that the fire wasn’t an accident. Consuela isn’t surprised. Doc was a mean man and not good at what he did, so he had a lot of enemies. She mentions that before he worked at the rodeo he worked in a prison for ten years, and she wondered if he might have been on the wrong side of the bars. She’s not sorry he’s dead, she only feels relief.
That conversation over, Jessica visits Luke. He’s fine except for his leg, but when the orderly offers to get him an x-ray, he aggressively refuses it. As he’s going to leave Inspector McCabe shows up. Luke is in a hurry to get back to the rodeo, so McCabe offers to drive him there.
Luke scoffs at the idea that anyone was trying to kill him. His enemies would face him down with a knife, not set a fire. When Jessica asks if he remembers anything, he says that he kind of woke up at one point and heard footsteps and a jangling, like of fancy spurs. He was on a lot of pain killers, though, so he’s not sure of anything.
In the next scene Jill is giving Marty a massage while she tries to talk about their future. Marty will have none of it. Their agreement was one season on the circuit then she would go back to college and hit the books.
In the next scene Jessica talks with Carla. It comes up that Wally (the rodeo clown) had Luke as a manager when he was injured; he didn’t like the look of the bull but Luke made him ride it.
In the next scene Inspector McCabe is talking to Consuela. Jessica comes up and asks if it was generally known that Luke was heavily sedated. Consuela says that it is, but Doc kept asking Luke questions anyway, such as where Luke worked before the rodeo and where he lived. Consuela takes her leave, then Jessica tips McCabe off about the rodeo clown.
Jessica is pulled away from this conversation by Jill, who wants to talk to Jessica. She asks Jessica for advice about Marty, who she loves and she feels loves her too, but who she also suspects isn’t ready for commitment. Jessica gives her the advice to talk to Marty about her concerns, and to ask the hard question, and if he won’t answer, then that is her answer. At this point Marty steps out of his trailer and a child cries out “Daddy! Daddy!” and runs up. He picks up the child, then kisses the woman who was with the child and asks what she’s doing here.
Well, we now know why Marty is afraid of commitment (with Jill). We get a few significant looks between the various parties, and we go to commercial break.
When we get back from commercial break, we get a very strange scene:
Her name is… actually, we don’t learn her name. Based on the credits, it might be Mona. Anyway, she’s his wife. She stays home during the rodeo season because they have a little ranch back home, and Buster is too young for all of the traveling. She’s just so gosh-darn lucky to be married to Marty, who is the greatest. She’s so naive it’s cute, if completely implausible. She’s from a small town in Montana. If small town folk are known for anything, it’s for suspecting sexual interaction when attractive women are hanging around attractive men without supervision. I mean, have the people who wrote Murder, She Wrote never listened to country music? (An example that leaps to mind is Dolly Parton’s song Jolene, in which she begs a prettier woman to not steal her husband. It came out in 1973.) In the 1980s, a hick from Montana might not suspect something new like cocaine use or recently popular sexual perversions. Infidelity is as old as the hills. Be that as it may, Marty comes over to get her and she says it was nice meeting some of his friends—it’s the first time she’s ever met any of them.
The next scene is more rodeo, this time bull riding. Boone has a great ride, at least according to the announcer, though it doesn’t look any better than his bronco ride (which looked good but was called bad). Next up is Marty, who is thrown from the bull and then attacked by it while he’s on the ground. We see Boone, who hadn’t left the arena yet, start to run over and the scene goes to Jessica receiving a phone call in her hotel room (Jill is with her). It’s Carla. Boone’s been hurt. Jessica says that they’ll be right there.
The next scene is Marty talking to Boone. He asks Boone what he did that for, was he going for hero of the year? Boone asks if there’s any prize money for that, and Marty replies, “not as I’ve heard of.”
We get more of the story from the rodeo clown, who met Jessica on the way. The bull was going for Marty and Wally couldn’t distract the bull but Boone ran out in front of the bull, which then started going after Boone, and Boone is lucky to be alive.
They talk to Boone a bit, then Marty comes up, and when asked says that he feels fine except for his arm. “The medic says that it’s not broken, but what does he know?” Luke then walks up and angrily demands what Marty thinks he’s doing, pulling out of the competition. He only needs one more event to beat Boone. Marty explains that his arm hurts too much. (Marty’s arm is obviously fine, and is throwing the competition in gratitude, so that Boone will get the prize money.) Luke angrily storms off.
After this, as Jessica and Jill are walking away, a woman we haven’t seen before is in Doc’s trailer and calls out to no one in particular that someone is calling Doc long distance, and she doesn’t know what to do. (For those too young to remember, in the late 1980s telephone numbers were tied to particular locations, and telephone numbers for locations that were far away were expensive to call—often in the range of $.25/minute or more. Such calls were called “long distance”.) Jessica says that she will take the call. When she asks to whom she’s speaking, it turns out to be Warden Barnes of the Oregon State Penitentiary.
He’s been trying to return Doc Shaeffer’s phone call from last night. Doc had called at about 9pm, which Jessica says would have been 11pm Saskatchewan time. Jessica asks, and it turns out that the prison Doc Shaeffer had worked at was the Oregon State Penitentiary. He had quit 8 years ago, but for the decade prior had been the prison surgeon there. Jessica thanks the Warden, saying that he’s been extremely helpful. More than she can tell him.
Jessica then calls Inspector McCabe. She asks about whether there was oxygen in the trailer, since Doc suffered from emphysema. He checks the report, then says that there was. An oxygen tank was found on the floor inside the door, nearly empty. He remarks that it was strange that it was empty, but Jessica says, “No, not strange at all.”
The scene then shifts to a bar.
Jessica and Inspector McCabe come up. He gets Luke to identify a picture of Wally, but it was just a ruse to get his thumb print on the photo when he handled it to look at it. McCabe tells him this, saying that Mrs. Fletcher has a theory that Luke is actually an escaped prisoner from the Oregon State Penitentiary. He’s going to hold Luke in protective custody until he finds out. Luke strikes him down with a beer mug and tries to steal his gun, but police officers rush in from both entrances and point their guns at him. Luke knows that he had it and surrenders.
The explanation comes in the next scene, in Boone’s room at the hospital. Luke’s real name is Carl Mattson. He escaped from the Oregon State Penitentiary thirteen years ago. He grew his hair out and grew a beard, which is why Doc didn’t recognize him. Presumably Doc recognized his own handiwork in the x-ray he took of Luke’s leg, though, which is why the x-ray was destroyed. Luke must have heard Doc’s phone call to the penitentiary and knew he had to do something quickly. He staged the fire, ensuring that the x-ray was destroyed, and then used Doc’s oxygen tank to keep himself alive until Boone broke the door down.
Jessica then tells Jill that they need to go as they have a plane to catch. Outside, Jill worries because her Mom will kill her. Jessica says that if she does, it will be asphyxiation from excessive hugging. Then she hugs Jill and we go to credits.
This was a fun and interesting episode.
It was more complex than the typical episode, or at least the complexity was more pleasing. The character of Boone Talbot was interestingly drawn—the aging athlete who still has it but is recovering from injury and won’t have it for too much longer. This is a very real phenomenon. People do come back from injury to be on top, but it’s very hard, and over time it’s not even so much that the athletes are older as that they’ve got a lot of accumulated injuries, especially smaller ones. For a while they can work around this because they’re getting more skilled and doing fewer stupid things like staying up late drinking, but eventually the injuries add up. I like that he’s a genuinely good guy, too.
The character of Marty Reed is a great contrast to Boone, especially once we learn his true character. Initially he’s charming and has great manners and is a young up-and-comer with a very bright future. He turns out to have few morals and poor self control. Eventually this helps explain how he was working well with as bad a character as Luke. It also fit in that when his wife turned up and so his using Jill was exposed for what it was, he didn’t say anything at all to her. He was not a good man, but he was a polite man, and there was nothing polite to say.
I do wish that Carla had been given more depth. I’m not sure how old Carla was supposed to be. Cassie Yates, who played Carla, was 37 at the time the episode came out, and Larry Wilcox, who played Boone, was 41. Presumably they were both playing younger, so perhaps Boone was supposed to be in his mid thirties and Carla her early thirties? It’s a bit strange that there was no mention of children, for example, or how she got involved with Boone or even what she does other than come with him.
Jill Morton, Jessica’s niece, was also an under-drawn character. She’s foolish and a slave to her impulses, which wouldn’t be too bad as a starting point if there was some character growth from learning this about herself. There really isn’t. As she is, she’s mostly an excuse to get Jessica up to Canada and into this strange world with which she has nothing to do.
The murder itself was interesting and, by Murder, She Wrote standards, the motive was fairly plausible. Luke was a bad guy and the sort of person who would murder in order to protect himself, especially as far away from where his motive for murder would be known. He’s been a criminal and caught before, and he’s got no morals, so taking a criminal risk that didn’t look too big but turned out to be is in character. He was made just clever enough to do it but not so clever as to not do it. It was a nice touch that big prize money seemed within reach, which is why he didn’t just run away as soon as he figured out that Doc suspected him. On the other hand, that suspicion was a weak link in this plot.
