Fun Characters

One of the decisions which needs to be made in a story (I’m thinking of mysteries, of course, but this is a general issue) is whether to make characters realistic or fun.

(This post is, in a sense, related to my post Sympathetic Suspects In Murder Mysteries, but it’s not really the same subject.)

I do have to admit that I am cheating, slightly, when I pose the dichotomy of fun versus realistic. There are fun characters who are realistic; what is unrealistic is really the presence of more than one such character in a story. Whatever exactly the criteria one has for a fun character—whether it’s having interesting hobbies, being wide read in literature, being a wit, etc.—such people are, simply, rare. People are, on average, average. That is no slight against them; God evidently likes many variations on a theme—just look at The Lessons of Beetles.

Anyway, when the question is posed, “should I have interesting characters or realistic characters” the answer is almost self-evident. (Despite having a central conceit as unrealistic as a Franciscan order of consulting detectives, I suppose I still have a hangup about realism that I’m working my way through.) The real question, I guess, is how to make the interesting characters seem realistic.

To some degree I think that the answer is to commit to them. From afar they will seem improbable. However, everyone is normal to himself so if we actually get to know the character sufficiently his odd point of view (that he’s not odd) will tend to rub off on us.

The other important thing, which is really another form of committing to the characters, is to follow through with what makes them interesting. That is, not merely to add it in for spice, but to actually make use of it and even to consider what sorts of things such an interesting person would under the interesting circumstances we’ve put them in. That said, a murder mystery tends be something of an equalizer. As Chesterton observed human beings are most like each other in the great events of their lives—birth and death and so on. I suppose that murder mysteries make life easier on the author this way, that we can throw in interesting characters and they’ll act much the same as any other, except they’ll do it in a more interesting way.

Dust Jackets

My novels, printed in hardcover, come with the cover art printed on the book itself, and with no dust jacket. Though this is clearly superior to the flimsy paper which easily tears and makes reading more difficult it one tried to do it without setting the dust jacket aside, it did make my books (printed by a small indie publisher) feel less real, somehow. Wondering why a superior bookbinding felt less real, I looked up the history. It turns out to be interesting and different than I expected.

Apparently until the 1820s books were not (typically) bound by their publishers. The publisher’s job was to print the book up, it was left to a bookseller or the customer to bind it in whatever way they wanted. It was a man by the name of William Pickering who, in 1819, first offered inexpensive books bound with a cloth binding. These books were quite popular and it changed the publishing industry forever. It was not long before publishers started making the bindings fancy.

An issue which came up is that fancy bindings do not do well with the rigors of distribution such as being carted around in boxes on trains or thrown into carts. In order to protect these fancy bindings, publishers began to wrap the books in dust jackets, though they were more akin to a paper version of modern plastic wrap—wrapped all around and sealed. Being paper they were not transparent, so some indicating of what book was inside was found to be a good idea, and a name was often printed on this paper, though very plainly. The expectation (and frequent reality) was that the bookseller would remove the protective paper as he was stocking the books in his store.

By the 1850s, the all-around dust jacket was replaced the dust jacket that folds around and is tucked inside the cover, as we typically know it today. It was still very plain and meant to be discarded, but this format provided the requisite protection without costing as much either in material or labor to wrap, as well as to unwrap for display in a bookstore.

In the early 1900s the economics of books changed and since it was cheaper to make the dust jacket fancy than it was to make the book binding fancy, that’s what happened. It seems like the transition was mostly complete by the 1920s, when the price of a (harcover) book was moved to the inside flap, rather than the spine, where it would not get in the way of appreciate the cover art.

Thus hardcover books remained until recently. With printing technology having changed to use what are effectively (as I understand it) industrial scale laser printers and even industrial scale color laser printers, together with other machines of automation and more advanced plastics, it became viable to inexpensively print durable cover art directly onto hardcover books.

This is better in every way than the dust jackets which dominated the twentieth century, and yet it’s curious how powerful associations can be. Instinctively, I still think of a book with a plain, dark cover wrapped in a dust jacket to be better, somehow. In spite of the fact that it is typically much worse, including having no water resistance on the cover. In fact, so annoying is this, that I actually used wood finish on the cover of a beloved copy of Pride and Prejudice in order to make it resist the occasional unlucky drop of water (the dust jacket wasn’t very good and has long-since been lost).

There is a curious relationship, I think, to how we grew used to thinking of classical marble statue as monochromatic (white). In its day it was painted bright colors; by our time the paint has long-since flaked off. We took the simplicity to be deliberate and learned to appreciate it, associating it with good judgement because it so commonly went with good judgement.

But it was accidental.

Sherlock Holmes Often Lets the Criminal Go

In the end of The Three Gables, the woman responsible for the trouble in the story asks Sherlock Holmes for help.

“Well, well,” said he, “I suppose I shall have to compound a felony as usual.”

It’s an interesting phrase, because it’s true—Holmes does often let the criminal go. I was reminded of this when I recently re-watched the Jeremy Brett version of The Priory School, and then re-read the short story to see the differences. Perhaps the biggest change is that in Conan Doyle’s version, Holmes lets the criminals off, while in the Jeremy Brett version there’s one fewer criminal, and the main criminal ends up falling to his death rather than being let off. (To be fair, in the Conan Doyle version, the actual murderer does get caught and is said to be almost certain to hang for the murder.)

This is a rather curious trend. Though the Holmes stories in large part launched the genre of detective stories, in many ways they frequently bucked the trends that quickly came to dominate the genre.

Holmes stories do not tend to feature fair play; in fact they often almost pointedly eschew it with Holmes seeing some evidence which he refuses to show to Watson. The Priory School has an example of this; Holmes stands on Watson’s shoulders to see who is holding the young boy who was kidnapped, but Watson doesn’t get to see who it was and only learns it when Holmes accuses the man.

Holmes stories are frequently not about murder, though admittedly even in the golden age not every mystery story was about murder. I can think of at least three Father Brown stories off of the top of my head which were not. That said, in Holmes stories murder is probably more the exception than the rule.

But perhaps nowhere do Holmes stories buck the trends of the genre they started so much as in how often Holmes lets the criminal off. It’s not merely occasional, it’s all over the place. Perhaps the most memorable instance of it is in the end of The Blue Carbuncle:

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

Perhaps it’s the second bucking of the trend which is so often responsible for the first; I can’t think of any case where Holmes lets a murderer go. (I should note that my knowledge of his cases is not encyclopedic. That said, I think that in later stories the preference in both readers and writers developed for the detection in detective stories to have some purpose, that is, to have some effect. It need not be a legal effect, of course, though it commonly was that. The solution should please more than just the detective; it should reconcile people to each other or give someone peace.

