The Disclaimer on Gaudy Night

Most every work of fiction has at the beginning a disclaimer that it is a work of fiction and should not be read as being about any real person. This is primarily for legal reasons since most fools and all non-fools can figure out that a work of fiction is fictive. However, sometimes a work of fiction touches on real things and this is when the disclaimers can become interesting.

My favorite disclaimer is at the beginning of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. So you can see what I mean, I’m going to reproduce it interspersed with my commentary:

It would be idle to deny that the City and University of Oxford (in aeternum floreant) do actually exist, and contain a number of colleges and other buildings, some of which are mentioned by name in this book. It is therefore the more necessary to affirm emphatically that none of the characters which I have placed upon this public stage has any counterpart in real life. In particular, Shrewsbury College, with its dons, students and scouts, is entirely imaginary; nor are the distressing events described as taking place within its walls founded upon any events that have ever occurred anywhere. Detective-story writers are obliged by their disagreeable profession to invent startling and unpleasant incidents and people, and are (I presume) at liberty to imagine what might happen if such incidents and people were to intrude upon the life of an innocent and well-ordered community; but in so doing they must not be supposed to suggest that any such disturbance ever has occurred or is ever likely to occur in any community in real life.

I really love the first sentence. Sometimes one can invent whole universities and cities, as I did in The Dean Died Over Winter Break, but even when one does it can be necessary to put them inside of larger places that are real.

It’s a delicate balance but intruding somewhat upon real places can be extremely interesting. I think that Ms. Sayers is quite right that murder mysteries are especially interesting when examining murders in places that they shouldn’t be. Technically that’s everywhere, but there are places that are, in this fallen world, more conducive to murder than others. And it’s the places which are least conducive to it that can be the most interesting.

Certain apologies are, however, due from me: first, to the University of Oxford, for having presented it with a Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of my own manufacture and with a college of 150 women students, in excess of the limit ordained by statute. Next, and with deep humility, to Balliol College—not only for having saddled it with so wayward an alumnus as Peter Wimsey, but also for my monstrous impertinence in having erected Shrewsbury College upon its spacious and sacred cricket-ground. To New College, also to Christ Church, and especially to Queen’s, I apologize for the follies of certain young gentlemen, to Brasenose for the facetiousness of a middle-aged one, and to Magdalen for the embarrassing situation in which I have placed an imaginary pro-Proctor. The Corporation Dump, on the other hand, is, or was, a fact, and no apology for it is due from me.

I can relate to the initial apology since in the course of writing my own mysteries I’ve had to saddle certain diocese with Bishops of my own manufacture. It’s all in good fun and I think that everyone understands the unreality of the thing, but I also understand the impulse to apologize. There is a certain reality, however thin, to the characters in novels. There’s a tension, there, which I think cannot be fully resolved and is just one of the penalties of living in a fallen world.

To the Principal and Fellows of my own college of Somerville, I tender my thanks for help generously given in questions of proctorial rules and general college discipline—though they are not to be held responsible for details of my discipline in Shrewsbury College, many of which I have invented to suit my own purpose.

This is a real advantage to making up a place, even when modeled on a real place—it is so much more convenient to be able to make up details to suit one’s story. On the other hand there’s great value in getting things right where one can.

As I’ve been working on Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral, I’ve been asking some priests and religious questions about religious life (especially with regard to the Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office, or the prayers priests and religious say throughout the day).  There’s a real pleasure—at least I find as a reader—to being able to learn real things in the course of having fun. (Though, of course, one must be careful because the novelist never labels which things are real and which changed to suit the story; however, it’s often a good starting point for further research and a decent novelist will be careful to change things in ways that at least preserve the spirit if not the details of the thing he’s changed.)

Persons curious in chronology may, if they like, work out from what they already know of the Wimsey family that the action of the book takes place in 1935; but if they do, they must not be querulously indignant because the King’s Jubilee is not mentioned, or because I have arranged the weather and the moon’s changes to suit my own fancy. For, however realistic the background, the novelist’s only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland, where they do but jest, poison in jest: no offence in the world.

I find this entire section quite interesting. Consulting detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, or my own Brother Thomas, are unrealistic. For reasons I think largely owing to the limited creativity of murderers, they simply don’t exist in practice. They exist, then in a world much like ours but a little different. It is, in a sense, a world where creative people are less timid. But it is not this world. It follows, then, that one would arrange things such as the weather, the changes of the moon, and even some current events to suit one’s story. It does, after all, take place in a different world.

The final line is very curious. It’s borrowed from Hamlet, prince of the Danes, in the second scene of the third act of the Shakespearean play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. It’s something that Hamlet says in response to the King asking, “Have you heard the argument? Is there no offense in ’t?” Hamlet replies, “No, no, they do but jest. Poison in jest. No offense i’ th’ world.”

