Two Kinds of Writing as Therapy

A friend of mine who is going through a hard time mentioned that he hoped to return to writing soon since writing is therapy for him. This led me to reflect on how there are two very distinct kinds of writing as therapy, one very good, the other very bad.

The kind my friend was talking about is writing as art, that is, as creation. There is something very wonderful about fiction; it can reach us in ways few arts can. This is probably because the world itself is a story, told by God; the world was spoken into existence. The writing of stories partakes in this act of creation, in some minor, reflective sense, and it is good work to make this for others. There are truths we can learn from stories we have an incredibly hard time learning any other way. To labor at this, to make something good so that one may give it to people to read, is therapeutic for one going through hard times because it is the incarnation of Saint Paul’s words that where sin abounds, grace abounds much more. Doing good work makes us feel better because it is a participation in what is better. This is the very good kind of therapy.

The other kind of writing as therapy is where the writer is trying to work out psychological issues which he has; in this style of writing-as-therapy the writing desk takes the place of the psychologist’s couch and the reader takes the place of the psychologist. There are some obvious attractions to this; for example, it is much cheaper to be paid to have people listen to you than to pay people to listen to you.

It is, however, a dangerous thing to do. Because stories communicate so much more powerfully than ordinary language does, the warped and twisted way of viewing the world which the writer is trying to work out through talking about it may infect the reader. Of course, in a traditional therapy situation, or even just a situation where one person is giving another advice, the person who is working out their problems may, in communicating them, harm the one listening. But the therapist or the wise older person volunteers because they are secure enough in the truth that they are not likely to be easily dislodged from it. To use a physical metaphor, they have lend the drowning person a hand because they themselves have a good hold of the boat, and will not be pulled down by the thrashing. This is not true of the readers of fiction. A writer does not know who will read his words.

This is why writing-as-therapy, in this second sense, is so bad to do. It is like shooting into a crowd. Sure, one might be lucky and hit the man wearing the bulletproof vest, but the odds don’t favor it.

And I think that there is a great deal of confusion that goes on, in the modern world, because it has heard of the first sort of writing-as-therapy but mostly only does the latter. The modern world has heard that great suffering can lead to great art. And so it can, because great suffering can create a need for the comfort of creating great art. That is, suffering, being a form of being cut off from goodness, can create a longing for goodness intense enough to find it in the loving act of creating something very good for others. The modern world, having no notion of the concept of generous love, in the manner of a person who only knows a few words of french trying to understand Frenchmen in Paris talking to each other, only notices the “suffering” and the “great art”.

Since suffering has no obvious causative connection to great art, for the modern, he supposes it is putting the suffering into the art which makes the art great. What else could it be? And now we have had many generations of artists in the modern world who, effectively, write about their (only sometimes diagnosed) mental illnesses on the assumption that this is the path to greatness.

This is approximately the worst conclusion moderns could have come to, of course, but moderns excel at coming to the worst possible conclusions. Mental illness is, essentially a lie. To suffer from a mental illness is to live within a lie. All mental illness is this, since it is, by definition, not perceiving the world correctly, but paranoia may perhaps be the clearest example: the paranoid man lives within the lie that other men are out to get him.

The problem with putting mental illnesses into fiction, in the sense of writing about them as if they are true—since, after all, to the mentally ill person they are true—is that they risk misleading people (especially young people) into thinking that these lies are truths. This will probably not result in the impressionable reader developing the full-blown mental illness, but it will hurt them.

Useless Murders?

There’s an interesting episode of the TV show Death in Paradise where one of the characters tells detective Poole to remember the 5 “BRMs,” the “Basic Rules of Murder”:

  1. If it’s not about sex, it’s about money.
  2. If it’s not about money, it’s about sex.
  3. A wife is always most likely to kill a husband.
  4. A husband is always most likely to kill a wife.
  5. The last person you should discount should be the one you least suspect.

This is, obviously, an incomplete list; among other things it says nothing about revenge. It is surprisingly complete, though, for being such an incomplete list; especially the first two cover the vast majority of murders in mystery fiction. If one were to inquire into this it would be a chicken-and-egg problem, since seeming rational and being guessable are two criteria for the murders in murder mysteries.

It would be quite possible to have murders where someone picks names out of a phone book using dice, but these would be effectively unsolvable, and moreover, uninteresting. They are the domain of horror stories, not mystery stories.

This requirement for being rational and guessable does limit the scope for murder considerably, and hence why the first four BRMs are so widely applicable. So when considering other motives for murder besides sex and money, the murder mystery writer needs to consider whether they can be made to fit these criteria.

Revenge is obviously a possible motive that is both rational and guessable, but I’m wondering if it is possible to make a murder work that is, essentially, useless. Not purely random, of course, since that would satisfy neither criteria. But a murder where no one benefits.

The three ways that this has been worked, that I’ve seen, are:

  1. Where someone does benefit, but the benefit is secret.
  2. Where someone thought that they could benefit, but turned out to be wrong.
  3. Where someone benefits, but the benefit is not widely regarded as a benefit.
  4. Nobody actually dies.

An example of the first would be a Brother Cadfael story in which the murderer was the bastard son of the victim, but the manor was in Wales where bastards can inherit (provided the father acknowledges paternity). The location of the manner together with this quirk of Welsh law were not known to any single person (and hence to the reader) until the end of the book.

I’m having trouble thinking of a specific example for the second case, but I’ve seen several cases where the murderer expected to inherit from the death but turned out to not be in the will.

An example of the third would be the death of the American millionaire in The Secret Garden. Valentin killed him to keep him from putting large amounts of money into the promotion of the Church in Europe; that an atheist could care that deeply about the cause of atheism was not widely credited by those who were not Father Brown.

An example of the fourth would be a person killing off merely an identity of his, in order to take up a new identity elsewhere. Admittedly, this is often about money in the sense of escaping debts, but it can be done for other reasons. In one Sherlock Holmes story it was actually done as an attempt at murder, by framing the intended victim for the fake crime. This is also a way of making in a random murder intelligible, because the one faking his own death frequently supplies an unrecognizable corpse to make the story convincing.

The first of these methods is probably best classified as being about murder or sex, so I’m not sure, in the end, I should have included it. It is, however, important to keep around as a way of disguising the others.

The case of a person thinking that they will benefit from a murder, there does of course need to be some sort of rational reason why a person might have had this expectation. A mistress who was fed lies by a married man, a cult who thought that someone was more in their power than was, or even a wife who didn’t know about a mistress could all do it. That last, though, does illustrate a problem with the approach—the benefit has to be someone no one else would expect, or it’s irrelevant that the person didn’t actually benefit. A wife who was cut off without realizing it would be a normal suspect.

Someone who expected to benefit in a will is probably the most common example, but I think that there can be others. I know that there was an Agatha Christie story in which someone didn’t benefit from a murder because the actual mechanism was uncertain and so didn’t actually kill the victim until after the victim had written the murderer out of her will, and informed her of it.

The same can also work for a sexual motivation, of course. A person who kills a rival only to discover that the object of their affection won’t choose them even when free of their spouse.

Still, it seems that there must be some way to have another motive than expected sex or money. Power and prestige can work, I think. Though really this just gets us back to the beginning, in finding alternatives. But it’s worth pursuing. Bishop Barron noted that Saint Thomas identified four things a fallen human being can substitute for the love of God in this life:

  1. power
  2. pleasure
  3. wealth
  4. honor

Sex can, roughly, be identified with pleasure, in this list—though in some ways it’s more complicated than that. Wealth and murder for money are obviously connected. Power and Honor seem far less common than the other two.

The relative paucity of killing for the sake of power may be related to the commonality of democracy in the modern world, together with the way that people switch jobs so commonly in the modern economy that it would be hard to envision someone killing for one.

I do not think that this is an insuperable barrier, though; there are plenty of jobs at which a person only really has one shot in their life. Academic jobs are a good example; they are incredibly hard to come by, these days. At the same time, they are also hard to guarantee getting; it is not easy to have a guaranteed line of succession. That can play into the “falsely expected to benefit” angle.

Control of a business can work for this purpose; it may be enough to dilute a foe’s control by having his shares spread among his descendants. Even killing a competitor can be sufficient for this purpose. As soon as I say that, these do pop up more often, at least recently, as red herrings—theories which a bull-headed police detective clings to while the detective pursues the real theory.

And, to be fair to this approach, we live in a time when people’s lives are guided to an extraordinary degree by their crotches. In some sense, making all murders at the direction of people’s genitalia has a certain essential realism about it.

I don’t think that this realism is worth it, though. Mystery fiction is intrinsically unrealistic, and one of the legitimate purposes of reading fiction is to escape, for a time, to a better world than this one, where we can refresh ourselves to rejoin the fight in this world. I think that can apply to murders, too—to live, for a time, where people murder for better reasons than The Crotch Shall Not Be Denied.

With regard to honor, I have definitely seen this in the form of people killing blackmailers and whistle blowers. Gaining honor through murder is much rarer, from what I’ve seen. It’s nowhere near as easy to accomplish, which makes it a curious subject to think on. It may have the problem that gaining honor necessarily involves fame, which means that it cannot be quiet—and I prefer quiet mysteries to ones with high stakes. Still, both Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie managed to pull it off that the detective was quietly in the shadows, so this is not a fatal objection.

The First Mary Sue

The first Mary Sue was a character in a parody of Star Trek fan fiction, published in the fanzine Menagerie in 1973. (Fanzines were magazines, often distributed by photocopying them and handing out the results but always made cheaply and without advertiser sponsorship, typically given away for free or a nominal charge to cover the cost of printing.) The parody was called A Trekkie’s Tale. It’s only a few paragraphs long, so I’ll quote it in full:

“Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky,” thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. “Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet – only fifteen and a half years old.” Captain Kirk came up to her.

“Oh, Lieutenant, I love you madly. Will you come to bed with me?” “Captain! I am not that kind of girl!” “You’re right, and I respect you for it. Here, take over the ship for a minute while I go get some coffee for us.” Mr. Spock came onto the bridge. “What are you doing in the command seat, Lieutenant?” “The Captain told me to.” “Flawlessly logical. I admire your mind.”

Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott beamed down with Lt. Mary Sue to Rigel XXXVII. They were attacked by green androids and thrown into prison. In a moment of weakness Lt. Mary Sue revealed to Mr. Spock that she too was half Vulcan. Recovering quickly, she sprung the lock with her hairpin and they all got away back to the ship.

But back on board, Dr. McCoy and Lt. Mary Sue found out that the men who had beamed down were seriously stricken by the jumping cold robbies, Mary Sue less so. While the four officers languished in Sick Bay, Lt. Mary Sue ran the ship, and ran it so well she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Vulcan Order of Gallantry and the Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood.

However the disease finally got to her and she fell fatally ill. In the Sick Bay as she breathed her last, she was surrounded by Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Scott, all weeping unashamedly at the loss of her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness. Even to this day her birthday is a national holiday of the Enterprise.

The story was originally attributed to “Anonymous” but is known to be the word of the editor, Paula Smith. The basic story was a common submission; as such it’s a collection of common features, exaggerated. It’s very interesting to look at those features.

  1. Main character is a teenage girl.
  2. She’s beautiful and wonderful.
  3. Everyone loves her.
  4. She dies and everyone laments her death.

The standard meaning of “Mary Sue,” used as a criticism of a character in a work of fiction, is to impute that a character is an authorial stand-in for the purpose of wish fulfillment. And while the original Mary Sue is an author stand-in, the story is actually more of a Greek tragedy. Mary Sue is initially blessed by the gods, but when she tries to climb Mount Olympus she is cast down and destroyed.

Among the criticisms heaped on the Mary Sue character is that her excellence is always unearned. She appears out of nowhere in fully formed perfection and everyone loves her just for being her. This is generally derided as being horribly unrealistic.

And it is.

For men.

It should not be glossed over that Mary Sue stories are written by teenage girls about themselves. If Mary Sue is realistic to teenage girls, it would be utterly unsurprising that she would be unrealistic to adult men. So, is she realistic to teenage girls?

And here I think that the answer is: yes, actually.

The onset of puberty in a girl does come from nowhere, and transforms her into something beautiful and wonderful, that is, an adult woman capable of bearing children. And everyone loves her, at least if by “everyone”, you mean males, and by “love,” you mean “is interested in”.

A newly adult female is bursting with potential and, as such, everyone is (suddenly) very interested in her and what she does with this potential. It’s not always as benign and comfortable as in the Mary Sue story, of course, but life rarely is as comfortable as fiction.

And if we look further at the inspiration for Mary Sue, we also see why she had to die. Potential cannot last forever in this world. If Mary Sue does not choose a mate, she will eventually hit menopause and cease to have any potential (in the relevant sense; she might still have potential in a thousand other ways, of course, but an allegory only ever describes one aspect of life). If she does choose a mate, she will have children and her potential will be reduced by turning into actuality. But actuality is, in a fallen world, never as interesting as potential; Mary Sue with children does not excite the universal interest which Mary Sue without children did. (In a healthy society she excites respect, instead, but that’s a topic for another day.)

And so it must be that, not long after Mary Sue is blessed by the gods, she is cast down by them, too; Mary Sue cannot remain universally loved for long.

The story of Mary Sue leaves off at the most important part, since after all it was a parody, but it is worth mentioning the fact. That the first flower of youth cannot last is something all people must come to terms with. For some, they will foreswear actuality for some other actuality, as in the case of nuns, who cover themselves to hide their potential so people may forget it. For others, they will give up their potential by trading it for actuality; an actuality which is flawed because we live in a flawed world, but still a real actuality that’s better than the nothingness of pure potentiality.

They both require faith, but all good things require faith. Trying to remain in potentiality is trying to eat one’s cake and still have it afterwards. It promises happiness that it will never deliver.

I think it’s well to remember that the story of Mary Sue is only a bad story if it’s the story of a man, or an adult woman. Though that remains true even if a young woman is cast in the part.

Christ Figures in Fiction

Relating to my recent post about Christ Figures & Heresies, I thought it worth pointing out what I meant by a Christ Figure, since the term is often used narrowly and in suspicious circumstances (English classes where people are trying to seem clever).

Christ figures in literature are—when done well—about characters who relate to the rest of the story as Christ related to the world. At the extremes they are basically a re-presentation of Christ with some of the details changed. Probably the best example of this is Aslan in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Far more common, though, is a limited Christ figure.

The salient features of Christ that a limited Christ figure can partake in are:

  1. Saves the world from the effects of the mis-use of free will.
  2. Has a dual-nature where one of these natures is what allows #1.
  3. Bridges the gap, in his person, between the two natures.
  4. Sacrifices himself willingly for the sake of the world
  5. In sacrificing himself, takes the problems of the world into him and conquers them, thus saving the world from them.
  6. Comes back from the sacrifice because of his other nature.

A favorite example of a limited Christ figure is a detective in a mystery story. In a mystery story, the right-ordering of the world is destroyed through the misuse of reason (the crime) and the detective, who is an outsider, comes into the damaged nature in order to, through the right use of reason, restore the right ordering of the world. The detective does not die and come back, but he does take the confusing of the world into himself and then, through his superior reasoning and impartiality from not being immediately impacted, restores it first in himself, and then from him the restored order flows out to others.

As you can see, this isn’t about being a clever ass to notices a few external similarities, in the manner of a desperate English teacher saying, “He offered someone wine then later went on a three day vacation and came back! He’s a Christ figure!”

Good Christ figures are about the nature of the character, the nature of the world, and their relationship to each other.

Another feature of good Christ figures is that you don’t need to identify them as Christ figures in order for the stories they’re in to be good stories. Identifying a character as a Christ figure should deepen one’s understanding of the story and of the real world. If the story is garbage without your secret decoder ring, it’s garbage with it, too.

Honest Detectives

One of the curious subjects that comes up in detective stories is the honesty of the detective. Specifically, that they’re often not honest. Their dishonesty is typically curtailed to what is in service of the investigation, of course, but this forms a very curious problem with the theory that the detective is a Christ figure who uses reason to undo the evil caused through the misuse of reason. Christ did not sin.