There are no hard and fast rules on this, of course. I’m quite fond of the Poirot story Murder on the Orient Express, where Poirot lets the killers off. It’s actually more complicated than that; he does not make the decision at all. The director of the Wagon-Lit company that runs the orient express asked him to investigate and he did. He then presented to the director two possibilities. The first was of an assassin who snuck out through a window when he was done. The director dismisses, but Poirot warns him not to dismiss it so quickly. After he hears the second explanation, he may not think so badly of this one. He then explains what really happened, where the death was, basically, the execution of a foul murderer of an innocent child, who had heretofore escaped justice. When he fully understood what had happened, the director did indeed prefer the first explanation, and it was what was given to the police when they eventually arrived. There was a cathartic effect to the action, though, where an impartial judge was given to judge the case, and pardoned the killers. The detective, effectively, reconciled the killers with society.

I am, in fact, fond of the surprise ending where the detective lets the killer go because he is not really a murderer. I suppose I just think that it should be a rare exception for it to have its real effect.

Ultimately, though, it is right that the detective cares more for justice than for the law, and it is generally best when the detectives are not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies.

Sympathetic Suspects In Murder Mysteries

There are two types of suspects in murder mysteries: sympathetic and unsympathetic suspects. Oh, a suspect can go from one category to the other. We might not know which category a suspect is in. But ultimately, every suspect will be sympathetic or else not. So, which is better?

I can already all but hear people clamoring that a mystery story needs both. These people are probably right, but “both” is no fun as an answer so bear with me while I consider the question as a simple binary.

The first thing to say in favor of sympathetic suspects is that they are more pleasant. One can stand to read far more about sympathetic characters, in general, than unsympathetic ones. This is an important consideration. There is a danger here, though, which is that if a sympathetic character turns out to be the murderer, it is something of a blow. This is often a popular way to disguise a murderer, but it runs the risk, when overdone—as it often has been—of unintentionally conveying the idea that apparently good people always have some secret evil which they are hiding.

I should clarify that a sympathetic character need not be an outwardly moral character. It is possible to make an explicitly immoral character sympathetic, though care should be taken here not to let that lead the reader to approve of the sympathetic character’s vice. I will say that this sort of sympathetic character would be the better choice for murderer, if one must make the murderer sympathetic.

That is especially true in the modern era, where the general trend is in favor of excusing all vices, or at least almost all vices. Tempting people to excuse the vice of the sympathetic immoral person and then it turning out that they were merely being taken advantage of—there may be a useful corrective in that to the general vices of our time.

Probably the strongest argument to be made in favor of unsympathetic suspects is that it is often better for the murderer to be an unsympathetic character. Having said that, this does have the unfortunate consequence that one must have several unsympathetic characters in order to avoid making it obvious who the murderer is. (I’m speaking in generalities, of course. Enough gambits have been tried, and bluffed, and double-bluffed that one can probably pull off making the murderer unsympathetic, and making everyone suspect him, and starting off with some pretty damning evidence against him, only for the reader—and detective—to refuse to believe it because it’s too obvious. I can’t think off-hand of an Agatha Christie in which this was done, but if anyone could pull it off, she could.)

The downside to unsympathetic suspects is so obvious it may go without saying, but just in case it doesn’t: they tend to be unpleasant to read about. One must, therefore, keep their “screen time” short. A little bit of them will, usually, go a long way. This puts us in an especially bad place if the murderer is unsympathetic, since then we’ll need to have at least a few unsympathetic characters. Several characters, all of whom get fairly little time on the stage in order to spare the reader, will be harder to keep separate in the reader’s mind.

It will be well, therefore, to make them more stylized, in order to make them more memorable. One way of doing this is to give them vices which tend to be excused in popular culture. Poking fun at the vice will be more tolerated in an unsympathetic character, and it will be more memorable. It will also probably be more realistic, too, since vices have a tendency to cluster (as several vices often share a root cause).

In the end, I think that there’s a lot to be said for having a good number of sympathetic characters. Care must be taken if one of them is the murderer, but care will always have to be taken in writing a murder mystery.

When Changes For Television Make Sense

I recently watched the Jeremy Brett version of the Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Red Circle. There were a number of changes from the original short story, as there inevitably are in translations of Holmes stories to the screen.

Some of these changes make perfect sense—these are generally of the form of filling in the minor actions which can be elided in prose, or creating dialog which was merely described. Of the former, an example might be greetings exchanged with a servant, the giving of hat and walking stick, etc. Of the latter, an author may write “he gave his consent enthusiastically,” but an actor must actually say specific words. These sorts of things are just a necessary act of translation of the written word to the performed word.

Some of these changes are mere additions. One such are things done to set the scene and tone. Examples of this might be showing the man merely described as a teacher actually teaching a class, or showing a blacksmith working iron. Another mere addition is padding. This is often an issue in the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes episodes based on short stories, as the short story really gave material for about half an hour, while the TV episodes were an hour. It varied from episode to episode, but some of them involve a fair amount of padding. A good example of this might be from the Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle—the TV episode begins with showing the lady who owned the gemstone coming to her hotel after shopping, going to her room, order a bath to be drawn for her, and finally discovering the stone to be missing. None of this appeared in the short story itself, but as presented it was congruent with it. It also served no discernible function beyond avoiding the credits being twenty minutes long.

Padding can be done well, though in later Jeremy Brett episodes the padding often consisted of revealing a good chunk of the mystery right at the beginning. An extreme example of this is the Jeremy Brett version of The Three Gables, in which the opening depicted the relationship between the dead man and the rich lady which was the reveal toward the end of the short story. I don’t think that there’s really any defense of this which can be given; it makes no sense to turn a Sherlock Holmes story into an episode of Colombo. That said, this is just a question of execution; padding need not hurt the story that is being added to.

And then we come to the changes which make no sense, in which something that appeared in the original story was removed and something else substituted in its place. I will draw my example from The Red Circle, since it’s what inspired this blog post. In the short story, Holmes meets inspector Gregson on the street as Gregson had been working with a Pinkerton detective to follow and try to arrest Black Gorgiano of the Red Circle, and Black Gorgiano was after the lodger that Sherlock Holmes had been called in to investigate. In the TV episode, Holmes met Inspector Hawkins (who replaced Gregson, presumably for casting reasons) at the murder scene of an invented character named Enrico Formani, and then the two joined forces. It might be argued that this was done in order to pad the story out, though, so I will move on to another, though shorter, change, as my example.

In the TV episode, Inspector Hawkins insists that Emilia and her husband Gennaro must be tried for the murder of Black Gorgiano, though he expects that they will not be convicted because it was self defense. He even takes tickets for departure on a ship from Gennaro. (There is also a post-script by Watson which says that they were aquitted and lived happily ever after in Australia.)

In the short story, Emilia surmises that it was her husband who killed Gorgiano and tells the story of what happened—how Gorgiano was following them to murder them, and how he must have come upon her husband and he defended himself. At the end, she asks, ” And now, gentlemen, I would ask you whether we have anything to fear from the law, or whether any judge upon earth would condemn my Gennaro for what he has done?” Here’s the rest:

“Well, Mr. Gregson,” said the American, looking across at the official, “I don’t know what your British point of view may be, but I guess that in New York this lady’s husband will receive a pretty general vote of thanks.”