It’s a great line, and I assume that Ms. Sayers was changing the meaning when she borrowed the line. But it is very curious that in the original this was a lie that Hamlet told the King, his uncle who replaced his father as king after secretly murdering him, because the play was designed to cause great offense to the King and his wife, Hamlet’s mother. In fact, it was intended to cause them to reveal their guilt.

But it does ring quite true that the novelist’s only native country is Cloud-Cuckooland. Coordinating events affected by many living people is too complicated for a mere mortal.

Only tangentially related to the last line but interesting: it’s a few lines later that the King asks Hamlet what he calls the play and Hamlet replies, “The Mousetrap”. That’s the name of the murder mystery play written by Agatha Christie which opened 1952 and has been running continuously to this day. It is by far the longest initial run of any play in history, with over 25,000 performances in the same theater.

Novel Writers Should Read Novels?

Part of the advice one commonly sees about writing novels is that anyone who wants to write a novel should constantly read novels. The advice comes in many forms, some of them badly overstated, but there are some good reasons for at least a moderate version of this.

(To give some context, one of the problems which I have at present is that with three little children, I have very little time for reading and am largely coasting on the reading I did before having multiple children. This is not inherent to having children so much as a trade-off for also going productive work like writing novels, blog posts, having a YouTube channel, programming projects, etc. There are only so many hours in a day and one does need to sleep.)

One of the benefits of reading is that it can show you how wrong the critics are. Or to be more fair to the critics, how narrow (as opposed to universal) their criticism is.

This came up for me recently as I’ve been writing Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral and it occurred to me that there’s very little action—thirty thousand words in and it’s almost all interviewing people. And of course in my mind I can hear the critics saying that there needs to be action. That this is inherently dull. And so forth.

So I went to the library and skimmed over Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs. (I’d only seen the David Suchet TV adaptation but it was quite faithful to the book.) It’s an interesting story. The setup is that the daughter of a woman who was, sixteen years ago, convicted of murdering her husband asks Poirot to investigate the crime and prove her innocent.

It’s a good, interesting story. And it’s almost entirely Poirot interviewing people. There is some variety—there’s the section where each wrote down their recollection of what happened. But the setup of the crime being sixteen years previous makes it pretty much impossible for there to be action.

And yet it’s a good story. So if I want to write a story in which most of the action is people talking to each other, I can do that too.

Writing a Novel is Hard

The title above is pretty obvious and, to be blunt, a little bit of venting. But I’d like to look at a few of the reasons why with an eye to considering what to do about them.

(To give context, I’m currently about 18,000 words behind in my NaNoWriMo novel and probably not going to finish on time. Which isn’t a big deal since once I finish the next step is just starting with the editing. And the first pass of editing often involves a fair bit of rewriting, so it’s not like I was going to be not-writing once November was over anyway.)

One of the pieces of advice often given to people doing NaNoWriMo is to turn off your inner editor. For some people this is undoubtedly good advice but, personally, I don’t find this useful at all. I write much better when I like what I’ve written so far and feel that it’s what I want to build the rest of my novel on. It’s a little bit slower of a process than a mad-dash approach, but it generally works for me (I won 7 nanowrimos in years gone by).

What I do have trouble with and need to work on, however, is turning off external editors. I’m very good at imaging what other people will say; this is useful for writing characters, of course, but also for things like debate preparation because I can debate people without requiring them to be present. Of course, I don’t make a habit of debating people so this is of limited utility. The bigger problem is that I can imagine all of the criticism I’ll get from others and it’s contradictory criticism because the people involved have different tastes.

Which is fine in real life—only the bible is for everyone, everything else is for the people who like it. But this plays havoc with my ability to write because I can far too easily hear how much someone or other will dislike what I’m writing.  And to be clear, I don’t mean that it’s bad. I meant that people have different tastes. People who want action will dislike too much conversation. People who like conversation will dislike action.  It’s inherently impossible to please people whose tastes don’t overlap. So it’s important to forget about the people for whom the book is not.

Unfortunately, I find this hard. I’m not sure what the solution is.  Part of what works is concentration; concentrating on the story helps me to tune these other voices out at least somewhat.

Another big problem I have is one of time management. I need to have the novel in my head in order to write it, and unfortunately my day job (programmer) means that I have to forget about my novel so I can fit the code into my head instead. Worse, I’ve got a few side-projects going on so they’re taking up space in my memory too. I’ve got no idea what the solution to this is. Multi-tasking is inefficient but I’m also not going to put my other projects down. Possibly the right approach is to decrease the number of time slices but increase the size of the time slices.  Instead of trying to write some each day, perhaps I’d be better off dedicating five hours to writing every 3 days. It’s definitely something to think about.

Which of course is at odds with another of my problem—young children need a lot of time. I’m not sure how to manage this one because my children are simply a higher priority than my novel is.

Another difficulty to throw into this mix is that everything goes better when one gets enough sleep.

