Dysfunctional Families in Murder Mysteries

I was recently watching the Murder, She Wrote episode It’s a Dog’s Life with my eldest son and it occurred to just how much dysfunctional wealthy families are a staple of murder mysteries.

It’s not the wealthy part that’s at all surprising—it’s well known that the two most common motives for murder in detective fiction are sex and money—but the dysfunctional part. Or at least that they’re obviously dysfunctional.

This is probably more a staple of modern detective fiction like Murder, She Wrote than it is of golden age detective fiction, I should add, though one can certainly find it in golden age detective fiction too.

The reason I find it a little surprising is, roughly, two-fold:

  1. It’s somewhat at odds with the idea of concealing the murderer
  2. It makes the victim less sympathetic

Curiously, that last part is papered over quite frequently—almost as if the authors don’t notice it. But it’s simply not avoidable. One child turning out badly could be attributable to free will but a parent who badly spoiled all his children is, simply, a bad parent.

You can see this same problem in The Big Sleep. The old man who hires Philip Marlowe was—according to the story, and if I recall correctly, according to the old man himself—a radically selfish man who didn’t actually raise his own children. Granted, in that story the wayward child didn’t kill its father, but still, it made the old man very unsympathetic. It also made Marlowe’s loyalty to him incomprehensible. Why be loyal to a man who’s only reaping the results of his own bad behavior?

The other problem with with this approach is that—however suited it is for coming up with a convincing murder—it makes for unpleasant detection. If everyone is distasteful, the story of finding out which of them committed the crime will be distasteful, too. The solution to this is frequently to have a lone sympathetic character in the story, but this also raises problems.

The first and most obvious is what on earth the sympathetic person is doing in the company of the others. Decent people rarely associate with awful people for the pragmatic reason that awful people try to drag everyone else down with them. There’s also the somewhat more subtle psychological fact that awful people rarely like decent people. And if they’re thrown together by being in the same family, this then requires an explanation of why on earth one turned out differently than the rest. (I think that having different mothers or different fathers is a semi-common solution to this problem, but it introduces real issues of judgment. There’s no judgment call more important than picking a good parent for your children.)

Getting back to the first point, there’s also the issue of creating overly obvious suspects. The wife and child of a rich man are the obvious suspects in a murder mystery under any conditions—the eternal question is cui bono? (Who benefits?) So in a sense making the family dysfunctional is shifting the question from “could it be them” to “is this a head-fake or a double-head-fake?” Which is a legitimate sort of mystery, but it is a bit limiting because it means the story almost certainly will focus on opportunity and alibis. I will grant, however, that it can be a good way of distracting from other people with motives—inheritors are not always the only people who benefit from a rich man’s death.

None of the above is meant to say that this situation cannot be made to work, only that it’s got some inherent difficulties that are often overlooked.

Time Chasers

I recently came across a fascinating interview with David Giancola, director of the movie Time Chasers. A cult classic after it was aired on Mystery Science Theater 3000, Time Chasers is connected in my mind to Hobgoblins which was also an early movie from an independent director which became far more famous and made vastly more money than anyone expected once it was featured on MST3K. They’re also two of my favorite MST3K episodes.

About a year ago I started doing some research into Hobgoblins. Like all low-budget films, it made extensive use of a few locations. Then when re-watching Time Chasers, I realized how much bigger a film Time Chasers was. It had far more locations, more props, flying planes, a crashed car. The thing which really made me notice, though, was the fight scene on the wing of a flying airplane. It’s not brilliant, but all things considered it actually looks decent.

That’s hard. And not cheap.

That’s when I looked up the budgets for the movies. Hobgoblins had a budget of $15,000 while Time Chasers had a budget ten times that—exactly; it’s budget was $150,000. Though I discovered reading the interview that that’s not entirely accurate. Time Chasers originally had a $40,000 budget but then secured additional funding as it was going over budget (it took three years between the beginning of the project and the end of post-production). Still, a budget ten times as large shows.

In the interview David Giancola mentions that they get compared to movies where the catering budget was larger than the entire budget for Time Chasers. I think it’s worth noting that the reason it gets compared to big budget movies is that while it’s not nearly as good as a big budget movie, it’s comparable. Hobgoblins is not. And I think it’s impressive that David Giancola managed to accomplish that at the age of twenty (to twenty three) on such a small budget.

I’ve said before (though I forget whether I said it on this blog) that the biggest fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 are probably people who would love to be part of making a movie. There’s a magic to movies. We enjoy MST3K so much because we know that we’d happily make a cheesy movie if that’s all we had the budget for. We’re really laughing at ourselves.