It should be noted that I’m taking the requirement for honesty for granted, and it is generally accepted that there are exceptions to the general rule of “let your yes mean yes, your no mean no, any more than this comes from the evil one”. The overview of the exceptions is that there are times and places where a man will misunderstand the truth but understand a lie such that he will end up being more correct about the world if he’s lied to than if he’s told the truth. In such a case the lie is to the benefit of the one being lied to, and acts somewhat like the lenses in a pair of corrective glasses—by falsifying the image to the eye in an exactly counter way to how the eye itself falsifies the image to the brain, the image presented to the brain is accurate to the real world. In like way, telling the gestapo agent that the Jew he is seeking is far away when he’s actually hiding in the cupboard is communicating to him the truth that there is no one he should kill nearby. And one can draw analogies here to detectives, but such a thing is a very slippery slope. It’s extraordinarily easy to convince oneself that helping one is in the other person’s best interests and thus mis-informing them to that end is justified. The ease of mis-using this principle should caution against its frequent use.

Probably the most extreme example I can think of is Poirot, who in the book Five Little Pigs was described as preferring to get the truth by a lie even if he could get it honestly. But even when not that extreme, it’s quite common for detectives to lie about why they’re present, why they’re asking their questions, what use the information they’re given will be put to, and so on. (The only two exceptions which come to mind are Cadfael and Scooby Doo.)

I’m not sure what to make of this trend. Some possible explanations are:

  1. An attempt at realism—people don’t give out information to just anyone who asks
  2. Making the detective’s life harder—as the protagonist, the detective must face obstacles
  3. Showing the detective off as clever—it takes greater art to lie convincingly than it does to tell simple truth
  4. Making the detective more special—the detective must be someone special and not merely an everyman; being a good actor is more special
  5. To create excitement—the detective might get caught!

I think that all of these can be described as taking the easy way out. They’re analogous—though not as bad—as making the story mysterious by having the detective not share clues with the reader (see commandment #8).

That said, I think that some detectives do this merely out of tradition—it has been done so often that some people take deception to be one of the integral skills of the detective, like how getting beaten up and not needing to go to the hospital is one of the skills of the hard boiled detective. (I didn’t put this on the list above because the in-story reason is one of the above; this is a meta-reason.)

I think that this is a very unfortunate tradition. I prefer detectives who are also heroes. They will have their faults, but I prefer when they don’t simply approve of doing what they know that they shouldn’t.

Christ Figures & Heresies

An interesting thought occurred to me after talking about how a particular sort of bad writing in a detective story is analogous to the Gnostic and Aryan heresies: in any fiction in which there is a Christ figure, all of the historical Christian heresies will be available as bad ways to write the story.

Or, to put it another way, in fiction which has a Christ figure, the things you shouldn’t do in that story will be analogous to one or more of the historical Christian heresies.

The Least Jedi

I finally broke down and saw the movie The Last Jedi. It’s bad. It’s quite bad. It’s not quite as bad as Battlefield Earth but I unironically prefer Space Mutiny to it (and I mean without Mike and the bots to help). But since I am diverted by human folly, let’s go through this train-wreck of a film, train car by train car.

First, there’s the title. Not the subtitle, The Last Jedi, but the title: Star Wars VIII. One way of considering this film is as the eighth movie in a series, and thus a sequel to seven other movies. Considered that way, however, it is far worse than Battlefield Earth and worse even than Monster A-Go-Go. Considered as a sequel, it’s probably worse than The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Gave Up Living And Became Mixed Up Zombies. Since I think that reviews are always more enjoyable when they take the movie in the best light possible, I’m going to pretend—for the sake of this review—that The Last Jedi is a stand-alone movie. This removes a long list of contradictions, out of character actions, and sheer stupidity from needing to be mentioned, while not detracting from the movie in any way, shape, or form. (Actually, I’m going to cheat this slightly and assume the audience is familiar with what the one reference in the film actually refers to. Because even with inconsistency that favors this film, it’s awful.)

This means I don’t need to bother talking about why The Last Jedi was an absolutely awful title following shortly after Return of the Jedi. (If you’re really curious, I did a video on why it’s an awful title.)

So, we start with the opening word crawl:

The FIRST ORDER reigns.

OK, so the First Order is in charge. Got it.

Having decimated the peaceful Republic, Supreme Leader Snoke now deploys his merciless legions to seize military control of the galaxy.

OK, so given that the First Order is presently in charge, and Supreme Leader Snoke is presently deploying his merciless legions to seize military control of the galaxy, we can safely conclude that the name of the peaceful republic is The First Order.

Only General Leia Organa’s band of RESISTANCE fighters stand against the rising tyranny,

Why are these people the Resistance if the tyranny hasn’t yet taken over? Aren’t they a proper military at this point, then? And why is the First Order not resisting the rising tyranny? When the writer called the First Order a “peaceful republic,” do they mean that it was pacifist and had no military? So General Leia Organa—if the peaceful First Order Republic had no military, who made her a general?—has a band of resistance fighters standing against Supreme Leader Snoke’s attempt to overthrow the First Order and, presumably, install the Second Order. This is a little odd—if the first pan-galactic government was so peaceful, why was Supreme Leader Snoke the first to try to take it over?

certain that Jedi Master Luke Skywalker will return and restore a spark of hope to the fight.

(OK, I’m going to cheat a little and assume that we know what a Jedi Master is.) So, to be clear, the resistance is, at present, completely hopeless. Except for the hope that they will one day have a spark of hope.

Supreme Leader Snoke has not, yet, overthrown the First Order, but they’re completely hopeless anyway. Then why are they still fighting? Do they think that their deaths will serve some purpose despite their certainty that they won’t? Is it their hope that they will one day have a spark of hope that keeps them going?

This reminds me a bit of that insipid church hymn in which we “dare to hope to dream God’s kingdom anew”. (Or words to that effect, I don’t remember the exact phrasing.) Leaving aside the highly questionable theology, since within Christian theology God is creating his kingdom and we’re invited into it, we’re not actively making it in a primary sense, it’s just so extraordinarily tentative. It’s the slightest shade away from not actually doing anything.

In the same way, hoping that one day a spark of hope will be restored is—basically just being hopeless.

But the Resistance has been exposed.

OK, someone needs to explain to the dufus writing this that “the resistance” are the people within a conquered land who are making life harder for the conqueror, and possibly collaborating with a foreign power who will attack from without and overthrow the conqueror. Snoke has not yet taken over, so they are not—yet, anyway—the resistance. They are an opposing army. Or opposing band of guerilla troops. As such, they should not have been in hiding to the point of Snoke not even knowing that they existed. He should have been aware that the opposing military existed—especially when they were his only opposition, what with the peaceful First Order being pacifists and all.

As the First Order speeds toward the rebel base,

Wait, so the First Order has a military after all? And they’re speeding toward Snoke’s base? Are they collaborating with General Leia Organa’s band of guerilla “resistance” fighters? And why the turn of heart for this pacifist republic? And doesn’t his contradict Leia Organa’s band of resistance fighters being the only one standing against Snoke’s rising tyranny? Shouldn’t this have been described as a turn of events?

the brave heroes mount a desperate escape….

Wait, so Snoke and his merciless legions are brave heroes? What?

OK, I think I’ve let the joke of reading the word crawl as it was written go long enough. The First Order is actually the name of Snoke’s organization, and the word crawl simply contradicts itself as to whether Snoke has already won or is still working on winning. General Leia Organa is in fact not the leader of a resistance but the head of the military of a pan-galactic government which has mostly fallen.

In fact, they’ve fallen so much that in the opening scene—why do we get sounds of zooming as the camera zooms by cargo shuttles in space?—the entirety of the military of the Republic now fits on a single space cruiser. They are evacuating their base because Evil Lord Snookie is coming to get them. How do they know this? Your guess is as good as mine. We are never told.

And here we come to a problem with taking the movie as stand-alone. In The Force Awakens, it is set up that Leia is actually the head of an unofficial black ops team operating within the territory of the First Order, who are the remnants of the original Galactic Empire driven back to a small collection of worlds in the outer rim of the galaxy. If caught, Leia’s team will be disavowed by The New Republic and (presumably) (lawfully) executed as spies or traitors. They were exposed because at the end of the previous film the First Order had discovered them becomes of events which happened in that movie. Having just destroyed the mega-weapon of the First Order, the Resistance must flee because the First Order still knows where they are, even if its ultimate weapons is now destroyed. This makes certain things in the opening crawl make more sense, but at the expense of much of the movie.

If you actually know that these guys are not the last hope of the galaxy but a small private guerrilla force operating behind enemy lines, the entire movie is unimportant to the story set in motion by the first movie. The same could be said about the crew of the Millennium Falcon in Empire Strikes Back, except that movie was explicit about it being a small story and the people involved were honest about trying to save their own skins. They didn’t give speeches about how they were the last hope for the galaxy. And things happened. Plus it wasn’t entirely them running away. And they were clever. (More on all this later.)

The other major problem is that if you admit that this movie is a sequel to The Force Awakens, you’ve got a super-massive plot hole because the plot of TFA was driven by the map which had been left behind showing where Luke Skywalker was. The Last Jedi just ignored the existence of the map. On balance, it is much worse to consider TLJ as a sequel to TFA. So let’s proceed on that basis.

As the resistance is loading cargo, they see Star Destroyers come out of hyperspace above the planet they’re on. This is accompanied by a loud sound, despite it happening in the vacuum of space. The character who had just been saying that they didn’t have time to load munitions says “oh no”, despite the fact that they are in fact packing up the very last transport and are literally seconds from getting away from their base. Something like “Couldn’t they have waited just one more minute?” would have been far more appropriate.

We are then treated to some comic relief. This happens at approximately the same length into the film that we get our first joke in Space Balls. (Which by the way was a much better movie even if you take it as an action movie and not a comedy.) Ace pilot Poe Dameron stands alone in an x-wing before one of the mighty star destroyers of the EmpireFirst Order, and places a prank call to the command of Lord Snookum’s fleet, General Hux. Hux takes the call rather than having the x-wing shot because the actor had always wanted to be in a Verizon commercial, and wasn’t going to waste this opportunity to sneak in an audition tape. Hux monologues about how there will be no terms and the rebelsresistance will all be executed. He could have made this point more clearly by simply having the x-wing destroyed without answering its phone call, but that wouldn’t give him enough of an opportunity to mince about on the stage.

Poe pretends to not hear Hux and says that his message is for Hux and he will wait. Hux becomes confused and asks whether the guy on the other end of the call can hear him. This unfunny bit is repeated for a while until Poe finally makes a yo-mama joke at the expense of General Hux’s mother. Hux then, finally, orders the x-wing destroyed, but for some reason no one fires. I suppose not one of his crack bridge staff thought to be ready to fire on the enemy vessel they had come to destroy?

Eventually it is too late and Poe’s plot device is fully charged. Poe presses the button which uses the video-game power-up that had been charging and his special power turns out to be moving really fast for three seconds. Once the power-up’s timer is over, he returns to normal speed. In space. Where there’s no friction.

Not knowing how outer space works is going to be a theme in this movie.

Poe is now too close for the turrets of the Imperial Dreadnought to track his movements quickly enough to hit him and he begins to systematically destroy the turrets. That turrets can’t move fast enough to track small vessels is well established in the Star Wars universe, and even if we take this as a stand-alone movie, this feels somewhat reasonable since big things tend to move slowly. Whether they would move that slowly is a different question, but I think that this is on the edge of allowable.

Once Poe destroys all the turrets, he summons the bombers which had been waiting just off screen where the star destroyers couldn’t see them since we, the audience, couldn’t see them. Apparently the bombers were reclaimed from a junk yard where they were found without engines and lawn mower engines had to be used, because the bombers move absurdly slowly. They crawl across the screen. I’ve seen turtles cross a road more quickly than these bombers. At this point, since the dreadnought has no turrets left, the First Empire is forced to scramble tie fighters.

At this point the one somewhat likable character—the command officer of the Dreadnought—mumbles under his breath that the tie fighters should have been scrambled five minutes ago. And, indeed, this is true. I think it’s meant to make Hux look incompetent—which it does—but this is a strange goal since it:

  1. Makes the villains look like bumbling fools and not threats
  2. Reminds us of the terrible scene we just endured where Hux auditioned for a Verizon commercial

Apparently the Empire Order forgot, at this point, that they still had working turrets on the several star destroyers which were right next to the dreadnought. The whole point of destroying the turrets on the dreadnought was that they would have made short work of the bombers, since the bombers maneuver like hibernating bears. But it’s never explained what’s wrong with the turrets on the other star destroyers. If anyone in the entire First Empire fleet had the least idea of how a military works, they’d have gone and stood between the dreadnought and the t-wings.

Actually, they were never actually named but I assume that they’re called t-wings both because they look kind of like the letter T and because they’re slow as tortoises. Unfortunately for them, they’re not armored like tortoises, however; one shot from the smallest tie fighter takes them out. If a star destroyer thought to put itself between its disarmed comrade and the danger it would have destroyed the bombers in, perhaps, 5 seconds.

I mention this not so much to complain about the First Ordpire, but to point out that Poe Dameron is a complete idiot whose daring plans should have led to the certain death of everyone in his command. This is not the proper sense in which a daring hero is daring. A Daring hero should take risks which would be grave for a normal person but reasonable for him given his extraordinary skill. He should take risks that will go terribly wrong if he makes a single mistake, but reliably succeed if he does everything right. He should not be daring in the sense of taking risks that depend on his enemies being complete incompetents.

Please note: this is assuming that the range of a star destroyer’s turbo-lasers is too short for them to have just shot the t-wings from where they were.  There’s no reason to believe this was the case, given that they could fire on the Resistance’s heavy cruiser from quite far away. And there were certainly several star destroyers which had a clear shot on the t-wings from where they were.

Please further note that the Firstperial Order never moves its star destroyers close enough to the one heavy cruiser that the Resistance have in order to engage it. The Dreadnought initially targets—not the one heavy cruiser which is the Resistance’s only means of escape—but the empty base that the Resistance has had many hours or days to evacuate into the heavy cruiser. It’s a comparatively small point, but since the star destroyers come out of hyperspace while the cargo ships are still traveling into the heavy cruiser, it would have been a sitting duck or would have had to abandon many cargo ships to certain death. Apparently New Imperial doctrine is to attack the stationary targets first and the mobile targets at your leisure.

Somewhere around here, the attack on the dreadnought is too late and it fires on the rebel base, but that’s OK since the last transport was already leaving when the blast came in. Since everyone is now safely in the air and about to be safely tucked away in the heavy cruiser, PrincessGeneral Leia orders Poe to bring the rebel fleet back so that they can escape. Poe argues that this is the one chance that they’ll get to destroy the dreadnought, which is a fleet-killer. Why that’s important—given that the only people with a fleet of ships are the Emp Order—is never explained.

Also never explained is why the bombers were sent in the first place if they were not intended to attack the dreadnought. In a different movie they could have been sent as a diversion, to force the dreadnought to defend itself and so delay it’s attack on the rebelsistance base in order to give them time to escape. But they didn’t need time to escape. Further, the dreadnought took absolutely no actions to defend itself. It kept going merrily about its business of shooting the abandoned base while tie fighters defended it. Leia orders the retreat of the fighter/bomber craft as if some sort of goal had actually be accomplished by them, yet they did precisely nothing so far, nor could they have done anything.

Leia reiterates her order and Poe turns off his radio. Why Leia does not reiterate her order directly to the t-wings, we are not told. I like John C. Wright’s suggestion that Poe’s hotshot button, instead of turning off his speakers, turns off her microphone. I suspect that the actual answer is that Rian Johnson, the writer/director of this disaster of a film, literally never even thought of the possibility. Or possibly he hates the idea of character development. It would have been easy enough to have her relay the order and for the t-wing pilots to respond that they’re casting their lots with Poe because the dreadnought needs killing. But then Leia would have had to show real leadership. From all appearances in this film, we couldn’t have that.

To forewarn you, dear reader, the next few minutes contain a somewhat higher level of stupid than usual in this movie.

Poe goes to destroy the final turret on the dreadnought but his x-wing takes some damage and stops working. He then asks the billiard ball robot BB-8 to “do his magic”. So the plucky robot drops down into the area underneath where he normally sits and starts trying to fix a large circuit board.

Let us pause for a moment to note that if an x-wing had a large cavity capable of fitting the astro-mech droid which pilots the ship, that’s where the astromech droid would normally be. There is absolutely no reason to have the droid exposed if there is room to fit him inside where there is at least a modicum of protection. In the original Star Wars, from which this movie obviously drew some minor inspiration, the x-wings were inexpensive and used an astromech droid instead of having their own navigation computer to save on cost. They were extremely light fighters which were lightly armored and barely had room for the droid, so it was forced to sit exposed because, at least, it wouldn’t suffocate in space. One can take some issue with the original x-wing design for not giving the droid so much as a windscreen to protect it from debris in space, but shoe-string budgets can explain the absence of a great many desirable features. If there was a big hollow space into which the droid could be dropped, however, this excuse entirely goes away. But that pails in comparison to what happens next.

