The Problem With Fair Play In Mysteries

In the golden age of mystery writing there was the idea that a murder mystery was a game between the author and the reader. The author would give all of the clues necessary and would win if the reader couldn’t guess the solution before the detective reveals it; the reader would win if he guessed first.

The idea was all over the place at he time. For example, you can see aspects of this in Fr. Ronald Knox’s 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction. Most of the rules ensure that the necessary evidence is actually given to the reader.

Fair play is a great idea, and makes for good books. The only problem is that it—mostly—doesn’t actually work for its intended purpose.

The problem with “fair play” in murder mysteries, as a game, is that there are usually too many degrees of freedom. Ambiguity can be resolved in too many ways. For example, it is possible that the murderer managed to pretend to come into the room he was already in, but then it was also possible someone in the séance circle holding hands with the victim could have let go and stabbed the victim before he could cry out. Neither is probable and neither is impossible. Which is more likely? The reader is not really solving the problem, but instead reading the mind of the author.

This sort of ambiguity comes up a lot because ambiguity is the heart of mystery. If there’s only one interpretation, there’s nothing to detect, or at least there’s no value in the detective being brilliant. More than that, there is always ambiguity so long as there is a next page—it is always possible that the next page will contain new evidence which changes the meaning of evidence which showed up before.

On the flip side, if sufficient evidence to obtain a criminal conviction is given prior to the suspects gathering in the accusing parlor, the game will be too easy. If there is insufficient evidence for a conviction, the solution will be unsatisfying. It seems like there should be a happy medium, but there isn’t. The most common attempt is for the detective to withhold from the reader some conclusive peace of evidence and only present it when the formal accusation is made. This does not solve the problem, though, because it is almost always the case that a different piece of conclusive evidence could be given for at least one other suspect. In short, if there is any point in guessing, there will always be more than one reasonable guess.

Fair play doesn’t really work for its intended purpose, but it does make for good book.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is that fair play unites the reader with the detective. The second is that fair play forces the writer to make the mystery mysterious because it is clever.

When the author hides clues from the reader, it means that the reader doesn’t know why the detective does what he does. The detective, himself, becomes a mystery. In this case the reader is united, not to the detective, but to the Watson. (To some degree this explains the original Watson, who was, in theory, the author of the stories and hence they were from his perspective.) On the plus side, this multiplies the mysteries. The downside is that it makes the detective an unsympathetic character, in the strict sense that the reader cannot sympathize with him.

Interestingly, Sherlock Holmes was originally meant to be an unsympathetic character in the other sense—aloof, unapproachable, eccentric in the extreme. It did not last; Holmes was humanized, over time. Part of this was that there were often sub-mysteries which Holmes would explain, allowing us to get close to the detective.

The other aspect of fair play—that it forces the writer to write good mysteries—is also important to a good novel. A mystery in which the mystery is maintained only by withholding clues is, generally, a very simple mystery. If there is nothing much for the detective to think about, the solution will not be very satisfying when it is finally offered.

Another effect fair play has on plot construction is that it forces the author to be careful with the rate at which clues are given, and the circumstances which produced them. If the author has to reveal what the clue is when the reader has time to think about it, it being unreasonable for the culprit to have left the clue will stand out more.

For these reasons, and probably for others, too, fair play is as important now as it ever was. I think we merely lack the societal explanation which was never really adequate, even in its own day.

Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral Due in Mid-March

Russell, one of the owners of Silver Empire Publishing, the publisher of The Dean Died Over Winter Break, said that he should have Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral (the second chronicle of Brother Thomas) available in Silver Empire’s bookstore in mid-March, with wide availability (Amazon, etc) by the end of March. I will, of course, post when it is actually up.

Murder for Quid Pro Quo

It has been said that the two main motives for murder as sex and money, especially money. The problem this produces is that it tends to make it relatively obvious who the murderer is—whoever gets the money or gets the lover.

One of the traditional solutions to this problem is for the murderer to invent a clever way to kill the victim without being there. Another is for them to fake an alibi, or to fake the time of death so that they can establish an alibi.

The final of the classical solutions is for the murderer to have an accomplice. This produces the problem of motive for the accomplice.

Probably the simplest solution is economic—for the accomplice to share in the proceeds through the primary murderer’s discretion afterwards. Other motives involve love, a shared desire for revenge, and being tricked into it without understanding what was going on (then either not being aware of the significance of the help or being afraid to speak up).

An interesting alternative was used in the Death in Paradise episode, A Dash of Sunshine (Series 2, Episode 6). Here, the murder was perpetrated entirely by an accomplice, in exchange for the murderer having murdered the accomplice’s victim in another country, several months before. That is, each murder was committed by a person with no connection to the victim, as a quid pro quo. This was a very interesting setup, as it led to some unusual qualities in the murder.

Ordinarily, a murderer who has no connection to the victim is impossible to catch. In these modern days of DNA evidence, that may be somewhat less true, if the murderer has been foolish enough to use an online DNA service, or if a close relative has. Even there, though, that isn’t tremendously useful if there was no other evidence linking the murderer to the crime. Moreover, it’s not overly likely to be present.

There was a time, in the dawn of forensic science, where fingerprints were new technology and criminals did not know to wear gloves. That time did not last long. Similarly, there was a time when criminals did not know to avoid letting their DNA get onto a crime scene, but they do know it now. Admittedly, avoid fingerprints is easier than avoiding leaving any DNA, but at the same time, it’s not that hard. Gloves will do it for anything that one touches, and beside that, some simple precautions like wearing pants and a long-sleeved shirt, and ensuring that one’s hair doesn’t shed (a hat, a hair net, etc) will generally suffice. It’s not like the police are going to swab every inch of the floor in the hope of catching a stray skin cell. Tests cost money.

DNA evidence is much more of a problem for the mystery writer in crimes of passion, where the murderer would not have thought to take precautions beforehand. On the other hand, it is far more likely in crimes of passion that here will be an innocent excuse for why the murderer’s DNA is present at the crime scene. If a man lives in the same mansion as the victim, it is of no significance that his DNA was found in the same room as the victim. It would almost be odd to not have found it.

All that allowed for, it is still nearly impossible to catch a murderer with no connection to his victim. This makes the quid-pro-quo murderer very difficult to catch—unless the murderer makes a mistake and leaves physical evidence, the only way to catch him is through his connection to his partner—the one who benefits.

Interestingly, in the Death in Paradise episode, the killer made mistakes and left forensic evidence and this is how the detectives caught the pair. Perhaps the biggest of these mistakes was killing the victim in his own rental house. This was especially odd as the other murderer had made the reservations at the rental house, meaning that they cooperated in the terrible decision to proceed with a link from the murderer to the victim. It was explained, and I think reasonably, that the murderers were careless because they were arrogant. They assumed that across the ocean, in a country with a minimal police force, a staged robbery would be accepted as such and murder would not be suspected. It was still a terrible idea, and one that they didn’t make with the first murder, back in England.

I can’t think of any examples of the other way around—of finding the connection between the murderers then finding the connection between the killer and the victim. Given how many murder mysteries have been written in the last 100+ years, it probably has been written, of course, but it would be interesting to write the second.

Setting for Book 4?

I’ve only written about 1 paragraph of the Third Chronicle of Brother Thomas (edits are finished on the Second Chronicle of Brother Thomas and Silver Empire has it slated for publication in March). And it’s got a great setting: a remote vacation resort in the Adirondack mountains where there isn’t internet, cell service, or even electricity. I’m really looking forward to writing that one. (The very tentative title for the book is “He Didn’t Drown in the Lake”.) But I thought of a great setting for Book 4.

A renaissance fair.