“She will have to come with me and see the chief,” Gregson answered. “If what she says is corroborated, I do not think she or her husband has much to fear.

There was absolutely no need to change the ending in this way. It might be argued it followed from the earlier change of pushing the explanation from the scene of the death to Holmes going into Emilia’s room, but that change did not entail this one. Emilia could just as easily have asked if they had anything to fear this way. This change accomplished nothing except to slightly dehumanize the character of the inspector and create an element of fear for the couple which was immediately put to rest by Watson’s postscript.

I can think of no explanation for this sort of change except to try to make the story feel a bit more like a cookie cutter TV episode. The mantra of the time, in television (though more in the US than in the UK) was to “raise the stakes”. This was, more often than not, bad advice, though it made sense in the context of an era in which people had recently gained remote controls for their television and, with a much larger number of available channels than two decades before, people growing restless and changing channels was the TV writer’s greatest fear.

(Less talked about, but also interesting, was the concomitant effect on TV episodes that the writers had to bear in mind that the viewer at any given moment may not have watched the episode from the start and thus cannot be relied upon to remember what happened before the current scene. Keeping a viewer from losing interest and changing channels was of utmost importance, but keeping a viewer who lost interest in his original show and changed channels to yours was also very important, and this definitely had an effect on how TV shows were written.)

The Problem of Thor Bridge

The Problem of Thor Bridge was first published in 1922, making it one of the last Sherlock Holmes stories published in The Strand Magazine and towards the last of the Holmes stories published anywhere. (Only ten Holmes stories were published after, the last in March of 1927.)

By this time, other detective stories were well underway. Dr. Thorndyke had been solving cases for fifteen years, Father Brown had been solving cases for twelve years and Poirot for two. I don’t know whether Sir Arthur ever read any of these stories, or to what degree they influenced him. It seems possible, though, as this is one of the only Holmes stories in which there is a ingenious murder device, that is, with a clever and unusual method of committing murder. Far more common in Holmes stories are fairly ordinary means of committing murder that only left a few clues behind. (As well, there are plenty of non-murder cases entirely. Possibly the majority—I haven’t counted.)

Technically all the villain got away with, in the story, was self-murder, and merely attempted to murder the woman she hated by setting the scene to look like murder and framing her rival. It was still a very clever and original technique for murder.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, Mrs. Maria Gibson was jealous of miss Grace Dunbar, the governess of her children, because her husband had fallen in love with Miss Dunbar. Mrs. Gibson made an appointment with Miss Dunbar for a certain time in the evening and had Miss Dunbar confirm it with a note. After Miss Dunbar came, Mrs. Gibson insulted her until she ran away. Once Miss Dunbar was safely out of earshot, she tied a heavy rock, with a long piece of twine, to a gun, and shot herself, with the note clutched in her other hand. When she fell dead, the rock pulled the gun over the edge of the bridge and into the water below. The final piece of evidence against Miss Dunbar was a duplicate gun, planted in Miss Dunbar’s wardrobe.

The absence of the gun was very strong evidence against suicide, and the timing selected gave most people, except for Miss Dunbar, an alibi for the time of death. It’s quite clever.

I find it curious that this means of murder has been copied so little. I couldn’t think of any examples, and the Wikipedia page mentions only two TV shows which have borrowed the idea, one CSI in an episode titled Who Shot Sherlock? The other is a Murder, She Wrote episode from the eighth season titled To The Last Will I Grapple With Thee.

I watched that episode of Murder, She Wrote, as I didn’t remember it. It’s a good episode, though a bit strange because most of the cast are Irish immigrants; most of the cast except for Jessica Fletcher and the Police Lieutenant speak with an Irish brogue. It’s one of the episodes set in New York City when Jessica is teaching classes as some university. There’s an Irish ex-policeman who moved to America to start a new life, with his adult daughter, and he’s pursued by a career criminal from Ireland, with whom he had a long history including having tried to win the hand of the same woman, who tries to frame the ex-policeman for his murder. He uses a weight on a string tied to a heavy weight to hide the gun in the open cavity of an unfinished wall, but Jessica spots the marks the gun made on the wall and deduces what happened. It turned out that the career criminal had an inoperable brain tumor, and since he had so little time left, he decided to make one last attempt to get back at his old enemy.

He is explicitly likened to Ahab in Moby Dick, and a part of Ahab’s final speech is quoted. It’s worth quoting in full (if you haven’t read Moby Dick, Ahab had dedicated his life to veangeance against the white whale, who has just rammed Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, and the ship is sinking).

I turn my body from the sun. What ho, Tashtego! let me hear thy hammer. Oh! ye three unsurrendered spires of mine; thou uncracked keel; and only god-bullied hull; thou firm deck, and haughty helm, and Pole-pointed prow,—death-glorious ship! must ye then perish, and without me? Am I cut off from the last fond pride of meanest shipwrecked captains? Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!

The most famous of the lines is, of course, “to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee”. (It was also quoted very well by the dying Khan, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, as Khan self-destructed his ship to try to kill Kirk. Ricardo Montalbán was a good actor.) You wouldn’t think that Murder, She Wrote could pull this sort of true drama off, but somehow it did.

I’ve never seen CSI and have no intention of seeing it, so I can’t comment on it, but I find it curious that the only place this murder device has been used was in long-running TV shows, which have a huge demand for material, and only after many years. And in the Murder, She Wrote episode they played somewhat fast and loose with the wall having an open cavity in it. They never really showed us that it had that feature.

I wonder why this is. Is it just that copying the greats feels cheap? But copying the greats is usually the best strategy for a writer, at least while making it one’s own. Mediocrity borrows, genius steals, and all that.

Perhaps it’s just that the disguised suicide of The Problem of Thor’s Bridge is so recognizable? If a body was found on a bridge with a chip in the stonework, a modern audience might scream if the detective does not immediately dredge the lake or stream for the gun. Yet, I have not seen even variants of this—murdering someone and then dropping the gun over a bridge with a rock on a rope to disguise the murder as suicide-disguised-as-murder. With modern materials one need not even use a rock a a counterweight. Elastics, springs, and other things would expand the range of hiding places for a murder weapon. It is, at least, an interesting direction to explore.