One thing I think very important as a coping strategy is to realize that not everything works out and that’s OK. One of the things which has to counterbalance ambition is tolerance for failure. You can accomplish far more if you’re willing to fail sometimes, but you have to be realistic about that and not worry about the failure.

In my case it took something like 3 years for The Dean Died Over Winter Break to finally get published. The fact that I should be able to get Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral out faster is an abstract fact; circumstances will dictate what will actually happen, and that comes under the providential direction of God’s governance of the world. It’s my job to try, it’s God’s job to decide whether or not I succeed.

Also, on a practical level, I need to continue moving away from web-based stuff like google docs. Google docs is only good for tiny projects and, frankly, it’s not even good at that. I’ve switched over to libreoffice and using a script that uses inotifywait to push changes into a git repository. This has been an improvement. I think I need to continue it by moving the character trait document and the what-really-happened document into text files and just keep them in lightweight editors. There’s an advantage there because the web browser has other things which aren’t good for productivity in it, too.

No real conclusion to this, just some thoughts as I’m thinking through them. I hope it helps someone, or at least was mildly interesting. God bless you.

Dr. Syn, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh

In an odd series of events I happened to stumble across this book, which is a kindle reprint of a book now in the public domain. It’s the first in a series by Russell Thorndike about the character Dr. Syn, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh.

The first book was published in 1915, the last in 1944. They’re set in the mid 1700s and the hero of the story is quite a brigand. First a parson, then a man on a quest for revenge, then a pirate, then again on a quest for revenge, then again a pirate, then finally again a parson and in that role also the leader of a band of smugglers who rides a giant black stallion and wears a phosphorescent scarecrow outfit to lead them.

For some reason this reminds me of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. I’m not sure why, except for the obvious element of being set in the 1700s and there being a ghostly horse-rider. Anyway, there’s something about the outlandishness of the tale which I find interesting. I think part of it is that it feels like it should have been written about 100 years before it actually was. It’s contemporaneous with the beginnings of Science Fiction, for example. A good example of how one can write any story in any age, I suppose.

The foreward by the author’s sister (who was a famous actress) I found particularly interesting:

DEAR RUSSEL,
Do you remember a long jounrey to Spartanburg, Georgia—I, rigid with fear and thrill, open-mouthed—you, unfolding horror upon horror—the day “Dr. Syn” was born?
Do you remember how on arriving at the hotel, some kindly fate playing up to us so nobly, arranged for a perfectly good murder to take place on the front steps right under our windows—and how the corpse lay there all night, and we being too frightened to go to bed so sitting up most of the night, I making countless pots of tea, while you with bulging eyes gloated over the double-dyings and doings of that splendid criminal, “Dr Syn”?
It was a far cry from Georgia to the Romney Marsh, but I think it was some longing for hom and the Kent lands that made you develop his story with that background instead of the more obviously thrilling country in which we were travelling.
What a pal the old parson-smuggler became to us! I know for me he joined the merry band—the Men of Kent—the Dickens Men of Kent who made the white roads famous.
I envy those who are to make his acuqaintance for the first time. I remember with thrill the feeling i had when you first showed him to me. Here was another of those creature sof the family of Daniel Quilp (Our first great love, wasn’t he?) Creatures that are above the ordinary standards of right and wrong—tho, even if they murdered their favorite aunt would have been forgiven—they being so much large rand more labable than aforesaid Aunt.
Was Syn a play or a novel first? I forget—He walks in Romance and it matter snot al all to me if I meet him again in prose or verse or in actuality—poking his head out of a dyke in our dear beloved Marsh. I shall say Good Luck to him in wahtever form he may appear—the souls like us who love a thrill will be jollier for the meeting.
SYBIL

When Mary Met Sue

At his inimitable blog, author John C. Wright has an interesting blog post (which is mostly a quote of one of his readers’ comments) about what makes a Mary Sue. The key insight is that the defining characteristic of a Mary Sue is not that she is super-awesome. It’s that she’s super-awesome but we’re supposed to treat her as a young, innocent ingenue:

Rey is great at everything she does. The reasoning behind that may be justified…but that is not the issue.

The issue is that Abrams clearly expects us to think of her as a sort of female Luke Skywalker. Except Luke was nothing like that! We are asked to accept that she is a natural born pilot, better mechanic than Han Solo, better natural Jedi than Luke was at the same point of his training, and a natural swordsman…but we’re ALSO supposed to think of her as a plucky orphan farmgirl.

I think that’s right. A 35 year old queen who is beautiful, intelligent, a skilled warrior and a crafty statesman wouldn’t be a Mary Sue if she’s presented as someone with a past who’s used her 35 years to good effect—if she’s someone who’s already been on the hero’s journey and come out of it having learned some lessons. The real problem comes in when she’s all of those things and only 16 years old.

