Talking of the Past in the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Especially the Lies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On The Seventh Day God Rested

On the seventh day, God rested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Do Moderns Write Morally Ambiguous Good Guys?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

His best just wasn’t good enough.

Sequels Shouldn’t Reset To the Original

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least on purpose.

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

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

Taking a Page from Scooby Doo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Moderns Always Modernize Stories

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

It’s because they’re Modern.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(From The Revival of Philosophy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s because they’re Modern.

Investigating Suicides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress Report

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

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

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

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

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

America’s Sweethearts

I’ve written before about the movie America’s Sweethearts. I would like to add to those thoughts, since I’ve watched it a few more times since then. (It’s one of a handful of movies I watch while debugging code because it helps to keep me from getting distracted while I wait for compiles, and because I know it so well it doesn’t distract me from doing the work because I always know what happens next.)

One of the very curious things about the movie America’s Sweethearts is that all of its characters are bad. (For those who are not familiar with it, America’s Sweethearts is a romantic comedy.) The show opens with the information that the titular couple of Eddie Thomas and Gwen Harrison has split. During the filming of their most recent and now last movie together, Time Over Time, Gwen took up with a Spanish actor and left Eddie. Eddie went crazy and tried to kill them, then retreated to a sort of faux-hindu wellness center and stayed there.

This is recapped fairly early on; the plot of America’s Sweethearts begins with the director of Time Over Time refusing to show the movie to the head of the studio until the press junket, when the press would see it at the same time as everyone else. This causes the head of the studio to panic and re-hire Lee, the studio’s publicist who he had fired as a cost-saving measure, to put together the junket because his talents really do match his salary. The only other major character is Kiki, Gwen’s sister (it’s unspecified who is older; they might even be fraternal twins, which would help to explain shared high school experiences). She’s a mousy creature whose life is mostly taken up pleasing the whims of her famous sister, but she’s played by Julia Roberts so you know that won’t last through the end of the movie.

We now have all of the major characters: an adulterer, a lunatic, an unscrupulous businessman, a wimpy woman who lets herself by tyrannized by her awful sister, a publicist who follows the line which Hercule Poirot’s friends said of him: he would never tell the truth if a lie would suffice.

And what’s really weird is that they’re a loveable cast, and it’s a really enjoyable movie, even though it is not a redemption arc for most of them.

I think that part of what makes it work—apart from the massive charisma of all of the actors, which cannot be understated as a causal element—is that the characters’ vices, while not repented of, are not excused, either.

The movie has something like a happy ending for about half of the characters in it, but it is very fitting because it’s a very small happy ending. The head of the studio gets a movie which has a lot of legal liabilities but which might make enough money to cover them. The publicist has what is probably going to be a successful movie. The adulterer is embarrassed, but she stays with her Spaniard for whatever that is worth. Eddie and Kiki wind up together, but shortly before they decide to give it a try, Kiki prognosticates that it’s never going to work, and she might well be right.

I think that ultimately what makes the movie work is the subconsciously stoic theme that vice is its own punishment, and so successful vice is still punished vice. America’s Sweethearts is all about people who do not deserve their natural virtues—beauty, fame, wealth, power—who are punished by getting to keep them. But—and this is an important but—the movie is so short that one is left with the hope that the punishment may serve its purpose and the people may in time learn to repent.

This may be the formula for all successful movies about vicious people (that is, people who practice vice). At least where they do not repent. Redemption stories are probably better. But if a story about vicious people is not going to be about their redemption, I think the story of how they are punished by success may be the only other option for a good story.

Because good stories need to be true to life.

Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

On a twitter thread, I proposed the idea that the main distinction between Science Fiction and fantasy is whether people prefer spandex uniforms or robes:

I did mean this in a tongue-in-cheek way. Obviously the only difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy is not the wardrobe. It is curiously harder to define than one would first suspect, though.

Before proceeding, I’d like to make a note that genres are not, or at least are not best considered as, normative things which dictate which books should be. Rather, they are descriptions of books for the sake of potential readers. The purpose of a genre is “if you like books that have X in it, you might like this book”. (The normative aspect comes primarily from the idea of not deceiving readers, but that runs into problems.)

Science Fiction is often described as extrapolating the present. The problem is that this is simply not true in almost all cases. It is very rare for Science Fiction to include only technology which is known to be workable within the laws of nature which we currently know. This is doable, and from what I’ve heard The Martian does an excellent job of this. At least by reputation, the only thing it projects into the future which is not presently known to be possible is funding. This is highly atypical, though.

The most obvious example is faster-than-light travel. This utterly breaks the laws of nature as we know them. Any Science Fiction story with faster-than-light travel is as realistic a projection of the future as is one in which people discover magic and the typical mode of transportation is flying unicorns.