Doc Shaeffer suspecting that Luke was actually an inmate at an Oregon penitentiary thirteen years ago who escaped, and suspecting this because he recognized something in Luke’s leg that showed up on an x-ray is… implausible. There’s really no aspect of this which is believable. It’s hard to believe that Luke had some sort of thing in his leg which would really stand out as so unique it would be memorable to someone who looked at a lot of x-rays. The idea that it was Doc Shaeffer’s handiwork is even less plausible unless Luke’s leg was badly damaged and the bone had to be held together with an unusually high number of titanium bolts, or something like that. Merely setting a broken leg badly isn’t likely to be as unique as a fingerprint. Moreover, even if Doc Shaeffer had seen something in Luke’s leg thirteen years ago which was highly memorable, why would he have heard about Luke escaping in a way that he would connect with what he remembered in the x-ray? Unless for some reason he knew that Luke had been in prison for a very long sentence (and why would a prison doctor know this?), on recognizing Luke in the present day from his x-ray, he’d have no reason to think that Luke had escaped. At most he’d think that he knew Luke a long time ago. On top of all this, Doc Shaeffer was a drunkard. They’re not known for their powers of recall.
All of this relates to two small plot holes: Luke’s aversion to x-rays. If, somehow, Doc Shaeffer had recognized Luke by the x-ray of his leg, this was a power unique to Doc Shaeffer. Luke had no reason to burn the x-ray Doc had taken of his leg and no reason to avoid an x-ray at the hospital. No one else could have recognized Doc Shaeffer’s handiwork from thirteen years ago when he was a prison doctor. This could be explained away, though, as Luke panicking because murdering someone makes one paranoid.
Next week we’re back to New York City for the episode Deadpan, where a critic is murdered after the opening night of a play based on one of Jessica’s books.
I recently came across an interesting-looking documentary movie made by William Shatner called Chaos on the Bridge. (It’s only available on YouTube so I can’t embed it.) It is about how Star Trek: The Next Generation got started and all of the trouble that was involved during its first season when it had no idea what it should be. I’ve gotten a little bit of the way into it and it does seem interesting, though not gripping. Has anyone watched it? Is it worth watching the whole thing?
As a side note, I find it curious that I have never learned anything about Gene Roddenberry which made me think better of him. I suppose that that may be related to him starting off, for me, as a great genius visionary who created Star Trek, so the only direction he could go was down. But boy, did he go in that direction. This is a thing to be careful about, of course, because it’s all too easy to be interested in things about a person that are none of one’s business; calumny and detraction are real problems. At the same time, there is a practical value in knowing some things about a creator because they forearm you against dangers in their work. I do not mean, by the way, that drug abuse and sexual licentiousness will be simply championed, but rather that there is a world view which goes with approving of those things, and one must be careful of that world view, especially when its unsavory conclusions are not displayed. When their bad consequences are not obvious are when bad world views are most seductive.
I was recently thinking about some sitcoms from the 1980s which I grew up with. To this day their theme songs really stir something in me. For example, Who’s the Boss:
Another one that really gets me is The Facts of Life:
Oh, and, of course, Charles in Charge:
There were a ton of similar shows, though none of them really hit me in the same way. Different Strokes, Family Ties, Major Dad, etc. etc. etc.
The thing is, in retrospect, while these shows evoke a lot of nostalgia, they probably shouldn’t, because they often were not good. I don’t mean that they weren’t well written and well acted; they were that. I mean that the family aspect to them wasn’t real. A family is, fundamentally, about teaching the younger members how to be human, and how to do it well. These shows only did that occasionally, and then quite often reluctantly. Their heart was really in subverting the idea of the family; they really wanted to get across the message that there is no such thing as a good way to be human, just do whatever you want and follow your heart, by which they meant that you should be a slave to your irrational impulses. Curiously, the major exception, so far as I remember, was The Cosby Show.)
Of course, they didn’t always do this, and I think that’s where a lot of the nostalgic feeling comes from. Still, it’s a curious thing that I feel a lot of nostalgia for these shows and do not want to show them to my children.
But, what the heck, here’s the greatest of the TV intro songs, aptly enough from The Greatest American Hero:
(If you aren’t familiar with the show, the premise was that aliens came and gave a school teacher a high-tech superhero suit that gives the wearers all sorts of superpowers to fight for justice. Unfortunately, he lost the manual and doesn’t know how to operate the suit, hence all of his clumsy takeoffs, landings, etc.)
Having read a fair number of Agatha Christie mysteries lately, and especially thinking about her earlier mysteries, has led me to think about ingenious murders and the related subject of ingenious plots of murder mysteries. Agatha Christie was, I think, the queen of outwitting the reader. Certainly, she broke more of Fr. Knox’s rules in a way that forced him to amend the rules than anyone else I know of. This was a trait that was much appreciated in her day, and I think still is, though I suspect less so now. Which leads me to ask how important it really is.
The main thing, it seems to me, that a really ingenious murder gives a story is the ability to present all of the evidence up front and maintain an air of mystification among the characters while keeping them reasonably intelligent. It also, of course, makes for a very satisfying reveal at the end of the story.
Of course, if this is not done well—if, for example, the solution is obvious—it makes for a particularly uninteresting murder mystery in which all of the characters seem to be idiots. The best example I can think of this is The Benson Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine. It was extremely obvious that the brother of the victim had killed him, and the entire rest of the novel until the last chapter was uninteresting filler because it obviously bore no relationship to the characters figuring out whodunnit. Worse, Philo Vance (the detective) already knew that it was the brother, too, so he was fairly explicit that he was wasting everyone’s time. The Benson Murder Case is a book that I cannot recommend too little. If you ever have the opportunity to not read it, I strongly suggest you take it.
The downside to the clever murder with the facts set out early—when it’s done well—is that re-reads have a very hard time being satisfying. This is not necessarily a problem for most people, but I prefer to read, as far as possible, only books that are worth re-reading. On this score, murder mysteries were the detective must find evidence, which leads him to the next evidence to find, etc. tend to have significant advantages.
This can be ameliorated, however, by the introduction of red herrings which require additional evidence to eliminate. If done well, the red herrings, prior to elimination, make the solution possible but improbable. Once the red herrings are gone, we get to Sherlock Holmes’ famous dictum that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the case. This, I think, tends to be far more satisfying on re-reading because the work is necessary and not merely killing time until the detective realizes the true solution.
Perhaps the best example I can think of this is my favorite Cadfael novel, Saint Peter’s Fair. (spoilers ahead.)
Once the killer of Ewan of Shotwick is found out to be Euald, on top of Turstan Fowler having given evidence against Philip Corviser and having been found by Ivo, drunk but suspiciously recovered in the morning—it is possible to guess that Ivo was responsible and Euald and Turstan were acting under his orders, but it was by no means probable. It took more evidence for Cadfael and Hugh Beringar to see Ivo’s evil as really possible. The getting of this evidence by Philip, which foreclosed other possibilities, was very helpful, and in consequence it’s one of the great things to re-read in the novel each time I do.
The third Miss Marple novel, The Moving Finger, was first published in 1943. In some ways it is more of a love story than a detective story, though the two do intertwine. Miss Marple appears only at the end of the story, and then only for about as many pages as she appeared in many of the short stories featuring her. (Spoilers below.)
Miss Marple is in the book at all because, towards the end, she is called in by the vicar’s wife as a specialist in solving murders. How the vicar’s wife knows Miss Marple and further how she knows that Miss Marple is good at solving murders is completely unstated. We don’t even have a decent sense of how far away St. Mary Meade is from Lymstock.
The narrator, Jerry Burton, is a decent enough chap. The premise of the story is that he was badly injured in a plane crash and is recovering. His doctor recommends complete rest, so he rents a house for six months in a quiet little town in the English countryside (Lymstock) with his sister, Joanna, who is five years his junior. Shortly after arriving they receive a nasty letter accusing them of not being brother and sister, which is ridiculous. It turns out that many other people have had similar letters, equally inaccurate. Jerry takes an interest in this and after one woman commits suicide and another is murdered, he ends up unofficially working the police, though it is eventually Miss Marple who actually solves the case.