The commentor which Mr. Wright is quoting calls it fundamental dishonesty, and while I think that he’s right, I’d prefer to call it a fundamental contradiction in the character. What really makes Mary a Mary Sue is when she’s got all of the benefits of experience without having any of the experience. I think that it really comes down to sympathy.

Growing up is rough so (sane) human beings have sympathy for people who are still doing it. We are willing to tolerate all sorts of mistakes in those who are young and inexperienced which we will never tolerate in the old and experienced. (This is why it’s so important to not waste one’s youth and to learn how to be competent while people will still be forgiving of your mistakes.) The upshot is that young protagonists are much easier to write—the audience will naturally be sympathetic with them. The author’s mistakes will get much of the forgiveness that the character gets since the author’s mistakes often are also the characters’ mistakes.

The other thing is that this makes character development a snap. Children don’t know anything and make (nearly) all the mistakes one can make, so giving them something to improve about is trivial. Because of the instinctual forgiveness given to children, they don’t cease to be sympathetic merely because they start out awful, either.

This creates a temptation on the part of the author to make his character younger than he should be because it’s easier to write. A competent adult is much harder to make sympathetic, especially if he has a character arc. It’s easy enough to give him a character arc if you make him start off as a bastard who deserves to be shot. (This is the reason why the Loveable Rogue™ is to popular, by the way—just be careful to say that he’s a rogue rather than show it or the sympathy goes away. Show don’t tell does not apply to flaws in characters you want the reader to like!)

What’s really hard is writing a competent adult with a character arc who starts off as a decent human being. The reason this is much harder, of course, is that the writer has to be better than minimally decent. Because one can’t give what one doesn’t have, one can’t fake wisdom. And the character arcs of decent adults are all about growing in wisdom. A child has the (easy from an adult’s perspective) task of becoming a minimally competent adult. A minimally competent adult has the task of becoming a wise old mentor. Children generally succeed; adults often fail. For that reason, nearly anyone can write a coming-of-age story. It takes a real man to write a story about someone who already came of age.

A Mary Sue is the attempt to have it both ways—to write a coming-of-age story about a competent adult.

Outraged Detectives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whether Magic Should Have Rules

I came across an interesting series of tweets recently about whether Magic should have rules (within fantasy fiction):

In case it goes away, Andrew said:

To explain the mechanism is bad. To explain the rules for the magician can be good.

Andrew is right, though only in the case where the magician is either one of the protagonists or antagonists. If the magicians are all omniscient mentors or the long-dead creators of artifacts, then there is no need to create rules for their magic.

Long-dead artificers are constrained not by rules but by causality. They did what they did and not what they didn’t and they aren’t doing anything any more. Further, their actions were based on their own time and not the present so the author is free to have them create the artifacts with any combination of powers and limitations the author wants. In essence, rules aren’t necessary for the magic because rules are already present for time.

With respect to omniscient mentor wizards, there is no need for rules because the mentor is not necessarily ignorant of the plot. Not that he’s breaking the fourth wall but rather his omniscience, wisdom, and benevolence means that he will often refrain from doing what he is capable of doing for reasons of his own. Such characters aren’t really part of the plot so much as intermediate authors. Analogous to how God gives us the power of secondary causation, the omniscient mentor is a sort of secondary author to the story. Characters need limits, but authors do not.

Authors only need wisdom.

Moana Is Kind of OK as a Movie

Having a two year old daughter I’ve had to watch “boana” a bunch of times now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s just not a good movie. It’s kind of OK. It’s mostly pretty. It’s got a few halfway decent songs. That’s about as much as can be said for it.

The first problem is that it’s not uniformly pretty. Why is it that Disney animators can’t draw adult males any more? I heard that some Polynesians were offended that Maui was drawn as an obese semi-giant-semi-dwarf, and their point is quite fair, since Maui looked bad. But this wasn’t just Maui, it was also Moana’s father. It was true of the father in Brave, too. I’m sure that somebody will say that they’re not ugly, they’re stylized. I’d consider accepting that if:

  1. This was how females were drawn, too.
  2. They didn’t look ugly.

Frankly, it’s probably largely laziness. Animation has gotten ever-more expensive over time with less money becoming available to it, and so it’s gotten noticeably worse over time as the animators have to come up with ways to save time and money.

I suspect it’s also partially that Disney has given up on its cartoons being for the whole family. Since they’re now primarily advertisements for dolls, backpacks, etc., there’s no point in making them enjoyable by the whole family. They’re only supposed to appeal you very young girls, and very young girls probably don’t pay much attention to father figures in movies. To most children’s story writers, parents are at best a necessary evil.

This almost makes talking about the story of Moana pointless, since it’s largely just an excuse for set pieces, but I had to watch the thing so I feel entitled to talk about it anyway. What I find most disappointing is that it’s an adventure story with no hero.