I was thinking that the fair grounds could be next to a benedictine abbey, and the fair itself could be named after the abbey next to it. So the book could be titled, for example, Saint Paul’s Fair. Or Saint Anselm’s Fair (that one has a ring to it). Or Saint Benedict’s Fair. (All three are real Abbey names in the US.)

An especially fun coincidence would be that my favorite Brother Cadfael mystery, Saint Peter’s Fair, happens to be the fourth chronicle of Brother Cadfael.

I have no idea who the victim or the murderer will be. For stuff like that I probably should get a lot further in book 3, first.

Poirot’s Voice

In Masters of Mystery, by H. Douglas Thomson, there’s a chapter called The Orthodox Detective (as opposed to “the realistic detective story,” “the domestic detective story,” “the thriller,” etc). Curiously, it is entirely about Agatha Christie. I suppose that this is almost fitting, as in 1930 she was something of a genre unto herself.

In some ways, she still is.

Anyway, there’s a section where Thomson talks about Poirot’s voice, in the sense of how he speaks, and he translates a small section from the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze into how it would read as a Poirot story. I think he does a excellent job of it, so I wanted to quote it here as it’s very interesting to compare and contrast.

In Silver Blaze:

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing int he night-time.”
“That was the curious incident.”

In translation:

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“There is the dog,” he said. “Always I think of that dog in the night. Always it perplexes, that one. It is of a mystery the most profound.”
“But the dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Précisément,” he replied softly. “That is the mystery, mon ami.”

Thomson goes on to note that when Poirot is in the thick of things, his language becomes more direct and even “mon ami” gets softened to “my friend”.

This is intentional on the part of Christie, she talked about it outside of the stories and even Poirot occasionally talked about it within his stories. Poirot tended to speak in Frenglish in one of two circumstances:

  1. When he wanted to disarm people. A man who has difficulty speaking the language will presumably have difficulty understanding the language and so he can’t be much of a threat.
  2. When he was dealing with people who disliked foreigners. He found that with such people the best way forward was to be very frankly a foreigner and so to give them the opportunity of forgiving him for it.

To some degree Poirot’s being a Belgian refuge from “The War” (i.e. World War I) served to explain why he was a private detective rather than a police officer—he had been a police officer in his native country but could hardly become a police detective in England.

His being a Belgian refuge also helped to make him interesting, and moreover, exotic enough to feel realistic in the unrealistic genre of the murder mystery. Unfortunately—or fortunately, as one sees it—crimes are rarely plotted out with brilliant intricacy and still less often are they unraveled by a brilliant detective who puts together the clues which other people miss. Whether this is because of the rarity of the brilliant crime or simply the rarity of catching the brilliant criminal, we cannot say for we do not know. It may be that brilliant people never commit carefully planned out murders. It may be that carefully planned murders happen all the time and people either do not suspect that the deaths are murders or the patsy who was framed is framed successfully and pays for the crime he didn’t commit, or perhaps these are just unsolved crimes where we know the crime was committed but have no leads.

Be that as it may, the brilliant detective solving a murder simply does not happen in real life (or at least nowhere near often enough for a man to build up a reputation, to say nothing of supporting himself on the proceeds of investigating such crimes). This creates a sort of tension in detective fiction because the fun comes from most of the story being realistic.

The solution generally seems to be to make the detective eccentric in some fashion. Not just any eccentricity will do, however. It has to be an eccentricity which pervades his interactions with his fellow creatures. If the reader’s normal experience of the detective is outside of the reader’s normal experience of real life, then the unreality of him being a detective at all is much easier to forget.

Starting a Cast List

So despite the fact that I’m supposed to be taking a break, I’ve begun work on the characters and plot of the third chronicle of Brother Thomas, tentatively titled He Didn’t Drown in the Lake.

The murder takes place at a rustic resort in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York where there is no internet, no cell reception, and not even any electricity. I’ve worked out who the victim is, who the murderer is, and why it was done. I’ve still to figure out how it was done, but I’m working on the other characters, first, since that may well impact how it was done.

So now I’m working out a list of who will be vacationing at the mountain resort. There are a lot of possibilities. So far, I’m considering having two novelists on a writing retreat, one in his twenties and the other in his forties.

Fun times.

One of the Great Mystery Endings

As I’ve mentioned, I’m reading the book Masters of Mystery: A Study of the Detective Story, written by H. Douglas Thomson in 1931. It’s an interesting book that I will share more from soon(-ish), but there was one little snippet which stands on its own and which I just have to share.

The reprint of The Leavenworth Case attracted some attention. A post-prandial pronouncement of Mr. Baldwin was presumably the origin of this venture, for on the jacket we read in bold black type from some continental foundry:

“Mr. Baldwin—speaking at a dinner of the American Society in London on the 29th of November, 1928, said: ‘An American Woman, the successor of Poe, Anna K. Green gave us The Leavenworth Case, which I still think one of the best detective stories ever written.'”

Something must have been wrong with the dinner. The Leavenworth Case is not by any means a first-class detective story. The detection is singularly elementary. The plot is hopelessly drawn out, and the melodrama is a sample of unnatural and stilted writing. It may be unfair to cut out a sentence or two from its context, but the climax cries aloud for glorious isolation:

“A silence ensued which, like the darkness of Egypt, could be felt. Then a great and terrible cry rang through the room, and a man’s form, rushing from I knew not where, shot by me and fell at Mr. Gryce’s feet shrieking out, ‘It is a lie! A lie! Mary Leavenworth is innocent as a babe unborn! I am the murderer of Mr. Leavenworth. I! I! I!”

I know nothing about The Leavenworth Case, and even my deep curiosity about all things will likely not involve me actually reading the thing. It is interesting to contemplate, however, that such a story was not only written, but published, and a room full of people who had just eaten was told that it was one of the finest detective stories ever written.

There is hope for us all.

Talking of the Past in the Past

A few years ago a dear friend of mine gave me the book Masters of Mystery: A Study of The Detective Story, and I’ve finally started reading it. I’ll be writing about what it says about the detective story in another post; here I want to talk about something interesting in the timing of the book, and of the introduction which came later, as the copy I was given is actually a reprint.

Masters of Mystery was written by H. Douglas Thomson and originally published in 1931. The reprint and its foreward were made in 1978, three years short of the book’s fiftieth anniversary.

The book itself was written at an interesting time, given that 1931 was only the middle of the golden age of detective fiction and had yet to see most of the work of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, to name just two giants of the genre.

Further making it an interesting time, detective fiction was not that old. Granted, the first detective stories are generally reckoned to be Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin stories, the first of which, Murders in the Rue Morgue, being published in 1841. There seems to be fairly little—in English—before Conan Doyle published Sherlock Holmes in 1887. 1931 was a scant 44 years later. That is enough time for much to have happened, but it was still early days.

We come, now, to the foreward which interests me, being written a slightly longer time in the future, and taking a historical look at how Masters of Mystery held up. It was written by a E.F. Bleiler, who according to Wikipedia was “an American editor, bibliographer, and scholar of science fiction, detective fiction, and fantasy literature.” He worked as an editor at the American publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons at the time of the reprint, but as he only left Dover in 1977 and it was Dover that did the reprint, it is possible that he wrote it while an editor at the publisher. He may have been, therefore, less an expert sought out for his opinion and more a man who happened to be around.

He praises the book, but also notes some weaknesses. Some may be fair, such as noting that Thomson leaves off much about the early days of detective fiction—for the understandable reason that not much was known, especially then and even now, of it.