There are a decent number of hints given throughout the story, the narrator even sometimes calling attention to them. For example, it is mentioned that the address on a letter for Miss Burton was originally addressed to Miss Barton (the old maid from whom they’re renting the house), with the ‘a’ being changed to a ‘u’. Jerry comments that this should have been a significant clue to them, if they’d had the wit to realize it at the time. There are some clues which are not discussed, however. For example, the poison pen sends letters accusing people of things to the people themselves, rather than to the people who might be angry at the secret. That is, the poison pen will send a letter accusing a woman of cheating on her husband, not to the husband, but to the woman. Such a thing would be unpleasant, but it would not be particularly dangerous or apt to cause her any problems if the letter is promptly destroyed. This strikes me as being at least as significant as the letters all being entirely false. Miss Marple points out that the falsity of the accusations was a clue that a man had written the letters, since a woman would be more aware of the general gossip and would, thus, have come much nearer the mark. This is, I dare say, true enough, but I think it’s more important that the letters were not written in such a way as to accomplish anything, not even a deranged goal, which showed that they must be a smoke screen.
Before we got the hints, there was a decent amount of anticipation in the narrative, as until the six or seventh chapter (if I recall correctly) the story had some mild element of mystery in it as to who was writing the letters, but other than that it was just a domestic story of a young brother and sister from London finding it interesting to take up resident in a country town. I think that, ultimately, the foreshadowing did work to keep the reader’s attention, but it is interesting to consider that this was necessary.
I’ve read, at this point, most of the Miss Marple novels and all of the Miss Marple short stories, and I find myself wondering how much I like Miss Marple as a detective. In some sense this is not really even a well-formed question because (apart from Nemesis) Miss Marple is not a detective. She’s really much more of a mystery consultant. Which is fine; it suits her character. It does, however, lead to her being very little in her own stories. In consequence, Miss Marple stories are far more of one-off stories where you’ve never met the characters before and won’t meet them again. (The major exception to that is The Body In the Library.)
The Moving Finger is a good illustration of how much Miss Marple stories are one-off stories. All of the characters in it are new and we’ll never see them again. The only exception to that is Miss Marple herself, but she’s a very minor character. If this was your first Miss Marple story, you’d come away with almost no impression of her.
To be fair, it is all but necessary for most of the characters in a story to be new each time; you can’t go about having the same characters keep killing each other off. The usual counter-balance to this is to have a detective and his side-kick form a major part of the story. Contrary to popular belief, the Watson is not there merely to make Holmes look brilliant; the include not only of two recurring characters but of a recurring relationship (which is not antagonistic) provides a great deal of familiarity and stability.
The author’s voice is, of course, another constant throughout the books and one that does provide familiarity to the reader.
I don’t yet know what I think. It’s a subject I need to mull over, more.
In the year of our Lord 1932 the first thirteen Miss Marple stories were collected into a book, The Thirteen Problems. The 1953 edition of this book contained a forward by Agatha Christie in which she said that Miss Marple is better suited to short stories (unlike Poirot, who does better with novels). I find this quite interesting:
I enjoyed writing the Miss Marple stories very much, conceived a great affection for my fluffy old lady, and hoped that she might be a success. She was. After the first six stories had appeared, six more were requested, Miss Marple had definitely come to stay.
She has appeared now in several books and also in a play—and actually rivals Hercule Poirot in popularity. I get about an equal number of letters, one lot saying: “I wish you would always have Miss Marple and not Poirot,” and the other “I wish you would have Poirot and not Miss Marple.” I myself incline to her side. I think, that she is at her best in the solving of short problems; they suit her more intimate style. Poirot, on the other hand, insists on a full-length book to display his talents.
These Thirteen Problems contain, I consider, the real essence of Miss Marple for those who like her.
This may contain something of an explanation for why Miss Marple is so little in her own books. She is more in them than she is in her short stories—she’s often only in a page or so of the short story—but the belief that she is better at solving short problems may shape the novels so that other people do the long work and it is presented to her as only as a summary, such that for her it is a short problem.
I can also see what Agatha Christie has in mind. Miss Marple does a little investigating in A Caribbean Murder and most of the investigating in Nemesis, and as much as I liked both I have to admit that it didn’t quite feel right. People should come to her, rather than the other way around. In some sense I think that the essence of Miss Marple is not precisely that she is intimate, but that she is domestic. This relates to how Sir Henry Clithering would always tease Miss Marple about how the people in a crime remind her of people from the village; the whole point is that the public world was not really larger than the domestic world. When Miss Marple does the investigating, she ventures outside of the domestic sphere. It is right, in a sense, for someone else to do the investigating in the public world then bring it to her, where she uses her knowledge of the domestic world to solve the problems of the public world.
That said, the way she does the investigation in Nemesis does not violate this; one of the parts of the domestic world is visiting other domiciles. Old ladies visit each other, and pay calls, and chat about local and family things, and Miss Marple mostly solves the mystery in Nemesis using these tools.
All that said, of the short stories and novels, I’m inclined to say that The Body in the Library was the best of the Miss Marple stories. So I suppose I must respectfully disagree with Dame Agatha, though I will say I think that she’s right when she said that the Thirteen Problems contain the essence of Miss Marple. They give you a clear sense of who and what Miss Marple is, but I do not think that they are her at her best.
Published in 1965, At Bertram’s Hotel was the second-to-last Miss Marple novel written, though the third-from-last published. (Like with the final Poirot novel, Curtain, Agatha Christie had written the final Miss Marple novel, Sleeping Murder, in the 1940s and put it in a safe with her lawyers to be published after her death.) It is a strange story, more a light thriller about a police detective who on the trail of an organized crime syndicate than a mystery. Miss Marple, as is often the case, does not feature heavily in the story, but when she does it’s as a witness, rather than as a detective. (Spoilers below.)
In fact, we don’t even get a murder until a few chapters from the end, and there isn’t much of a mystery in the story until the murder comes along. I suppose that there is a bit of mystery about what the deal is with Bertram’s Hotel, but it seems plausible that it’s simply an expensive hotel with an old-timey gimmic. It’s not that expensive to have a dozen varieties of tea, to make real muffins with lots of butter, and to have real seed cake. Granted, these things would have been more expensive in England 1965 than in America in 2022 (which I’m used to), but food rationing had been over for 10 years by then. It doesn’t require astonishing amounts of money to have these things and old furniture.
The idea that the whole thing is a front for organized crime, and that’s where the real money comes from, is also a bit far-fetched. Crime does pay, but it rarely pays well. It has large ongoing costs, but can only opportunistically generate revenue. That revenue tends to be a small fraction of the value of the goods stolen, too, since the pool of people who will buy stolen goods is fairly small, and will tend to insist on a huge discount for the risk that it’s taking.
Crime also has higher costs than legitimate business since it has a limited labor pool and can’t outsource contract enforcement to the courts and the police. That limited labor pool also tends to have few highly talented people, since highly talented people can probably make more money through legitimate businesses. The entire labor pool—high or low talent—also has issues with reliability. Carefully planned robberies that require a dozen people or so to all do what they’re supposed to, when they’re supposed to—you can’t use just ordinary criminals for that.
When you put it all together, it makes more sense for Bertram’s Hotel to be able to run because it is expensive and serves a niche who will pay for it than because it is a front for a criminal organization. Moreover, what good did the hotel actually do for the criminal organization? They weren’t using it to store stolen goods until the heat cooled down. As far as I could tell, the mastermind more-or-less lived there, and they had a very strange habit of having character actors impersonate recognizable guests who were staying at the hotel.
Speaking of which, why did they bother with the impersonations of recognizable people who were all staying at the hotel they ran their criminal empire from? Some sort of costume makes sense, but why impersonate a specific person? Moreover, why impersonate a specific person who was staying at the headquarters of the criminal organization? They didn’t need to keep exact tabs on the whereabouts of the people being impersonated. All it did was serve to point to their headquarters by giving the police a weird and unexplained coincidence. I could see the point if they had selected some other hotel from which to choose the people impersonated; this would serve to send the police on a wild goose chase if they noticed the odd coincidence.
(I do suppose that impersonating people from Bertram’s allowed them to borrow the actual clothing of the people in question, but this is a very curious sort of cost-cutting measure.)
Also very strange is that Miss Marple is on vacation in this novel, both literally and in many ways, figuratively. She was given a two week stay at the hotel by her niece-in-law as a treat, and is in the plot mostly because her various reclinings in high backed chairs and shopping expeditions put her in places to witness things relevant to the plot. She does make deductions, of course, but no earlier than the police make them; her only assistance to them is telling to them what she saw.
I can’t help but wonder why this novel is the way that it is. It is always possible that Mrs. Christie had gotten bored and wanted a change, or else that her life was busy and she wanted to write an easy novel. In her autobiography she said that thrillers were much easier to write than murder mysteries since you could make things up as you went along in thrillers.