Moana is the closest thing that one finds to a hero in the story but she’s just not competent enough to be a hero. Granted, she’s a child, but that’s just the problem—the protagonist is someone who can’t be expected to be competent.

Or rather, they throw her into circumstances she’s not competent enough for. “Competence” does, after all, take an object—it only makes sense when you specify what one is competent at. They put Moana into circumstances which require a skilled adult and have her succeed either by sheer luck or outright cheating. For example, never having sailed before, Moana is able to sail a boat on the high seas. There’s no reason given for this, she just succeeds. And the wind is, for some reason, always at her back.

When she finally flips over the boat—many hours (or days?) after she should have—the ocean then just puts her where she should be. Why it didn’t do this at first is never even hinted at. You can get away with that on a wise character who has the best interests of the character at heart, but nowhere in the movie is the ocean portrayed as wise. Which reminds me—where are any of the other gods? Specifically, where is the god of the sea? This is a theoretically polytheistic story and yet the events of the story happen in a vacuum. This is just nothing like the actual mythology one gets within polytheistic cultures.

Then we get to Maui, who makes no sense and even less sense when considered as a demigod. Leaving aside the ridiculousness of doing various things for humans in order to feel wanted, he would have been celebrated. There’s a ridiculous scene where Maui admits that everything he did for humans was to try to make them love him, but it was never enough. The amount of cussing that would be require to convey how nonsensical this is would be tedious, so I’ll just omit it, but seriously, what? After Maui did the various feats that he did there would be shrines to him everywhere. Polytheists are only too willing to worship anything they thought brought them benefits and might bring them more.

Oh, and Maui was intending to imprison Moana in a cave on his Island in order to steal her boat. There will certainly be gods and demi-gods like this in polynesian mythology, but they don’t come round to doing the right thing after a pep talk. Consider how utterly gratuitous imprisoning her in a cave without food was—he could easily have just stolen her boat—at least as far as he knew at the time. He was basically just murdering her for fun. Which he did again by throwing her into the ocean. And what’s with him trying to jump off the boat—just a few minutes before, he explained that he needed the boat because he can do everything but float.

Oh, and when Moana rescued Maui from Tamatoa, she lifted him up and half carried him out of his cave. This is another example of outright cheating in order to make her competent. Moana probably weighs somewhere in the vicinity of 100 pounds. Probably less, but let’s be really generous and say 100. Maui is going to weight somewhere around 400 or 500 pounds. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt that say that he’s stylized and only weighs around 300 pounds. A 100 pound teenage girl is not going to be able to lift or carry a 300 pound limp weight. Even if Maui were helping a little bit, he would just crush Moana. She’s had no real physical training and her exercise had all been running around and climbing. I’ve no doubt that she can do a lot of pullups and has great endurance, but a 300 pound weight would just crush her. It makes no sense at all that they had Moana carry Maui out of the cave. The weaker companion rescuing the stronger companion who just got beaten in combat and was soon to be killed has been done many times. The right way to do it is to have the weaker one distract the opponent (which, granted, she did) giving the hero time to retreat. When it’s done well the hero uses his remaining strength to save the weaker one too, making them an actual team. Instead, for no discernible reason, Moana picks up things she shouldn’t be able to pick up.

And I should point out that this isn’t a male-vs-female thing. The boy in Last Action Hero never carried Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And then we come to Te-Ka. Given that Te-Ka is actually Te-Fiti, her placement on a barrier island simply makes no sense. My eight year old son also noticed this. Why, when Maui steals the heart of Te-Fiti, did Te-Ka instantly arise on a barrier island? And, for that matter, why did Maui try to directly fight Te-Ka rather than just, say, turning around and going a different way?

Which then brings up the question, where did the rest of the barrier island come from? Why was there even a barrier island? With Te-Fiti gone, why was Te-Ka protecting the worthless rock where Te-Fiti used to be? And how was the rest of the barrier island formed in a ring? There’s no indication that anyone ever tried to sail to where Te-Fiti had been, so why did Te-Ka produce lava there to hard into rock? It was obviously necessary that the barrier island form a ring around where Te-Fiti had been or Moana could have just sailed around it, but there’s just no in-plot explanation for this.

For that matter, why did the writers think that the barrier island was even necessary? It would have made more sense and solved more problems if Te-Ka had arisen on the Island which Te-Fiti had been. In particular this would have solved the problem of: why didn’t Maui fly over Te-Ka? Heck, why didn’t Maui fly around Te-Ka? Moana was able to outsail Te-Ka sideways. Why would a shape-shifting trickster have full-frontal-assault as plan A?