He makes the somewhat odd claim that Detective mysteries were at the time Thomson wrote predominantly “house party” crimes. This is odd in that it’s simply false if predicated of the famous stories of the time. It was a common enough setting, but among the detective stories which have come to us at the time of my writing, it certainly did not predominate. How common it was amongst the stories which have long since been forgotten, I cannot say.

The really interesting claim, though, is rooted firmly in its time:

Thomson’s critical standards were often a function of his day, but two more personal flaws in his work must be mentioned. His worst gaffe, of course, is his failure to estimate Hammett’s work adequately. While Hammett-worship may be excessive at the moment, it is still perplexing that Thomson could have missed Hammett’s imagination, powerful writing, and ability to convey a social or moral message. Related to this lacuna is Thomson’s lack of awareness of the other better American writers of his day, men who stood just as high as the better English writers that he praises. It was inexcusable to be unaware of the work of Melville D. Post, F.I. Anderson and T.S. Stribling. It is also surprising, since all three men were writers of world reputation at this time.

To deal with the last, first: I’ve never heard of Post, Anderson, or Stribling. F.I. Anderson does not even have a wikipedia page. Such is the short duration of fame, I suppose, that a man can be castigated for not talking about famous men 48 years after his book that, 44 years later, are generally unknown.

Dashiell Hammett, I do of course know of. That said, it is funny to me to speak of Hammett as some sort of master that everyone must talk about. I’ve met exactly one person who seriously likes Dashiell Hammett’s writing, and I don’t even know his name—I struck up a conversation with him while waiting to pick up Chinese food one night.

I suspect that Hammett’s reputation in the 1970s was a product of the success of the movies based upon his books. The casting for The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man were excellent, and anyone having seem them—as an editor working for Dover in 1977 almost certainly would have—cannot help but read the tremendous performances of the actors into the words on the page. If one does not picture Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, much of the magic is lost.

Again, I should note that in the main Blieler’s foreward is positive and mostly about how Masters of Mystery is worth reading. I was merely struck by how much the retrospective criticisms of it were a product of their time, but were phrased as if they were now timeless.

Especially the Lies

There was a very interesting character in Star Trek: Deep Space 9 who was a deeply enigmatic character that was basically a spy and/or secret police officer who had possibly defected. More or less he was in the position of possibly being a gestapo agent who fled from Nazi Germany prior to the Nazis losing WWII. Instead of the Nazis, it was the Cardassians, and instead of the Gestapo, it was the Obsidian Order, but the basic structure holds.

This is an interesting character because one doesn’t know whether he left as a matter of principle, or if he was driven out merely by political considerations, or if he never left at all and his job as a tailor and status as a refugee is merely a cover. He is, of course, charming and charismatic, and denies ever having been of any importance, or a member of the Obsidian Order, and always claims that he’s “Just plain simple Garak.”

There’s an episode (or possibly a few episodes) in which his past is explored. I should note, in passing, that my suspicion is that in usual TV fashion, I don’t think that the writers ever did decide on a backstory. TV writers are much better at hints than worked-out ideas. Be that as it may, it was interesting, and there were a number of highly conflicting stories that surfaced about Garak’s past. When the episode (or arc) ended, Garak spoke with his friend, Dr. Bashir, who asked him about the stories.

Bashir: You know, I still have a lot of questions to ask you about your past.
Garak: I’ve given you all the answers I’m capable of.
Bashir: You’ve given me answers all right, but they were all different. What I want to know is: out of all the stories you told me, which ones were true and which ones weren’t?
Garak: My dear doctor, they’re all true.
Bashir: Even the lies?
Garak: Especially the lies.

If you want to watch the exchange, here’s a clip of it on YouTube:

This was a great exchange, and, in a different context, it would have been a brilliant conclusion. The problem, of course, is that it gets its power by hinting at a cohesive story behind the fragments Bashir (and hence, the viewer) are allowed to see. This is a problem because there was no cohesive story behind the fragments; they were just fragments thrown out in order to contradict previous fragments.

I don’t mean that they had literally no ideas; it was clearly established that Garak was in fact, at least at one point, a high ranking member of the Obsidian Order. What was not established was what principles he actually had.

Nebulous hints are only interesting if there is something good at the back of them. If a man simply lies because he is so warped and twisted that he doesn’t know the truth, this is not interesting. This gets back to something I’ve said more than a few times: it is a man’s virtues, not his flaws, which are interesting. Flaws are, at most, a crutch to make it easy to show off a man’s virtues.

What would have made this great is if there was some principle—that was not just loose consequentialism plus a goal—which was being served, and, therefore, all of the lies actually conveyed a truth, if properly understood. That is, this would be great if all of the lies were actually cyphers, and at some time later the key would be given which would decypher the lies into truths.

You can see an example of this, though not a great example, in the retcon of how Obi Wan Kanobi explained why he said that Anakin Skywalker was killed by Darth Vader. When he said it, he meant that the good man who called himself Anakin Skywalker was gone forever, replaced by the evil man who called himself Darth Vader. It wasn’t great, but the lie does make sense as containing a truth, when interpreted under that rubric.

That’s what enigmatic characters should all be, though in general it works best if the writers create the cypher key before encrypting things with it. When the writers do that, they do have the potential to create something great.

For it is good, indeed, when it turns out that the lies are all true.

On The Seventh Day God Rested

On the seventh day, God rested.

This is an interesting thing to contemplate since as a American Northerner, I don’t really understand the concept of rest.

Granted, every now and again I take breaks, and every night I sleep. The thing is, I can’t help but think of these as weaknesses, as concessions to a fallen world. Chesterton described this attitude toward work and rest very well in Utoptia of Userers, though he was talking about employers and not individuals:

The special emblematic Employer of to-day, especially the Model Employer (who is the worst sort) has in his starved and evil heart a sincere hatred of holidays. I do not mean that he necessarily wants all his workmen to work until they drop; that only occurs when he happens to be stupid as well as wicked. I do not mean to say that he is necessarily unwilling to grant what he would call “decent hours of labour.” He may treat men like dirt; but if you want to make money, even out of dirt, you must let it lie fallow by some rotation of rest. He may treat men as dogs, but unless he is a lunatic he will for certain periods let sleeping dogs lie.

But humane and reasonable hours for labour have nothing whatever to do with the idea of holidays. It is not even a question of ten hours day and eight-hours day; it is not a question of cutting down leisure to the space necessary for food, sleep and exercise. If the modern employer came to the conclusion, for some reason or other, that he could get most out of his men by working them hard for only two hours a day, his whole mental attitude would still be foreign and hostile to holidays. For his whole mental attitude is that the passive time and the active time are alike useful for him and his business. All is, indeed, grist that comes to his mill, including the millers. His slaves still serve him in unconsciousness, as dogs still hunt in slumber. His grist is ground not only by the sounding wheels of iron, but by the soundless wheel of blood and brain. His sacks are still filling silently when the doors are shut on the streets and the sound of the grinding is low.

Again, Chesterton is talking about employers, but this also encompasses an American attitude toward the self which need have nothing to do with money. Chesterton goes on:

Now a holiday has no connection with using a man either by beating or feeding him. When you give a man a holiday you give him back his body and soul. It is quite possible you may be doing him an injury (though he seldom thinks so), but that does not affect the question for those to whom a holiday is holy. Immortality is the great holiday; and a holiday, like the immortality in the old theologies, is a double-edged privilege. But wherever it is genuine it is simply the restoration and completion of the man. If people ever looked at the printed word under their eye, the word “recreation” would be like the word “resurrection,” the blast of a trumpet.

And here we come back to where I started—that on the seventh day, God rested. We are not to suppose, of course, that God was tired. Nor are we even to suppose that God stopped creating creation—for if he were to do that, there would not be another moment, and creation would be at an end. Creation has no independent existence that could go on without God.