What Bad Guys Get Right

Recently, I wrote about Writing Villains and Satanic Banality and Bad Guys Who Think They’re the Good Guys. In the latter, I mentioned an annoying habit some writers have where they mangle bad guys thinking that they’re good guys into bad guys actually being good guys. This leaves them with the problem of coming up with who the real bad guy is, and they usually do a bad job at this since the real bad guy’s motivations and actions are (typically) an afterthought. The way I put it, when explaining how the good guy was convinced that another good guy was actually a bad guy, was:

There’s only one way to do this, and Miss Bennet hit upon it in Pride & Prejudice when she was trying to exculpate both Mr. Darcy and Wickham: interested people have misrepresented each to the other. But there is a problem with this. As Elizabeth Bennet observed in reply, if you cannot clear the interested people, one will be obliged to think ill of someone. It is not an accident that in this sort of story the good guy inevitably discovers that he’s actually working for the real bad guys. The only other way out is the way the X-Files took: behind each good guy who seems to be a bad guy is some other apparent bad guy responsible for the deception. Every time you peel the onion, there’s another layer. If one doesn’t go that sort of unsatisfying route—perhaps because one is writing in a book or movie and not a TV story with hundreds of episodes coming down the pike—then what we end up with are villains who had plausibly convinced the good guy that they were good guys who are performing their evil for no real reason. They always want to take over the world because it’s there, or kill off three fourths of the population of the world because by some convoluted logic this would drive the share price of their company up by fifteen percent.

I want to go into a bit more depth on why the bad guy killing three fourths of the world to drive a stock price up by fifteen percent makes no sense despite the thing making a bad guy a bad guy being a fundamental error about what is good. Or, in other words, I want to discuss what it is that bad guys get right. Having them get the things wrong that they would get right is as bad as having them get nothing wrong.

The key to knowing what mistakes a villain will necessarily make and those he would never make comes from knowing which other beliefs about the world the villain will hold at the same time as he is considering his fundamental mistake. I probably need to pause here to explain what I mean.

When a person makes a mistake about the world, they will inevitably believe something else which contradicts that mistake. That is because there is only one completely consistent set of beliefs about the world—the correct ones. But a person who makes a mistake is unlikely to make all of the mistakes required to be completely consistent with that mistake; in general that would involve believing all sorts of weird things, like dogs not existing or trees being a figment of one’s imagination. For those who have not studied logic, there is a problem that immediately arises: anything follows from a contradiction. What this means is that if you believe two contradictory things, you can logically derive, through entirely valid logic, any conclusion that you want. You can, but the thing is: people don’t actually do that.

There are various ways to work around the problem that anything follows from a contradiction (I discuss one of the more common ways in my post Kant’s Version of Knowledge), but they all have the basic feature that the world becomes fractured to the person who believes the contradiction. The fracture lines are the contradictions. On one side of the contradiction, the person believes a fairly consistent set of beliefs which they only apply when that truth value of the contradiction is relevant. On the other side is another fairly consistent set of beliefs, many of which contradict the first one, which are only applied when the other side of the truth value is relevant. It is the selective application of universal worldviews which is how the person avoids having to deal with the contradiction.

Let’s get back to our hypothetical bad guy who would do anything to raise the price of his company’s stock. His fundamental error is that he takes the price of his company’s stock to be a much greater good than it is. When he is worshiping at the altar of the stock market, he sets the value of human life at zero, or close enough to that. So why is killing three fourths of the population off not something this villain would do? Because it would cause the price of his company’s stock to plummet in the long term. When thinking about the exaggerated value of a stock price, the villain would certainly include those things which are consistent with valuing a stock price, and knowledge of what raises and lowers a stock price most certainly are compatible with exaggerating the value of the stock price. No one would worship the price of stock but ignore what actually affects the price of stock. In fact, his worship of stock prices would lead him to know better than most men what makes stock prices go up and what makes them go down.

There are two things that affect the value of stock more than the performance of the individual company. They are, roughly in order of importance:

  1. General demand for stock
  2. Market stability

If three fourths of the population die off, markets will be horrifically unstable. This will push what investors remain away from the stock market and into things with more stability, like gold. But in our apocalyptic scenario, and more to the point, if three fourths of the population of the world die off, there won’t be many people left to buy the stock and most of them will be putting all of their money into surviving the post-apocalypse hellscape, not into stocks, if the stock market were even to survive.

If you were to ask anyone, “would killing three fourths of the population of the world off be good for the price of a stock, any stock?” If they were at all knowledgeable about stocks, they would answer “no”. The more knowledgeable, the faster and more emphatic the answer would come. If you found a man so twisted by over-valuing the price of the stock of a company for which he works, he will answer your question before you’ve even finished asking it, since you are causing him to think about the thing which is to him the most painful in the world—the price of his company’s stock dropping like a rock.

None of this in any way contradicts that, at least when he’s thinking about his true love—stock prices—he would set the value of human life near zero. He might not care whether men live or die, but he would care very much what those worthless men would pay for his stock. Something that kills off a few people, he would not mind at all. Something that kills off enough people to affect the markets, he would not give a hearing to.

Now, to fully consider the nature of the fractured mind that results from moral error, none of this means that the villain would not care about the lives of people he interacts with in ways that do not affect stock prices. When that beloved subject is sufficiently far from his mind—and no one can concentrate on one thing forever—he will, mentally, live in a very different world. He will live in a world in which people have value apart from what they will pay for a stock. He might be quite fond of the person who makes the best smoothies at his favorite juicery. He might be quite fond of his wife, or children, when he is home and not working; he might be a dog lover when he is on vacation. He might be strongly in favor of welfare for the poor, when he gives them a thought, at a party.

None of these things are required, but they are all entirely realistic. I nearly said “consistent,” which they would not be. They would be a highly realistic inconsistency, though.

The final thing required, to understand this mentality, is to understand what happens when conflicts do arise between the two worldviews. What happens is that one will win, but it will very rarely win completely. The victory will look like a subordination of the less dominant worldview to the more dominant worldview. But to understand what this subordination will look like, it’s important to bear in mind that the mistake is real and thus the thing which is regarded with exaggerated value really is regarded as having that value. In our example, the villain really does believe that his company’s stock price is of truly enormous importance, far beyond individual human life. When the world view where the person who makes his favorite smoothie contradicts, such as the person being put out of work by a corporate merger, his love for the smoothie maker will subordinate to the value of the share price. That is, he will make out some way that this suffering has value, and that value given by the increase in share price.

Here, if one was writing this character, some knowledge of how corporations actually work would be quite valuable. Unfortunately, writers (especially Hollywood writers) seem to live in an almost perfect ignorance of the stock market, apart from having heard a few terms and know that stocks are bought and sold. There are only two ways in which the price of a company’s shares actually benefit the company, and only of them actually benefits the company. The first is that the company can raise money by creating new shares to sell (diluting the value of the existing shares, but in theory it being worth it to existing shareholders because the value created exceeds the dilution incurred). The other is that shareholders vote for the board of directors, who pick the CEO and determine his salary, and they have a strong tendency to reward CEOs who drive up stock prices and punish CEOs who let share prices fall. That affects behavior, but it doesn’t actually do the company any good. (There is also the fact that a sufficiently high share price protects a company against a hostile takeover, since no one would have the money to buy the company, but this is not typically very relevant.)