The problem appears to be that the electricity is leaking out of the circuit board (more or less as if it were water, except with an animation of sparks), so BB-8 then sticks a mechanical finger onto the circuit board to plug the leak and restore the electricity-pressure which the system needs to function. Unfortunately, with the pressure restored, another damaged section gives way and more electricity leaks from the circuit board. BB-8’s finger sprouts a sub-finger, which then plugs that leak. This is repeated a number of times until BB-8’s mechanical finger looks like a candelabra plugging all of the electricity leaks.

And if you thought that it was not possible for this scene to get any stupider, well, buckle in, because Rian Johnson still has some aces up his sleeve. When a new electricity leak pops, BB-8 is finally out of sub-fingers in his mechanical finger. Is all lost? No! BB-8 removes all of his fingers and then slams is rounded head into the flat circuit board.

Because Rian Johnson is either  complete idiot or hates the audience with the burning passion of a million death-stars firing simultaneously, this works. The electricty-pressure is finally restored in the circuitry and the x-wing comes to life again. Poe drives it and destroys the last turret, allowing the t-wing bombers to approach. Presumably BB-8 remains with his head rammed into the circuit board until they get back to the cruiser since the electricity leaking out of the circuit board means the x-wing cannot move. This joke is not called back to, however, so we can only guess. Perhaps BB-8 has a spare head he can use for his normal piloting duties while the first head is keeping the electricity inside of the circuit board.

We now get to see what the t-wings are like. It turns out that they are shaped like the letter T because they store bombs in the bottom shaft. Now, when I say “store”, that might conjure up an image of tightly packed munitions, ready to be launched. Instead, picture many rows of extra-large christmas ornaments, all painted black, hung from the walls. They sway when the t-wing moves. Why it never occurred to anyone to hold them in place, lest they take damage from knocking around, no one knows.

Next, as they get ready to drop their bombs—more on that in a moment—they open the bomb doors. At this point I should mention that there is a ladder from the bomb area to the cockpit of the ship. And there is no door on the cockpit. There is also a turret-operator on the bottom of the ship who is directly connected to the bomb area, too. Why they do not asphyxiate when all of their air rushes out into the vacuum of space is not mentioned. It could be argued that there was a force-field used to keep the atmosphere in, much like the force fields on the Death Star we saw the imperial transports traverse through into the large cargo bays. We get a clear view of the relevant section of the t-wings, however, and they have no such force field. And if they did, they’d have no need for bomb bay doors.

Perhaps the t-wing crew drink liquid oxygen into their lungs before going on their bombing strolls. Once the lone bomber that survived the excruciatingly slow crawl to the weak spot on the dreadnought, there’s a stupid sub-plot involving the pilot being dead and unable to drop the bombs and the gunner needing to climb the latter and retrieve the cartoonish remote control with a single “drop all the bombs at once” button to push it. Somewhere in her attempt she falls down the shaft onto the catwalk at the bottom of the bomb area and breaks her back. She is only able to use her arms, twist, and kick things with great force with her legs. It’s a very specific kind of spinal injury.

There is, however, a very curious thing that happens during it. When she finally manages to get the remote to fall by kicking the ladder with the remote at the top, despite it having been perfectly centered on her, it falls to her side and out the open bomb doors. We very clearly see it at least several feet past the catwalk on which the paralyzed gunner lies. And then we cut to her having just caught the remote. This is the sort of thing which normally should have a commercial break inbetween since its only purpose is to increase the tension so you don’t switch to another channel during the four minutes of commercials which are about to play. In a movie, it serves absolutely no purpose. It didn’t increase the tension, and because it showed two contradictory shots immediately next to each other, only served to destroy all possible suspension of disbelief.

It’s almost inconsequential that her catching the remote is kind of absurd. If you doubt this, have a friend climb with a remote control onto the roof of your house, lie facing up on a bench, have him drop the remote control next to you, and see how often you catch it before it hits the ground. Oh, did I mention that you need to catch it on your right side with your left arm? What is especially egregious about this ridiculous feet is that, given where they showed us the remote before it fell, it should have landed safely on her belly. This is a weird sort of fixing one terrible decision with another when just doing it right would have been far easier.

And then things really get dumb.

When she finally presses the button, the bombs all fall in unison onto the dreadnought below. In space.

Now, in charity I should mention that there is a way to explain this absurdity, though it really just shifts the absurdity elsewhere. The star destroyers et al were shown to be in geostationary orbit, but only a few hundred miles up. Geostationary orbit on earth is approximately 22,000 miles up. D’qar, the planet in question, is perhaps a bit smaller than the earth, but still, they are way too close to be in a natural geostationary orbit. So they might be just using repulsor beams to keep themselves up from the planet. (Repulsor beams which constantly change angle in the case of tie fighters, x-wings, etc.) Thus when the repulsor-beam-held-aloft shit stopped holding onto the bombs, they would have dropped in the gravitational field of the planet below.

(The difference in gravity between the surface of a planet and a few hundred miles above the surface of the planet isn’t very high; it’s the difference between being 5,000 miles from the center and 5,200 miles from the center; this isn’t a large change in distance.)

Now, the orientation of the dreadnought wasn’t quite right for this, but we didn’t get the best camera angles to see for sure. Worse, this means that the bombers only work in a gravitation field, since in deep space their bombs would just hang motionless once released, making them rather curiously specific-purpose ships.

So, yeah, that attempt to defend this aside, the bombs fell in what people are calling space-down. It’s the downward direction of whatever visual reference is located nearby in a movie frame.

Compared with this nonsense, the fact they drop every simultaneously—effectively carpet bombing a tiny area—seems almost am minor detail. But it’s worth mentioning that unless they’re dropping something very volatile like nitroglycerin, this approach would probably result in what’s technically called fratricide—the explosion of one bomb not being strong enough or correctly shaped enough to set off the next bomb, but only rearranging it into a shape incapable of detonation. Since these are bombs which need to be armed—let us pass over the idiocy of them being armed before being dropped in charitable silence—they clearly have some sort of detonation mechanism, which would then probably be destroyed by being caught in the explosion of another bomb a few feet away from it.

One is tempted to assume that Rian Johnson chose to have the bombs dropped in this fashion because—though it was dumber than a bag of Tarquelian numskulls—he thought it looked cool. This is a matter of taste, but the closest analog I can think of is when on a TV game show a bunch of balloons are dumped from a net onto a contestant. If you think that looks really cool, perhaps you’ll think that this was worth it.

Somewhat surprisingly—given that the theme of this movie is unrelenting failure—the bombs actually fall onto the dreadnought and blow it up. Why the dreadnought has neither shields nor armor over the part of it where a small explosion will cause the entire thing to explode, no one ever said. Given that the person who dropped the bombs was literally looking in the opposite direction when she pressed the button to do so, this was not a case of a hyper-precise shot being required. Given this obvious weakness in the ship, one is forced to wonder why it didn’t retreat once its defenses were destroyed. It’s not like Poe disabled the engines before the t-wings started their crawl.

Before finally passing on from this wretched scene, there’s one final question I feel duty-bound to ask. Given that the t-wings’ approach was to go in a straight line to a point over the dreadnought and drop bombs onto a football-field sized target, why did they bother with pilots? A droid could do that. Heck, the autopilot program on the t-wings itself should be able to do it. Even pointing them in the right direction, leaving a brick on the accelerator pedal, and then having a timer cut a string holding a hammer above the cartoon button would have accomplished the same thing, if more reliably. At least if someone had the foresight to duct-tape the remote down before leaving. What was the point of the human pilots in all of this? And not to harp on it, but why did a cash-rich-but-manpower-poor organization like The Resistance switch from self-piloted weapons like torpedos to manned weapons like bombers?

Not a single thing about this opening makes sense. That’s going to be a pattern.

Once the Resistance ships have jumped to hyperspace, a hologram of Supreme Leader Snookums (His actual name is “Snoke”, but I’d like to give the character some dignity) appears as a giant hologram and tells General Hux that he did a bad job by utterly failing to destroy the resistance. Though first, he force-chokes Hux, force-slams him to the ground, then force-drags him 10 feet across the dais then lets him go and reprimands him there. Perhaps the actor who played Hux has missed his mark and Snookums was helping? Anyway, despite being force-choked, Hux manages to gasp out that they have the resistance on a string, the implication being that his failure was not complete.

For some reason instead of asking just killing Hux and letting his second in command explain what Hux meant, or just asking Hux what he meant, he then summons Hux to a personal audience. Well, presumably, because the next thing we see is Hux standing in Supreme Leader Snookums’ throne room with Snookums congratulating Hux on his brilliant plan. “On a string, indeed” were I think his words. This serves to establish that Snookums didn’t know about the hyper-space tracking device which Hux had used, though it doesn’t explain why losing the Dreadnought was completely inconsequential. Perhaps Rian Johnson had already forgotten that it had happened. So why didn’t Snookums know that his fleet had developed a hyperspace tracking device? Did no one think to mention this amazing invention to their Supreme Leader? Did they just assume that with his force powers he should have known? If so, why didn’t he? But that’s OK, this plot hole is about to be covered over with another plot hole.

Hux leaves and the the darth-vader wannabe, Kylo Ren, comes in and kneels before Supreme Leader Snookums. General Hux actually sniggers at how stupid Kylo Ren’s costume is as they pass on the bridge connecting the throne room to the elevator. Kylo Ren just takes this in stride because, apparently, Hux’s impression of him is accurate.

Once Hux is out of the room, Supreme Leader Snookums explains to Kylo Ren the gaping plot hole of why Hux is still alive.

You wonder why I keep a rabid cur in such a place of power? A cur’s weakness, properly manipulated, can be a sharp tool.

At first, I thought that Snookums had said “rabbit cur.” That wouldn’t make a ton of sense, but Hux had minced his way through all of his scenes up to this point so it would at least have been an intelligible metaphor.  “Rabid cur” just makes no sense. Here’s the definition of “cur”:

1a : a mongrel or inferior dog
b : a medium-sized hunting and working dog with a short coat that was developed in the southern U.S. and is sometimes considered to comprise one or more breeds
2 : a surly or cowardly fellow

Here is the definition of rabid:

1a : extremely violent : FURIOUS
b : going to extreme lengths in expressing or pursuing a feeling, interest, or opinion
rabid editorials
a rabid supporter
2 : affected with rabies

The only way these two things can go together is if Snookums means definition 2 of rabid, i.e. afflicted with rabies, and was referring to the way that rabies victims exhibit a fear of water. And, to be fair, there were was not so much as a water cooler on the bridge of Hux’s ship. Perhaps Snookums means that he’s go to drive Hux into a furious rage by threatening him with a squirt guns?

That possibility aside, this explanation makes no sense. It comes after Hux’s loss of the dreadnought ship at he hands of a tiny rebel force. Hux wasn’t cowardly, he was incompetent. Snookums is saying that he keeps an incompetent fool in charge of his military because, properly managed, an incompetent fool can be quite competent. This might have had some slight hope for making sense if we didn’t just see that it was false. Depending on whether we could The Force Awakens, the First Order just lost either the most powerful weapon in their fleet or the two most powerful weapons in their fleet, both under Hux’s watch. Frankly, the excuse that he has the Resistance on a string should actually worry Snookums more. If they were to catch up to the Resistance, they’ll probably lose even more ships.

Then we get to one of the more perplexing scenes in the movie. Snookums tells the kneeling Kylo Ren that he’s a pretentious punk who hasn’t amounted to anything. So far as I can tell, this is strictly accurate. The scene tries to portray Snookums as a cruel and heartless dictator, but it seems to just be tough love.

Then Kylo Ren speaks. I forget his exact line, I think it was “But I’ve given everything to you”. Fortunately I had the subtitles on when I was watching the movie because Kylo Ren sounded like he was talking through a poorly made children’s walkie-talkie. It was genuinely difficult to understand what he was saying. Now, I understand that this serves to “show, not tell” that Kylo Ren is an even more incompetent fool than Hux. It does serve that purpose; Kylo Ren is clearly shown to be a simpering, whining child in what amounts to an unlicensed Darth Vader Halloween costume because he (wrongly) thinks it makes him look cool.

OK, fair enough. It does accomplish that. But this is just saying that the movie is intentionally bad.

And then we come to the incompetence of making a main character hard for the audience to understand. If making the fearsome bad guy seem immature, foolish, vain, and stupid was really a goal, they should have borrowed yet one more thing from Spaceballs and just put Dark Helmet in their movies. It would literally have been better to have Kylo Ren do a fake deep voice when his mask is down than to have him talk through a cheap child’s walkie talkie.

And it seems that, on some level, Rian Johnson realized this. Why he decided to hang a lampshade on it rather than just forget about the mask—given that he forgot about the map—is inexplicable. But I will admit that it was somewhat satisfying to see the mask smashed on the ground when Kylo Ren left the elevator. It’s not like one could possibly have suspended their disbelief during this ridiculous movie anyway.

Oh, one other thing: while Supreme Leader Snookums was entirely correct that Kylo Ren’s mask was ridiculous, he was in no position to say it. He was wearing a silly hybrid of a smoking jacket and a bathrobe, in shiny gold lamé. Plus he was bad CGI when he could easily have been a guy in makeup. He’s the last person who should be talking about bad character design.

Some time later, back on the Resistance ship, the ex-storm-trooper named Finn wakes up and bonks his head on a clear plastic dome over his head and shoulders in what appears to be a storage closet which had been hastily converted to a hospital room. (Actually, I can’t be sure of that. We’re never given a wide-enough angle shot to see whether there are brooms lined up against the wall.)

Finn then does what any sensible person would do—instead of looking around to figure out where he is and what’s going on, he pushes the plastic dome off and jumps up out of bed. Presumably these are his storm-trooper instincts since he was raised from birth as one. I can see why they would want storm troopers to hop up and disturb the medical equipment immediately upon waking up in sick bay.

Finn then pratfalls out of bed and various colors of medical liquid squirt in different directions. This is a little later than the unappealing-liquids joke would have been made in a Mel Brooks parody, but not too far off. What it’s doing in an ostensibly serious movie, I haven’t a clue. Perhaps the actor personally offended Rian Johnson and this is his revenge.

There are no medical personnel, medical droids, or even a little bell that goes “ding” to get someone’s attention. This is consistent with storing the injured fellow in a hastily converted broom closet because it was an emergency, but not very consistent with them later being said to have a medical frigate among their three ships.

Since someone gave Finn medical treatment then stuck him in a broom closet and forgot about him, he then wanders out of sick—well, not bay, it’s too small for that; let’s say sick-room, and looks about for someone to explain where he is and what’s going on. Apparently whoever stuck him in the room and forgot about him didn’t so much as write him a note saying which side’s ship he was on.

We now come to the subject of what Finn is wearing. I’m not sure that human language is capable of expressing just how dumb it is; if you picture the bastard child of a water bed and a sumo-suit, you won’t be far off. Except that it has many tubes coming off of it, all of which are leaking. Oh, and it’s made of transparent plastic, so if the camera did not artfully frame it out you would see Finn’s genitals and buttocks. And since the camera does artfully put Finn’s crotch out of frame, Poe mentions this so the audience knows just how funny the scene is. I’m almost surprised the movie didn’t have a laugh track.

Next we see Leia slapping Poe Dameron and telling him that he’s demoted. Her exact words were, I believe, “you’re demoted”. To what, she didn’t say. Who was replacing him, she didn’t say. I honestly think that the idea was that his duties and responsibilities weren’t changing, he was just getting a pay cut. I think this because, as far as I can tell in the next scene, his duties and responsibilities didn’t change.

There’s some discussion about how one can’t solve every problem by getting in an x-wing and blowing things up. This is true, but since Poe was directing the t-wings, somewhat irrelevant. His coordinated strategy might have been dumb as a box of brainless fish but he was executing a strategy that coordinated the workings of many people. He didn’t just jumping in an x-wing and thinking he could do everything himself. This part of the dressing-down of Poe by Leia was, so far as I can tell, cribbed from some other movie in which the hotshot doesn’t wait for his team but instead takes extraordinary chances by doing everything himself. It’s a pity that’s not the movie we’re watching—it’s almost certainly better than this movie.