I have seen attempts to characterize science fiction based on quantitative measures of how much of the science is fictional. This fails in general because fantasy typically requires only the addition of one extra energy field (a “mana” field, if you will) to presently known physics. And except for stories in which time travel is possible, the addition of a mana field is far more compatible with what we know of the laws of nature than faster-than-light travel is.

Now, one possibility (which I dislike) is that Science Fiction is inherently atheistic fantasy. This take, which I am not committed to, is that Science Fiction is fantasy without the numinous. Probably an alternative is Science Fiction is fantasy where there is no limit to the power which any random human being can acquire.

What I think might be the better distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy is that Science Fiction is fantasy in which the author can convince the reader that the story is plausibly a possible future of the present. What matters is not whether, on strict examination, the possible future is actually possible. What matters is whether the reader doesn’t notice. And for a great many readers of Science Fiction, I suspect that they don’t want to notice.

In many ways, the work of a Science Fiction writer might be like that of an illusionist: to fool someone who wants to be fooled.

This puts Star Wars in a very curious place, I should note, since Star Wars is very explicitly not a possible future. But Star Wars has always been very dubiously Science Fiction. Yes, people who like Science Fiction often like Star Wars, but this doesn’t really run the other way. People who like Star Wars are not not highly likely to like other(?) science fiction. I personally know plenty of people who like space wizards with fire swords who do not, as a rule, read Science Fiction.

Anyway, even this is a tentative distinction between the two genres. It’s not an easy thing to get a handle on because it’s impossible to know hundreds of thousands of readers to identify the commonalities between their preferences. Even the classification of books into genres by publishers and books stores are only guesses as to what will get people to buy books, made by fallible people.


Something I find interesting on occasion is to look up the history of television shows. Television is a very young medium. Though the device itself was invented in the 1930s, the Great Depression and the second World War and its attendant economic privations meant that televisions were not widely owned until the late 1940s. Without an audience, not much was made to broadcast to it. It was, therefore, really the early 1950s in which television got its start.

This makes it easy to research, but also makes the chain of influences fairly short.

Dragnet actually started as a radio drama, starring Jack Webb as Detective Joe Friday. In 1951, it became a television show, with much the same cast as the radio drama, though his partner had to be changed out part way through. This show lasted until 1959. It was later revived in 1967, this time in color. This is the version which I think most people are familiar with, that stars Harry Morgon as Detective Bill Gannon alongside Jack Webb reprising his role as Joe Friday. Certainly it’s the version I’m most familiar with. It lasted until 1970.

There were other versions made, but none with Jack Webb since he died in 1982 (at the age of 62). In 1987 there was a comedic movie starring Dan Ackroyd and Tom Hanks. It’s almost a parody of the original, though it is not a mean-spirited parody and I can testify that it is a lot of fun. In 1989 there was a short-lived series called The New Dragnet, and in 2003 there was an even shorter-lived revival series called LA Dragnet.

Though Dragnet was not able to survive in the modern world of police procedurals, or possibly just it was not able to outlive its star, Jack Webb, it did have an enormous impact on television. Counterfactuals are impossible to state with certainty, but it seems likely that police procedurals would not have the form they have today if Dragnet had never happened.

Episodes of Dragnet, which are (surprisingly) easily found on YouTube, are interesting to watch. The detectives are in the homicide division, so in a very technical sense the cases are murder mysteries. However, they are not detective stories in the sense of Poirot or Agatha Christie. The detectives do a lot of work, of course, but they don’t really do anything particularly clever. They just keep talking to people until they get enough facts to convict the murderer.

What I find curious—given that I’m a huge fan of detective fiction with genius detectives and write some of it myself—is that, bare-bones as Dragnet is, it still satisfies the impulse to see a mystery solved. This is true of modern police procedurals as well. In both cases, they feel somewhat like empty calories—enjoyable while watching but they don’t really have any substance which sticks with one.

This is not true of the great detective stories. Murder on the Orient Express, Have His Carcase, Saint Peter’s Fair—these stories really stick with one. There are interesting ideas in them to chew on long after one’s read them.

But it’s a testament to the human craving for the solving of mysteries that even Dragnet, which was told in an almost deliberately un-entertaining style, still makes you want to watch to the end to find out what happens, if you watch the beginning. This may partially be a testament to the power of charisma, though. I can watch Harry Morgan in just about anything.

The Two Kinds of Evidence in Murder Mysteries

In murder mysteries, there are two kinds of evidence: evidence which tells the detective what happened, and evidence which can get a practical result from society. The practical result is often a criminal conviction, but it need not be; a wedding being called off, the payment of an insurance policy, or the settling of a will all require similar sorts of evidence.

Of the two, it is the former type of evidence, not the latter type, which is of interest to the reader.