The person who worships the stock price will know that this allows the company to gain funds to expand the business, so he would probably rationalize the smoothie guy’s suffering as being for the greater good by pointing to how the increased efficiency makes more capital available to the corporation to grow and provide its services. The mere fact that growth and increased services are secondary goods to the stock-price-worshiper does not mean that he is unaware of them, and this knowledge will be very useful to him when trying to reconcile his love for the smoothie maker with his greater love for the stock price which was increased by the merger.

In short, when faced with this, he will not say that the smoothie maker’s doesn’t matter, but that his (involuntary) sacrifice is for the greater good, and so the smoothie maker, in accepting his fate, is noble and should be praised. He might even try to help the smoothie maker out, so long as there’s a way he can do it which won’t hurt his company’s share price.

A person worshiping a stock price is a somewhat silly example, though not so silly that it has not been done before in fiction. However that goes, it does serve to show how the villain’s thought process works. And if you ever wondered how Hitler could be a vegetarian who loved dogs and also a mass murderer, this is how. Rest assured, he had theories as to how his mass murder was really, truly, in the end, humanitarian. Villains always do.

These explanations that the villain has of how his villainy is really virtuous will always seem convoluted, but only to outsiders. They will not appear convoluted to the villain himself. They seem natural to the villain because he has learned to live with a fractured mind; to reconcile contradictory worldviews. It only seems convoluted to outsiders because they have not learned this mental agility.

Bad Guys Who Think They’re the Good Guys

This post is a followup to my post on Satanic Banality And Writing Villains. In it, I said:

These sorts of mistakes are often confused for rationalizations, that is, for excuses made to others. This is to mistake the nature of evil. The evildoer really believes these things, precisely because in his sin he has missed what he’s aiming at. When trying to write a realistic villain, this sort of mistake is not optional. Villains are villains precisely because they are wrong about some moral judgement. These mistakes will have consequences beyond merely doing evil, precisely because the villain actually believes these moral errors.

This phenomenon is why it feels realistic when the bad guy thinks that he’s the good guy. Unfortunately, that trope in stories is very often misunderstood by people who do not understand what evil really is. It is quite true that bad guys will often think that they are the good guys. What isn’t true is that they seem like the good guys to anyone but themselves.

This mistake has resulted in a great deal of bad storytelling, where the bad guys are shown to actually have a point. Instead of them having mistaken evil for good and thus be pursuing evil as good, they have, in fact, correctly having identified a good and are legitimately pursuing it. But if that’s the case, why on earth is the good guy in the story fighting these other good guys? There needs to be some explanation for why the good guy thought that the other good guy was actually a bad guy.

There’s only one way to do this, and Miss Bennet hit upon it in Pride & Prejudice when she was trying to exculpate both Mr. Darcy and Wickham: interested people have misrepresented each to the other. But there is a problem with this. As Elizabeth Bennet observed in reply, if you cannot clear the interested people, one will be obliged to think ill of someone. It is not an accident that in this sort of story the good guy inevitably discovers that he’s actually working for the real bad guys. The only other way out is the way the X-Files took: behind each good guy who seems to be a bad guy is some other apparent bad guy responsible for the deception. Every time you peel the onion, there’s another layer. If one doesn’t go that sort of unsatisfying route—perhaps because one is writing in a book or movie and not a TV story with hundreds of episodes coming down the pike—then what we end up with are villains who had plausibly convinced the good guy that they were good guys who are performing their evil for no real reason. They always want to take over the world because it’s there, or kill off three fourths of the population of the world because by some convoluted logic this would drive the share price of their company up by fifteen percent.

There’s rarely a satisfying explanation—in the sense of an explanation where the villains actions could plausibly be connected to his goals, even according to the mistakes he is making. To use the example of killing off most of the world driving the share price of his company up by fifteen percent, the fundamental mistake the villain is making, that is, the evil he is mistaking for good, is the share price of his company being all-important. This is a dubious mistake for someone to make, but it is possible. One can become idolatrous about almost anything. But given this mistake, it is not plausible that the villain would think that killing off three fourths of the world (say, with a bio-engineered plauge of super-locusts) would actually be good for the price of his company’s stock in a way that’s useful to his goal. Sure, in the extremely short term the stock would go up, but it would shortly thereafter crash when no one has the money to buy shares any more since they’re busy eating the rats which died of starvation. His mistake is about the good of his company’s share price, not about how markets work. In fact, his idolatry of his company’s share price would make him the last person who would misunderstand how markets respond to major events. The problem—apart from many writers not understanding how markets work themselves—is often due to the real villain’s character and motivation being an afterthought, because it’s all revealed in the last few pages (or last few minutes).

(It should be noted that this goodguy-as-badguy plotline is largely driven by misunderstanding why a badguy thinks that he’s a goodguy, but once this mistake was made it appealed to writers who want to personally rebel against goodness in order to indulge in some evil of their own, and so to make the world more comfortable for their evil they want to make readers (or viewers) distrustful of the institutions which exist to guard against the sort of evil they wish to indulge in. I think that they merely stumbled on this from the structure, rather than set out to undermine these organizations and incidentally got—partially—closer to a better plot.)

None of this sort of the-good-guys-are-actually-bad-guys would seem necessary if the writer recognized that evil is fundamentally a perversion of good. In grasping at the shadow rather than the substance casting the shadow, the one doing evil does not plausibly think that he’s doing good. He merely thinks that he’s doing good anyway.

The villain will have reasons for his evil deeds, but they will be bad reasons. This is necessarily so. It is not possible to have a good reason for a bad decision.

Writing Villains and Satanic Banality

One of the best videos on my YouTube channel is called Satanic Banality. It’s only tangentially about what is commonly called “the banality of evil”. It is really about the concept of “satanic grandeur” and how evil always looks small from the outside, it only looks impressive from the inside. If you haven’t watched it, I’ll embed the video in case you’re interested:

The applicability to writing is in making realistic villains, and especially in showing that they’re evil in realistic ways. In daytime cartoons for children, villains are shown to be evil by just choosing to be evil for the sake of Evil, then laughing about it. This works well in cartoons for children because children need things intelligible more than they need them realistic. Children only pick up on the broadest strokes, like that evil should be opposed. For children, at the level they understand them, cartoons are actually highly realistic.

In fiction for adults, who understand the narrative in much greater detail, we need it to be realistic on all of the levels that the adult reader understands it. This is the real reason for the addage “show, don’t tell”. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with telling the reader something, it’s just that if you do that in place of showing, you will have a contradictory character. If you tell the reader that the man is evil but then show him being humble, gentle, courteous, kind, thoughtful, brave, reverent, etc.—this is bad writing because he isn’t actually evil.

This brings me to satanic banality as a writing tool. Something important to remember about evil people is that they are always vastly more impressed with themselves than everyone else is. This does not mean that they are vain. They may or may not be vain—vanity consists in wanting others to recognize their greatness. But whether they are vain, they are quite impressed with themselves. They think that their vices are actually virtues. This comes from the nature of evil.