It is also the case that tastes change, over time. Agatha Christie wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916 and it took her three years to find a publisher. Detective fiction was wildly popular at the time, and still quite new. Detective fiction is still extremely popular, though it is not nearly so new. The 1960s, however, were a very strange time. The mystery stories written during the inter-war period knew that they were at the end of an era and stories written in the 1950s (and set then) seem to know that they are at the transition point. In the 1960s people knew that they were at the beginning of something else, but not really of what, because it was completely unsettled. Nothing old was really appropriate, but nothing new was really any good. (You can tell this, in part, because of how bad—by which I largely mean nihilistic—popular culture became in the 1970s.) Truth be told, things haven’t really settled down even yet. If you look closely at popular culture, it’s still a rebellion even though it is in many ways a successful rebellion and should have moved on to being conservative. Bishop Barron once described it as modernity needing to constantly tell its founding myth, but I think it’s actually more that the fundamental nihilism at the core of modernity requires an enemy in order to give it a framework to define itself. (Hence, incidentally, why so many moderns are busy trying to re-tell older stories, badly. They need enemies.)
The 1960s must have been a strange time to write a murder mystery in, and Agatha Christie wrote in order to please her audience, so she would have been at least partially sensitive to the times. Especially since she wrote during the golden age of detection fiction, she would have been in a difficult place to keep writing the same kind of things. It is relatively easy for young people to look back at a golden age and say, “I want to write that kind of thing” since we will never have a sneaking suspicion that we’re simply stuck in our ways. For us, to write the good old stuff is to swim against the currents, and as G.K. Chesterton once observed, while a dead thing can go with the flow, only a live thing can swim against the current. Agatha Christie was not quite in this happy position; she must have had doubts that people still wanted the classic stories when so much else of their tastes have changed.
I don’t want to exaggerate this, of course. Nemesis, the next Miss Marple story, published in 1971, was in many ways a classic detective story, or at least much more of a classic detective story. Still, after almost fifty years, it’s not shocking that she should try something a bit different. I guess what I wonder is why Agatha Christie put Miss Marple in At Bertram’s Hotel if she didn’t intend to make it a Miss Marple story. She was quite willing to write stories which had neither Poirot nor Miss Marple in them.
This story reminds me a bit of the Dorothy L. Sayers story Murder Must Advertise. There aren’t many direct parallels, but both are quasi-thrillers about about the police taking down a massive crime syndicate. Lord Peter is far more in Murder Must Advertise than Miss Marple is in At Bertram’s Hotel, of course, but he spends a lot of his time under cover as Death Bredon and his personality is significantly shifted when he does, especially when he goes further undercover. I don’t really remember it because it’s been many years and I don’t really care for the story. It’s another mostly-action story where the murder is solved almost as an afterthought, a bit like The Maltese Falcon. For some reason the part of the story that stands out to me the most was when Lord Peter, in whatever alias he was in at the time as an underworld criminal, dives off of a statue into a shallow pool of water. I suppose Lord Peter might have picked up the skill of shallow diving at some point. To be fair, there’s really no reason that he shouldn’t. It just felt so random and out of character, and certainly never came up before or since.
A problem that I have with both is that I really don’t like the thriller genre. As such, I have no good way of determining if these are mediocre examples of it, or if they’re quite well done and I just don’t like this kind of story.
Poisons were a common method of killing people in golden age detective stories. The two primary ones were arsenic and cyanide. I believe that this was the case primarily because of availability. (It seemed that they were commonly sold as weed killer and insect killer.) I’ve seen more than a few references, however, to people using exotic, undetectable poisons (often from South America) in murder mysteries, though I’ve never seen its actual use in them.
I’ve recently been reading some Miss Marple stories, and while the Miss Marple short stories began in 1927 and the first Miss Marple novel was in 1930, the bulk of the Miss Marple novels were in the 1950s and 1960s. Times had changed, especially with regard to poisons.
I found the description of a poison in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962) extremely interesting:
Heather Badcock had died as a result of four grains of hy-ethyl-dexyl-barbo-quinde-lorytate, or, let us be frank, some such name.
This drug turns out to be a (fictional) anti-anxiety medication which goes by the brand name “Calmo.” It is by this name that it is typically referred to throughout the rest of the book.
A similar device was used in A Caribbean Mystery (1964):
“They found he’d had a lethal dose of something that only a doctor could pronounce properly. As far as I remember it sounds vaguely like di-flor, hexagonal-ethylearbenzol. That’s not the right name. But that’s roughly what it sounds like. The police doctor put it that way so that nobody should know, I suppose, what it really was. The stuff’s probably got some quite simple nice easy name like Evipan or Veonal or Easton’s Syrup or something of that kind. This is the official name to baffle laymen with. Anyway, a sizeable dose of it, I gather, would produce death, and the signs would be much the same as those of high blood pressure aggravated by over-indulgence in alcohol on a gay evening.”
I strongly suspect, though I can’t prove, that Mrs. Christie had no real medication in mind, in either case, and I must say that this does greatly simplify the job of the mystery writer. There is the question of whether this violates the fourth commandment of Fr. Knox’s ten commandments of detective fiction, but I think that it does not. The point of the commandment is not whether the poison is known to the reader, but whether it is known to the medical science of the people in the stories. The point is that the big reveal at the end may not be a completely made-up poison, since if it is the solution becomes completely fictional. If the poison, though fictional, is known in the middle of the story, then the reveal at the end will rely on real human things such as motive and opportunity.
This approach does leave off a few issues of verisimilitude, though. One of the great problems with a poison is the dose that is needed to kill. It’s not that hard to make people feel sick, but actually killing—especially in a reasonably short time frame—requires an accurate dose. This will vary considerably with the individual chemical, and the LD50 of a particular drug is not always easy to come across. You can often find information with google on the LD50 (lethal dose for 50% of the population) of medications for rats and mice, but human LD50s are not always available, and the values for rats and mice can vary considerably. This is not just about making the dosage appropriate in the book, for the murderer to use the poison, he probably needs to have some idea of how much he should use in order to feel confident at the attempt.
To pick an example at semi-random (I had to google about five different medications before I found one with human info), Citalopram, sold under the brand name Celexa, has a human LD50 of 56mg/kg. For 110 pound people, this means that a dose of 2,800mg would kill half of the people you gave it to. To put this into perspective, the dosing is usually about 30mg/day, though possibly up to 40mg/day. Let’s assume the source of the pills are 40mg pills, this would mean having to give a 110 pound person 70 pills in order to have a 50/50 shot at killing them. You’re not going to manage putting 70 ground up pills into someone’s coffee. You’re probably going to need something like a stew, but it’s going to have to be one heck of a stew to cover over 70 pills worth of magnesium stearate or whatever chalk-like substance makes up most of the pills. (This, incidentally, is why pills tend to be mostly inert ingredients—it is extremely effective at preventing accidental overdose in significant quantities.)
Now, I doubt that I happened to select the most dangerous drug with human LD50 information on my first few tries, but it would be quite a coincidence if the murderer did, too. This means that trying to kill someone with medicine would be very unlikely to be a spur-of-the-moment thing, and would need to be researched. (To be fair to Mrs. Christie, btw, medicine has mostly gotten safer since the 1960s, so things weren’t quite as bad for murderers in her day.)
I also suspect that, if one were doing a properly researched murder, it would be a better idea to try to play off of drug interactions. There are a lot of combinations of drugs that are far more dangerous than simply a larger dose of the one, and of course many of these also interact with alcohol which is a lot easier to get into somebody’s blood in large quantities than most medicines are, since the victim might well put the alcohol there on purpose. Though it might be more effective, this approach is, perhaps, even less of a spur-of-the-moment weapon than a simple overdose is.
There is also a curious problem on the other end of the murder mystery—identifying the stuff in a corpse. Chemicals are identified by tests with reagents, which means that they must be specifically tested for. The police lab must, therefore, have some reason to test for the medicine in order to find it. Merely having the police report that a high level of an unpronounceable poison was found is cheating. And that is, of course, supposing that the medicine would even still be in the blood to test for. All sorts of chemicals break down in the body over the course of a few hours, many medicines among them, and cannot be found even if you know to test for them unless you run the test immediately. I suppose that this later part can be hand-waved away by simply not giving the made-up medicine this property, but there’s no real way around the test needing to be specific.
Ultimately, I think that this approach to medicine-as-poisons (just making them up) is fine, but doing it right would be so much work that it probably would be easier to use a real medicine. I think better than medicines, though, are recreational drugs. LD50 information tends to be readily available on these, and owing to being illegal they are generally available (to the degree that they are available) in pure forms quite in excess of a lethal dose. Further, since they are illegal, anonymous procurement does not greatly stretch the imagination.
Of course, there would be no harm in mixing recreational drugs with other drugs for synergistic effect. As long as it was planned well ahead of time.
One of the things which comes up in Poirot novels and short stories is how immodest Poirot is. He is very willing to say that he is the greatest detective ever, since it’s an indisputable fact and is often relevant to clients. Hastings, whose ideas of modesty are more English, frequently teases Poirot about this. I find this aspect of the stories very interesting, especially because Agatha Christie seemed to think it was funny enough to include quite often.
It is also curious to consider the contrast: Poirot was immodest but humble. Captain Hastings was modest but not humble.