So what are we to make of God’s resting on the seventh day, for it must be very unlike human rest?

One thing I’ve heard is that the ancient Jewish idea of rest is a much more active one than our modern concept of falling down in exhaustion. It involves, so I’ve heard, the contemplation of what was done. Contemplation involves the enjoyment of what is done. What we seem to have is a more extended version of “and God looked on all that he had made and saw that it was good”.

There is another aspect, I think, too, which is that God’s creative action can be characterized into two types, according to our human ability to understand it—change and maintenance. In the first six days we have change, as human beings easily understand it. There are arising new forms of being different enough that we can have words to describe them. We can, in general, so reliably tell the difference between a fish and a bush that we give them different names. But we cannot so reliably tell the difference between a fish at noon and that same fish ten minutes later, even though it has changed; we just call them both “fish” and let that suffice because we cannot do better. Thus God’s rest can also been as the completion of the large changes, which we easily notice, and the transition to the smaller changes, which we have a harder time noticing or describing.

I’m thinking about this because I recently sent the manuscript of Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral off to the publisher. It’s not done, because there will be edits from the editor, but for the moment there is nothing for me to do on it. I finally have time—if still very limited time owing to having three young children—to do other projects, but I’m having a hard time turning to them.

My suspicion is that I need to spend some time resting, which is what put me in mind of this.

Why Do Moderns Write Morally Ambiguous Good Guys?

(Note: if you’re not familiar Modern spelled with a capital ‘M’, please read Why Moderns Always Modernize Stories.)

When Moderns tell a heroic story—or more often a story which is supposed to be heroic—they almost invariably write morally ambiguous good guys. Probably the most common form of this is placing the moral ambiguity in the allies who the hero protagonist trusts. It turns out that they did horrible things in the past, they’ve been lying to the protagonist (often by omission), and their motives are selfish now.

Typically this is revealed in an unresolved battle partway through the story, where the main villain has a chance to talk with the protagonist, and tells him about the awful things that the protagonist’s allies did, or are trying to do. Then the battle ends, and the protagonist confronts his allies with the allegations.

At this point two things can happen, but almost invariably the path taken is that the ally admits it, the hero gets angry and won’t let the ally explain, then eventually the ally gets a chance to explain (or someone else explains for him), and the protagonist concludes that the ally was justified.

In general this is deeply unsatisfying. So, why do Moderns do it so much?

It has its root in the modern predicament, of course. As you will recall, in the face of radical doubt, the only certainty left is will. To the Modern, therefore, good is that which is an extension of the will, and evil is the will being restricted. It’s not that he wants this; it’s that in his cramped philosophy, nothing else is possible. In general, Moderns tend to believe it but try hard to pretend that it’s not the case. Admitting it tends to make one go mad and grow one’s mustache very long:

(If you don’t recognize him, that’s Friedrich Nietzsche, who lamented the death of God—a poetic way of saying that people had come to stop believing in God—as the greatest tragedy to befall humanity. However, he concluded that since it happened, we must pick up the pieces as best we may, and that without God to give us meaning, the best we could do is to try to take his place, that is, to use our will to create values. Trying to be happy in the face of how awful life without God is drove him mad. That’s probably why atheists since him have rarely been even half as honest about what atheism means.)

The problem with good being the will and evil being the will denied is that there’s no interesting story to tell within that framework.

A Christian can tell the story of a man knowing what good is and doing the very hard work of trying to be good in spite of temptation, and this is an interesting story, because temptation is hard to overcome and so it’s interesting to see someone do it.

A Modern cannot tell the story of a man wanting something then doing it; that’s just not interesting because it happens all the time. I want a drink of water, so I pick up my cup and drink water. That’s as much an extension of my will as is anything a hero might do on a quest. In fact, it may easily be more of an extension of my will, because I’m probably more thirsty (in the moment) than I care about who, exactly, rules the kingdom. Certainly I achieve the drink more perfectly as an extension of my will than I am likely to change who rules the kingdom, since I might (if I have magical enough sword) pick the man, but I can’t pick what the man does. And what he does is an extension of his will, not mine. (This, btw, is why installing a democracy is so favored as a happy ending—it’s making the government a more direct extension of the will of the people.)

There’s actually a more technical problem which comes in because one can only will what is first perceived in the intellect. In truth, that encompasses nothing, since we do not fully know the consequence of any action in this world, but this is clearer the further into the future an action is and the more people it involves. As such, it is not really possible for the protagonist to really will a complex outcome like restoring the rightful king to the throne of the kingdom. Moderns don’t know this at a conscious level at all, but it is true and so does influence them a bit. Anyway, back to the main problem.

So what is the Modern to do, in order to tell an interesting story? He can’t tell an interesting story about doing good, since to him that’s just doing anything, and if he does something reader is not the protagonist, so it doesn’t do him any good. Granted, the reader might possible identify with the protagonist, but that’s really hard to pull off for large audiences. It requires the protagonist to have all but no characteristics. For whatever reason, this seems to be done successfully more often with female protagonists than with male protagonists, but it can never be done with complete success. The protagonist must have some response to a given stimulus, and this can’t be the same response that every reader will have.

The obvious solution, and for that reason the most common solution, is to tell the story of the protagonist not knowing what he wants. Once he knows what he wants, the only open question is whether he gets it or not, which is to say, is it a fantasy story or a tragedy? When he doesn’t know what he wants, the story can be anything, which means that there is something (potentially) interesting to the reader to find out.

Thus we have the twist, so predictable that I’m not sure it really counts as a twist, that the protagonist, who thought he knew what he wants—if you’re not sitting down for this, you may want to sit now so you don’t fall down from shock—finds out that maybe he doesn’t want what he thought he wanted!

That is, the good guys turn out to be morally ambiguous, and the hero has to figure out if he really wants to help them.

It’s not really that the Moderns think that there are no good guys. Well, OK, they do think that. Oddly, despite Modern philosophy only allowing good and evil to be imputed onto things by the projection of values, Moderns are also consequentialists, and consequentialists only see shades of grey. So, yes, Moderns think that there are no good guys.

But!

But.

Moderns are nothing if not inconsistent. It doesn’t take much talking to a Modern to note that he’s rigidly convinced that he’s a good guy. Heck, he’ll probably tell you that he’s a good person if you give him half a chance.

You’ll notice that in the formula I’ve described above, which we’re all far too familiar with, the protagonist never switches sides. Occasionally, if the show is badly written, he’ll give a speech in which he talks the two sides into compromising. If the show is particularly badly written, he will point out some way of compromising where both sides get what they want and no one has to give up anything that they care about, which neither side thought of because the writers think that the audience is dumb. However this goes, however, you almost never see the protagonist switching sides. (That’s not quite a universal, as you will occasionally see that in spy-thrillers, but there are structural reasons for that which are specific to that genre.) Why is that?

Because the Modern believes that he’s the good guy.

So one can introduce moral ambiguity to make things interesting, but it does need to be resolved so that the Modern, who identifies with the protagonist, can end up as the good guy.

The problem, of course, is that the modern is a consequentialist, so the resolution of the ambiguity almost never involves the ambiguity actually being resolved. The Modern thinks it suffices to make the consequences—or as often, curiously, the intended consequences—good, i.e. desirable to the protagonist. So this ends up ruining the story for those who believe in human nature and consequently natural law, but this really was an accident on the part of the Modern writing it. He was doing his best.

His best just wasn’t good enough.