And finally, why do girl-power movies always have to have the power involved being—not actual power—but willful stupidity? Moana decides that she’s going to return the heart on her own. (Not that it matters, but why doesn’t she ask the sea to give her the heart again? Why on earth is the pacific ocean only 30 feet deep where she is, miles away from any island?) She then—predictably—fails and is saved by Maui. So much for empowerment. Defeating a giant lava monster is not something which one mortal on a boat is going to be able to do—incidentally, someone at Disney really should have looked up the difference between sail boats and motor boats—so why did Moana decide to do it? This doesn’t make her strong, it makes her dumb. If she had tried to recruit some allies, even unwitting ones—for example, luring the kakamura in to fight Te-Ka—that would have made vastly more sense. Had she recruited the ocean to help her get past Te-Ka, that too would have made vastly more sense. Anything which could at least possibly have worked would have made vastly more sense.

Alternatively, Disney could have scaled down the lava monster so that Moana at least had a chance of defeating it herself.

It’s not that I necessarily disagree with the writer’s goals—whatever they were—the problem is that what they wrote served no possible purpose. It just didn’t hang together at all.

Incidentally, who thought it would be a good idea to have the climax of the movie in slow motion and to have Moana sing a really dumb song where a mortal reassures a goddess that being a lava monster doesn’t define her? Seriously? The tone of this is almost perfectly wrong.

Oh, and as for the ending—who on earth is going to let their toddler sit unguarded on the pontoon of a boat going at fifteen or twenty knots?

The Unpleasantness At the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers

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

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

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


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

tddowb


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In-Genre Fiction is Dull Outside of It

In an interesting blog post about Pulp writing (such as that of Edgar Rice Borroughs or Robert E Howard) and Japanese Light Novels, Cheah Kai Wai quoted a bit of description from a popular JLN and said about it:

This is from the first chapter Goblin Slayer, a famous dark fantasy series about the eponymous adventurer obsessed with conducting goblin genocide. The text is compact and easy to read, but it is all tell and no show. Phrases like ‘took her breath away’ and ‘taken aback’ lack power, because the sparse descriptions lack emotive power. The sentence ‘No one would tolerate the existence of armed toughs if they were not managed carefully’ feels aimed at the reader instead of being an organic component of the story.

This excerpt is simply a straightforward report of sights and peoples and business functions, revealing nothing substantial about Priestess, the people around her, the town or the rest of the setting.

(The blog post has the quote that this is a comment about, but the particular accuracy is not my point so I’m omitting it for the sake of brevity and hope that you will trust the description is accurate for the sake of argument.)

The thing I’m wondering about is whether the particular example and Japanese Light Novels in general might be suffering not from being poorly written, but from being what I’m going to call genre-referential. (This is something of an extension of ideas I talked about in my earlier post Predictability vs. Recognizability.) What I mean by this is that some stories rely on referencing ideas and patterns established in other stories—generally progenitors in their genre. This sort of referencing makes for great economy of writing, but it also lightens the reading burden for readers who are very familiar with the genre and know what you’re talking about so much that explicit description actually becomes boring.

(As a side note, this can actually make it difficult for people who started with later works in a genre to fully enjoy the original works which defined the genre—since they had nothing to reference and readers were unfamiliar with the genre, they described it in detail which, to a reader already familiar with the genre, is just unnecessary and therefore slow and over-wrought.)

I’ll give an example. Suppose a story started out like this:

“I can’t take this thing any more!” Ian said as he took off the Imperial shock-trooper helmet. “If I get a headache in this after five minutes, how on earth are we going to infiltrate the governor’s palace in this armor?”

“You complain too much,” Duke replied. “At least it’s laser-proof.”

“That doesn’t do you much good, kid, if they pick you up and throw you into a smelting pit,” Ian replied with a sour grin.

No one would mistake this for the beginning of a masterpiece, but at the same time, despite the fact that I have given approximately no description of—well, anything—I suspect that most readers who are at least 30 years old (in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2018) will still have a fairly vivid idea of what just happened. They will know:

  1. There is an empire run by a ruthless and evil emperor who
  2. dominates the solar system or possibly the entire galaxy
  3. squashing the freedom of all people through it.
  4. The empire has some sort of elite units of soldiers issued full-body armor complete with head-encasing helmets. Basically, storm trooper from Star Wars before we found out that they can’t hit anything.
  5. Ian and Duke are at least somewhat friends, but probably not intimately so
  6. Ian is impetuous and cynical
  7. Duke is idealistic and optimistic

The list goes on; people who have seen a lot of space opera know quite a lot about these characters and the setting. As I said before, this is obviously not the start of a masterpiece, but it could easily be a lot of fun. But imagine what someone who’s never read any space opera would make of this. Really, if you can stretch your imagination that far, not very much. There are a few blanks established to be filled in later, but the only description of the characters given is the single word “kid” which might erroneously suggest that Duke was, in fact, a child.

Now, consider how much is changed and what a person familiar with space opera now knows if I add just two words:

“I can’t take this thing any more!” Ian Tolo said as he took off the Imperial shock-trooper helmet. “If I get a headache in this after five minutes, how on earth are we going to infiltrate the governor’s palace in this armor?”