I’m not really sure what to make of this; sometimes Agatha Christie seemed to hold it against Poirot and other times she seemed to side with him. Poirot has asked, quite reasonably, why it is considered better for a man who is good at something to lie and say that he is not. At other times Poirot seems to stray out of merely stating relevant facts and becoming boastful. I suppose to some degree we cannot expect a character written over the course of more than forty years to be entirely consistent. For that matter, real people are not always consistent even within a day, to say nothing of being consistent in many different circumstances over the course of forty years.
(Actually, the duration of Poirot stories is not really calculable; as Agatha Christie observed in her autobiography, given how she made Poirot of retirement age in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, he must have been well over 100 by his later cases, since they were all—or at least, mostly—set contemporaneously.)
A curious contrast to this is Miss Marple, who is extraordinarily modest. In a most Victorian style, she will not allow anyone to say anything positive about her without some sort of disclaiming it; the closest she comes to acknowledging the truth is a qualification to her disclaimer (“though it is true that I’ve been of some little assistance once or twice…”).
Modesty can, of course, be an enormously useful social grace. Being boastful can come at enormous social cost. That said, there is a danger of these things being confused with the far more important moral virtue of humility. Captain Hastings, in the books, frequently thought himself far more clever than he was, though he never said so except in his memoirs. In consequence he made all sorts of mistakes and occasionally made situations worse. In contrast, Poirot’s boasting was always in service of a practical point; he wanted clients to trust him because it was to their benefit to trust him. He wanted police inspectors to trust him, because their cases would go better if they trusted him. He never boasted of his abilities for his own benefit, but only for the benefit of those to whom he boasted.
Agatha Christie was, in her temperament, closer to Miss Marple than to Poirot, though based on her biography she was not greatly like either. Still, I do wonder how much she was actually able to see Poirot’s point of view. Authors cannot give characters what they do not have, but authors can give characters what they do not know that they have. It would be curious to know how much this is a case of that.
So far I’ve read 13 Miss Marple short stories (the first thirteen) and the novels Murder at the Vicarage, The Body in the Library, and A Murder Is Announced. These span 23 years (from 1927 to 1950), and while the environment of the mysteries changes quite considerably (especially in A Murder Is Announced, which is clearly set after World War II), there are some strongly consistent elements throughout.
The consistent element which strikes me the most is the degree to which Miss Marple stories are not about her. If it is the case that in Poirot stories Poirot emphasizes that he does not get down on his hands and knees to look for clues because that is the work of others, who bring what they find to Poirot so that it may be understood, nevertheless Poirot features quite heavily in Poirot stories. If he’s not in every chapter, he’s certainly in most of them.
Miss Marple is far less prominent in her stories.
The short stories, I suppose, are not so surprising in this regard. In the golden age of detective fiction short stories were quite frequently meant—and read—as decorated logic puzzles. It was common enough for them to be a recounting of the events to the detective, followed by the detective giving the solution, and these were most of the Miss Marple short stories.
Novels, however, are different. Detective novels are stories about a detective, or at least stories that involve a detective, in which the problem and its solution makes up only one thread of the story. In these, it is far more common for the story to be about the detective, to at least some degree. Miss Marple stories are not about her; in fact she’s not even the primary detective in her stories. I don’t mean that there is, technically, a police detective in charge of the case. I mean that the police detective does most of the work, and, more to the point, most of the time in the novel is spent with him (while he does it).
I find this very curious. It’s not bad, and doesn’t make the novels less enjoyable—though it does rob them of the comfort of having familiar characters. Murder mysteries necessarily involve new people in each novel—you can’t keep killing off the same victim, after all—but there is something very comforting in getting back together with familiar characters. This may be most pronounced in my experience in the Cadfael series, where after a few novels we have the familiar characters of Cadfael, Hugh Berringar, Abbot Rodulphus, Prior Robert, Brother Jerome, and several other brothers such as Edmund the infirmarer and Petrus, the cook. These characters are not only familiar, but form a community.
Part of what I find curious about this is that Miss Marple is, herself, an extremely settled character. She has spent nearly her whole life in the village of Saint Mary Mead. She has even lived in the same house during the entire time she’s been there. She is a Victorian who is well settled in her ways—though not so much that she can’t adapt to changing circumstances. It is also significant that she is a spinster. The life of a parent changes very greatly over time—there is marriage, then a child, then children; the children start out as young children and grow, their needs constantly changing with their size and age. Eventually they become adults and may well give their parents grand-children, which is yet another set of changes in the grandparents life. A spinster’s life, by contrast, changes far less, or at least has far fewer necessary changes of such direct magnitude. In short, Miss Marple, the character, is a very settled character.
I wonder whether part of this is that Miss Marple is a feminine character. Agatha Christie very much wrote Miss Marple as a woman, not merely a gender-swapped man. A great many female characters, especially in modern times, are very masculine women, or more often characters that were written as men and then cast with a woman playing the part of the man. Agatha Christie tended to write genuinely female characters for her women, and I think that this is true of Miss Marple, who has the feminine characteristic of liking to be unobtrusive. This is not at all the same thing as liking to be passive—Miss Marple is most certainly not a passive character. Like a great many women, however, she does have a marked preference for not being noticed by people too far outside of her social circle, and for not drawing too much attention to herself within it. This is a difficult thing for males to understand because people are so much less interested in us than they are in women. We like when people pay attention to us because it happens so rarely. We are also trained from a young age to be used to the downsides of publicity, because women like to use males to shield them from public interactions that they don’t want. Miss Marple was raised as a lady and thus would want her privacy; Miss Marple books being largely about others may, in a subtle way, be related to this.
Silencers come up from time to time in murder mysteries. Especially, I think, in golden age murder mysteries. They are legitimate, I think, but their use does also raise some legitimate questions.
I was recently reminded of silencers because one featured in Murder At The Vicarage, which is the first Miss Marple novel, published in 1930. Silencers were fairly new technology, back then. The first silencer was developed and sold by Hiram Percy Maxim, an American, in 1902. (He was awarded the patent for it in 1909.) Maxim advertised them regularly in sporting goods magazines and they sold fairly well; they were by no means fantastic by 1930.
The degree to which silencers actually silence a gun, on the other hand, is fairly often a matter of fantasy. It’s not that silencers can’t make a gun silent, or at least very near to it—it’s just that they usually don’t. In order to actually be silent, everything about the gun needs to be designed for it. A really good example of this is the Welrod Mk IIA:
Nothing about this is a normal gun, though. Probably the most important thing—after a well designed silencer—is having a light enough powder load that the bullet is subsonic, i.e. that the bullet travels slower than the speed of sound. This is critical because a bullet traveling at or faster than the speed of sound will produce a sonic boom when it hits the air outside of the barrel. Sonic booms are quite loud. The thing is, the speed of sound isn’t all that fast—under 1,100 feet per second—so typical guns are designed to make their bullets travel much faster. Low speeds make bullet drop a significant problem, and the Welrod’s manual states that it’s accurate in daylight out to about 30 yards. To put this into perspective, my compound bow, whose arrows go at about 260 feet per second, is easily accurate at 40 yards and not that hard to be accurate with at 60 yards. (Normal guns are accurate much further out than bows.)
The Welrod Mk IIA also has a silencer with rubber wipers that the bullet actually shoots through, too, in order to achieve its near-silence. Ordinary silencers do not have anything in the way of the bullet, and in consequence don’t really silence the gun. Ordinary guns fitted with a silencer also tend to fire bullets at between 2,000 and 3,500 feet per second, which will make a loud sonic boom. In consequence, what typical silencers on normal guns actually do is greatly attenuate the noise of the gun from instant-hearing-loss levels of noise to won’t-damage-your-hearing levels of noise. This is an absolutely enormous benefit to the people shooting them, but is not the sort of thing that will make people fifty feet away unaware that a shot has just been fired.
The upshot of all this is that silencers in murder mysteries tend to be unrealistic. What’s even worse is that in stories where a silencer features, people not hearing the shot tends to be a major plot point. Certainly, I’ve never read a story in which the murderer used a silencer only to protect his hearing. To be fair, there’s no reason why a murderer shouldn’t do that—while a murder is obviously not completely risk-averse, they are often at least a bit cautious. That said, that the shot that everyone heard wasn’t merely extremely loud and not mind-bogglingly loud would have no real effect on the plot, and I suspect would be hard to make interesting.
That said, it would be interesting to use a realistic near-silent gun, since it would turn much of the mystery into finding out where the gun came from. Something like a special services assassination gun such as the Welrod Mk IIA or a High Standard HDM pistol would serve well for this. They’re not sold commercially and so they’re not easy to get. Alternatively, a good silencer on a pistol that was loaded with ammunition with a light powder load would be pretty reasonable. It’s common enough for people to load their own bullets in order to save money and this allows people to select any amount of gun powder that they want. It wouldn’t be as silent as a purpose-made special services assassination pistol, but it wouldn’t be too much louder. This would point to someone with more than a little bit of firearms experience, though. Loading your own bullets requires some specialized equipment and a bit of practice. The potential for incriminating an innocent person is, I think, pretty obvious.