Evil is not a positive thing, but a privation of good. It is like a shadow cast by being; it looks like it has a shape, but it has no actual substance. A person who is evil is trying to act like the shadow is real—as if it can be touched and picked up and used. Thus, to them, what they do when they are evil looks magnificent. It must, or they would not try to do it. To those who see the shadow for what it is, they look banal. To somewhat mix a metaphor, imagine someone shadow boxing who thinks he’s beating the shadow that he’s hitting, and is therefore a great warrior. In his mind, he’s magnificent. To those watching, he cannot be impressive, because they can see that he’s not hitting anything.

This does not mean that the villain is bad at everything he does, of course. It means that the villain is going to think himself grandiose precisely where he is evil. He may not care whether others think he is great—that is, he may or may not be vain—but he will at least expect that they will think him great, or will expect that the smart ones will. This will be one of his weaknesses, since he will be wrong. (If he’s not wrong, here, it will be because he thinks that there are no smart ones, which will be a different sort of weakness.)

The other thing is that the villain will do things that just seem absurd. He will make statues to himself for things that he didn’t do, but thinks that he did. The Kim family in North Korea is a good example of this; you can find monuments they’ve built to themselves about how much of a champion of the people they are, what great movies they’ve made, etc. They are an extreme example, but it’s not hard to dial this back if one wants a less evil sort of villain. A warlord who wants to take over the world will think that he is bringing peace, and may well build statues to himself as a protector of the people. A cheater at sports who has not been caught will think of himself as as great role model for children. A thief will think of himself as enforcing justice, being a Robin Hood who robs from the rich and gives to the poor (in this case, himself). (They never consider that Robin Hood actually robbed from a rapacious government to give to those who were overly heavily taxed.)

These sorts of mistakes are often confused for rationalizations, that is, for excuses made to others. This is to mistake the nature of evil. The evildoer really believes these things, precisely because in his sin he has missed what he’s aiming at. When trying to write a realistic villain, this sort of mistake is not optional. Villains are villains precisely because they are wrong about some moral judgement. These mistakes will have consequences beyond merely doing evil, precisely because the villain actually believes these moral errors. Working these sorts of systemic errors into the villains actions will make him far more realistic, as well as adding a great deal of depth and insight into the story.

Why Atheists Can’t Write Good Stories, Short Version

I have previously written at some length about why atheists can’t write good stories. If you want to read a more in-depth treatment, there’s Why Moderns Always Modernize Stories and Why Do Moderns Write Morally Ambiguous Good Guys? However, for convenience, I’ve come up with a very succinct version:

Unless an atheist pretends that God exists in his story, his story is set in Hell. There are no good stories in Hell.

The Weird Idea That Writing Should Hurt

I saw this rather odd writing tip on Twitter the other day. I’m quoting it, rather than another, because it does such a good job of summarizing an attitude towards writing I’ve seen over the years.

Writing Tip: If “editing” your first draft consists of fixing a few typos and changing a word here and there, you’re not doing it right. A first draft should be ripped apart, refashioned, and sewn back together. Anything less is vanity.

It’s that last part that’s the key to this weird attitude. If a particular writer has a writing style where the first draft is essentially a protracted brainstorming session and that works for them, then good for them. The weird attitude is that this is how it should be.

In reality, for at least some people, writing a decent first draft is a viable option. If you’ve done enough planning that you’ve constructed the characters and planned out the setting and written the plot in such a way that it flows out of the characters in their circumstances—substantial changes wouldn’t be editing, they’d be just writing a different book where some of the characters have the same names.

Now, again, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. If for some reason a writer cannot bring themselves to do this sort of planning and thinking before they start writing, then I understand doing a book-length brainstorming session in order to generate some material to work with. I’ve written a few first drafts of novels which I haven’t carried through to publishing, and there’s even a very loose sense in which The Dean Died Over Winter Break can be thought of as a substantial rewrite of a previous novel called A Murder At Yalevard—though it was really more of a different book in which I borrowed some elements of the original. But I find it very strange that the writer quoted above cannot conceive of someone who can plan out their books.

There is of course the explanation that such a writer just cannot see beyond their own limitations, but I can’t help but wonder if this attitude isn’t tied in to the idea of the tortured genius. It was an idea that, so far as I know, became popular somewhere in the 1800s, around the time of Byron and Shelley, who were tortured not so much be genius as by their inability to control their lust. Shelley, in particular, seems to have been afflicted in this way, and his vices seem to have been excused by himself and his wife and friends as, not weaknesses, but virtues. To try to say it was not bad for Percy Bysshe Shelly to cheat on his pregnant wife, they invented a new kind of morality where artists were excused from being halfway decent human beings because of the enormous value they gave to humanity. Their art, I mean.

I’m not sure why this idea was popular, but it does seem to have had some currency through at least the 1930s—at least if golden age detective stories are anything to go by. It also seems, curiously, to be more popular with women than with men; it seems to have been female writers who wrote about it approvingly, and within their fiction it was generally only the women (and occasionally a close male friend) who bought the nonsense. Why that is, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s related to the “bad boy” phenomenon. And for that reason, the idea that one should tear a first draft up in a passion of anger at how far it falls short, and completely rework it, may be related.

As a related side-note, actual geniuses never seem to have been tortured, except occasionally by actual problems, like Beethoven being deaf. Shakespeare was, so far as we know, as reasonably happy as a recusant Catholic could have been in England in the late 1500s. Mozart seems to have no greater troubles than having a period when he didn’t make much money because a war made it hard for musicians; summary biographies don’t mention anything which would interest modern people by similarity, such as profound depression.

Shelly’s genius, to the degree that anyone still holds that he was a genius, seems very overrated. Ozymandias is a good poem, but certainly nothing worth excusing adultery for.

Casting the mind’s eye over other examples of tortured geniuses and actual geniuses, it seems like perhaps the thing that’s really attractive about the tortured genius is not the genius part, but the torture part. And I can’t help but think that this attitude that writing should be torture—what else can throwing away something one worked long and hard at be?—is an attempt to try to find some shreds of life in pain, by people who have no idea where to find life in this world.

Further Preliminary Thoughts on Dorothy L. Sayers on Gaudy Night

This is a continuation of my post from yesterday, giving some prelimary thoughts on Dorothy L. Sayers essay Gaudy Night in the book Titles to Fame. Today something Ms. Sayers said about the development of a character over many books caught my attention. I’m going to quote it here because I think that the expression of Ms. Sayers own words are necessary to understand the thing she is trying to communicate:

I had from the outset, of course, envisaged for Peter a prolonged and triumphal career, going on through book after book amid the plaudits of adoring multitudes. It is true that his setting forth did not cause as great a stir as I had expected, and that the adoring multitudes were represented by a small, though faithful, band of adherents. But time would, I hoped, bring the public into a better frame of mind, and I plugged confidently on, putting my puppet through all his tricks and exhibiting him in a number of elegant attitudes.  But I had not properly realized—and this shows how far I was from understand what it was I was trying to do with the detective novel—that any character that remains static except for a repertory of tricks and attitudes is bound to become a monstrous weariness to his maker in the course of eight or nine volumes.