But, taking the scenes in this movie as being in this movie, the doctrine that one can’t solve all of one’s problems by using military spacecraft to blow things up is a very odd doctrine for a paramilitary group of guerrillas whose only reason for existence is to solve problems by blowing things up. If Leia really thinks that diplomacy is superior to war, why is she a general instead of a diplomat?

But even that is from a different movie, where people argue over war versus diplomacy. In this movie, Leia’s point is that one often solves one’s problems by running away. This is actually sometimes true in real life but ridiculously out of place in an adventure movie set in space. In real life it is sometimes the most effective strategy to not answer the phone when the bill collectors call, or to skip town and take up a new name in order to avoid child support payments. We don’t go to the movies to see real life.

Now, to be fair, it would be possible for Leia to have told Poe (for what we get the impression is the hundreth time) that they are not yet part of the military force which stands a chance of direct combat against the First Order and their job, right now, is to bleed the First Order by striking and running away. She could have told him that he knew this when he signed up; that guerrilla fighting is not glorious but it is effective and that what they need right now is success, not glory.

That would, of course, require the writer to have some idea what’s going on rather than to just lazily crib scenes from a collection of incompatible movies.

That said, I think that this cribbing of scenes is a better explanation for what’s going on that the idea of it being an expression of misandry. If you pay attention to this cinematic disaster, it consists almost entirely of tropes which the writer didn’t understand. This scene reads to me exactly like the early scene where a hotshot doesn’t work with his teammates but pulls victory out of the jaws of defeat anyway, expects to be lauded for being so awesome, and is torn a new one by his commanding officer for relying on luck rather than executing the far more reliable plan that he was supposed to only be a part of. It’s not easy to recognize because it’s so badly executed, but structurally, that very much seems to be its purpose.

You can see this in the next moment, actually, because when the star destroyers jump out of hyperspace next to the rebels, Poe asks, “Permission to jump in an x-wing and blow things up?” and Leia gratefully replies, “Granted.” If you look, you an recognize a lot of Top Gun (with Poe Dameron as Maverick) in The Last Jedi. Not stolen well, mind you, but you can see the influence. For example, later on, Vice-Admiral Holdo (the purple-haired woman in the evening dress) takes the role of Tom Skerritt’s character. She is in charge and alternates between tough-as-nails and fatherly. Well, motherly, but hopefully you get the point. Rian Johnson doesn’t seem to understand how human interaction works so he’s limited to stealing from movies he saw in his youth.

When the star destroyers come out of hyperspace Supreme Leader Snookum’s personal ship, The Supremacy, is with them. How, is never explained. It wasn’t with them when they tracked the rebel fleet jumping into hyperspace. This is a minor point, or rather, would be, if the location of the hyperspace-tracker were not a major plot point later on, where it is established that the tracker is on Snookum’s ship. It’s not stated whether Hux had a tracker standing at the ready to install on Snookum’s ship as soon as he actually told Snookums about the technology or whether he had secretly installed it on Snookum’s personal ship beforehand. Either is ludicrous, and they exhaust the possibilities. (Unless, of course, the characters who infiltrate Snookum’s ship later on were completely mistaken and were breaking into a storage closet. In this movie, that’s a real possibility.)

Also, why is The Supremacy shaped like a giant delta kite? I half expected to see a droid in the bottom of the screen holding onto a string which was attached to it. Star Wars heavy ships are normally longer than they are wide, presumably because the amount of energy necessary to push a ship through a hyperspace conduit goes up with the square of the cross-section, or some such. The only exception I can think of in large ships is the Death Star, and that was built at the height of the Empire’s power as a show of force. The First Order is a tiny shadow of what the Empire was; why are they indulging in wasteful projects to build one-off megaships?

Further, the design of The Supremacy might have been understandable if the leading edges of the wings were covered in large guns. There was no indication of this. In fact, for all that I can recall, The Supremacy might have been unarmed.

At this point, Poe and Leia consider the significance of the ImperialFirst Order fleet jumping out of hyperspace only moments after them. They were tracked! This means that if they were to jump to hyperspace again they would just be tracked again and the First Order will just show up moments later, again! Also, they only have enough fuel for one more jump to hyperspace!

That last part was, I suspect, intended to head off the idea of just jumping to hyperspace over and over again until they lose the Imperial Order fleet. But consider what it means: the Resistance, a guerrilla force behind enemy lines, kept their ships almost empty of fuel. The principle doctrine of guerrilla warfare is to dash in to a target then dash out to safety. So either the Resistance is failing in basic competence as a guerrilla organization, or they are so badly funded that they can’t afford the basic tools of their trade. So either they deserve to be destroyed or the EmpireFirst Order is redundant because they were about to collapse anyway. The fact that they didn’t have a next base lined up means that they didn’t have any contingency plans for what to do if their current base is discovered, which points to gross incompetence. Still, either way is bad.

But wait, it gets worse.

When they come out of hyperspace the Resistance only has enough fuel for one more jump into hyperspace. They’re not, presently, anywhere they want to be. The establishing shot of their location makes it look like they’ve just jumped to a random place in the middle of space. And, in fact, they don’t even know where it is they want to go next—Leia said that their next step is finding a new base. That means that the new base needs to have a ready supply of hyperspace fuel or they’re going to be marooned at it unable to take part in galactic warfare ever again. This means that either they’re going to have to establish their new base on a populated world or their next stop is actually at a spaceship gas station. The fact that they don’t mention this suggests that they were actually unaware of it. It’s a funny image to think of the resistance showing up to some uninhabited planet, setting up a base, then realizing when they next want to do some guerrilla attack on the First Order that they are marooned and must now become farmers to try to get through the coming winter.

Which would, sadly, be a better story than what actually happens.

Incidentally, why they want a base at all is never explained. If everyone fits aboard their one capital ship (plus a medical frigate and some other little ship) it would make far more sense for a band of guerrillas to base themselves from it rather than tying themselves down to a planet. This is of small importance compared to all the other idiocy going on but it’s worth noting lest one think that anything about his movie makes sense, on any level.

After his tough-love session with Supreme Leader Snookums, Kylo Ren had gotten in an elevator and smashed his mask into bits. This scene was poorly shot and poorly acted but, other than that, did make a sort of sense. Kylo Ren was an ineffectual loser who showed promise but so far hasn’t amounted to anything, and he’s turned his back on his idiot attempts to look cool which only resulted in people laughing at him. That’s more appropriate to a movie like The Goonies—actually the children in The Goonies were more mature than Kylo Ren, but hopefully you get my point—but it is actually a legitimate bit of character development. Unfortunately, it is not alluded to in any other scene (except, perhaps, the assassination of Snookums) so it’s hard to consider it as character development. But at least he’s not wearing a stupid mask that it makes it hard to tell what he’s saying, so it’s a net win.

Kylo then storms off and shouts to two random officers who were standing outside of the elevator to get his ship ready. It might have been interesting to learn whether he knew who they were, they know what he meant, or whether they in fact had anything to do with getting his tie fighter ready. Presumably as the second most important person in the EmpireFirst Order, he has more than one ship. And no one but Hux and Supreme Leader Snookums know that they’re actually tracking the Resistance through hyperspace. However, if this was just his way of covering his tears to officers he didn’t even recognize, it might have been mildly interesting. Or at least trivially significant.

But, whoever those characters were, Kylo Ren is next seen aboard his tie fighter—the cool kind, with curved wings—rushing at the main ship of the Resistance. He flies at the main ship, strafing the surface, then flies down the launch tube for the resistance fighter planes. Apparently no one ever thought to put a door on the tube or even some laser turrets inside this unarmored opening in the ship. He launches a missile and in one strike destroys all of the Rebels’ space fighters.

Then presumably he backs out of the tube? I’ve got no idea since the next we see him is  targeting the bridge of the same cruiser. He then senses by the Force that his mom is on the bridge and, for no obvious reason, doesn’t fire. Given what a big deal he made about killing his father without hesitation this seems out of character, but I suppose it’s meant to show how he’s conflicted. Later on, Snookums says that he stoked the conflict in Ren’s soul, so perhaps that’s meant to refer to this.

It doesn’t matter, however, because other tie fighter pilots shoot the bridge for Kylo Ren. I’m tempted to side with Mr. John C. Wright when he said that’s because no main character is going to be allowed to achieve anything, however small, in this movie. However, I think that the actual explanation is that this is yet another attempt to lift a meaningful scene from another movie and transplant it here. In particular, the scene where a character who is flirting with evil considers doing an evil deed, then holds back from it but it’s then done by someone on his side, and he sees just how evil he was considering being. Often he will then strike down the member of his own side for doing what he should, but almost invariably he repents of being on the bad side and turns to the good side. Like most tropes that Rian Johnson is trying to use, this one is hard to recognize because he doesn’t follow through. He subverts all of the tropes that he uses, so that the audience is in a state of constant surprise.

The problem with this is that tropes exist because they encode human meaning efficiently. By subverting all of his tropes Rian Johnson ends up making his movie meaningless. It’s a constant surprise because you constantly expect the movie to be leading somewhere; every thwarting of expectations is not from one meaning to another, deeper meaning, but from meaning to meaninglessness. But, to give credit where credit is do, I was in a constant state of surprise throughout this movie. About how bad it was, granted. But still, I was continually surprised. So, mission accomplished, I guess.

Be that as it may, the nameless and faceless tie fighter pilots next to Kilo Ren blow up the bridge of the Brave Sir Robin (we’re never told the ship’s actual name, so that will do as well as anything else). This causes explosive decompression to blast Leia, Admiral Akbar, and some nameless Resistance bridge crew into space. This is, of course, unfortunate, but it’s not a terrible way for an old soldier to finally die—with his boots on, in combat. It wouldn’t be great, or even good—since the attack is basically a sucker-punch—but it wouldn’t be a giant middle finger to the fans. So of course Leia does not die like this.

Before we can find out what happened to Leia, the tie fighters are recalled because the rebel fleet, being faster, has outrun the capital ships of the First Order and they are are no longer able to give their tie fighters cover. Why the tie fighters need cover is completely unspecified; it is well established in this movie that small ships move too fast for large ships to accurately target them; the only effective weapons against small ships are other small ships. And Kylo just destroyed all of the Resistance’s small ships.

To add insult to injury, it makes no sense for small ships to be faster than large ships. Large ships can have proportionally larger engines than small ships can; this is why in real life large ships are faster than small ships.

And then, of course, there’s the massive plot hole which Rian Johnson didn’t even bother to hang a lampshade on. The Resistance fleet is low on hyperspace fuel. The First Order fleet isn’t. While the Resistance fleet is stuck crawling along at sub-light speed, the First Order capital ships could just hyperspace jump next to the resistance ships. Or they could take a page from pack-hunters and have some of their ships hyper-space jump in front of the resistance fleet so they’re surrounded. Instead, general Hux decides to stay behind them and just fire uselessly at their rear shields from time to time so that the resistance doesn’t put its guard down. Being a dastardly evil villain, he’s hate for the Resistance to fall into a trap, I guess.

So about how Leia didn’t die in combat: instead, after some unspecified amount of time long enough for her to form ice crystals on her skin, she comes back to life or wakes up, depending on how you choose to interpret this, and then flies like Mary Poppins back to what used to be the bridge of the Brave Sir Robin. No force power has been established in this—or any other movie—which allows dead force users to resurrect themselves, nor has there been a force power established which works while a force user is unconscious (if you want to stretch things to take that charitable interpretation). Nor does it come up again, nor is anyone impressed by it, nor does anyone seem to care that it happened past being a little surprised and a little glad to see Leia again.

In fact, Leia’s ejection into space followed by her magical space walk has no consequence of any kind in this movie. She could just as easily have been in the hallway on her way back from the bathroom when the missiles hit and bumped her head from the impact; no subsequent scene would have had to be changed in the slightest.

Perhaps the stupidest part of this whole deus ex machina is that, to bring Leia back in, the people on the inside of the ship just open the door. Then she just walks in. Then they close the door again. This is a bit like that joke interview question:

Q: How do you put an elephant in the refrigerator?
A: Open the door and put him in.
Q: How do you put a giraffe in the refrigerator?
A: Open the door and put it in?
Q: No, you open the door, take the elephant out, then put he giraffe in.

Except in the joke, the size of the refrigerator is not specified. This movie is (within the story) taking place in a space ship in outer space. And yet the air from inside of the pressurized ship does not rush out and blow Leia back into deep space; in fact, a little bit of air leaks from the vacuum of space into the ship. This makes negative sense in that it is exactly backwards from what should have happened.

The inclusion of this scene is absolutely mystifying. It was not just dumb, but fractally dumb. Every part of it was dumb. Every part of every part was dumb. Zoom in: dumb. Zoom out: dumb. On every scale, it’s dumb.

I actually wonder if this scene wasn’t included because Carrie Fisher had some sort of medical problem during shooting and some explanation for her change in ability to stand unsupported was deemed necessary. Frankly, a silent-movie-style text card saying “between filming the earlier scenes and the later scenes, Ms. Fisher suffered a [medical issue] and could no longer stand unaided. She bravely soldiered on, however, and we ask that you use your imagination to help her out” would have been better. Or no explanation at all. Having Leia space-walk back to the ship only to fall into a coma sounds like it was invented by a pair of drunk fratboys competing to see who could come up with the stupider plot points to include in a Spaceballs sequel.

And then, safely aboard the ship, Leia falls unconscious and is rushed to the medical closet which formerly housed Finn. This is yet another nonsensical change in tone since Leia just used a new-found force power without effort to bring herself back from death or unconsciousness. There was no strain; she was serene throughout. Leia’s lack of expression the whole time suggests that I might be right about the medical incident explanation, so I’ll say no more about this.

Next we have a scene of many people—it’s never established who they are, sitting around while a curly haired woman—it’s never established who she is—explains that Leia is alive but that’s the only good news, much of the rest of the leadership has been killed. She then says that the chain of command is clear—which is exactly the thing to say when it’s not. This is a bizarre choice because for a moment Poe Dameron’s ears perk up, thinking that he might be the next leader.

This micro-subplot makes no sense for the character. He’s supposed to be a hotshot, not an organizational climber. As a hotshot he’s all about results, not getting recognition. Only the most vain of corporate ladder-climbers would be thrilled to get field-promoted on a doomed ship with no weapons, no options, and nothing to do.

Be that as it may, Poe’s dreams of business cards with a better title on them are smashed when Vice Admiral Holdo is introduced. It isn’t explained where she came from. Presumably from either the medical frigate or the other ship that make up the three ships left? Why would they require a vice-admiral? Did they really have a rear admiral to keep in line? The Resistance seems awfully top-heavy.

And then we come to the very strange question of her appearance. She’s got faded manic-panic purple hair from Spencer’s Gifts and is wearing a sagging evening dress. She doesn’t look remotely like a Vice Admiral. Even Poe remarks on this—he’s heard of some amazing military feet she performed and asks out loud if this is really the same person.

So, apparently, we’re getting a don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover theme with Holdo. The problem is that none of the misleading cues have any sort of explanation. Why is a Vice Admiral of a guerrilla force operating behind enemy lines taking time to dye her hair purple? Why is she wearing a sagging evening dress instead of some sort of military uniform? These are very odd choices and moreover they’re counter to the typical don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover mis-cues. Those are almost always about what a person doesn’t spend his time doing. Such as, for example, keeping up his appearance. And the reason that works is that the cue suggests that he doesn’t have his life together enough to provide for himself the creature comforts most men work to have. Thus it becomes possible to reveal that he neglects these things because he is too focused on developing his skills to bother with them; essentially, that he is an ascetic.

It is possible to go in the opposite direction—to have a strategic genius who plays a fop as a form of disguise, so that people don’t suspect him of being a strategic genius. The classic example of this is The Scarlet Pimpernel. That doesn’t apply here, though, because Holdo was among her own people—and in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Sir Percy dropped the foppish attitude whenever he was in England, among friends.

This seems to be yet another case of taking a trope and reversing it for the sake of novelty. The problem is that you can’t have someone who is so dedicated to her military endeavors that she spends time preening herself and wearing fancy clothes. Intense dedication can make time for doing the normal things, or it can result in neglecting them. But it can’t result in taking time for unnecessary things.