This last part put me in mind of other kinds of silent murder weapons, which makes me realize that blow gun darts dipped in fast-acting poison aren’t used nearly often enough in murder mysteries. One would have to find the right poison, but I think that there’s real potential for murderers trying to misdirect the police by using outlandish weapons.
Agatha Christie’s novel featuring Hercule Poirot, Death on the Nile, ends in a very interesting way.
Lastly the body of Linnet Doyle was brought ashore, and all over the world wires began to hum, telling the public that Linnet Doyle, who had been Linnet Ridgeway, the famous, the beautiful, the wealthy Linnet Doyle was dead.
Sir George Wode read about it in his London club, and Sterndale Rockford in New York, and Joanna Southwood in Switzerland, and it was discussed in the bar of the Three Crowns in Malton-under-Wode.
And Mr. Burnaby said acutely: “Well, it doesn’t seem to have done her much good, poor lass.”
But after a while they stopped talking about her and discussed who was going to win the Grand National. For, as Mr. Ferguson was saying at that minute in Luxor, it is not the past that matters but the future.
These are callbacks to various characters; Sir George Wode sold his estate to Linnet, and hated what she was doing to the place. Joanna Southwood was a jewel thief, and Mr. Burnaby was a neighbor of Linnet’s who only showed up in the very beginning:
That’s her! said Mr Burnaby, the landlord of the Three Crowns… “Millions she’s got… Going to spend thousands on the place. Swimming pools there’s going to be, and Italian gardens and a ballroom and half of the house pulled down and rebuilt…”
And Mr. Ferguson was a communist who thought it best that all of the people killed during the story were dead, since they were all parasites who did no honest work, by which he probably meant factory work. His answer to everything was that it was not the past that mattered, but the future.
This is, of course, a universal defeater. Anything that has actually happened is either in the past or will be in a moment, so really this is another way of saying that nothing real matters. If a man has been murdered, what of it? That is in the past. If a woman relied on a man’s promises which he now finds inconvenient, what of it? That’s in the past.
That last example, by the way, may even have been in Agatha Christie’s mind. She, herself, was abandoned by a husband who thought only of the future, and I suspect she saw all sorts of people who got screwed over by the same sort of thing.
Women are at their most attractive when young and unattached. Youthful beauty is not really a thing in itself but a promise (that is, hint) of what the woman can do, and wise women use their youthful good looks to secure things that will last longer: a husband and, God willing, children and eventually grandchildren. There is something, then, especially awful in a man who pretends to offer these things to a woman while she is still young then throws her away when she is older and her looks begin to fade. This is precisely the kind of cad that Mr. Ferguson is. He wants the benefits of being able to make promises and be believed, but not of the inconveniences in having to keep them.
This view was widespread, in one form or another, back in the 1920s and 1930s. You can see this is the fashion for divorce, which for all the screaming that people do about how important and necessary it is is just people breaking their promises and asking to be taken seriously on making new ones anyway. (When I say that this was widespread in the 1920s and 1930s, I mean giving justifications for it. These days people break their promises at least as often, but they don’t give it a second thought.)
This general theme does also show up in the desire of socialists to steal other people’s things. The justification for why anyone owns something is always in the past—he made it, he bought it, his father made it, etc. I suspect that the reason why anyone got any traction with this is that Europe suffered a great deal of trouble from the transition from feudalism to a modern industrial economy. In the aftermath of guns making the nobility useless on the battlefield, the nobility transformed into the much more familiar aristocracy, which were mostly just a bunch of parasites (this varied considerably with time and place). The question of “why should the aristocracy keep getting to extract as much value as possible from people merely because their distant ancestors were useful?” was a legitimate question.
The thing is, it was a legitimate question that was widely taken advantage of by bad people in order to help them get away with the evil that they wanted to do.
And we have characters like Mr. Ferguson because they didn’t waste any time in trying to apply that.
It is very curious, though, that the book ends by noting that it’s also true of people like Mr. Burnaby, as well. This points to the fact that such an attitude is, to a degree, inevitable. I’ve seen it in the closing of other murder mysteries, too; Saint Peter’s Fair comes to mind. After all of the labors of the murderer, after all the pain that they caused, after the detective sets right what can be set right—life goes on. The murderer threw away other people’s live, and quite often his own—and for nothing. And then the people who are left move on. There may be a hole in their lives and in their hearts, but there is still work to be done with whatever is left, and things to build. The past matters, but not to the exclusion of the future.
This is why, I think, murder mysteries so often involve romantic sub-plots. A young couple, coming together, represents that life goes on, for they will (we assume) go on to have children and raise them. While it is true that it can make good commercial sense for an author to include a romantic sub-plot simply because they are popular, they actually fit extremely well into a murder mystery.
I recently watched the David Suchet version of Murder On the Nile with my oldest son, then out of curiosity read the novel so I could compare. While the movie version was quite faithful to a lot of the story, it did have some changes, I think mostly to make it shorter. Unfortunately, I think it cut some of the best parts.
The novel was published in 1937 and is, by my count, the fourteenth novel featuring Hercule Poirot. Agatha Christie would have been approximately forty six years old when she wrote it, and the depth of characterization in it reflect both her experience as a writer as well as her greater experience of life. It is still, fundamentally, a murder mystery more than a novel—in distinction to Dorothy L. Sayers later work, especially Gaudy Night. That said, it certainly has a lot more meat on its bones than does, say, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. To be clear, this is in no way a knock against Styles; for that matter Dorothy L. Sayers’ first novel, Whose Body? was, as she put it, conventional to the last degree. My point is just that Agatha Christie has really developed as a writer; this book has not only the sort of brilliant plot that Christie’s books have always had, but also several human themes.
(As a warning, spoilers follow.)
The main theme of the book, of course, is how dangerous love is. Jacqueline really loved Simon Doyle too much, so she was willing to use her brains in service of his evil ends. Simon nearly got away with murder because she loved him too much. Jacqueline was willing to murder two people—one by stabbing—in order to protect Simon and help him to get away with his murder. Poirot tried to warn Jacqueline off from her course, but it was too late because she loved Simon too much. And then, finally, at the end, where Mrs. Allerton said, “Love can be a very frightening thing,” and Poirot replied, “That is why most great love stories are tragedies.”
This is all quite true. What’s really being described, of course, is not love, but idolatry. Jacqueline would do anything for Simon because, to her, he was God. A most inadequate God, to be sure. She recognized his flaws. Yet, she made her choice and would not go back on it.
Another interesting theme in the book is the immorality of Mr. Ferguson. He has the full measure of loathesomeness of a communist, and in one sense is merely a realistic portrayal of how bad such a man is, down to complaining about everything while he takes a pleasure cruise and pretends that he is “studying conditions”. It is interesting, though, that he is not merely malign. He has a curious trick of getting to know people; he relates all sorts of personal information about various people at different times. He has no pity and cares only for himself; his communism is merely an expression of that. This can also be seen, I think, in the way that his clothes were shabby but his underclothes were high quality.
Another aspect of his evil is his refrain that it is not the past that matters, but the future. (This is evil because it can be used to justify anything, and only people who want to justify evil use justifications that will justify anything. For people who mean well, ordinary justifications will suffice.) He has no pity for anyone, and no loyalty. All that matters is what people can do for him, now.
(As a side note, I also find it curious that this—presented slightly differently—is the theme of the Star Wars sequel Episode VIII: he Least Jedi.)
It is very interesting that the book ends with Mr. Furguson, and his philosophy of life.
[News of Linnet Ridgeway’s death spread.] …and it was discussed in the bar of the Three Crowns in Malton-under-Wode. And Mr. Burnaby said acutely: “Well, it doesn’t seem to have done her much good, poor lass.” But after a while they stopped talking about her and discussed who was going to win the Grand National. For, as Mr. Ferguson was saying at that minute in Luxor, it is not the past that matters but the future.
I’ve been reading Hitler’s Beneficiaries by Götz Aly, and wanted to share some initial thoughts. It’s a very interesting book. Its subject, as the title suggests, is a look at the people who materially benefited from the government of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party from 1933 to 1945. Or in other words, how did the Nazis stay popular in Germany?
I must admit that for a long time I never questioned whether the National Socialist German Worker’s Party was popular in Germany (while it was in power). It had a secret police—what did it matter if it was popular? In fact, why would it have a secret police if it was popular?
(It turns out that even with a secret police “the beatings will continue until morale improves” doesn’t work, and Hitler knew it.)