I cannot contradict Ms. Sayers from my own experience, yet, as I’m only beginning work on my third Brother Thomas novel. However, there is something here on which I think she is mistaken, or, rather, about which she is over-generalizing.

Before saying what, I also think it’s worth considering the Lord Peter bibliography, bearing in mind that Ms. Sayers had tired of Lord Peter and set off to retire him in Strong Poison:

  1. Whose Body?
  2. Clouds of Witness
  3. Unnatural Death
  4. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
  5. Strong Poison
  6. The Five Red Herrings
  7. Have His Carcase
  8. Murder Must Advertise
  9. The Nine Tailors
  10. Gaudy Night
  11. Busman’s Honeymoon

The eight or nine volumes in which Lord Peter had become a monstrous weariness to his maker was, in fact, four volumes. It’s worth considering what those four volumes were like. In Whose Body? we (and the authoress) meet Lord Peter, and everyone is interesting when you first meet them. Clouds of Witness was an excellently crafted mystery, and there was some character development in it, though in the sense of revealing the character of Wimsey rather than changing it. In Unnatural Death we see a great deel more of Miss Climpson and not nearly as much of Wimsey, and that quite often to serve the plot. In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, we see more of Wimsey, but his personality has largely retreated. Over the stories, we also see the diminution of Charles Parker, in whom Sayers seemed to initially place some personality and intend character development.

What we see, when we look at him, is that he became somewhat more of a puppet in these stories; he was there because someone had to investigate the mysteries, and Sayers balked at introducing a new detective in each story after her experiment with doing so in Unnatural Death. The problem, though, is not really that Lord Peter wasn’t changing. The problem is that Lord Peter didn’t have much of a personality (yet). You can see this in what Ms. Sayers said she needed to do in order to humanize him in order to pull off the romance which was started in Strong Poison but which didn’t work there:

If the story was to go on, Peter had got to become a complete human being, with a past and a future, with a consistent family and social history, with a complicated psychology and even the rudiments of a religious outlook.

None of this requires Peter to change throughout the books. All it requires is to actually do it.

To give an example of what I mean, in the first four books we do learn that Lord Peter likes music, but he never says anything about it. We don’t know what he likes about which pieces. He collects first editions, but we don’t know why he collects first editions, and rarely which things he collects first editions of. He has read literature, but we don’t know what he thinks of it. And then, of course, he’s the sort of pointlessly non-religious character which was extraordinarily common amongst golden age detectives, for no discernible reason.

I don’t mean to keep harping on this point, but it is closely related to the problem Ms. Sayers has with Lord Peter—that he can’t articulate a reason for anything that he does other than sheer curiosity is a massive problem to him being a flesh-and-blood human being. All human beings have curiosity; the detective merely being curious is not enough. He must also either overcome the inhibitions which people have to investigating murders, or he must simply lack them. A religious reason for risking death and people disliking you can overcome this inhibition, as they did for Father Brown. The other detectives of the time seem to merely lack this inhibition. This may partially be why they are all eccentric, but they are mostly eccentric without being interesting because of it.

While there was still the thrill of working out the form and nature of the mystery novel, this could be overlooked. One detective might do as well as another when the reader wasn’t much paying attention to him anyway. As Chesterton showed, however, this was in no way necessary. And I think that this is what Ms. Sayers discovered when she finally started putting flesh onto her detective.

Servants in Mysteries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having a Character Read a Book

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

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

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

Fingerprints in Detective Stories

The history of fingerprints in detective stories is a curious one; their use in detective stories almost never parallels their use in real life. Which is to say, fingerprints in detective stories are always something to be worked around, while in real life they are a tool for catching criminals.

Fingerprints have been known for a very long time, of course, but their use to identify criminals is comparatively recent. Like most things the history of the technology around fingerprints is a long one, but we can suitably take it up with a book by Sir Francis Galton, entitled Finger Prints, in which he a published detailed statistical analysis showing that finger prints were sufficiently unique that they could be used as identification. That is, if a finger print found somewhere matched a finger print taken from a person, you could be confident that it was, in fact, that person’s fingerprint.

Details are a little hazy to my very cursory reading on the subject, but shortly after Paul-Jean Coulier developed a method of transferring fingerprints from objects to paper using iodine fuming we see fingerprints start to be used to identify criminals by police forces in 1901, with the first conviction for murder based upon fingerprint evidence in 1902.

It is not long after this that we see fingerprints start to appear in detective stories; the first I can think of off of the top of my head in the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Norwood Builder. In it, a bloody thumb mark is found near where Mr. McFarlane would have gotten his hat before leaving. The thumb print was a false one, of course, made from a cast of a thumb mark left in sealing wax. This discovery has nothing to do with the fingerprint itself, however—the criminal had put it there overnight, and Holmes had observed that there was no mark in that place the day before, proving McFarlane’s innocence.

The next instance I’m aware of—I’m sure that there are others before it—is the first Dr. Thorndyke story, The Red Thumb Mark, published in 1907. Here we have another fingerprint, again in blood, but this time the case revolves almost entirely around the thumb print. It turns out to be a forgery, which Thorndyke proves by careful examination of the thumb print under high magnification. The denouement, for so it might be called, is entirely about the process for using photo-lithographic techniques for creating a stamper capable of creating duplicates of a fingerprint.

I would like to skip forward, now, to 1921, and The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner. This features the detective Malcolm Sage, and he delivers a very curious lecture on the use of photographs and fingerprints. I will quote it in full, because it’s worth reading for the historical curiosity:

“There is no witness so sure as the camera,” remarked Malcolm Sage as he gazed from one to the other of two photographs before him, one representing him holding an automatic pistol to his own head, and the other in which Sir James was posing as a murderer.

“It is strange that it should be so neglected at Scotland Yard,” he added.

Silent and absorbed when engaged upon a problem, Malcolm Sage resented speech as a sick man resents arrowroot. At other times he seemed to find pleasure in lengthy monologues, invariably of a professional nature.

“But we use it a lot, Mr. Sage,” protested Inspector Wensdale.

“For recording the features of criminals,” was the retort. “No, Wensdale, you are obsessed by the finger-print heresy, quite regardless of the fact that none but an amateur ever leaves such a thing behind him, and the amateur is never difficult to trace.”

He paused for a moment; but the inspector made no comment.