“You complain too much,” Duke Landwalker replied. “At least it’s laser-proof.”

“That doesn’t do you much good, kid, if they pick you up and throw you into a smelting pit,” Ian replied with a sour grin.

Now you know that this is a parody of Star Wars, but a reasonably subtle parody of Star Wars, not a Mad Magazine style over-the-top parody. More like a toned-down Mel Brooks parody.

But suppose that those weren’t the characters last names. Consider how a few extra lines can signal that this is going in a very different direction than Star Wars:

“I can’t take this thing any more!” Ian said as he took off the Imperial shock-trooper helmet. “If I get a headache in this after five minutes, how on earth are we going to infiltrate the governor’s palace in this armor?”

“You complain too much,” Duke replied. “At least it’s laser-proof.”

“That doesn’t do you much good, kid, if they pick you up and throw you into a smelting pit,” Ian replied with a sour grin.

“True,” Duke said. “But the Dakat is with us. We can’t fail.”

Ian sighed and stared down at his feet, thinking. Then he stretched out his hand, said the words “Dakat Zadum” and an imperial laster-rifle materialized under his hand. Grabbing it before it fell in a long-practiced motion, Ian put it in the empty holster on his armor. He looked up at Ian.

“You’re right,” he said, without enthusiasm.

With the same formula, Ian made a blaster to go with his armor.

“You know I am,” he said. “Now let’s go.”

The fan of space opera is put on notice that while it has some thematic similarities to Star Wars, this is by no means a mere rip-off of star wars. Granted, there are space wizards, but here we have two teammates who are space wizards; there isn’t a master and an apprentice. Though it taps into a similar setting—including high technology versus magic—it’s a very different cast of characters. And the space magic is very different, too. One of the curious questions is whether or not the space wizards will have a magnetically contained plasma torch (*cough* light saber *cough*) or any similar weapon. In fact, there are a whole host of questions in the back of the mind of the studied fan of space opera:

How are the space wizards arranged. Are they independent? Is there a guild? Is there an organization in place to dominate the space wizards since magic is dangerous? What are the limits to the magic? How common is magic? They have lasers which seem to be used as guns, how high is the technology? Obviously if they have high technology too magic can’t be that common, so what is the relationship between the technology users and the magic users?

And so on. There are tons of questions which pop up unbidden because they’ve been brought up by a whole host of previous books and movies answering these things in different ways. But none of these questions are likely to occur to a reader who knows nothing about space opera. While the imagination of the fan of space opera may be flooded by memories of his favorite—and not so favorite—space opera stories, the one who knows nothing about space opera has none of this occupying his attention. So we have two radically different experiences:

For the fan of space opera, we have an economy of language, giving him hints as to what sort of space opera this is, letting him imagine all sorts of possibilities as his mind races to figure out the universe being described.

For the one who knows nothing about space opera, we have a scene in which two people who are not described in any way—except that one regards the other as being younger—talk about how some armor is uncomfortable and partially useful, say some words and guns appear, and (may) be ready to go somewhere to do something.

Now, another criticism which Cheah Kai Wai leveled against the light novel he cited was that it told everything rather than showing it. But consider the above dialog recast into pure exposition:

Ian removed the imperial shock-trooper helmet he had been wearing. He had only been wearing it for a few minutes and he already had a headache. Granted, it was laser-proof but there are a lot of ways to die and no armor can protect you from all of them. Duke, younger and with every bit of of the optimism and idealism that comes would youth, hashed this out with Ian for a bit before Duke pulled out his trump card and pointed out that the Dakat was with them.

There was no arguing the point. The Dakat was with them, so whatever risks they were taking, they could succeed. Wearily, Ian acknowledged the fact by using Dakat magic to materialize a laser rifle and put it in the holster of his armor. Duke smiled, likewise made his own, and they were ready.

Now, this is obviously less energetic than the original, but for someone who loves space opera, I would argue that it is not disqualifyingly so. The lover of a genre is generally in the position of having already read all of the best stuff, and the mediocre stuff is at least evocative of the best the genre has to offer. The lover of space opera is, by this uninspired bit of exposition, at least promised shiny armor, laser rifles, an evil empire, and space wizards. Neither the paint on the wall—long since dried—nor his shoes offer any of these things. And on the plus side, the lover of space opera is not wearied by ornate world-building, most of which he can guess anyway. The writer at least skips to the parts he can’t guess.

To someone who is not a lover of space opera, however, this is profoundly disqualifying. It gives no background, no orientation, no idea of what’s to come, and very little happens in it.

All of this brings us to one of the fundamental problems for writers: figuring out who your reader is. The fundamental problem (which the above quickly written examples are only meant to sketch) is that the same work is radically different when read by someone who lives and breathes a genre than it is when it’s the first dipping of the reader’s toe into the genre. Or even when he’s not yet up to his ankle in it.