Sequels Shouldn’t Reset To the Original

One of the great problems that writers have when writing sequels is that, if there was any character development in a story at all, its sequel begins with different characters, and therefore different character dynamics. If you tell a coming-of-age story, in the sequel you’ve got someone who already came of age, and now you have to tell a different sort of story. If you tell an analog to it, such as a main character learning to use his magical powers or his family’s magic sword or his pet dragon growing up or what-have-you, you’ve then got to start the next story with the main character being powerful, not weak.

One all-too-common solution to this problem is to reset the characters. The main character can lose his magic powers, or his pet dragon flies off, or his magic sword is stolen. This can be done somewhat successfully, in the sense of the change not being completely unrealistic, depending on the specifics, but I argue that in general, it should not be.

Before I get to that, I just want to elaborate on the depending-on-the-specifics part. It is fairly viable for a new king with a magic sword to lose the sword and have to go on a quest to get it back, though it’s better if he has to entrust it to a knight who will rule in his absence while he goes off to help some other kingdom. Probably the most workable version of this is the isekai story—a type of story, common in Japanese manga, light novels, and animation, where the main character is magically abducted to another world and needs to help there. Being abducted to another world works pretty well.

By contrast, it does not work to do any kind of reset in a coming-of-age story. It’s technically viable to have the character fall and hit his head and forget everything he learned, but that’s just stupid. Short of that, people don’t come of age then just become people who no experience who’ve never learned any life lessons again.

So why should resets be avoided even when they work? There are two main reasons:

  1. It’s throwing out all of the achievements of the first story.
  2. It’s lazy writing.

The first is the most important reason. We hung in with a character through his trials and travails to see him learn and grow and achieve. If the author wipes this away, it takes away the fact that any of it happened. And there’s something worse: it’s Lucy pulling the football away.

If the author is willing to say, “just kidding” about character development the first time, why should we trust that the second round of character development was real this time? Granted, some people are gullible—there will be people who watch the sequel to The Least Jedi. I’m not saying that it’s not commercially viable. Only that it makes for bad writing.

Which brings me to point #2: it’s lazy writing to just undo the events of the original in order to just re-write it a second time. If one takes the lazy way out in the big picture, it sets one up to take the lazy way out in the details, too. Worse, since the second will be an echo of the first, everything about it will either be the first warmed over or merely a reversal of what happened the first time. Except that these reversals will have to work out to the same thing, since the whole reason for resetting everything is to be able to write the same story. Since it will not be its own story, it will take nearly a miracle to make the second story true to itself given that there will be some changes.

A very good example of not taking the lazy way out is the movie Terminator 2. Given that it’s a movie about a robot from the future which came back in time to stop another robot from the future from killing somebody, it’s a vastly better movie than it has any right to be. Anyway, there’s a very interesting bit in the director’s commentary about this. James Cameron pointed out that in most sequels, Sarah Connor would have gone back to being a waitress, just like she was in the first movie.

But in Terminator 2, she didn’t. James Cameron and the other writer asked themselves what a reasonable person would do if a soldier from the future came back and saved her from a killer robot from the future, and impregnated her with the future leader of the rebellion against the robots? And the answer was that she would make ties with gun runners, become a survivalist, and probably seem crazy.

We meet her doing pullups on her upturned bed in a psychiatric ward.

Terminator 2, despite having the same premise, is a very different movie from Terminator because Terminator 2 takes Terminator seriously. There are, granted, some problems because it is a time travel story and time travel stories intrinsically have plot holes. (Time travel is, fundamentally, self-contradictory.) That said, Terminator and Terminator 2 could easily be rewritten to be about killer robots from the Robot Planet where the robots have a prophecy of a human who will attack them. That aside, Terminator 2 is a remarkably consistent movie, both with itself and as a sequel.

Another good example, which perhaps illustrates the point even better, is Cars 2. The plot of Cars, if you haven’t seen it, is that a famous race car (Lightning McQueen) gets sentenced to community service for traffic violations in a run-down town on his way to a big race. There he learns personal responsibility, what matters in life, and falls in love. Then he goes on to almost win the big race, but sacrifices first place in order to help another car who got injured. (If you didn’t figure it out, the cars are alive in Cars.)

The plot of Cars 2 is that McQueen is now a champion race car and takes part in an international race. At the same time, his buddy from the first movie, Mater, is mistaken for a spy and joins a James Bond-style espionage team to find out why and how an international organization of evil (I can’t recall what they’re called; it’s C.H.A.O.S. from Get Smart or S.P.E.C.T.R.E. from James Bond) is sabotaging the race. McQueen is not perfect, but he is more mature and does value the things he learned to value in the first movie. The main friction comes from him relying on Mater and Mater letting him down.

As you can see, Cars 2 did not reset Cars, nor did it try to tell Cars over again. In fact, it was so much of a sequel to Cars, which was a coming-of-age movie, that it was a completely different sort of movie. This was a risk, and many of the adults who liked Cars did not like Cars 2, because it was so different. This is the risk to making sequels that honor the first story—they cannot be the first story over again, so they will not please everyone who liked the first story.

Now, Cars 2 is an interesting example because there was no need to make it a spy thriller. Terminator 2 honored the first movie and was still an action/adventure where a killer robot has come to, well, kill. But there was a practical reason why Cars 2 was in a different genre from its predecessor but Terminator 2 was not: most everyone knows how to grow up enough to not be a spoiled child, but pretty few people in Hollywood have any idea how to keep growing up to become a mature adult from a minimally functioning adult.

If one wants to tell a true sequel to a coming-of-age film, which mostly means a film in which somebody learns to take responsibility for himself, the sequel will be about him learning to take responsibility for others. In practice, this means either becoming a parent or a mentor.

This is a sort of story that Hollywood has absolutely no skill in telling.

If you look at movies about parents or mentors, they’re almost all about how the parent/mentor has to learn to stop trying to be a parent/mentor and just let the child/mentee be whatever he wants to be.

Granted, trying to turn another human being into one’s own vision, materialized, is being a bad parent and a bad mentor, just letting them be themselves is equally bad parenting and mentoring. What you’re supposed to do as a parent or a mentor is to help the person to become themselves. That is, they need to become fully themselves. They must overcome their flaws and become the perfect human being which God made them to be. That’s a hard, difficult process for a person, which is why it takes so much skill to be a parent or a mentor.

There’s a lot of growth necessary to be a decent parent or mentor, but it’s more subtle than growing up from a child. Probably one of the biggest things is learning how much self-sacrifice is necessary—how much time the child or mentee needs, and how little time one will have for one’s own interests. How to balance those things, so one gives freely but does not become subsumed—that is a difficult thing to learn, indeed. That has the makings of very interesting character development.

The problem, of course, is that only people who have gone through it and learned those lessons are in a position to tell it—one can’t teach what one doesn’t know.

At least on purpose.

Art is a great testament to how much one can teach by accident—since God is in charge of the world, not men.

But I think that the world really could do with some (more) decent stories about recent adults learning to be mature adults. I think that they can be made interesting to general audiences.

Taking a Page from Scooby Doo

It strikes me that an interesting plot for a murder mystery would be to borrow a page from Scooby Doo and to have the murderer disguise a murder by taking advantage of a local legend.

Of course, this is hardly original to Scooby Doo. This basic structure for a plot can be found in The Hound of the Baskervilles, published some 67 years before Scooby Doo began his crime fighting in the classic TV show, Scooby Doo, Where Are You!

We live in a different time from either, which would make a somewhat different approach necessary, but I think it’s interesting to consider how, and why.

Scooby Doo originated at a time when there was tremendous interest in the “paranormal.” I’m not sure exactly when it started, and I think it had mostly died down by the 1990s, but for a while, in America at least, there was great interest in things like the Loch Ness monster, the Bermuda triangle, alien abductions, big foot, and such-like. I think that there was a relationship to the great popularity of self-help, self-actualization, consciousness-raising, and other such things that gave rise to a lot of cult activity. People knew that there was more to the world than the official explanation (that is, what they learned in public school and what was said in newspapers), and searched for it in some very strange places.