Though we also enjoy thinking about what we’d do better. For example, I wouldn’t name the main villain Generic Corporation. (It took me something like ten viewings to realize that’s what Gen Corp. stood for.)

But ultimately I think this is why Time Chasers works so well for Mystery Science Theater 3000. It feels like it’s within reach, but it’s pretty good for something that’s within reach. So, hat’s off to David Giancola. He made a much better movie than most people would have on such a small budget.

And watching it with Mike, Crow, and Tom Servo has given me many hours of enjoyment.

Pride & Prejudice and Gaudy Night

My favorite novel is Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Among my favorite mysteries is Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. I don’t know how often they are connected in other people’s minds but they are connected strongly in mine, and in case this is not universal, I’d like to explain why. (Spoilers will follow, so if you haven’t read both, go do that now.)

Both novels are, fundamentally, stories of reconciliation. Pride & Prejudice includes the incidents which separate Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, but the real story is that of them coming together. Gaudy Night does include a bit of the strange and strained relationship between Harriet Vane and Lord Peter—and, if one wants to be tedious, a mystery—but it too is a tale of the fixing of a relationship.

But these are not merely reconciliations. Reconciliation can be done in many ways, such as the revelation of information which fixes a mistake, as in the movie Top Hat or the Shakespearean play, Much Ado About Nothing. But both Pride & Prejudice and Gaudy Night are reconciliations in which the characters reconcile with each other by improving themselves.

Also curious about both is that this improvement is effected both through the help of the other, as well as by the help of someone else acting viciously. The improvement thus becomes a push-pull. The protagonists are both pulled toward virtue but also pushed toward it by the bad example of the witness of vice.

It only takes a few sentences but I think it is a very important part of Pride & Prejudice when Elizabeth hears her sister say that Wickham didn’t care two farthings for Miss King—who could about such a nasty little freckled thing, and that though incapable of such coarseness of expression, the coarseness of the sentiment was little other than her own breast had harboured and fancied liberal. This was one of the first moments of true self-knowledge for Elizabeth, though it was led up to, certainly, by previous realizations.

It reminds me very greatly of how Harriet saw a picture of herself in Violet Cattermole’s desire to bite the hand of her friend toward whom she was always having to be grateful. Harriet’s advice in this case was quite interesting and also a piece of self-insight; she advised Violet that if she disliked being grateful she should stop doing things that would require her to be grateful to others.

Harriet’s being tried for murder was in a sense bad luck, but it was bad luck that she had let herself in for by living with the poet on terms other than marriage. Had she done what she ought, she’d never have been tried for murder. Had Violet Cattermole not went out without leave and gotten drunk, she’d not have had to be grateful to her friend for helping her into her room and nursing her. Though Harriet didn’t say it, I think she realized in the moment of giving advice that her own bitterness at gratitude was not, in fact, bitterness at being grateful. It was bitterness at her own misbehavior. Genuine gratitude is a pleasure; what Harriet disliked so much was having to acknowledge her own bad judgment.

There is a curious aspect to repentance: it is difficult not because one must do something differently, but because one must admit that one was formerly wrong. The meaning of hell is that it can be so painful to admit that one was wrong that people can cling to it instead of letting themselves be happy. Curiously, the feeling which attends admitting that one was wrong is a freeing feeling. It’s also, interestingly, freeing in social circumstances. If one announces a mistake oneself, most people don’t care past whatever trouble is now involved in fixing it. It can be amazing how much, if one takes all of the blame one is due, no one else bothers to give it to one. There’s probably something in here related to, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.

Gaudy Night

I recently finished re-reading Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. It is the second to last of her Lord Peter Wimsey novels and, in fiction at any rate, may reasonably be considered her magnum opus. (As a warning, this is not a review but just the jotting down of some thoughts. It is meant for those who have read the book or who don’t mind spoilers. If you’re neither person, you would be best advised to put his post down and go read Gaudy Night. As the standard joke runs: go do it now. I’ll wait.)

Reading Gaudy Night is always a mixed experience for me. On the one hand, it’s a a triumph of a book. It’s got some of the most vivid, living characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. It’s got an excellent plot which is excellent both as a mystery and as a story of the characters who are caught up in the mystery. It has an excellent setting. It is very well told. It has fascinating and important themes. It handles the long-running romance between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane with great skill and brings it to a very satisfying conclusion.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is related to why the atheistic children of atheists can’t tell good stories. This might sound strange to the people who know that Dorothy L. Sayers was a very well educated and intelligent Christian woman. There are better examples of it, but her book The Mind of the Maker, for example, is none the less a good example of the fact.