It is possible to play around with tropes to create new things, but they have to be things that actually work. You can’t simply invert a trope and get another good trope, just as you can’t invert a glass of water and have a marvelous new type of beverage holder. But that seems to be what Rian Johnson is all about.

Then again, who knows? Given that this is a low speed chase which people can leave and enter freely, perhaps she was actually at a dinner party when she heard that Leia was injured and the Resistance needed help and she didn’t have time to change before she jumped in from hyperspace? It’s not like we’re told where she came from and equally ridiculous things are about to happen.

Holdo gives a speech about how with 400 people on 3 ships that are obviously doomed the Resistance is never going to accomplish anything but that if at least some of them can survive it will be the spark that lights the fire of hope for the galaxy. There are two major problems with this scene. The first is that it makes their survival purely symbolic. They’re not, apparently, trying to survive in order to live, or to accomplish anything. They’re only trying to survive because it will inspire others to do something. But why would anyone care? There’s no reason given why they can’t easily be replaced by another 400 people somewhere else.

Second, this is directly contradicted by events later in the movie. It is clearly established that there is no hope left in the galaxy when on the salt planet, after calling for help with a powerful transmitter, not a single ship anywhere answers their call for help. Which makes their survival completely and utterly pointless.

Then one of the more infamous scenes of the movie happens. Poe introduces himself to Holdounder his old title of Commander and she reminds him that Leia’s last official action was to demote him to captain. How she knew this, we’re not told. How she knew his new rank when it’s not obvious even Leia did, we’re not told. Poe brushes this away and asks what the plan is. Holdo flirtatiously tells him that she’s known a lot of pretty fly-boys and his job is to do what he’s told. Poe then looks at the large screen displays which indicate that a myriad of transports are being fueled up and concludes that her plan is to run away, which is traitorous cowardice, and she has the military police (who only ever show up in this scene) throw Poe off the bridge, to right outside the bridge. Moving people over a few feet appears to be a theme in this movie.

This scene is infamous because a lot of people have taken it to be the author incorporating a message of misandry—that men and masculinity are inferior and should go away. I don’t agree with this take at all. I believe that Holdo is supposed to be like the character of Viper on Top Gun (played by Tom Skerritt)—a wise older mentor figure who needs to both encourage the younger hotshot but also pull him up short so he can gain the wisdom necessary to be a truly great warrior. The problem is two-fold: this was written as a male part (I think because Rian Johnson can’t write a female part) and then just cast as a woman. But this doesn’t work because women and men don’t talk to each other other like men talk to men or women talk to women. For better or for worse, they simply don’t, and so a woman talking to a man like a man talks to a man feels off to us, like there’s some sub-text which wasn’t originally intended because the writer conceived of it as a man talking to a man. It’s a similar sort of problem to a character calling younger men “boy” and then casting a white man in that roll and a black man in the role of the younger man—it takes on meaning which wasn’t originally supposed to be there.

I think that’s what’s going on with Holdo. If you mentally replace her with a male character in a military uniform, the scene becomes way more normal, and then ties into the scene later where Holdo tells Leia that she likes Poe. It’s an almost standard trope if all of those characters were male, and Rian Johnson seems to think entirely in tropes. Then he subverts them without understanding them and they become meaningless and hard to recognize.

Also, Rian Johnson’s fists were apparently bitten by radioactive hams.

Also, Poe’s dialog makes absolutely no sense. The Resistance can’t use hyperspace to get away, all of their weapons have been destroyed, and a massively superior force is behind them—albeit obligingly chasing them as sub-light speed because of their aristocratic British sense of fair play? It’s true that Holdo doesn’t have a plan, but that’s because no plan is possible. The two options in any armed conflict are fight or flight. They can’t do either. Did Poe think Holdo was supposed to come up with some brilliant strategy in empty space like tunneling under the enemy position and mining it?

And then he sees that Holdo has come up with the closest thing to a plan possible in this utterly hopeless situation and will use the big ship as a diversion for little ships to get away. Given that all the assets that they have are one big ship and some little ships, what else was she supposed to do? Getting in the little ships is dumb but since the big ship is unarmed and defenseless it’s not like the little ships are any worse off because they’re also unarmed and defenseless. And why is it now cowardly to run away when they’re already running away? It wasn’t cowardly to run away from their base but it is cowardly to continue the same, unabated action of running away?

Again we’ve got a trope being done that’s being subverted to the point of meaninglessness. Poe is supposed to be the brave man who thinks daring is more important than cautiousness, but within the actual story as written, he’s complaining that Holdo is doing the one thing that could possibly be done under the situation. Unless he wanted to get into a space suit with a blaster and jump out of the airlock in order to take out the entire Imperial fleet single-handed?

The brave guy yelling at his cautious commander trope requires that the brave guy be articulating a plan which the cautious commander considers too dangerous. Holdo has a cautious plan but Poe has no plan. He’s not in a position to yell at anyone since all he’s got to offer at this point is sitting around and playing gin rummy until they die.

What makes this writing even stupider is that Poe is given a plan just a few scenes later. Had these scenes been re-ordered, he could then have presented his (admittedly, completely insane) plan to Holdo who would then (rightly) reject it as too risky and then his yelling at Holdo that she’s a coward would have made at least the tiniest amount of sense.

And then it gets really stupid.

Finn, now dressed, is sneaking around the escape pods. What he intends to do there is anyone’s guess since it seems unlikely that escape pods come equipped with hyper-drives and they’re in the middle of nowhere. And since the Imperial death fleet is chasing them and shooting anything that gets within range the only plausible outcome of leaving in an escape pod is certain death. But whatever—everyone fails at everything in this movie, and I don’t think it was ever seriously contemplated that Finn could have expected to succeed since he must have read the script by now.

His ostensible reason for deserting the cause it’s unclear he ever joined is that Rey, having gone to the far-off planet of Achtung in order to find Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, was given a device that can track the wrist-mounted homing beacon which Leia had been wearing on her wrist until she was inexplicably put onto a gurney after her impromptu space walk, at which point it just slipped off and Finn picked it up.

I’d like to pause for a moment to consider the implications of a wrist-mounted device can  transmit with enough power to enable someone to find it from anywhere in the galaxy but without being trackable by the bad guys. Actually, no. I don’t want to consider that. Never mind.

I can’t skip over Finn’s motivation, though. A person he’s grown attached to (perhaps even having fallen in love with?) has left on a heroic journey to get help and bring it back. This would be dangerous for her—that’s what makes it heroic, after all—so he’s trying to take her tracking device away from the people she’s trying to help so that she won’t be able to find them and help them.

Let’s be clear about this: his goal is to sabotage his friend’s plan so that she will end up wandering space while her friends die. What would he do differently if he was her enemy?

Then as he’s getting ready to climb into the escape pod, he is spotted by Rose Tico. It’s never established what her job is. We saw an establishing shot of her crying earlier so perhaps she’s a professional mourner?

According to wikipedia she’s a “maintenance worker”, which I think is a euphemism for janitor but perhaps means mechanic? She’s not wearing a recognizable uniform and aside from what might be a collection of screwdriver bits worn like bullets on a gun-belt or what might be an actually collection of bullets the only tool she appears to have is a space-taser. So perhaps she’s a member of the military police? Or a very misguided fashion police?

She’s utterly star-struck by Finn and his exploits on StarKiller base. This is another instance of something that kind-of works if this movie isn’t a sequel; otherwise his exploits on Star-Killer base happened less than a day ago. How would the janitor have had time to hear about his heroics during a desperate packing up of the base? Granted, she said that she heard it from her sister Paige, who apparently had time to hang around chatting with her sister while everyone else was desperately packing up up their base to flee from the certain retribution of the First Order. So let’s take this as a movie which doesn’t follow anything, which allows enough unknown that this could possibly make sense.

Rose then explains to Finn that he is indeed a hero, which is a person who doesn’t run away, in contrast to three cowards who tried to desert earlier that day, and who she had to stun with the space-taser she waves in Finn’s face to make her tasering of them more vivid. I believe that this is supposed to be funny. This is yet another trope which Rian Johnson doesn’t understand. This is funny when a mook or other comic relief idiot is shown to be so incredibly dumb he doesn’t understand what’s going on and the hero manages to sneak past him.

The way Johnson wrote this scene the idiot is one of the good guys. And the guy managing to sneak past the idiot is a deserter. The fall of a hero is not a comedic moment.

Or perhaps Rian Johnson is such a loathsome wretch that he thinks that Finn’s attempt to prevent Rey from saving her friends was actually noble? Since it would more charitable to think him incompetent than evil, let’s assume that’s not it.

Once again, I think the best explanation was Rian Johnson using tropes but trying to be original by changing them. Except that he didn’t understand the tropes he was changing so his changes ruined them.

In consequence, while the parts that should be tropes are original the parts which should be original are tropes. So Rose catches a glimpse of Finn’s backback in the escape pod—what did he have in the backpack, anyway? He woke up naked in a strange place. It’s not like he’s got possessions to take with him—and she slowly works out that Finn is trying to desert the cause he isn’t part of. But she does it out loud, talking through her thoughts. Oddly, she doesn’t finish her thoughts out loud; she gets out just enough to seem really dumb.

Finn then tries to explain why he’s doing what he’s doing but Rose coldly hits him with her space taser which is probably actually some sort of electrical welding device since it’s pretty obvious by now that no one from the upper echelons of The Resistance put this very dimwitted woman in charge of guarding the escape pods.

The space taser knocks Finn back so hard that he flies 6 or 8 feet back and slams into the porthole of the escape pod. Online sources say that John Boyega weighs 87kg and if we conservatively estimate his as going 4 m/s, a kinetic energy calculator shows him as having been imparted 696 joules of kinetic energy. For reference, the Winchester JHP +P round, which is a common 9mm round fired by guns like the Glock 17, has 617J at the muzzle. The area which a space-taser imparts energy on can’t be much bigger than the area of a 9mm bullet hitting someone so he should have suffered severe, possibly fatal concussive damage to his internal organs. There’s also the minor detail of Finn’s head slamming into the wall of the capsule, then onto the floor of the capsule, likely giving him two concussions in a row.

Since this very serious moment is played as comedy, however, bugs bunny rules apply and Finn is just fine. One has to ask, though: why not go all-in and have an anvil drop on Finn’s head? Since our disbelief is, at this point, suspended only in the sense of having been hanged to death in a noose, there was nothing to lose and it might have actually been funny.

Some time later, Finn wakes up, partially paralyzed, on a cart on which Rose is wheeling him to… wherever she stored the other people she’s zapped. Perhaps she has fashioned a crude oubliette somewhere on the ship and just drops traitors in to die. Or perhaps she kills her victims next to a trash compactor so as to conveniently hide the bodies. Since she clearly wasn’t stationed to guard the escape pods and is only doing it for fun there’s no reason to suppose she’s going to take the “traitors” to an official brig.

Finn, realizing that he may only have moments left to live, tries to reason with Rose. Actually, “reason” might be too strong a word. He at least he talks at her. It comes out that the First Order can track them through hyperspace, at which point Rose points assumes that this is active tracking and then claims that all active tracking works the same way. Then Finn and Rose deduce at each other, with a speed that the micro machines fast-talker wouldn’t sneer at, that the tracker will only be on the lead ship and that it will have its own circuit breaker. Rose wonders who would know where to find the circuit-breaker room on a star destroyer and Finn reveals that as a former janitor for the First Order, he does.

It should be noted that there is no reason whatever to assume that the tracking technology which the First Empire is using is active tracking as opposed to passive tracking. It should further be pointed out that Lord Snookum’s delta kite of doom wasn’t around the first time they jumped to hyperspace so the tracker clearly isn’t on that ship, wherever it might be. Actually, the idea that it’s on the Delta Kite of Doom is particularly funny because it could only be there by Hux having snuck one on when Snookums wasn’t looking—it having been clearly established that until the Resistance jumped to hyperspace Snookums was unaware of the tracking technology. That said, Finn and Rose have no way of knowing how incompetent the First Order—or the writers, take your pick—were. It should also be noted that no explanation is given for why active tracking would be located on the lead ship. Anyone with even a tiny bit of sense would prefer to put their critical sensors behind the front line so it’s least likely to get damaged.

Though, to be fair, none of this actually matters because the plan to turn off the circuit breaker on the magic tracking technology never achieves anything, anyway.

We then cut to Finn and Rose explaining to Poe the information which they just created ex nihilo. Finn is now perfectly fine, by the way, because the movie’s theme of “let the past go” applies to nothing so much as it does to the script itself. They probably saved a few dollars by not employing a continuity person and to be fair it’s not that jarring to the average audience member because absolutely nothing in this movie is memorable.

So the plan gets laid out for Poe—someone needs to sneak aboard Lord Snookum’s Delta Kite of Doom and flip the circuit breaker to the tracking device, which the First Order won’t notice for about six minutes, at which point they’ll presumably flip the circuit breaker back on. Apparently Rose and Finn also know that the First Order has no computerized monitoring systems capable of emitting a beep hooked up to their active tracking systems. This, by the way, is preferable to blowing up the ship with the tracker not because—all their weapons having been destroyed—they have no way of blowing up the Delta Kite of Doom but because the First Order would notice that the tracker wasn’t operational and just turn on the tracker on another ship.

Also, for no reason and not worthy of comment, they have a complete schematic of the Delta Kite of Doom. Perhaps Finn has an eidetic memory and constructed the plans from his years of janitorial service aboard it. Like most things in this movie it has no connection either to what came before or what happened after. It’s just a collection of scenes which the director thought cool on their own. That it’s a movie is just a sort of volume discount where the scenes are cheaper if you buy 250 of them at once.

At this point we get the only good line of the movie. Poe stops in the middle of considering the absolutely insane plan to ask how Finn and Rose met. Finn isn’t sure how to respond and Rose elides to, “Just luck.” Poe asks whether it was good luck or bad luck, and Rose answers, “Not sure yet.”

Granted, the character of Rose never exhibits this amount of self- or situational- awareness again, it was still a good line with good delivery. Also, it turned out to be bad luck. Still, it is, strictly speaking, better than nothing. Unlike the rest of the movie.

Also, this scene is apparently taking place in the medical closet into which Finn had been put, as we pan over to the comatose body of Leia. This, perhaps, explains why C-3PO is in the scene—his presence is really quite inexplicable otherwise. Threepio points out that Vice Admiral Holdo will never approve of this plan. Poe agrees because the plan to sneak aboard a First Order warship which is actively (if not effectually) shooting at them in order to throw a circuit breaker is, in fact, completely insane. Not because it won’t work—that’s not the biggest concern in what should be a light-hearted adventure film—but because if they can do that there’s a few dozen things they should be doing in preference to throwing a circuit breaker than running away.

This is something of a theme in The Last Jedi—the big problem is not so much that the impossible happens but that if the impossible is possible within this movie, it should have been completely different movie. In short, the movie never, ever takes itself seriously. “Forget the past” may appeal to lazy narcissists, but it makes for a terrible screenplay. If the movie is really just going to be a collection of awesome but unconnected scenes, it could be way more awesome than this.

Check out Kung Fury if you want to see this sort of thing done well:

(Actually, I say that but Kung Fury still has a more coherent plot with more consistent characters than The Last Jedi.)

Be that as it may, the plan somehow manages to get stupider. The first step in figuring out how to sneak aboard the Delta Kite of Doom is to video-call Maz Kanada—a yoda-like muppet whose bar was destroyed by the First Order in the previous movie. When we see here she’s shooting her former employees but has time to talk while she does it. (She calls it a “union dispute” but since she’s the owner of the bar the people she’s shooting at are, therefore, her employees.)

What they need to get aboard the Delta Kite of Doom while it’s busy firing at the Resistance is a “master codebreaker” because the Empire’s military ships are designed with all the security of a website circa 1994. It’s implied that Maz Kanada could do it but is unavailable because she can’t let a single former employee escape, so instead she directs them to the only other master codebreaker in the galaxy who she trusts.

He can be found at a Casino on the one-casino-and-nothing-else planet, playing at the only high stakes table,  and wearing a “plom blossom” on his lapel. Fortunately Maz has a schematic of a plom blossom on speed dial so she’s able to show them what she means.