However that may be, it is immediately striking to what a great degree Hitler, Göring, et al were extremely concerned with keeping the German people happy. Time and time again, as Aly shows, they overrode their finance ministers in order to keep taxes low and benefits high for the lower and middle class Germans. Moreover, they worked hard to steal as much as possible from occupied nations for the benefit of the German people. They came up with clever ways to have soldiers “buy” things in occupied lands and send them back home to their families. (The scare quotes are because the soldiers used local currencies which were, through various accounting tricks, taken from the people of the occupied lands, mostly via their governments. Thus the soldiers thought of themselves as buying things and the shop keepers thought of themselves as selling things, but nothing of value flowed from Germany into the occupied lands, while much of value flowed into Germany.)
There are also some very interesting tie-ins from Hitler’s policy of trying to keep the German people happy to the oppression and murder of the Jews within the lands that Germany controlled. Governments have to get their money from somewhere, and while Hitler was a huge fan of “tax the rich,” that sounds a lot more effective than it actually is at procuring large amounts of money for the government—there just aren’t that many rich people, and if you take away all their money, they’re not rich next year and you probably need more money than you did this year. If you want a huge amount of money, year after year, you have to get it from a large number of people. (This is why socialism and other ponzi schemes always fail.)
The racism intrinsic to National Socialism made it very politically tenable to heavily tax the Jews, though. Greedy people can never stop before they make things unsustainable, so of course Germany progressed on to “needing” to take everything away from the Jews, though they did it in stages.
I’m less than halfway through, but it’s a very interesting book so far.
Perhaps the most classic golden age murder mystery story is that of a murder taking place at a dinner party in a country house. It didn’t happen very often in the golden age novels; I suspect it may actually be more common in plays from the time since it lends itself to the confines of a stage so well. It certainly made it to the board game Clue (or Cluedo, if you’re from England). If we broaden out a little to a murder in an English Great House, this certainly becomes more common in novels, though still by no means the norm. I think that these sorts of murder mysteries are so classical—so typical—because the setting particularly captures the imagination. But why does it?
I think that the answer is that an English Great House is a small and, to all appearances—except for the murder—harmonious society. Modern society, both from the changes brought about by technology and from the deterioration which started with Modern Philosophy (that doubted truth), has been especially discordant. This makes us long for society whose parts fit together.
When we look at the parts, I think that it is actually the servants who are the most important part of this. But not for the reasons many people think.
Though the servants are not frequently major characters in the story, they are a major part of what makes the English Great House harmonious. The key thing about them is that they have their varied roles and are content with those roles. That is not to say that the servants’ dreams have all been fulfilled, or that they would do these jobs if they didn’t need the money; neither of those is an important part of being content. It is also not to say that they enjoy their work. That’s not a part of contentment, either. The servants do not make demands past what they are owed for their labor, and they (it is always implied) receive what they are owed. The gardener does not covet the parlor maid’s job, nor does the parlor maid covet the gardener’s job. The cook makes no speeches about how she should be the lady’s maid. The servants work together with acrimony, jealousy, and spite.
This is not to say that they never like anything about their job. You will not infrequently see servants who have been with the family for many decades will be fond of people they served as children. I think that this is often misunderstood; it really just refers to the human tendency to grow fond of what is familiar, and also to easily grow fond of children, especially when their bad behavior is a distant memory. It’s also typically a housekeeper or a butler who is fond of the young adult who used to be a child; these are people who would mostly see the children having fun but would not be responsible for disciplining them. It’s a common enough experience to grow fond of an employer’s children one happened to come into regular contact with but was never responsible for.
For that matter, it’s also common for people who have worked in a workplace for a long time to become fond of the people with whom they’ve worked, including their boss if he was a good boss. The loyal servant—who is almost invariably old—is no great stretch of the imagination if they regarded their work as a job of which they had no great complaint; it is the nature of human beings to start to think of as family those who are in our lives for a long time. This is a common phenomenon in modern workplaces; it’s not mere romanticization to think it also happened in workplaces a century ago.
The family who lives in the Great House also forms a part of this society, of course; in a sense the more stable part (except for how one of them has murdered another of them), since they cannot be sacked and will not give notice because they’ve accepted descent from some other ancestor. (That said, they can leave because of marriage, so I don’t want to make too much of their greater stability. Sometimes it’s the other way around, where a servant has been with the family for fifty years but a daughter left at twenty two when she married.)
The families of Great Houses tend, in murder mysteries, to be far more discordant with each other than the servants are with each other, and here again the servants help to make the whole thing work. The family may quarrel, but their relationship with the servants is harmonious. In the main the family asks the servants for things which are reasonable enough and within the servants’ job description, and the servants generally do them in reasonable ways. The relationships between the family and the servants are quite unequal, but they are reasonably stable and no one actively fights them. That is the essence of a harmonious society. (By contrast, in high school, at least within a grade, everyone is equal and there is a great deal of discord.)
When people admire the English Great Houses and the society of the time, or say such things as “wouldn’t it have been great to have lived back then?” it is, I think, really this social harmony that they long for. And I think it is this longing for such social harmony which makes the English Great House such an iconic golden age mystery setting. It is perfect to set off what the detective story is—because of all of those caveats I had to add about “except for the murder”.
In the English Great House we have a harmonious society which is suddenly thrown into disarray by the murder of one of its members. But no one knows who did it because the murderer has used his cleverness to conceal his identity. That is, the society’s right order was put wrong through a disordered use of intellect. Into this once-great-now-broken society comes the detective. He moves about the house and gets to know it, and then by a rational process deduces the identity of the murderer. With the murderer’s identity known justice may be served and the society can continue, constructed differently because of its changed members, but this new ordering will once again be a harmonious ordering. That is, the detective restores, through a right use of intellect, a proper ordering of the society.
Regarded in this way, I think it becomes clear why the Great House is so iconic. Like icons, it paints the picture in bright colors and clear lines that make it easy to see the important parts.
Incidentally, this might be why, in good murder mysteries, it’s almost never the case that The Butler Did It.
If you’ve spent more than a few minutes arguing with atheists on the internet, the subject of how they justify morality will have come up and they will have tried to justify it by saying that “they have empathy”. Usually, though not always, in very self-satisfied tones. It is curious that they are oblivious to how stupid this is. And not just in one way.
The first problem, of course, is that empathy doesn’t inevitably lead to treating people well. It’s very easy to lie to people because one doesn’t want them to suffer, to give too much candy to a child because you can’t bear to hear them cry, to give alcohol to an alcoholic because he feels miserable without it, etc. Empathy also provides no check against suffering that cannot be seen. It’s hard to shoot a man standing in front of you, and not so hard to shoot him when he’s 200 yards away, and not nearly as hard when he’s inside of a building that you’re bombing. It can be downright easy when it’s giving orders to people who don’t feel empathy to execute people in a camp hundreds of miles away.
For that matter, empathy can even lead to being cruel; if two people’s needs conflict and one feels more empathy for one person than another, that empathy can lead one to harm the other for the sake of the one more empathized with. Parents are notorious for being willing to go to great lengths for the sake of their children, even to the point of doing all sorts of immoral things to spare their children far less suffering than the harm they cause to spare it. I can testify to the temptation. If I were to consult only my feelings and not my principles, there’s no limit to the number of people I would kill for the sake of my children.
Which brings us to another problem: empathy is merely a feeling. To claim that the basis of morality is empathy is to claim that the basis of morality is a feeling. In other words, “morality is based on empathy” means “do what you feel like.” That’s not morality, that’s the absence of morality. Moreover, human beings demonstrably feel like doing bad things to each other quite often.
(Unless, of course, the atheist is trying to claim that one should privilege the feeling of empathy over feelings experienced more strongly at the time, in which case there would need to be some rational argument given, not based in empathy, for why it should be thus privileged. But if one were to try this, one would run into a sort of Euthyphro dilemma—if empathy is good because it conforms to the good, then it is not the source of goodness, and it is a distraction to talk about it; if good is good because it conforms to empathy, then to call empathy good is merely to say that it is empathy, and there is no rational basis for preferring it to other feelings.)
The fact that people feel like doing bad things to each other really gets to the heart of the problem for the atheist. It’s all very well for the atheist to say “I prefer to harm no one.” He can have no real answer to someone else replying, “but I do.” Indeed, he has no answer. If you ever suggest such a thing, the atheist merely shrieks and yells and tries to shout down the existence of such a thing. His ultimate recourse is to law, of course, which means to violence, for law is the codified application of violence by people specially charged with carrying that violence out.
(It’s hardly possible to arrest someone, try, convict, and imprison them all without at least the threat of force from the police; if you don’t think so try the following experiment: construct a medium sized steel box (with windows), walk up to some random person while manifestly carrying no weapons, and say “In my own name I arrest you and sentence you twenty years inside of my steel box. Now come along and get in. I will not force you, but I warn you that if you do not comply I shall tell you to get in again.” Do this twenty or thirty times and count how many of them the person comes along and gets in.)