The problem is that there are limits to how good a story even a Christian can tell with atheistic characters. The atheistic child of atheists is far more limited because he simply has no good stories to tell. Atheism is the supposition that life is not, in fact, a narrative, but merely a meaningless set of coincidences. Such a person can suspend his disbelief, but he will simply have nothing to suspend it for. His parents will not have told him any really human stories, and being an atheist himself he will not have encountered them, either.

A different, but related, problem faces the Christian who is writing a story entirely about atheists. It is that all good stories must flow out of the characters in them. Characters who do not generate the story but to whom the story simply happens are not characters but mere props, possibly of the seen characters and possibly of unseen characters. And the most you can get out of atheistic characters is seeing the problems of life.

Atheists cannot have answers to any of the problems of life for the very simple reason that atheism does not allow for the possibility of meaning in life. (They will whine to you about “the meaning they give their life”. It is nothing but awkward when an adult tells you about the games of pretend they like to play. I mean that literally, by the way. The meaning an atheist chooses to give to life exists only in his mind and goes away as soon as he stops creating it. This is no different than pretending to ride a giant seagull named Harry.)

All themes raised in a book with only atheistic characters—or where the only non-atheists are fools—can thus never say anything about the themes it brings up except to point out that some false answer or other is not true. This can be valuable but it cannot be satisfying. It’s going to dinner and being told that the ham is poisoned. It’s good to know. One leaves just as hungry as one came, though.

One of the great themes of Gaudy Night is that principles hurt people. But it leaves unexplored—or only implicitly explored—that a lack of principles hurt people even more. And, more to the point, that it is only principles that make living worthwhile in the first place.

For example, when Annie was complaining that the lie her historian husband had told never hurt anyone, no one pointed out to her that the only reason he had even had his job in the first place was because he was trusted to tell the truth. If they were to abandon the principle that the truth mattered, he’d have lost his job, instead of by being the wrong man for the job, but by there being no job at all.

Instead they talked of how the truth is important than personal attachments. And so it is; anyone who loves father and mother more than Christ is not worthy of him. But this is a Christian idea—as is, really, the university. I don’t mean that students coming to wise men to learn is Christian—one obviously finds that throughout time and place. Rather, the idea that all of the truth is sacred is a uniquely Christian attitude. You simply don’t find it outside of Christianity; everyone else takes the far more reasonable position that there are big truths and little truths and the latter are inconsequential compared to the former. Most people hold that here’s one truth of overriding importance and everything else should give way beside it. It is not truth that Christianity elevated. To love some truth is simply to be human. It is the elevation of little truths that is uniquely Christian. Christianity is unique among the religions and philosophies of the world for raising up the lowly. All sane men agree that life is a hierarchy; the unique contribution of Christianity is not that the lower should serve the higher, but the higher should also stoop down to serve the lower. The very strange thing about Christianity is that the son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

And this is what is uniquely Christian about a university. It is the attitude that facts which don’t matter, do matter. Which is why in our own time the universities are disintegrating before our eyes. Some take refuge in engineering; others take refuge in pretending that their incredibly minor disciplines are central to life. Most are simply taking advantage of the shade while the building is still standing. But anyone with eyes can see that the thing won’t be standing for many more decades.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ time the conclusion was not yet so obvious, but the problem was certainly visible. The thing which prevents Gaudy Night from being a completely triumph is that, in the end, no one answered Annie. They didn’t answer Annie because no one had an answer. They didn’t have an answer for her because they didn’t have an answer for anyone. Atheists have no answers. It’s why they always feel so daring when they ask questions. They know, on some level, that merely asking questions will take a sledgehammer to the foundations and it will be discovered that the whole edifice is painted cardboard.

In the end, I think it’s very symbolic that the problem was dealt with “medically”. They had no arguments, they had only force. But they didn’t even have the courage of their convictions to use the force; they had to pay someone else who would soothingly pretend that they weren’t using force.

In a sense this conclusion was merely true to life. The events of the story take place in its year of publication: 1935. World War II was four short years off, but you could hear it coming in Gaudy Night. The project of living a Christian life without being Christian was coming to a close. Which ultimately makes Gaudy Night a book about failure. It’s a very good book, and a very important book. But this limits it. Failure is, in this world, only a prelude. The true story of life is, ultimately, about victory.


If you like Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, consider checking out my own murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

The Disclaimer on Gaudy Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novel Writers Should Read Novels?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing a Novel is Hard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Syn, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh

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

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

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

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

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

When Mary Met Sue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outraged Detectives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whether Magic Should Have Rules

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

In case it goes away, Andrew said:

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

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

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

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

Authors only need wisdom.

Moana Is Kind of OK as a Movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unpleasantness At the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers

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

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

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


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

tddowb


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In-Genre Fiction is Dull Outside of It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord Peter Wimsey is Very Rich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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