Not that it’s going to matter—because they don’t actually find the master codebreaker—but this is really strange. No time or date is specified. Apparently the man is just trapped in some sort of gambling hell where he stands forever at the high stakes table, never winning or losing, just playing forever until someone comes to hire his code breaking services. Of course it is possible to supply the world-building where this makes sense because you can find the guy at that table every Thursday night on the casino planet—but that’s the job of the writer. The whole innovation of modern fiction is adding insignificant detail in order to make the story seem realistic. That mostly just doesn’t happen in this movie. That might be forgivable in a movie which was edited down to a very tight sixty minutes, but this slog-fest is over two and a half hours long—and feels much longer. (I’ve noticed that fans of the movie don’t notice how little time is covered because it’s so boring they assume it had to have been much longer.)

And now we come to the part of the low speed chase where Finn and Rose get into some sort of lightspeed-capable shuttle craft and fly off to a casino on Canto Bight which is, presumably, the only casino on Canto Bight, since they are given no other identifying information for it. While they go, the chase continues as if nothing happened. The First Order doesn’t dispatch a ship to follow them. The First Order doesn’t do anything at all. They just don’t care. Like the writer.

Next we get a very pretty establishing shot of Canto Bight and at the end of it we see an alien complaining to some traffic cops that he “told them this was a public beach and they couldn’t park there”. Yes, this is referring to our brave heroes on a secret mission to find the one man in the galaxy who can help them to save their friends. When someone points out that they’re parking where they are not allowed to park they don’t say, “Thanks!” and move their vehicle. They don’t say, “sorry!” and move their vehicle. They don’t even just move their vehicle. Instead they decide… that laws only apply to other people? This crucial plot point and character development happens off-screen so we don’t know for sure.


At this point, dear reader, I must confess that I’ve grown weary of The Last Jedi. So as not to end completely abruptly, I will summarize the rest of this awful movie, and its main problems.

Finn marvels at the wealth and opulence of Canto Bight while Rose is disgusted by it because every single person spending money on Canto Bight is an arms dealer. Moreover, when Finn, directed by Rose, looks through a pair of binoculars on a pole like you might find at a public park, he sees that some big fat alien guy is trying to beat a giant space-dog-horse-cat, and when an orphan tries to stop him, the big fat alien guy beats the orphan instead. When looking closely at the giant space-dog-horse-cat race, it turns out that all of the jockeys are continuously beating the giant space-dog-horse-cats, too. It turns out that the favorite pass-time on Canto Bight is beatings; the rich arms dealers apparently love little else but to watch things getting beaten.

Right as they’re about to find the magic code breaker that is the focus of their mission, the local police beat Finn and Rose down for their parking violation and throw their unconscious bodies into prison. I joke; they actually tasered them into unconsciousness rather than beating them. Perhaps there’s some law on Canto Bight against beating people who aren’t being paid for it; perhaps it’s a by-law which was won through the hard efforts of the Interplanetary Union of Beating Receivers.

In a plot twist so stupid I doubt that you will believe me if you haven’t seen the movie yourself, it turns out that the cell that Finn and Rose were thrown into contains another master code breaker. Not the master code breaker they were looking for, but one who will do just as well. The master code breaker breaks out of prison, then is rescued by the droid BB-8 who shoots coins out of a random slot on his body to knock out the police. The coins, by the way, were put there by a drunk alien who had mistaken the droid for a slot machine.

A chase ensues, during which Finn and Rose set the giant space-dog-horse-cats free. The giant space-dog-horse-cats run amok through the city causing massive amounts of damage, which everyone deserves because they’re arms dealers or people who beat others for the entertainment of arms dealers, or people who serve drinks to arms dealers—one way or another they’re morally tainted and so deserve everything they get. Somehow Finn and Rose manage to ride one of the giant space-dog-horse-cats, which they try to ride to their illegally parked transport. Unfortunately for them, the police—who didn’t bother to impound it—blast it into space dust as they are feet from getting into it. So more chasing ensues until the master code breaker shows up in a stolen spacecraft to chase the police off and rescue Finn and Rose. Perhaps he knew where they were because he was a master code breaker and was thus able to tap into the police… something. Or maybe he read the script. Either way, he shows up at the end of the chase and the hapless duo are saved, though not before taking the saddle off of the giant space-dog-horse-cat that they rode, and slapping its rump to drive it off into the wilderness, where for all they know there is no edible food on the planet for it because there’s no reason to believe it’s native to that area, and it will slowly starve to death. Better, I suppose, than a life of constant beatings. Unless it’s paid well for them.

So for no reason the master code breaker decides to help Finn and Rose with their asinine plan to get aboard the ship Finn has never been on yet can conjure the plans to with a single button press to find the room Finn has never been in but can find anyway in order to throw the circuit breaker for the tracking device which will allow the last few rebelsistance ships to jump to lightspeed without being tracked.

The odd thing is that the plan might have worked if the master code breaker didn’t turn out to be a traitor and sell the information about the plan to the empire.

Oh, it turns out that the stolen ship belonged to one of the arms dealers on Canto Bight, but in a meaningless reveal, it turned out that he sold weapons both to the EmpireFirst Order and to the Resistance. Why the Second or (or Fourth) Order needed arms dealers to sell them tie fighters when they were clearly manufacturing their own capital ships is never explained, because it’s too stupid to admit of an explanation. Also, one wonders where Rose thought that the Rebelsistance got its weapons from, if not from arms dealers. To be fair to her, though, her home planet was apparently used as a test for weapons by the Empire or some arms dealers or someone, because an unarmed mining planet makes a much better testing ground for weapons than does, say, an asteroid or a purpose-built test that actually proves whether the weapons work against their intended targets. Though who knows—in this movie, it wouldn’t shock me if the weapons the miners built for the Empire were anti-used-up-mine weapons. Nothing is out of the realm of possibility in The Last Jedi.

Some time around now the ugly jedi girl (played by a pretty actress, it perhaps should be noted) is spending time with a grumpy old man who answers to the name of Luke Skywalker. It turns out that he’s a feckless loser who abandoned his friends and the universe because he’s a bad man. She wants to be trained as a Jedi, and he agrees to train her to not be a Jedi, which she accepts for some reason. He promises her three lessons, which don’t happen. The first lesson is that the Jedi are bad, which you know because other people do bad things when the Jedi are around. So, post hoc ergo propter hoc, the Jedi are responsible. You’ll see this same asinine idea around super heroes—that super villains would be model citizens were there no superheroes to stop them. Only people who are intentionally stupid say this, so of course it goes into this movie.

At some point ugly girl—I think her name may be Rey—has a vision of the most evil place in the universe, so she goes there to find answers about who she is. She doesn’t find any answers, and it turns out that the heart of darkness is just a warm, comfortable, non-threatening place in which she sees a hall-of-mirrors effect, then sees one more mirror and then it’s over with her learning nothing and never having been threatened.

She relates this odd, meaningless experience to an astral projection of Kylo Ren. They do something that might be flirting with each other if he wasn’t a eunuch and she wasn’t spayed and lobotomized. There’s one kind of cool part where Kylo encourages Rey to acknowledge that he’s a monster, which she won’t, for some reason. She sees good in him, or something. It’s completely unearned, but who cares.

Kylo tells Rey the story of how Luke tried to kill him, which makes Rey go and demand to know from Luke whether the story Kylo told her is true, which Luke confirms. She acts like Luke lied to hear earlier, except he told her that he turned Kylo Ren evil, and she told him that he didn’t, despite her knowing nothing about what happened. Anyway, she fights Luke and in the middle of a fist & force fight pulls out a light saber and threatens to kill him for no obvious reason.

Oh, right, I forgot to mention that when Rey got to the island planet it turned out that Luke had cut himself off from the force, but that’s fine, because he later reconnected himself to the force before his fist/force fight with Rey.

So Rey goes off to save Kylo Ren. How she knows where he is is anyone’s guess, but that’s fine because she finds him. This renders a sub-plot with a subspace beacon that Rey would use to find the resistance completely moot, but who cares? Certainly not the author.

Rey flies to the delta kite of doom where she is taken prisoner and brought before Dark Lord Snookums. He beats her up with the force a bit, then commands Kylo Ren to kill her. In one of the stupidest climaxes I’ve ever seen, Kylo Ren uses the force to point Rey’s light saber—which Snookums had placed on his arm rest—at Dark Lord Snookums. The Dark Lord had closed his eyes to properly savor the sight of watching the girl killed by her would-be lover, and babbles on about how he’s reading Kylo Ren’s thoughts to cover the sound of the light saber at his side scraping against his metal arm rest. As he’s reaching the climax of delight at how he can sense Kylo Ren preparing to strike down his true enemy, we hear a light saber ignite and Dark Lord Snookums suddenly opens his eyes in surprise—he’s got a light saber going through the middle of him.

Kylo Ren then uses the force to pull the light saber towards him, sideways, and despite only having his torso severed from the middle to the front, Dark Lord Snookums is cut completely in half, and the top half topples down to the ground. The gold lamé bath robe which Dark Lord Snookums had been wearing apparently couldn’t save him. And so VoldemortDark Lord Snookums is dead. Because apparently his species kept its brain in his lower torso. Or something.

Then the longest fight of the movie ensues, lasting almost four minutes, as the praetorian guard attacks Kylo Ren and Rey, who team up for some reason. It’s a fight choreography which would do any no-budget high school production proud—making it somewhat odd in a $250,000,000+ movie. In one great scene, a red armored space knight who had been holding two flaming space daggers grabs Rey and the space dagger in his free hand is photoshopped out because there has to be some explanation for why he doesn’t just stab her with it. Anyway, Space Wizards fight a bunch of warriors armed, armored, and trained, to fight Space Wizards, and the Space Wizards helpfully don’t use any space magic, while the people who trained to fight the Space Wizards helpfully only put on their lightsaber-proof arm guards but used the costume chest plates. (If it turns out that the choreography was bought directly from a low-budget Hong Kong Kung-Fu movie from the 1970s and shot with no adaptations whatever, it would not be surprising, except that even low budget kung fu movies from the 1970s tended to have better fight choreographies. But maybe from a Hong Kong high school indie film?)

Somewhere around here the general whose name I forget that replaced Leia when she was blown out of the bridge and into the vacuum of space and didn’t stop replacing Leia when Leia came back finally reveals her plan. They’re going to get into small unarmed shuttles and fly to a planet which happens to be on their way and moreover happens to have an old Rebel base on it. This will work because the Empire is only scanning for large ships, not for small ships. And apparently no one on the imperial ships looks out their windows, despite lots of people standing by the windows facing outwards. Don’t worry, though, the idiocy of the empire won’t result in the idiocy of the resistance working—the master code breaker overheard the plan when it was being told to Finn and Rose, and then told it to the Empire.

Oh, yeah, Finn and Rose. They’re captured, of course. In perhaps the strangest plot twist of the film, the Master Code Breaker is actually paid by the empire and allowed to go on his way. I guess the writer forgot that they were evil?

Anyway, as they execute the plan, General Evening Gown (I can’t remember her name) stays behind because they don’t have the technology to leave a brick on the accelerator pedal. But it’s as well that she does, because the Delta Kite of Doom immediately starts shooting the unarmored transports as they’re going down to the planet.

I do have to ask, at this point, why it was that no one on the Delta Kite of Doom looked at a star chart and noted that literally the only thing near to the straight line in which the resistance ships were traveling was this planet, and that therefore someone might think to go there? Not that it matters since the betrayal of the Master Code Breaker took the place of someone in the First Order having two brain cells to rub together.

So General Evening Gown turns the her now empty-but-for-her ship around and rams it into the Delta Kite of Doom. But not in any sensible way, like at full impulse power. No. She jumps to light speed. The special effects which accompany this are pretty, but the concept is insane. If it actually worked, everyone would use drone ships with light speed drives as a form of torpedo, and capital ships simply wouldn’t exist. It’s gratuitously dumb because ramming the other ship at full impulse would probably have achieved a similar effect, and it’s not like she actually saved the transport ships. Literally only one of them makes it down to the salt planet.

She does, oddly, save Finn and Rose, however. She hits right as they were about to be executed. They take advantage of the confusion to have a fight with a chrome-covered storm trooper who Finn eventually beats by sucker punching, and then they escape down to the salt planet.

The all-white planet is salt, by the way, not snow. They’re very clear about this. Why the imperial troops who land are wearing their snow outfits is unclear, given how clear they are that it’s salt, not snow, but whatever.

The Rebel Base turns out to be a cave with a giant steel door on the front and no way out. (I love Mr. John C. Wright’s observation that having no emergency exit makes the Rebellion less wise than rabbits.) The Resistance calls for help but no one answers. Then the empire lands with what I’m going to call AT-GTs, because they’re quadrupedal like AT-ATs, except that they look like gorillas (their front legs seem to be walking on their knuckles). These land far away from the base with no weapons because the First Order is incompetent. Also, they’re dragging a large cannon which Finn recognizes because apparently all storm troopers are required to memorize the schematics of all First Order ships and weapons. Anyway, it’s “miniaturized death star technology”.

This may be the stupidest part of the movie yet, but by now one is so numb it’s impossible to feel it properly. This makes as much sense as a dwarf war elephant. The only reason that the Death Star was a threat was because it was a normal weapon scaled up to unimaginably immense proportions. The Death Star didn’t have a magic weapon, it just had an energy delivery system so large that it was the size of a moon. Shrinking that down to something small is like a miniature giant—aka a normal sized person.

That said, a cannon which can melt a large steel door requires no great stretch of the imagination, given their other weapons, so it doesn’t much matter.

The resistance mounts a desperate last stand where they use 30 year old war speeders that have an impressively stupid design. In order to get a red/white contrast, the salt is a thin layer atop blood-red rock, and the speeders are outfitted with a single ski at the bottom which has to contact the ground for the thing to remain stable as it flies above the ground. Thus they leave blood-red tracks against the immaculate white. It’s pretty, but really, really stupid.

They attack the approaching AT-GTs and cannon, but then turn back when they are obviously out-matched. Then Finn is going to go on a suicide run to ram the canon directly, disabling it. Except Rose goes on a semi-suicide run to knock Finn out of his suicide run. As he, bloodied but able to walk, holds her broken body, she tells him that they will win, not by destroying what they hate, but by saving what they love. As she says this, the cannon destroys the giant door to the rebel base. Then Rose steels a kiss from Finn. (It happens off-screen, but apparently he then carries her almost-lifeless body across the mile-or-two of battlefield back to the rebel base.)

It was stupid, pointless, and dumb, and in that sense a perfect encapsulation of this movie.

The AT-GTs eventually come to the front door, where they kind of wait. Then out of nowhere—literally—Luke Skywalker shows up. He just sort of walks out of a dark corner of the base, and people are mildly surprised to see him. Except Leia, who registers no emotion whatever. It turns out that he’s an astral projection, but he doesn’t mention this. He does, however, tell Leia that he can’t save Kylo Ren (who is her son), and she says that her son died a long time ago, implying that it’s fine to kill him now.

Luke then walks out of the base, and Kylo Ren flies down on a shuttlecraft to fight him. Oh, wait. First Kylo Ren ordered the AT-GTs to fire everything that they had at Luke. Then as they’re firing all their weapons, he hysterically screams to fire more. He keeps screaming this for a while until his comic relief second-in-command (the one where in the beginning of the movie Dark Lord Snookums slammed him to the floor and dragged him along a catwalk, in order to berate him ten feet from where he was originally standing) screamed at the men to stop firing. Apparently he was appalled at the waste of good ammunition, or something. But Luke is unhurt and only brushes some dust off of his shoulder. Then Kylo Ren flies down from the AT-GT in a shuttlecraft to face his former master alone.

There is then a thoroughly uninteresting battle where Luke dodges a bit because they want to delay the revelation that he’s a ghost. Oh, and Kylo says something and Luke replies that every part of Kylo’s sentence was wrong, except that it was pretty much all correct. But it was a callback to when he said that before during a scene when he wasn’t teaching Rey (and parts of her sentence were correct, too). So, um, yeah. It’s like good writing, in that it involves words put in order.

At this point the Han Solo replacement (I can’t remember his name either) deduces from Luke showing up that there must be another entrance to the base. It turns out that there is, but this is pure coincidence because Luke isn’t really there. Why Luke didn’t tell them this is anyone’s guess. It would have been useful information. Especially because they spent a lot of valuable time watching the “fight” between Luke and Kylo Ren.

But fortunately there are some crystal foxes in the base which lead the resistance fighters to the exit right as Kylo Ren is discovering that Luke is just a ghost. Then Luke disappears and dies for no obvious reason. He was sweating, though, so perhaps he died of exhaustion? The astral projection power was completely new to this movie, so it can have any side-effects the director wants.