Of course, when the atheist appeals to the laws which enforce his preferred morality, we may ask where his empathy for the transgressor is. Where is his empathy for all of the people in prison? It must be a terrible feeling to be arrested by the police; where is the atheist’s empathy for them?
If you go looking for it, you will find that the atheist’s empathy is often in short supply, though he credits himself in full.
This morning (as of the time of writing) I had a very weird experience: I woke up while dreaming so I remembered it, and in that dream I successfully debugged a program in a way that actually works when I think about it while I’m awake.
The program wasn’t real, of course, but it was very curious that the bug was perfectly possible. It was some sort of program like one of the ones I work on at my day job and the program tagged commands it sent to the server with a string. Each command also includes a tag for the next command, which the next command must include. Another developer overrode the current tag, and consequently the client program didn’t have the right command tag for the next command, so its commands wouldn’t be accepted. The overriding of the tag would in fact cause subsequent commands to not be accepted, and the fix would be to resynchronize the client with the server (whether by changing the next command tag on the server or the previous command tag on the client).
The normal experience of figuring out the solution to a problem in one’s dreams is to find out that the perception that the solution worked was just a feature of the dream, and it doesn’t really work, if one can even remember what the solution even was. I find it very interesting that it was possible to have a real solution in a dream where the problem was also a creation of the dream, and the sort of problem is entirely a human creation (computer programs).
I suspect that this is why programming and video games are so popular among atheists; since these things are creation of the human mind they feel safe in a way that things which exist apart from the human mind are not safe.
Avicii’s song The Nights contains a chorus sung in a very inspiring-sounding way, which makes it impressive how bad the advice in it is:
The chorus says, “One day, you’ll leave this world behind so live a life you will remember.”
It would be difficult to think of a worse lesson from “one day you’ll leave this world behind”. There are only two possibilities for after you die:
You don’t remember anything from this life (e.g. because you no longer exist)
You do remember things from this life
If #1 is the outcome, then there is zero point to trying to “live a life you will remember.” So we’re only concerned with possibility #2.
If you will remember things from this life, then there are two possible ways that the afterlife could go:
The things you did matter
The things you did don’t matter
Since the afterlife is, presumably, going to be a lot longer than this life, if we’re in condition 2.1 then forget living a life you will remember and live a life of virtue. If we’re in condition 2.2, then we’re talking about ideas like the ancient pagan idea that the afterlife was just a dark motionless cave in which nothing bad or good happened, the spirits just kind of are. It probably gives some idea what that would be like to consider that the shades from Hades all told Odysseus that it really sucked to be dead and a miserable life alive was still better than being a mere shade. A life that you will remember will probably just torment you with what you no longer have and can no longer do.
If you look at the video, it’s mostly short clips of Avicii in places that are impressive and cost a decent amount of money to go to. In short, this is an anthem of having money and spending it all on fleeting experiences.
In fact, you can tell that they don’t fill his soul up nearly so much as he pretends that they do because he constantly needs new ones. He’s never in the same place twice. It’s a pretty good hint that you can find something substantive at Church because people keep going back to the same church, just as you can tell that people find real food at the grocery store because they keep going back to the same grocery store.
One might almost propose it as a test: you can tell that a man has found something truly interesting if he is boring. There are exceptions, but most of the time people do interesting things it is because their attention isn’t occupied by something interesting so they must do something interesting to have something to think about.
This, by the way, is why I’ve never been drunk in my life. There are far too many interesting things in life to take time off from paying attention to them. I’ve already got to spend a large fraction of my time asleep; I can’t spare more.
Detectives in the golden age of mysteries were frequently described as ugly in one way or another. Sherlock Holmes was pictured with a hawk-like face and a large, hatchet nose, and Conan Doyle was disappointed when Holmes began to be drawn as a good looking man in illustrations. Lord Peter was described with his face looking “as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola”. Poirot was short, had preposterous military mustaches, and an egg-shaped head. (The main exception to this trend which comes to mind is Dr. Thorndyke.)
I’ve had occasion more than once to wonder why this is. One possible explanation, of course, is that it was true of Sherlock Holmes for whatever reason Conan Doyle chose to do it and everyone else merely copied him. They certainly did copy him in a great many ways, typically quite consciously, so this can’t be entirely ruled out.
If it is the case, then Conan Doyle’s reason for making Holmes ugly is worth considering. Unfortunately, I don’t know that he ever gave it. Certainly, he was trying to convey intensity, for intensity is the chief mark of the descriptions of Holmes. Holmes was unusual, and I think that the degree to which he was an unusual man was meant to be stamped on his features. Beyond that, I don’t know. His physical description was not of primary importance to Conan Doyle, since we got none in the chapter in which Holmes was introduced.
Detectives being ugly may not have been merely in imitation of Holmes, however. The main exception that I alluded to above—Dr. Thorndyke was quite handsome—may be brought to bear in support of this, because Thorndyke was remarkably a copy of Holmes in most other respects. Thorndyke had a not-very-bright doctor friend who ended up sharing rooms with him and chronicling his cases. Thorndyke was a coldly logical calculating machine with little regard for the bumblers on the professional police force. Thorndyke was austere in manner and uninterested in women. If you read the stories (such as The Red Thumb Mark or The Eye of Osiris), you will see even more how much Thorndyke was a copy of Holmes. And yet Thorndyke was not ugly. Perhaps, then, this was not regarded as an integral feature of Holmes.
So why, then, was it so common? Even if it was in part an imitation, why was it so frequently imitated when other things—for example, Holmes’ drug use—was not.
I’m inclined to think that it was about balance. Writers feared making their detectives too great, and so sought to give them some flaws. The problem with giving your characters flaws is that flaws tend to be unpleasant to others. One must pick the flaws of one’s main character very carefully. It’s all to easy to make a story unreadable by having a main character who one wants to throttle, not read about.
Flaws of appearance are well suited to written stories, since they will not be frequently felt by the reader. This also explains, I think, why they do not tend to survive to plays and movie versions—an ugly leading man will be felt quite a lot by the viewer.
Having said that, these flaws frequently do not survive long even in print. They’re not interesting. Moreover, we grow to like the detective and we do not like picturing our friends as ugly.
I believe that for the most part writers in the second century of detective fiction don’t bother with ever having their detectives be ugly. This shows better sense, I think (in this very limited way), but I wonder if it may be in part that brilliant detectives are so well accepted that we no longer feel a need to try to counterbalance their brilliance so that readers will accept them.
With a hat tip to Father Poeking on Twitter, I came across this fascinating video:
It’s a (scripted) rap battle and boxing match which is actually about the main economic arguments of Keynes and Hayek. A thing which is entertaining about economics is already a very rare beast, but one which has high production values and good acting is a bit like finding a two-headed unicorn.
Also interesting is that, as the thumbnail suggests, the rap battle is interspersed with a boxing match. There is the interesting detail that boxing has been called “the sweet science” while economics has been called “the dismal science”.
It’s very much worth watching; it’s entertaining and there’s a lot of attention to detail.
A friend brought up the subject of people demanding signs from God, which reminded me of a thing that comes up sometimes among atheists where they say that if God wanted people to believe in Him, he should do [whatever]. It doesn’t take much experience of atheists to realize that it doesn’t matter what the thing is, it wouldn’t be enough. There could be mile-high letters in the sky made of unquenchable flames saying, “I made the world. –God” and atheists would say it’s an unexplained natural phenomenon that guided the development of language and its inexplicability was what drove the development of religion before the advent of modern science.
Vary the thing as much as you like, as long as it predates what the atheist sets as the condition, the result will be the same. It will only be believable if it happens in response to what the atheist asks for. That is, it will only be believable if God’s actions conform perfectly to the will of the atheist.
That’s the key to understanding the fundamental problem.
You can see the exact same phenomenon in romantic relationships where one partner is insecure. Let’s call them I and O, for brevity: I isn’t sure that O loves her, and asks him to do something reasonable to show it. But as soon as he does it, it occurs to her that maybe he did it for some other reason. Maybe he just thought it was a good idea, or thought that he was going to get something out of it. So I comes up with some other test for O’s love, this time more extreme; something he couldn’t think is reasonable. When he does it, she then wonders if he really loves her or is just trying to humor her because he wants sex. So she needs to push him away and demand something that he would have to hate. If O is sane, I will eventually succeed in driving him off, proving that he didn’t “really” love her. And if he isn’t sane and stays, it’s always possible that he’s doing that because the alternative is even worse, which isn’t really love, etc.
Ultimately, the problem in both cases is that the person will only believe in what is a complete extension of their own will. But if it a thing were a complete extension of one’s will, it would be a part of one (since we can’t create ex nihilo). Ultimately, the only thing that the atheist and the insecure person can believe in is… themselves.
It’s a solipsistic trap.
They will tend to be very angry that they are in this trap; they don’t want to be. They cry out to people to get them out of this trap. But no one can get them out. That’s the problem with mental prisons: the prisoner is the guard.
You must be logged in to post a comment.