Scooby Doo, Where Are You! took this cultural pervasiveness as a starting point, and just ran with it. The eagerness of people to believe in more than the oversimplification they learned as children made for a ready setting to find strange things behind every tree and under every rock. (Scooby Doo was also a comedy, of course, so the American preference for exaggeration in comedy must also be taken into account.)

The Hound of the Baskervilles, by contrast, comes from an age which is more content with the simplistic answers that a rationalist oversimplification tends to give. Coming before the two world wars, when technology turn on its creators and the promised heaven-on-earth of Science became hell-on-earth, people had a different sort of relationship to Science than they did shortly after the second world war, which was when Scooby Doo was written and set. Given the long stretch of comparative peace within the United States, our modern time has come much more to hope in Science once again, and accordingly to be more content with rationalistic oversimplifications, so I think that we are culturally closer to The Hound of the Baskervilles. So we must look closer to the roles that the putatively supernatural plays.

Rationalistic ages tend to reject superstition, but very curiously they do it for a very different reason than Christian ages do. To the Christian, superstition is sinful because it is primarily a means of trying to step outside the natural order to control it. Bear in mind, that in a Christian context things like Angels are natural; a properly Christian distinction between natural and super-natural is created and creator. To a Christian, only God is super-natural. So stepping outside of the natural order largely means things like consorting with fallen angels, who are willing to abuse their power for their own dark ends. Superstition is sinful, then, because it is trying to be something one is not, and abusing the natural order in order to do it.

So to take an example of a superstition, trial by combat or trial by ordeal are both superstitious because they are an attempt for force the hand of God’ to serve men’s purposes. This is inverting the natural order; we were given senses to find out who is guilty, but the superstitious does not want to use our senses and our reason to determine guilt. So the superstitious man resorts to something which he thinks will give him control and force the world to do his will, that is, to tell him guilt without taking the trouble to determine it.

(Laziness is very ingrained in fallen humanity, and it took the Church many centuries to finally extirpate trial by combat and trial by ordeal.)

Also worth noting is that the first casualty in such abuse will tend to be a person’s reason; in order to act badly one must also think badly. Thus superstition always goes along with lousy reasoning; it must in order to seem like a good idea. Hence also why we get the sort of immense practicality of the monk who was trying to help a woman who said that she had the power to fit through keyholes. He locked his door, took the key out, then chased her around the room hitting her with a stick and telling her to get out of the room if she could. It might be difficult to get past a Human Subjects Review Board these days, but it’s a sound experimental design, and proved the point quite well.

Rationalistic ages, by which I mean ages which believe themselves to know everything, and approximate this by refusing to acknowledge the existence of anything they do not know, hold a radically different view of superstition. To them, superstition is anything which is super-natural where nature is defined as, basically, what they know. Thus to a rationalist, the super-natural is anything outside of his knowledge. (This is why things like big-foot will be considered supernatural even though they are supposed to be exactly as much flesh-and-blood as a Spaniard or an orangutan.)

The problem which rationalists have is that on some level they do know that they do not, in fact, know everything. They are confident, but they know that their confidence has no basis in reality. The only way to prove a negative is by contradiction; the Christian has a contradiction to people being able to achieve total power by stepping outside the natural order. (That contradiction is the providence of God; demons tremble at the name of Christ, etc.) But the rationalist has only the fallacy of ignorance (assuming that an absence of evidence is evidence of absence). Material fallacies are not very comforting at night, when it’s cold and hard to see, and one hears a sound which one cannot identify.

Thus rationalistic ages will always lend themselves to superstition (in both senses, really). Fear will never leave a man forever, and if he has no comfort from a higher power, he has no protection. There’s a section from Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man which describes it quite well:

Superstition recurs in all ages, and especially in rationalistic ages. I remember defending the religious tradition against a whole luncheon table of distinguished agnostics; and before the end of our conversation every one of them had procured from his pocket, or exhibited on his watch-chain, some charm or talisman from which he admitted that he was never separated. I was the only person present who had neglected to provide himself with a fetish. Superstition recurs in a rationalist age because it rests on something which, if not identical with rationalism, is not unconnected with scepticism. It is at least very closely connected with agnosticism. It rests on something that is really a very human and intelligible sentiment, like the local invocations of the numen in popular paganism. But it is an agnostic sentiment, for it rests on two feelings: first that we do not really know the laws of the universe; and second that they may be very different to all we call reason. Such men realise the real truth that enormous things do often turn upon tiny things. When a whisper comes, from tradition or what not, that one particular tiny thing is the key or clue, something deep and not altogether senseless in human nature tells them that it is not unlikely.

So when it comes to writing a story about someone using a legend as a disguise, the best place to put it will be in a group of rationalists. Some will violently protest against it, but all will be liked to be haunted by it. You can see this sort of thing in Chesterton’s story The Blast of the Book, where there is a book which is supposed to have some dark power to make the people who read it disappear. It is followed around a bit, with various people disappearing from it, and it turns out to be a practical joke by the subordinate the main character of the story (Professor Openshaw, which is, of course, a rationalist).

There was another long silence and then Professor Openshaw laughed; with the laugh of a great man who is great enough to look small. Then he said abruptly:

‘I suppose I do deserve it; for not noticing the nearest helpers I have. But you must admit the accumulation of incidents was rather formidable. Did you never feel just a momentary awe of the awful volume?’

‘Oh, that,’ said Father Brown. ‘I opened it as soon as I saw it lying there. It’s all blank pages. You see, I am not superstitious.’

Chesterton might, I suppose, be accused of poking fun at his enemies in this fashion, but it is actually rather good psychology. In the same way that one cannot write a devout Catholic racked by guilt—if he is so racked, he will go to confession and discharge the guilt—it does not work to write a devout Christian trembling in superstition. If one is really devout, one would make the sign of the cross, invoke the name of Christ, and open the thing one is not supposed to open. Or, failing that, take it to a priest to have a blessing said over it or perhaps an exorcism performed. A simple nameless dread does not make sense because the Christian has a definite idea of what to do with things he does not personally understand, because while he doesn’t know all the particulars, he does know the hierarchy.

Now, there is what might be called a middle ground, which we can described as undiscovered beasts. It is possible that there is a sixty foot long alligator swimming in the swamps by some campground, and the thing to do with alligators, even with large ones, is to not stand next to them. Everyone should be cautious of an insect with a poison so deadly one sting can kill twelve grown men. While these things would be superstition to the rationalist, they would not be superstition to the Christian, and would be things to investigate the within the ordinary course of probability. Demons do not leave footprints, but sixty foot alligators do.

Legends of a species of sixty foot alligators in a deep, unexplored swamp are of course possible, but do not lend themselves as well to detection, I think, for the simple reason that faking their presence requires the sort of effort that a single person is not likely to be able to put into things. Making footprints that big, and tail-tracks, and such-like would be time consuming and difficult.

This sort of unknown beast is very doable, but is more problematic in that it’s the sort of thing which should be observable, and moreover would make a lot of people interested in observing them. And since they should be observable, the perpetrator will be almost obligated to provide some physical evidence of the beastie. If there is a hyper-deadly wasp in the area, blaming deaths on it will not be very plausible unless somebody swats one of the things and it can be analyzed to find its hyper-deadly poison. Moreover, by the time one is faking the cause of death in a remote area, one might as well fake a more conventional cause of death, or even just find a way to inject the poor victim with a real disease, like tetanus or malaria or what-not. Or poison them plus give them a real disease.