Unfortunately the emergency exit / random tunnel the builders of the for didn’t know about is blocked by a pile of rocks. But fortunately for the people we’ve spent the most time watching in this dumpster fire of a movie (perhaps they’re protagonists?), Rey shows up and uses the force to move the rocks. Differently than anyone else had ever used the force to move rocks, of course, because it’s doubtful that anyone involved with the making of this movie had so much as watched another star wars movie.

Then the remainder of the resistance flies off in the Millenium Falcon. It’s perhaps thirty people. I’d say that the resistance is clearly no longer relevant to the galaxy, but it’s far from clear that they were ever relevant. Granted, they did destroy the First Order’s unstoppable super weapon, but only because the First Order brought it right to the Resistance’s remote base. Had they kept using their unstoppable super weapon to fight the Second Republic, they’d have handily won and the Resistance would still just be a few hundred people in the middle of nowhere looking for a semi-mythical Jedi (who it turns out didn’t want to be found despite having left a map to help find him) rather than doing anything useful.

It utterly baffles me that this movie was made. Supposedly Rian Johnson was chosen to write and direct the film because he had the producer Kathleen Kennedy feel safe. Which, given what Hollywood was like, presumably means she believed he wouldn’t rape her. And, granted, not raping her is definitely a good quality in a writer/director. It is not, it turns out, the sole criteria necessary to make a good movie.

I really wish that we could crowd fund a $150 million shot-for-shot remake of Plan 9 From Outer Space, and use it as the yardstick to measure all future sci-fi movies. Because it’s much better written than this wretched movie, but the better special effects, acting, lighting, costuming, makeup, sound, and photography disguise that fact from some people.

Mystery Commandment #10: Disguises

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The tenth commandment of Detective fiction is:

Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

In his 1939 commentary on his decalogue, Fr. Knox said:

The dodge is too easy, and the supposition too improbable. I would add as a rider, that no criminal should be credited with exceptional powers of disguise unless we have had fair warning that he or she was accustomed to making up for the stage. How admirably is this indicated, for example, in Trent’s Last Case!

A few of these commandments have, over the years, become less applicable simply because people have developed the good sense to not violate them. I think that this commandment may be the one for which that is most the case. I can’t think of a story I’ve read—good or bad—in which twins and other doubles appear.

Well, that’s not quite true. There’s an episode of Scooby Doo where a woman was being framed as a witch by her (unknown) twin sister. And there was a Poirot where a murderer established her alibi by having a famous impersonator pretend to be her at a dinner party—but that certainly follows the commandment since the main thing we know about the impersonator is that she was extraordinarily skilled at pretending to be other people. But those are the only two examples which come to mind.

I should note that I’m thinking about really skillful disguises, where a person can interact with others, in person, for quite some time, and be taken to be someone else who wasn’t really there. Minor disguise, by contrast, is a fairly common device in mysteries. It’s a time-honored tradition to have the murderer pretend to be the victim so as to fake the time of death to a later time for which the murderer has an alibi. So much so that these days if a person overhears a conversation the victim was having through a closed door, or saw the victim doing something but at a great distance and with his face obscured but you could tell it was him because of the bright red scarf he always wore, one’s first thought is that it was the murderer pretending to be the victim. In such a case, woe to anyone who has an alibi for the time the murder is supposed to have happened.

With regard to twins, Fr. Knox’s commentary is interesting: “The dodge is too easy, and the supposition too improbable.” These are two different objections, and not particularly related to each other, though I think the conjunction is important here.

The first objection—that the dodge is too easy—is interesting because it is in a sense the essence of a twist that it is something which explains a lot once you know it. But this is not an intellectual twist; it is, rather, a natural twist. It is an oddity of nature that there should be such things as identical twins. And it is the essence of a mystery that the thing unraveled should have been twisted by the hand of man, not of God. It is legitimate to try to understand the mysteries of God, but it is a very different book in which that is done.

The second objection—the supposition is too improbable—is also interesting because it is the heart and soul of a mystery that the obvious solution is not the correct solution. And twins are not that uncommon. According to the statistics I found when googling, about 1 in 250 births is of identical twins. It’s possible that it’s a little less common in England, but this is not so uncommon that no one would think of it. It’s not nearly as esoteric as, say, a poison which hasn’t been discovered by science yet.

I think it’s the combination of being uncommon and explaining everything which makes it unfair. It’s not the sort of thing so likely that anyone in the story will do anything to rule it out, and it certainly will explain away just about anything inconvenient in the story. As such it’s a perennial possibility that the reader has no good way to rule out. That being the case, it should be ruled out as a matter of course and positive hints as to its possibility included if one is going to go down that route.

Mystery Commandment #9: The Watson

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The ninth commandment of Detective fiction is:

The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

In his 1939 commentary on his decalogue, Fr. Knox said:

This is a rule of perfection; it is not of the esse of the detective story to have a Watson at all. But if he does exist, he exists for the purpose of letting the reader have a sparring partner, as it were, against whom he can pit his brains. ‘I may have been a fool,’ he says to himself as he puts the book down, ‘but at least I wasn’t such a doddering fool as poor old Watson.’

This is an interesting commandment because, as Fr. Knox notes in his commentary, a Watson is entirely optional. Plenty of good detective stories have no Watson. In fact, thinking over my favorite detective series, the only one which has a Watson is Sherlock Holmes—that is, the only Watson in my favorite detective stories is the original.

Occasionally Poirot had Captain Hastings, but he’s much rarer in the actual Poirot stories than he is in the David Suchet TV series. In the Lord Peter Wimsey stories Charles Parker was more of a co-detective than a Watson and Harriet Vane certainly was a co-detective. Hugh Berringar was a co-detective with Cadfael. Jessica Fletcher usually didn’t have anyone investigating with her and the gang in Scooby Doo was a team.

Interestingly, I’ve also read all but one of Fr. Knox’s Miles Bredon mysteries and there is no Watson character in those, either. His wife is sometimes his foil, but she is generally a co-detective, using very complementary skills to his.

As something of an aside, but also somewhat on point, police characters who occupy an in-between state as a sort-of Watson and a sort-of co-detective don’t seem to last. I’m basing this on an admittedly small sample size, but in Lord Peter Wimsey Charles Parker was a major character in the first two books, a fairly prominent character in the third, then progressively dwindled in significance until he becomes just a minor footnote in the last few (he married Lord Peter’s sister before his slide into irrelevance).

In the Miles Bredon stories, Inspector Leyland is a major character in the first two novels, then a mostly ancillary character in the third, and absent entirely from the fourth and fifth novels.

By contrast, the at first under-sheriff and later sheriff Hugh Beringar is absent from only a few Cadfael stories—The Summer of the Danes and Brother Cadfael’s Penance come to mind—which are, admittedly, later on, but The Holy Thief is between them and Hugh is a significant character in it.

It’s interesting to contrast the character of Hugh Beringar with Charles Parker and Inspector Leyland because it gets somewhat to the problems with a partial-Watson. By contrast to the other two, Hugh Beringar was intelligent and quick-witted. A scene which particularly stands out in my memory was from Saint Peter’s Faire, where after telling Cadfael that he too had deduced something Cadfael did, he said, “I may not pick up on all the subtleties but since knowing you’ve I’ve had to keep my wits about me” (or words to that effect). Since he was intelligent he was allowed to have a personality.

Charles Parker and Inspector Leyland, by contrast, partially serving the function of a Watson, couldn’t really have much in the way of personality. An everyman simply can’t be very distinctive or he ceases to be an everyman. It’s not, of course, strictly true that Charles Parker had no personality—we did learn that he read theology in his off hours to relax from his official duties. But we never found out that he learned anything from it; this passtime never informed anything he said.

Leyland didn’t even have any hobbies that I can recall reading about.

What makes these police inspectors different from Watson was, I think, the nature of their attachment to the detective—happenstance. Watson, by contrast, was attached to Holmes by friendship. Oh, granted, Charles Parker was in theory a friend of Wimsey, but we never saw any of it and Wimsey wasn’t really the sort of man to have friends. Holmes and Watson, by contrast, really loved each other and were comrades. Watson accompanied Holmes purely because he was devoted to him and Holmes brought him because Watson was his friend.

Cadfael and Hugh form an interesting comparison to both; Hugh was an officer of the law but also a close friend of Cadfael. In fact, Hugh and Cadfael were close enough that Cadfael was godfather to Hugh’s first son. Even when Hugh had no part in an investigation he might show up to spend Cadfael merely for the pleasure of company. And therein we see what’s necessary for a police friend to stay a character—his office must be his secondary connection to the detective, even if it was his original connection.

It is not viable, long-term, to have the same police inspector working with the same detective on every case. (Though I will grant that Monk made it work to some degree, since Monk was a consultant. Ditto for Sean Spencer in Psyche. That said, police consultants come with their own problems since they need to operate under police rules, and there’s an inherent tension with the police constantly hiring someone to do their job for them. Psych got around this by being a comedy and playing this tension for laughs.)

So coming back to the Watson in a story—I think that Fr. Knox is mostly correct, but a true Watson is the exception rather than the rule. It is common for detectives to not act entirely on their own—it is not good for man to be alone—but co-detectives are far more common and I think generally a better choice. And co-detectives should be intelligent; they are characters on their own, but they are also somewhat of a stand-in for the reader helping the detective and who would prefer to think himself incompetent?

Either way, it works much better for the detective and his associates to have a genuine affection for each other.

Detective Commandment #8: Clues

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The eighth commandment of Detective fiction is:

The detective must not light on any clues are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

In his 1939 commentary on his commandments, Fr. Knox said:

Any writer can make a mystery by telling us that at this point the great Picklock Holes suddenly bent down and picked up from the ground an object which he refused to let his friend see. He whispers ‘Ha!’ and his face grows grave – all that is illegitimate mystery – making. The skill of the detective author consists in being able to produce his clues and flourish them defiantly in our faces: ‘There!’ he says, ‘what do you make of that?’ and we make nothing.

I agree with this commandment, though with some reservations.

Before I get into that, I want to mention a fun fact about where the word “clue” comes from: it was originally “clew,” which meant a ball of yarn or thread. It came to have its current meaning from the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, when Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of yarn—a clew—which enabled him to get out of the maze in which the Minotaur lived. A clew was thus, by metaphor, something which enabled someone to get out of a maze of confusion by following it. (The spelling “clue” came about in the 16th century.)

To begin with my agreement: something I’ve talked about before in my discussion of these commandments is the difference between mystery and mere obscurantism. A mystery is a thing which internal consistency. This internal consistency makes it is possible, through learning some of the pieces, to figure out the rest. Mere obscurantism is just a form of “I’m thinking of a number, try to guess which. It was 7.73792555161789434!” There’s no skill involved in defying someone else to read your mind.

This, along with Commandment #6 (accidents), may be one of the most often broken commandments. Writing mysteries is hard, and resorting to cheap tricks is a perennial temptation. That said, there are ways to break this commandment which are not cheating.

The one which comes to mind first is where the clue is mere confirmation of the detective’s theory. It does have to be a theory which is not only supported by the evidence but the only theory which is—otherwise it violates Commandment #6—but as long as the clue is merely confirmation of what the reader should have guessed, its being withheld is only a way of being playful and signaling to the reader that all of the requisite clues have now been shown.

This does (basically) require a Watson character that the detective is encouraging to guess the solution; if the story is told from an omniscient perspective rather than the perspective of the Watson, this is harder to pull off. The author may have to resort to speaking directly to the reader, as Sayers did in my least favorite of her books (The Five Red Herrings), “Here Lord Peter Wimsey told the Sergeant what he was to look for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted from this page.”

The other way to violate this commandment—fairly—which I can think of is not very significant, but is probably worth mentioning. There is nothing wrong with the detective withholding clues for a short time. If the detective finds several things and refuses to reveal them in the presence of witnesses but waits until he’s alone with his confidant, there is no harm in this. There is no great benefit either, of course, but it can be used to create some drama because of suspicion falling on whoever it was the detective did not want to see the clue.

It is also possible to separate the finding of a clue and the realization that it was a clue as long as the detective is also in the dark at the time it was found. Supposing that there was a penny on a night stand which was a clue, and it was hidden among some other coins, the detective could pick them all up and put them into a bag without noticing the penny, only to realize that the penny might be significant and then to look into the bag to look at the dates on all the coins present. In a technical sense the clue would have been discovered earlier, but only revealed later. This is fair enough in a mystery novel, so long as the detective reveals the clue when he finally looks closely enough at it to notice its significance.

Mystery Commandment #7: Detective Murderers

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The seventh commandment of detective fiction is:

The detective must not himself commit the crime.

In his 1939 commentary on his decalogue, Fr. Knox said:

This applies only where the author personally vouches for the statement that the detective is a detective; a criminal may legitimately dress up as a detective, as in The Secret of Chimneys, and delude the other actors in the story with forged references.

In many ways this is a counterpart to the first commandment, specifically the part about “but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know”, so some of that analysis will apply here.

Incidentally, I can’t help but wonder what Fr. Knox would have thought of the final Poirot novel, Curtain. (Technically, it should be noted, the detective in the novel is Captain Hastings, not Poirot, and there is more than one murderer in the story.) It seems like Agatha Christie made a habit of violating Fr. Knox’s ten commandments and doing it in a way that worked.

Be that as it may, I agree whole-heartedly with this commandment. Having the detective commit the crime destroys the basic structure of a detective story and turns it into a weird mockery of itself; a detective who merely investigates himself becomes nothing but an empty puzzle with no meaning or value.

Having said that, this commandment is one of the least transgressed commandments in detective fiction. There’s a highly practical element to this: most people write series of detective stories featuring the same detective. Having the detective be the murderer once will ruin the enjoyment for the readers of any subsequent stories; having him be the murderer more than once will ruin even the surprise. Who would read a story in which the central mystery was the foregone conclusion of a twist which can be relied upon? So the mere fact that mysteries are written as series tends to safeguard writers from this bad decision. It is true that sometimes self-interest will do the work of virtue.

Mystery Commandment #6: Accidents

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The sixth commandment of detective fiction is:

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

In his 1939 commentary on his decalogue, Fr. Knox said:

That is perhaps too strongly stated; it is legitimate for the detective to have inspirations which he afterwards verifies, before he acts on them, by genuine investigation. And again, he will naturally have moments of clear vision, in which the bearings of the observations hitherto made will become suddenly evident to him. But he must not be allowed, for example, to look for the lost will in the works of the grandfather clock because an unaccountable instinct tells him that that is the right place to search. He must look there because he realizes that that is where he would have hidden it himself if he had been in the criminal’s place. And in general it should be observed that every detail of his thought – process, not merely the main outline of it, should be conscientiously audited when the explanation comes along at the end.

This may be the commandment in Fr. Knox’s decalogue with which I agree most strongly (with a few caveats). Curiously, along with Commandment #8 (the detective must not conceal evidence from the reader), this may be the commandment which is most often broken in detective fiction.

I agree with it because the whole point of a detective is to detect, not merely to be the recipient of pure luck. Pure luck is the domain of comedies or, in some curious cases, of tragedies. It is not the domain of detective fiction. And I should note that this is true whether one is talking about play-fair detective fiction or not. Even if the reader has no earthly way to guess the solution to the problem, the detective should.

This really gets to the question of what a detective story is. A Franciscan friar to is a good friend of mine suggested that the fundamental structure of a detective story is that some villain, through the misuse of reason, has disturbed the natural order of things and that the detective, through the right use of a superior reason, restores the right ordering of things. It is, fundamentally, the Christian story—humanity has messed up the world and God condescends with us to restore it.

This structure to the detective story only works if it is the detective whose right use of reason restores the natural order. Luck and unaccountable intuitions are to detective fiction what the Gnostic and later Arian heresies were to Christianity. Just as those heresies turned Christ into a creature and thus from a savior into a mere conduit of information, luck and unaccountable intuitions turn the detective from a savior into a mere conduit of information. If Christ is a creature, and the detective merely a lucky fool, neither is capable of saving himself, let alone us.

This rule is violated so often precisely because writing detective fiction is hard. This is especially true of mystery novels. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, mystery novels and mystery short stories are fundamentally different creatures. The short story is a puzzle at the end of which—preferably on the next page—is a solution. The novel must be the tale of the assembly of all the clues necessary to solve the problem or the author must pick whether he wants the story to be unsolvable or to drag on long after it should have finished.