“The two greatest factors in the suppression of crime,” continued Malcolm Sage, “are photography and finger-prints. Both are in use at Scotland Yard; but each in place of the other. Finger-prints are regarded as clues, and photography is a means of identification, whereas finger-prints are of little use except to identify past offenders, and photography is the greatest aid to the actual tracing of the criminal.”

By the later 1920s, fingerprints, where they exist at all, are almost exclusively red herrings, and I think by the 1930s they more-or-less never show up. Consider this scene from Gaudy Night, in 1935.

“Is there no material evidence to be obtained from an examination of the documents themseves?” asked Miss Pyke. “Speaking for myself, I am quite ready to have my fingerprints taken or to undergo any other kind of precautionary measure that may be considered necessary.”

“I’m afraid,” said Harriet,” the evidence of finger-prints isn’t quite so easy a matter as we make it appear in books. I mean, we could take finger-prints, naturally, from the S.C.R. and, possibly, from the scouts—though they wouldn’t like it much. But I should doubt very much whether rough scribbling-paper like this would show distinguishable prints. And besides—”

“Besides,” said the Dean, “every malefactor nowadays knows enough about finger-prints to wear gloves.”

There’s also a later scene where Lord Peter dusts a door for fingerprints.

“Am I really going to see finger-prints discovered?” asked the Dean.

“Why, of course,” said Wimsey. “It won’t tell us anything, but it impresses the spectator and inspires confidence…”

He went on to dust for fingerprints right up to the top of the door, which he said was “merely a shopwindow display of thoroughness and efficiency. All a matter of routine, as the policeman says. Your college is kept very well dusted; I congratulate you.” In fact, he suspected the use of strings over a door to manipulate things inside, and was checking to see if there were marks; at this late juncture checking for fingerprints is merely cover for some other, more useful, activity.

As we move out of the golden age and into more contemporary detective fiction, we tend to find that fingerprints either implicate an innocent person in a meeting with the victim prior to his death or else turn out to belong to the victim in very strange places. In short, they turn out to be either red herrings or further puzzles. (Obviously, I am painting with a very large brush, here.)

Curiously, while there seems to have been a spate of forged fingerprints shortly after the things became used as evidence, I can’t recall seeing or reading of any forged fingerprints in stories written in the last 100 years. Most of the time, fingerprints are like cell phones in horror stories—something the author feels duty bound to add a line or two explaining away, but otherwise things one would just as soon forget.

There is a close analogy in DNA evidence, which to some degree are the fingerprints of our day. Any idiot can get a lab result saying that person A was in place B where the crime was committed, and he should never have been in place B, therefore he committed the crime. This requires not a detective but merely a well-trained monkey. It is, therefore, entirely uninteresting. Fingerprints at least have the advantage that the amateur can take fingerprints almost as well as the professional; DNA evidence simply cannot be found by the amateur. DNA evidence is, therefore, merely annoying, from the perspective of the mystery author. It can be used, as fingerprints were, to frame innocent people, but not really better than any other evidence. Hair is a great place to take DNA from, but matching hair to a person is an age-old thing; finding the innocent suspect’s hair at the scene of the crime can be done without DNA evidence.

I know in my own stories I occasionally feel obliged to explain why there is no DNA evidence, though I’m always annoyed by it. To be fair, I also used DNA evidence in one of my stories, though only as potential clinching evidence that would have been worthless without knowing who to test (the test would have happened after the book was over).

I suspect that DNA evidence will eventually go the way of fingerprints—something that needs only the most cursory explanation to wave away, since the reader is as uninterested in it as the author is.

Foreign Fortunes Made Magnificent Motives

Since murder—in a detective story—requires a motive, money is a very frequent one, as is revenge. Since confusion as to motive helps a detective story to be interesting, Comingling the possible motives of money and revenge can make for a story being very interesting.

In golden age mysteries, this often took the form of a relative who went off and made his fortune in Africa, or in Australia, or in America. To England in the early 1900s, there were a large number of far-off places in which it was possible to make a fortune and to make deadly enemies while one was doing it. This, rather usefully, made for a ready supply of fictional millionaires with dubious pasts in detective fiction. A story might go any way of it, with the millionaire being killed for his money, or for how he got his money, and this, in turn, made any detective story which featured a millionaire who made his fortune in foreign lands instantly inscrutable. There were many ways the story could go until sufficient facts were put into place to know which way it had gone.

I am not sure that this sort of plot is really open to contemporary stories any more. For one thing, there is noplace where popular imagination will accept that fortunes are easily made (if you don’t contract a deadly disease, etc). The closest I think one can come would be a tech startup of some kind. The problem is that tech startups happen within the bosom of civilization. Worse, they are started by the most harmless people that one can imagine: nerds. Popular imagination may accept someone making a fortune in a tech startup, but will not accept the nerd who made this fortune having murdered someone in order to keep it to himself.

It would actually be somewhat plausible to have a more daring person use the small amount of money he had from his parents to fund a startup with a nerd friend and then to get rich from it, so we need not be strictly limited to having a nerd as our rich man. The problem is that it would still be the nerd who would have to get revenge, and this would not be very plausible. At the outskirts, the nerd might somehow have acquired a wife and children—though I think this would tend to strain the credulity of the average reader (more because the nerd is conceived of like a sorcerer, and sorcerers must be virgins to be powerful)—and one of the children of the nerd might grow up to seek vengeance for his father. That said, I don’t think that anyone will really buy it.

I do think it could be made to work if you want to go the dark route, though. You can have the millionaire who cheated the nerd also have cuckolded him, so that the child who kills him is actually his own offspring, having inherited his daring and risk-taking from his biological father. It would make for one heck of a reveal at the end, but I don’t like to go the dark route, myself.

To some degree the problem is that the world has become over-technologized for there to be anyone to kill in order to keep a fortune to oneself. Precious metals, oil, etc.—all these are now located by experts using expensive machines, and cannot be extracted without the sort of precise data provided by these experts. The other thing is that technology is a magnifier. Where it does provide wealth, it provides it in such abundance that it is no great hardship to share. The diamond mines, or oil wells, or whatever the millionaire made his millions on in the early 1900s provided enough wealth for one man, but would have provided only prosperity for two. Diamond mines might very plausibly produce a few hundred diamonds; a gold mine might very plausibly produce only a few hundred pounds of gold. That would be wonderful in one year; it’s not actually that much to buy a mansion on and keep servants for another forty years.

The other problem is that the modern ways of making a fortune, though they take a lot of work, involve very little suffering. No one digs all day under a scorching sun to develop a cell phone app. No one gets an almost deadly fever, or is bitten by venomous insects, or is mauled by a jaguar, while creating a website that takes pictures of your cat and gives you wine suggestions. In short, modern fortunes are not made in a romantic way. Something as dramatic as a deadly vengeance simply doesn’t go with the utterly prosaic ways in which modern fortunes are made.

I have faith that the basic outline of the plot can be made to work, but I think it will take a great deal of work, indeed, to come up with the way to do it.