So I think that the thing one would want to fake, as a murderer, would be the sort of supernatural which would not leave physical evidence of its crimes. Ghosts, etc. are a much better patsy than an undiscovered beast; they leave off all sorts of problems of having to produce evidence afterwards.

I think that the time is ripe for such stories again.

Why Moderns Always Modernize Stories

Some friends of mine were discussing why it is that modern tellings of old stories (like Robin Hood) are always disappointing. One put forward the theory it’s because they can’t just tell the story, they have to modernize it. He’s right, but I think it’s important to realize why it is that modern storytellers have to modernize everything.

It’s because they’re Modern.

Before you click away because you think I’m joking, notice the capital “M”. I mean that they subconsciously believe in Modern Philosophy, which is the name of a particular school of philosophy which was born with Descartes, died with Immanuel Kant, and has wandered the halls of academia ever since like a zombie—eating brains but never getting any smarter for it.

The short, short version of this rather long and complicated story is that Modern Philosophy started with Descartes’ work Discourse on Method, though it was put forward better in Meditations on First Philosophy. In those works, Descartes began by doubting literally everything and seeing if he could trust anything. Thus he started with the one thing he found impossible to doubt—his own existence. It is from this that we get the famous cogito ergo sumI think, therefore I am.

The problem is that Descartes had to bring in God in order to guarantee that our senses are not always being confused by a powerful demon. In modern parlance we’d say that we’re not in The Matrix. They mean the same thing—that everything we perceive outside of our own mind is not real but being projected to us by some self-interested power. Descartes showed that from his own existence he can know that God exists, and from God’s existence he can know that he is not being continually fooled in this way.

The problem is that Descartes was in some sense cheating—he was not doubting that his own reason worked correctly. The problem is that this is doubtable, and once doubted, completely irrefutable. All refutations of doubting one’s intellect necessarily rely on the intellect being able to work correctly to follow the refutations. If that is itself in doubt, no refutation is possible, and we are left with radical doubt.

And there is only one thing which is certain, in the context of radical doubt: oneself.

To keep this short, without the senses being considered at least minimally reliable there is no object for the intellect to feed on, but the will can operate perfectly well on phantasms. So all that can be relied upon is will.

After Descartes and through Kant, Modern Philosophers worked to avoid this conclusion, but progressively failed. Kant killed off the last attempts to resist this conclusion, though it is a quirk of history that he could not himself accept the conclusion and so basically said that we can will to pretend that reason works.

Nietzsche pointed out how silly willing to pretend that reason works is, and Modern Philosophy has, for the most part, given up that attempt ever since. (Technically, with Nietzsche, we come to what is called “post-modernism”, but post-modernism is just modernism taken seriously and thought out to its logical conclusions.)

Now, modern people who are Modern have not read Descartes, Kant, or Nietzsche, of course, but these thinkers are in the water and the air—one must reject them to not breathe and drink them in. Modern people have not done that, so they hold these beliefs but for the most part don’t realize it and can’t articulate them. As Chesterton observed, if a man won’t think for himself, someone else will think for him. Actually, let me give the real quote, since it’s so good:

…a man who refuses to have his own philosophy will not even have the advantages of a brute beast, and be left to his own instincts. He will only have the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy…

(From The Revival of Philosophy)

In the context of the year of our Lord’s Incarnation 2019, what Christians like my friends mean by “classic stories” are mostly stories of heroism. (Robin Hood was given as an example.) So we need to ask what heroism is.

There are varied definitions of what hero is which are useful; for the moment I will define a hero as somebody who gives of himself (in the sense of self-sacrifice) that someone else may have life, or have it more abundantly. Of course, stated like this it includes trivial things. I think that there simply is a difference of degree but not of kind between trivial self-gift and heroism; heroism is to some degree merely extraordinary self-gift.

If you look at the classic “hero’s journey” according to people like Joseph Campbell, but less insipidly as interpreted by George Lucas, the hero is an unknown and insignificant person who is called to do something very hard, which he has no special obligation to do, but who answers this call and does something great, then after his accomplishment, returns to his humble life. In this you see the self-sacrifice, for the hero has to abandon his humble life in order to do something very hard. You further see it as he does the hard thing; it costs him trouble and pain and may well get the odd limb chopped off along the way. Then, critically, he returns to normal life.

You can see elements of this in pagan heroes like Achilles, or to a lesser degree in Odysseus (who is only arguably a hero, even in the ancient Greek sense). They are what C.S. Lewis would call echoes of the true myth which had not yet been fulfilled.

You really see this in fulfillment in Christian heroes, who answer the call out of generosity, not out of obligation or desire for glory. They endure hardships willingly, even unto death, because they follow a master who endured death on a cross for their sake. And they return to a humble life because they are humble.

Now let’s look at this through the lens of Modern Philosophy.

The hero receives a call. That is, someone tries to impose their will on him. He does something hard. That is, it’s a continuation of that imposition of will. Then he returns, i.e. finally goes back to doing what he wants.

This doesn’t really make any sense as a story, after receiving the call. It’s basically the story of a guy being a slave when he could choose not to be. It is the story of a sucker. It’s certainly not a good story; it’s not a story in which a characters actions flow out of his character.

This is why we get the modern version, which is basically a guy deciding on whether he’s going to be completely worthless or just mostly worthless. This is necessarily the case because, for the story to make sense through the modern lens, the story has to be adapted into something where he wills what he does. For that to happen, and for him not to just be a doormat, he has to be given self-interested motivations for his actions. This is why the most characteristic scene in a modern heroic movie is the hero telling the people he benefited not to thank him. Gratitude robs him of his actions being his own will.

A Christian who does a good deed for someone may hide it (“do not let your left hand know what your right is doing”) or he may not (“no one puts a light under a bushel basket”), but if the recipient of his good deed knows about it, the Christian does not refuse gratitude. He may well refuse obligation; he may say “do not thank me, thank God”, or he may say “I thank God that I was able to help you,” but he will not deny the recipient the pleasure of gratitude. The pleasure of gratitude is the recognition of being loved, and the Christian values both love and truth.

A Modern hero cannot love, since to love is to will the good of the other as other. The problem is that the other cannot have any good beside his own will, since there is nothing besides his own will. To do someone good requires that they have a nature which you act according to. The Modern cannot recognize any such thing; the closest he can come is the other being able to accomplish what he wills, but that is in direct competition with the hero’s will. The same action cannot at the same time be the result of two competing wills. In a zero-sum game, it is impossible for more than one person to win.

Thus the modern can only tell a pathetic simulacrum of a hero who does what he does because he wants to, without reference to anyone else. It’s the only way that the story is a triumph and not the tragedy of the hero being a victim. Thus instead of the hero being tested, and having the courage and fortitude to push through his hardship and do what he was asked to do, we get the hero deciding whether or not he wants to help, and finding inside himself some need that helping will fulfill.

And in the end, instead of the hero happily returning to his humble life out of humility, we have the hero filled with a sense of emptiness because the past no longer exists and all that matters now is what he wills now, which no longer has anything to do with the adventure.

The hero has learned nothing because there is nothing to learn; the hero has received nothing because there is nothing to receive. He must push on because there is nothing else to do.

This is why Modern tellings of old stories suck, and must suck.

It’s because they’re Modern.

Investigating Suicides

One of the popular plots in detective stories is the investigation of a murder which has been—so far—successfully disguised as a suicide. It’s a popular plot for a reason, offering some very interesting possibilities for stories. It does, however, come with some requirements on the stories containing it, which I’d like to discuss.