But to make a mystery novel the tale of the assembly of all the necessary clues, there must be some reason why the clues satisfy two opposing conditions:

  1. They are not readily available
  2. They are available

There are a variety of ways to satisfy these two—if not, there would be no detective fiction—but they tend to boil down to a few generalities:

  1. You have to figure out where to look.
  2. The clue doesn’t exist yet.
  3. You already have the clue but it doesn’t mean anything until you find additional evidence satisfying some other condition on this list.

(To be clear, how one goes about doing these things are what make the story, and there are endless ways to do these in fresh and interesting ways.)

The second type of clue—the clue only coming into existence later in the story—requires a certain type of story to work; specifically, one where the murderer is still active. It’s a great type of story, but if it’s not the story one is writing, it’s not an available option. And in that case, we’re left with #1 and #3. And the obtaining of clues which make other clues significant in #3 will resolve into #1, most of the time, because otherwise it’s a police procedural, not a detective story.

So the big trick to writing a mystery story is really figuring out where to look for clues. And the mystery writer is hung, to some degree, on the horns of a dilemma: if the location of the clues are obvious, anyone could follow them up. If the location of the clues are not obvious, why on earth would the detective think to look for them where they are?

There are, of course, ways to unhook oneself from the horns of this dilemma; this commandment forbids the author from simply waving the problem away.

This post is already long enough, but I will mention the ways to unhook oneself from this dilemma, if briefly (and, I should note, they generally work best when combined):

  • Specialized knowledge—this runs the risk of being simply esoteric, rather than mysterious, but in a detective story which is more educational than adventurous, the detective giving away the requisite knowledge when he comes across the clue can make for an enjoyable story. Detectives are, after all, supposed to be not merely brilliant, but also learned. And mystery readers do, as a rule, enjoy learning things. They do need to be real things, though (see rule #4, poisons).
  • Psychological insight—Probably the best example of this is Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. If the detective can think like the criminal he will be able to predict what the criminal did and therefore where to look for clues.
  • Gaining the trust of people who have clues—this can easily be done badly (chiefly where the person shouldn’t need his trust to be gained), but it is an extremely workable way to withhold clues for a time. This all too often is an occasion for the detective to become a liar, though; gaining trust under false pretenses is distressingly common in detective fiction.
  • Legwork needed—This is a case where the insight of the detective leads to knowing, not exactly where a clue is, but a small number of places to look. It will take time to explore all of the possibilities until finding the clue. (This works best when there is some reason the possibilities must be investigated by the detective himself, generally to be found elsewhere on this list.)
  • Labwork, police work, etc—chemical analysis of substances, the interviewing of every lawyer in London or everyone living within three blocks of the murder, etc. all take a lot of time. When this is done off-screen, it produces space in which the detective can be doing something interesting. N.B. That interesting thing that the detective does while the poor off-screen laborers toil in the clue-mines should be something that either explains the clue when it comes in or else the arrival of the clue should have no value other than to explain what the detective found while he was occupying the reader’s attention. Anyone can cavort with an attractive member of the opposite sex for a few days until the solution to the problem they have not advanced a wit falls into their lap.
  • Delayed clues—this needs to be used with extreme care because it can easily become cheating, but clues which only show up once the post office has delivered them, or after some device with a timer reveals them, can work. The clue absolutely has to be mysterious on its own, and require everything the detective did in the interim to be meaningful, or the author has wasted the reader’s time until the clue shows up. The reverse could, in theory, work; but it doesn’t work. That is, the previous work being mysterious until the clue shows up in the mail will always feel like a cheap deus ex machina. In either case, there has to be a very good reason why the clue was intentionally delayed, and moreover, it absolutely cannot be the clue which solves the mystery.

There are probably other ways, too, though they’re likely to be some sort of variant on the methods above. And I want to stress again that giving a general description of the structure in no way implies that the stories must be formulaic or un-creative; the beauty of any story is in its specifics. It is no more saying that a story is formulaic because there are only so many workable structures for their plots than it saying that all people look alike to say that all men have the same bones in their skeleton. A man without a skull is not bold and daring, and a man with a skull is not boring and repetitive. It’s what’s inside his skull that really counts.

Mystery Commandment #5: Chinamen

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The fifth commandment of mystery fiction is:

No Chinaman must figure in the story.

In his 1939 commentary on his decalogue, Fr. Knox said:

Why this should be so I do not know, unless we can find a reason for it in our western habit of assuming that the Celestial is over-equipped in the matter of brains, and under-equipped in the matter of morals. I only offer it as a fact of observation that, if you are turning over the pages of a book and come across some mention of ‘the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo’, you had best put it down at once; it is bad. The only exception which occurs to my mind—there are probably others—is Lord Ernest Hamilton’s Four Tragedies of Memworth.

This is a rule that, in its specifics, is really only about a time and place in which most of us do not live (England in the 1920s and 1930s). But I think we can both generalize it and answer the question of why it was so at the same time.

Let’s start by looking at the phrase which Fr. Knox suggests is a sufficient warning-sign of a bad book: “the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo”.

The first thing to notice about this phrase is that it’s simply wrong. The epicanthic fold typical of the Chinese (and others) looks different than the eyes of those who don’t have them, but it really does not make the eye look like a slit. Eyes look like slits when the eyelid is mostly closed, and this is true of all human beings. Saying that the Chinese were “slit-eyed” was a sort of cant, not an actual description.

One of the curious things about literary traditions (whether in the printed word or in movies and television) is how much it is possible for storytelling to reference other stories, rather than real life. It can be a valuable sort of short-hand, but it can also perpetuate entirely fake atmospheres and backstories.

And the slit-eyed Chin Loo is, I suspect, exactly this sort of reference to an evocative but bad story. I have no idea where the unrealistic Chinaman first appeared in English fiction, but I strongly suspect that it was in a very vividly told story, all the more vivid for being new. This will have impressed people, who borrow elements of the story for themselves, and among those whose experience of the world—or at least of the Chinese—comes primarily from books rather than from people, this becomes its own sort of reality.

So we have the first element of why a book which references “the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo” is a bad book—it is a book which is fictionalizing, not real life, but another book. This is fine for satires, of course, since that’s what a satire is—but a satire is all about the distance between another book and reality. As we have a copy of a copy of a copy, the distance to reality will get further and further without the author realizing it.

(There is, also, the simple correlation that lazy authors rarely write good books, but I pass that observation as uninteresting.)

The other thing we can see in the phrase “the slit-like eyes of Chin Loo” is a cheap form of exoticism which, in detective stories, is often a means of obscurantism. By obscurantism, I mean making the story appear mysterious, not by creating a tangle, but simply by referring to knowledge not commonly held, but if known, makes the entire thing clear from the beginning. For example, if you knew at the outset of a story that the Mexican mocking tarantula leaves a bite that looks exactly like the byte of the (east Asian) king cobra and moreover that it is driven into a fury whenever a red-headed woman sings “hush little baby” at night, the death of a red-headed woman whose window was open and who bears what looks like the bite of a king cobra, and who moreover was in the habit of singing “hush little baby” each night for some reason, would not be a mystery at all. No more than a person who died of a dog bite where there is a vicious dog nearby would be.

A mystery requires an apparent contradiction, at least of the evidence to a probably innocent person, but better yet an apparent contradiction to telling us who the murderer is. In extreme cases it can be an apparent contradiction to there being a murder at all. It should not be, simply, the ignorance of the reader to the obvious solution.

The worst form of obscurantism, it should be noted, is the obscurantism of purely fictitious knowledge. It is bad enough when a man looks to have died of natural causes but was actually poised by a rare but real poison that, had the reader known of it, would have been obvious from the start. It’s simply intolerable when the poison doesn’t really exist. (But about poisons specifically, that’s rule #4.) And this goes equally well for motives. The specifics of the motive will, necessarily, be fictitious. This is owing to the fact that all the people in the story are fictitious. But the type of motive must be real. If the victim transgressed a point of honor which is not a point of honor among any real people, this is simply cheating.

And here we come to Mr. Loo, who, in being so exotic, can be made to be anything the author needs in the moment. He can kill because he’s a member of a sect whose dark god demands it, or because of some arcane business deal back in China, or because of some strange rule in the triad in which Mr. Loo is an agent. He has easy access to poisons we don’t know about, ways of killing use hair-thin needles or even just properly applied pressure, and all sorts of other means of killing about which the reader can know nothing because they are made up, but which the author does not necessarily feel is cheating because they were first made up in other books. He may interfere with evidence for arcane reasons of Chinese superstition. In short, being completely fake, he may be anything and the reader has no way of guessing what.

So I think that the other generalization of this rule is also a generalization of rule #4—the people must be fake but the motivations, tools, reactions, etc. of those fake people must all be real.

Mystery Commandment #4: Poisons and Devices

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The fourth commandment of mystery fiction is:

No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

In his 1939 commentary on the commandments, Fr. Knox said, about this:

There may be undiscovered poisons with quite unexpected reactions on the human system, but they have not been discovered yet, and until they are they must not be utilized in fiction; it is not cricket. Nearly all the cases of Dr. Thorndyke, as recorded by Mr. Austin Freeman, have the minor medical blemish; you have to go through a long science lecture at the end of the story in order to understand how clever the mystery was.

With regard to poisons, building on my earlier musings on poisons, I think the poisons really in question are those which ape death by natural causes. A heretofore undiscovered poison which kills in a way that is unmistakably by poison—if the victim’s face turns neon yellow, then he can’t breathe and, gasping, dies, then afterwards his entire body becomes fluorescent green and glows int he dark for two full days—I suspect that this would be cricket. It would be odd, to be sure, but there is certainly no clue being hidden from the reader. The author would just about have to go out of his way to have the detective recognize this fictional poison but not tell the reader about how it can be obtained and administered.

The real problem, I think, is a fictional poison which mimics natural causes. The fictional poison is, in this case, indistinguishable from magic, as far as the reader is concerned. The author can invent any fictional poison with any properties that he wants, so there is no way for the reader to guess what fictional poison the author invented.

Even this could be managed, though, with a bit of work. The trick would be to require that some poison must be deducible, and further, what innocent place the murderer hid the poison must also be deducible. I think it would have to culminate in the detective trying to force the murderer to eat the innocent thing and having him refuse. (Probably an alternative is trying the food out on a guinea pig, but in these sensitive days animal testing may not go over well with audiences.)

I think the case against the long science lecture at the end is more self-evident. The purpose of mystery fiction is to be fun, not to take the place of a college course. The other problem with coming at the end is that the mystery was thus cheating; if the long science lecture couldn’t have come earlier without giving away the plot, the mystery was mysterious only by being esoteric. There is no real difference here with require a long lecture in art history or reading the Chinese language; if the solution is easy given a certain set of background knowledge, the mystery is mysterious only by being obscure. And being obscure is the easiest thing in the world.

It is sometimes possible to work in a long science lecture at the beginning or in the middle of a work of detective fiction, since this becomes more interesting by clearly being a possible key to the problem, and moreover its placement prevents the author from being merely obscure instead of mysterious. That said, it’s probably still best to avoid it, or at least break it up into pieces.

Mystery Commandment #3

In this series, I examine the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The third commandment of mystery fiction is:

Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

Fr. Knox’s 1939 commentary was:

I would add that a secret passage should not be brought in at all unless the action takes place in the kind of house where such devices might be expected. When I introduced one into a book myself, I was careful to point out beforehand that the house had belonged to Catholics in penal times. Mr. Milne’s secret passage in The Red House Mystery is hardly fair; if a modern house were so equipped – and it would be villainously expensive – all the countryside would be quite certain to know about it.

The secret passage was a common feature of detective fiction in the golden age of detective fiction (the inter-war period, roughly, 1919-1939), at least in English detective fiction. It’s far less common in American detective fiction for the reason which Fr. Knox mentions—it would be extraordinarily expensive to build a secret passage into a modern house. In very modern times it’s probably a little more doable, though it likely would have difficulty passing building codes and inspection (especially since inspections for house construction happen in phases, before the drywall is put up to conceal the interior of the walls).

But more to the point, there isn’t really much of any reason to put a secret passage into a house built at pretty much any time in America. In medieval England they were built into castles because castles were military fortifications and having an escape hole can be a good idea in a siege. During the time when the English monarchy was persecuting Catholic priests and executing them, recusant Catholics (in the aristocracy) would install priest holes and secret passages for getting priests into and out of their houses because getting the sacraments was worth a lot of money and trouble.

Houses in America were never designed as military fortifications—American houses were all constructed in the age of the canon—and it was never so illegal to be a Catholic in America that one had to hide priests in secret rooms to protect their lives from a police force which actively searched for them.

Basically, while in old English buildings secret passages might be a holdover from a time when they made sense, there was never a time in America where a secret passage in a house was anything but an eccentricity.

It is just doable to put a secret passage in an American house as an eccentricity—a rich old man who liked to spy on his guests, that sort of thing—but about the only place one can actually find secret passages in American buildings are related to the speakeasies during prohibition. However, those will pretty much all have been disassembled by now since commercial architecture (in America) doesn’t tend to last. The other problem is that a secret passage from, say, a nickel-and-dime store into what used to be a speakeasy and is now a storage room or perhaps a jewelry store or a hair salon doesn’t have a ton of possibility.

It has some possibility, of course. I don’t think it would work for two businesses which are open at the same time, but perhaps going from a closed business to kill someone in the open business could work. That said, the field of possible suspects is likely to be either too big or too small, depending on whether the store was broken into (or, equivalently, a customer stayed behind closing) or someone had to have the key to it.

Having said all of this, secret passages serve an odd function even in English mysteries. One of their principle uses is as a solution to a locked room mystery. The problem with them as such a solution is that they border on magic. The author can put the secret passage from anywhere to anywhere—with respect to the plot, if not precisely with respect to the architecture of the house—much like a magic spell can overcome any limitations (such as a locked room) without giving away anything about the sorcerer.

That said, a secret passage can still be interesting if it has some sort of complicated lock and there are clues to how to solve the lock to open the secret passage. And I’m happy to say that such a mystery would comply with Fr. Knox’s rule, since the existence of the secret passage must be known in order for the clues as to how one finds and opens the secret passage to make any sense at all.

Forensic Detection

It just occurred to me that in the matter of detective fiction, during the early days of mysteries, the private detective was often on the forefront of forensic analysis of evidence. Sherlock Holmes ran all sorts of chemical analyses and Lord Peter Wimsey dusted for fingerprints. Holmes was famous for examining things with his magnifying glass and Lord Peter would send all sorts of samples off to chemists he knew for analysis. With plenty of exceptions, the police tended to content themselves with taking witness statements, seeing who got the most money in the victim’s will, and jumping to conclusions.

The forensic habits of modern detectives seem, by contrast, muted. Again, I’m sure that there are plenty of exceptions, but I think that modern police have acquired a reputation for having forensic teams which are very professional and thorough, and moreover have access to forensic labs which have extraordinarily expensive equipment.

I’m not sure why this should spoil the fun; there are professionals who made all of the gadgets which MacGyver made during his adventures, yet it was always interesting when MacGyver made them.

I suspect that the answer actually lies in the realm of genre, rather than structure. There is an entire genre of mystery called the “police procedural”. In it the story isn’t really so much of a mystery as merely following the police on the twists and turns as new evidence shows up, much of it forensic in nature. If one still watched broadcast television, I believe one could watch a different show each night in which the police sequence DNA to identify people.

If one really likes that sort of thing, one can get far more of it from police procedurals. As a result, there’s less fun in including it in mystery novels.

There’s another element, which is that DNA sequencing is a bit too much like magic to really fit into a detective story. Granted, it’s not all that conceptually different from fingerprints, but I don’t think that fingerprints really lasted long as a denouement—if they ever were much of one. Fingerprints because a standard part of police procedure in the west in the very early 1900s, so in the 1910s a detective dusting for them had at least the element of novelty to it.

They’re not really interesting, however. In the structure of a story, a fingerprint or DNA sample which proves who the murderer was is not really any different from a witness who was found at the end of the book. If that’s the solution, the detective did not really solve anything, he merely found someone who knew the answer and asked.

As such in modern detective stories, fingerprints and DNA evidence become like cell phones in horror movies—a nuisance which the author must spend a little effort to explain away. In modern horror movies there tends to be a scene where the main character either doesn’t have cell reception or his phone has run out of battery. In mystery novels our culprits must wear gloves and possibly scrub the floor with bleach.