Now, I’m not trying to claim that Cheah Kai Wai is wrong in his characterization of Japanese Light Novels. I haven’t read them and it would be absurd to speak with any certainty about them in any case. And I’m not trying to argue with Mr. Rawle Nyanzi’s (low) opinion of Japanese Light Novels either. Both men have obviously read more of these novels than I have (since I’ve read about 3 paragraphs of them so far) and for all I know are experts in the genre. But if they are not experts in the genre, it is interesting that their cogent criticisms may in part come from being outsiders looking in on genre-referential fiction. And since no one is an expert in all genres, we will all have this problem with genre-referential fiction in some genres.

And as writers, there is the problem that genre-referential fiction has a smaller potential base of readers, but we know that they read way more stories in the genre than general readers do.

(There is another problem which comes from what one is looking for in fiction. This post is already very long, so to sketch the problem: when I was young, I craved adventure stories of people becoming heroes. Now that I have three young children and every day is an adventure where I am sometimes literally saving someone’s life—though by  intensely mundane activities like shutting a door at the top of a staircase so the two year old doesn’t fall down, or making sure that the five year old doesn’t microwave a fork and burn our house down—I find that I crave stories about calm, security, and wisdom far more than those of adventure and heroism. It stands to reason, then, that Japanese teenagers on the train home from cram school might crave something different from either. It’s possible, for example, that vivid description would be too much for their over-saturated brains.)

Lord Peter Wimsey is Very Rich

Lord Peter Wimsey has many things of dubious realism going for him, but the one which concerns me at the moment is his great wealth. Sayers never explicitly says just how wealthy Lord Peter is, but there’s never any indication made that considerations of expense ever stop him from doing anything. From a reader’s perspective, his wealthy is effectively unlimited, though it is generally used with restraint. Lord Peter never buys an apartment building or a cruise ship for the sake of a plot, say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers

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

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

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

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

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

logicpuzzle

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

A contemporary review somewhat sums this up:

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

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

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


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

tddowb

Lucky Detectives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

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

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

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


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

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

Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ours is the only trade,” said Bagshaw [a police detective], “in which the professional is always supposed to be wrong. After all, people don’t write stories in which hairdressers can’t cut hair and have to be helped by a customer; or in which a cabman can’t drive a cab until his fare explains to him the philosophy of cab-driving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over the Hills and Far Away

I recently discovered the singer/hury gurdist Patty Gurdy. Originally part of the band Storm Seeker, she seems to be striking out on her own. I’ve really been enjoying her songs on YouTube, and I’m particularly fond of her cover of a Storm Seeker song called The Longing:

However, the song I want to talk about is Over the Hills and Far Away:

It’s extremely reminiscent in theme of the Johnny Cash song The Long Black Veil, though I don’t know that there’s any influence:

Either way, it’s very interesting to compare the two songs. And despite the similarity of subject matter, the biggest difference is what kind of song they are: Over the Hills and Far Away is a (sort-of) love song, while The Long Black Veil is a tragedy.

This is of course facilitated by the different penalties for the different crimes. In The Long Black Veil, the man is accused of murder and his refusal to provide an alibi results in his execution, while in Over the Hills and Far Away he refuses to provide an alibi for a robbery and consequently is sentenced to 10 years in prison. This enables the latter to have the theme of eventual return, and it’s this theme which turns the song into a love song.

Which is unfortunate because the man should not return to the arms of his best friend’s wife. He should stay out of the arms of any man’s wife but even more so those of his best friend’s wife. In the song where the adulterer died, it becomes possible to take it as a simple tragedy where he was not directly punished for his adultery, but none the less was being punished indirectly because his adultery prevented him from proving his innocence. He got what he deserved, if indirectly, sort of like the plot of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Unfortunately that sort of interpretation isn’t possible for a man who doesn’t understand what he did to be wrong (only socially unacceptable). But I find it interesting that the woman sings a song about adultery as a love song and the man sings it as a tragedy. This touches on a theme I’ve noticed in stories written by women: a man is so captivated by a woman’s beauty that he’s willing to destroy himself (and often her) because of it. This isn’t a universal theme, nor anything like that, but I’ve noticed that this is a common theme in material that I didn’t usually read until recently.

There’s a lot to say about the theme of a man so entranced by a woman’s beauty that he becomes a monster, which alas I don’t have time for now, but it is an interesting question to ponder how much the becoming a monster is intrinsic to the fantasy or whether it’s a way of defending against the accusations of wish-fulfillment which the story would be accused of if the woman’s beauty captivated the man and helped him to overcome his vices and become a saint. That latter one would be a very good story, though.

Acquiring Murder Weapons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Types of Murder Weapons

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

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

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

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

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

Accomplices Make Everything Easier

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

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

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

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

  1. Romantic interest
  2. Financial interest

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

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

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


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

tddowb