The first and most obvious requirement which faux-suicide poses is that of means. People tend to kill themselves in one of a limited number of ways, and in any event must kill themselves in a way that is plausible to do alone. A man cannot shoot himself in the back with a rifle from a great distance. Further complicating the faux suicide, the murder weapon must be plausibly accessible to the victim when the body is found. Dead men do not move murder weapons. The murderer must then have access to the body after the murder in order to plant the murder weapon in some fashion. This precludes, or at least makes very difficult, the locked room murder.

Of course, that’s really just a challenge to the writer, and there have been some clever solutions. I think my favorite is a room that had both a deadbolt and a latch; the murderer locked the dead bolt but left the latch unlocked then broke the door open, staged the suicide, then locked the latch. When the detectives broke in, they assumed that the deadbolt was broken then, and not already broken. That was quite clever. (This is the Death In Paradise episode at a nursing home.)

The limitations on the means of suicide are more strict, though. For example, any poisons used must be very fast acting. Poisons like arsenic which cause pain for days before death finally comes are simply not plausible as a means of suicide. Elaborate traps which catch the victim by surprise are also implausible. Simple drowning is right out.

Additionally, the means of murder have to be something one can force on a person without leaving bruising that will contradict the idea of suicide. It will not work to knock a man unconscious with a frying pan before staging his suicide with a gun. Sedatives are the easy way out, but they’re a gamble because a toxicology report will then prove that it was not murder. Another alternative is providing an explanation for bruising will also work, such as pre-mortem bruising, faking the victim changing his mind at the last minute, or damaging the body post-mortem such as by throwing it off of a cliff.

The second sort of requirement which faux-suicide imposes is on the conditions of the victim, pre-mortem. The victim must have some sort of plausible reason to have killed himself. This significantly limits the sort of victims one can have. It would be very difficult to disguise the murder of a successful man in good health as suicide, for example. It’s not impossible, of course, but the attempt will tend to involve faking a scandal which would ruin the man’s life. It’s doable—it’s certainly doable—it just introduces other problems which need to be solved in order to make it work.

The final requirement imposed by a faux-suicide is about the detective: why on earth is he investigating the crime? If it’s suicide, what is there to investigate? The perpetrator of the crime is already known.

Proximally, there’s only one reason: because someone thinks that the faux suicide was not suicide. In a sense this is just a sub-case of the more general case of there being someone who is widely accepted as guilty, but there is someone who does not accept their guilt. In both cases, there can even be a confession (a suicide note, in the case of the faux suicide). That said, I think that there are enough differences to consider the faux-suicide on its own, rather than just as a special case of the more general pattern.

The reasons for the detective investigating the faux-suicide seem to me to come in roughly two main classes:

  1. Some of the facts of the scene of the crime are inconsistent with the suicide theory.
  2. Someone who knows the victim does not believe they could have killed themselves.

There is a very good example of #1 in Death in Paradise. Detective Richard Poole does not believe that a woman could have killed herself because she had only drank half of her cup of extremely expensive tea. (He also thinks it unlikely she could have drowned herself by sheer force of will, and she drowned but had no bruising anywhere on her, nor any sedatives in her system.)

Another example of this is the death of Paul Alexis in Have His Carcass. His blood being liquid and there being only one set of footprints—his—up to the flatiron rock suggest suicide, but on the other hand it seems implausible for a man with a full beard to buy a cutthroat razor, then take a train (with a return ticket) and walk 5 miles to sit on a hot rock for several hours before cutting his own throat with the razor.

Have His Carcass also gives an example of the latter category—a wealthy widow who was engaged to Paul Alexis thinks it is impossible that he killed himself and begs Harriet Vane to find out who murdered her intended husband.

The first category is, I think, far more common than the second sort. I can’t, off hand, think of any examples in which a detective investigated a murder solely on the strength of someone thinking it impossible their friend committed suicide. The closest I can come to that may be Five Little Pigs, in which Poirot investigates an old murder because the convicted woman’s daughter is certain her mother is innocent. Her certainty comes from a letter from her mother assuring her daughter she is innocent. This, and that her mother always told the truth. In that story, though, Poirot did not accept the mother’s innocence and was explicit that he would tell her if his investigation made him think the mother did it.

It seems, then, that a faux suicide usually requires some amount of inconsistent facts in order to be a viable story. The question then becomes how to balance these facts such that the detective understands their meaning but the authorities do not. In a sense, this is just a sub-class of the problem of how to give clues the detective understands but others don’t; still, again, I think that it is worth looking into the specific case.

I think that, as a rule, the evidence in favor of suicide should be the main physical evidence, while the evidence against should be the more subtle psychological evidence. This is certainly the common pattern, at least, but I think it makes sense since small psychological inconsistencies are easier to brush away as explained by information not present. People occasionally do strange things, and suicide is almost definitionally the strangest. No one kills himself more than once in his life.

But, then, why does the detective—who knows better than anyone that life is sometimes just unaccountably strange—place such high value on the evidence which others dismiss?

One common answer is that the detective has a compulsion to make sure that everything is neat and orderly and makes sense and is explained. This is not very satisfying, though, since this trait must be selectively applied as life is very rarely neat and orderly, with everything having an explanation which makes sense.

Another approach, which is better but still not great, is that the detective has a hunch. It’s not really satisfying because it violates rule #6:

No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

That said, this is a fuzzy line. One man’s unaccountable hunch which proves right is another man’s feeling that he can’t articulate but bears further examination.

One variation of this which is not so much a hunch is giving the detective highly domain specific knowledge. “No deep sea diver would ever drink tea at this time of day”—that sort of thing. The problem is that unless one can prevent the authorities checking up on this, they will be immediately forced to conclude the suicide was not suicide. (This is sometimes dealt with by making the authorities very pig-headed or otherwise very budget-constrained, so that they will jump at the chance to classify every death as a suicide so as to avoid having to investigate it. It an be pulled off, of course.)

I think what probably works out the best is inconclusive evidence that the suicide is fake combined with someone other than the detective acting as the driving force. The detective may not have unaccountable hunches, but others may. This sets up the interplay that the other person is sure that it wasn’t suicide, while the detective can only see some evidence which supports this conclusion but at least does justify further investigation. By making the motive force a hunch, there does not need to be sufficient evidence to justify the hunch. This allows the faux suicide to be generally taken as suicide without all of the people involved being dimwits. Unless the murder mystery is also a comedy, it is preferable to populate the world with reasonably intelligent people.

Progress Report

In case anyone is interested in my progress on my Brother Thomas series, I’m currently editing the second chronicle of Brother Thomas, Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral. The current draft is out to test readers, and I’ve already gotten some valuable feedback which I’ve begun to incorporate into my edits. I’m going to do another round or two of edits, which I hope to complete by the end of October, then have it off at the beginning of November to my publisher, Silver Empire, for final edits and publication.

It’s taken a lot longer than I’d hoped, but it’s happening.

Looking to the next Brother Thomas novel, I’ve started kicking around ideas. I’ve got a tentative setting of a family resort camp in the Adirondack mountains in upstate NY. It has a lot going for it:

  • a remote, isolated location which limits the suspect pool.
  • A picturesque place that would be nice to visit so would be pleasant to visit in a book
  • limited technology. there are real camps with no cell phone service, no wifi, and no electricity
  • the ability to bring together an interesting and eclectic group of suspects most of whom—supposedly—don’t know each other
  • a setting in which there are people with (relatively) stable lives, where for the most part the same people have been doing the same work for decades

I’m not entirely decided on it, yet. I’m still in the early stages of working out who the guests might be, who the victim and murderer is, and why the brothers would be called in. It’s only after that I can really come up with a title, though for some reason the title Thank God He Didn’t Drown in the Lake is kicking around in my mind. We’ll see.