The main distinction between the two types of evidence is not really one of the strength of the evidence, that is, of the level of certainty which it conveys. In fact, one of the common features of murder mysteries is the early presence of highly convincing evidence which will convict an innocent person unless the detective uncovers the truth. No, the distinction is not in certainty. The distinction is, rather, what is required knowledge and understanding is required to apprehend the true meaning of the evidence.

Convenient names for the sorts of evidence of which we are speaking might be complex evidence and simple evidence. Complex evidence requires extensive background knowledge and understanding of human nature. Simple evidence does not; it tells its story plainly. (Using this terminology, we can say that it is common for murder mysteries to, early on, have complex evidence which appears to be simple evidence.)

In order to achieve societal action, such as convicting the murderer in a court of law or getting some other legal effect, one must have simple evidence. However, simple evidence is, in murder mysteries, hard to come by. This is, of course, a selective effect. In the case where the murderer’s fingerprints are on the murder weapon, and the murderer was seen killing the victim by multiple witnesses who know the murderer personally, and the murderer was caught immediately afterwards—these are not the stuff of murder mysteries.

Detective stories have the structure of story-within-a-story: the murder is the interior story while its detection is the outer story. Within the outer story, it is frequently the detective’s main purpose in his investigation to try to uncover simple evidence about the inner story. This makes it curious that his success or failure at achieving this goal is (almost) irrelevant to whether the story is a good story.

An excellent example of this is the Poirot story Five Little Pigs. In it, the daughter of a woman who was hanged for murdering her father, seventeen years ago, comes to Poirot asking him to uncover the truth. She just received a letter from her mother, written immediately prior to her execution but entrusted by lawyers to be delivered on her daughter’s 25th birthday, telling her that her mother was innocent.

Poirot undertakes the investigation and interviews all of the people principally concerned. At the end, he explains how all of the evidence which had pointed to the guilt of the woman’s mother actually pointed to the guilt of someone else. That person speaks alone with Poirot, afterwards, and asks him what he intends to do. Poirot says that he will give his conclusions to the authorities, but that it is unlikely that they will pursue it and very unlikely that they will get a conviction. And that’s fine. It’s a very satisfying ending to the story.

But why?

I suspect that the answer (which may be obvious) is that complex evidence is fun, while simple evidence is not fun. It takes brainwork to understand complex evidence, while simple evidence is too easy to be interesting. What matters in a murder mystery is being interesting, not achieving results. Achieving results is, really, the domain of an action story, or possibly a drama. This is why detectives tend to hand their cases off to the police at the end of the story. It’s best if the tedious work happens off-screen.

But there’s an interesting complication to this.

It is not a good story if the detective (and hence the reader) merely finds out what happens without anyone else learning it. Why this is so relates to the detective’s role within the story. As I’ve said before, the detective is Christ figure: the world has been corrupted by the misuse of reason, and the detective enters it in order to restore order to the world through the proper use of reason. So while society need not act, something must be put right. That is, someone beside the detective must learn the truth and be better off for it.

A good example of this is the Sherlock Holmes story The Blue Carbuncle*. It begins with a curious set of coincidences which place the key evidence in front of Sherlock Holmes, and with some investigation he discovers who it was who stole the gemtsone. He invites the man to his room, and he comes. After Holmes confronts him with the evidence, he falls apart and confesses, sobbing. I’ll quote just the last part:

“Get out!” said he.

“What, sir! Oh, Heaven bless you!”

“No more words. Get out!”

And no more words were needed. There was a rush, a clatter upon the stairs, the bang of a door, and the crisp rattle of running footfalls from the street.

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

Here there are two aspects to the world which Sherlock Holmes has put right, even though he has produced no evidence for a jury. In the first, the man wrongly accused of the crime will not be convicted of it because the principle witness against him has fled. The second is less certain, but the true criminal may well repent of his crime since he’s seen what evil he’s capable of and still has a chance to make his way in society honestly.

This satisfies the role of the detective as Christ figure. In fact, it even has a curious echo (perhaps intentionally) of the story of Christ and the woman caught in adultery, and how he releases her from the punishment for her crime on the condition that she sins no more. Neither is, strictly speaking, a satisfying story, but they have something else to them—the idea that there is something better than justice. That’s a very tricky notion, because mercy should never be unjust—but at least in the story of the Blue Carbuncle, what was stolen is returned, and so justice is at least mostly satisfied in restitution.

Be that as it may, the primary point under discussion is satisfied. Holmes collects complex evidence which tells him (and thus the reader) the tale, and this is the interesting part. Achieving a practical effect from society is of minor concern.

(I suspect that part of the reason why The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle ends as it does is that, though it predates Fr. Knox’s decalogue, it violates rule #6 (“no accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right”). The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle is predicated upon a series of accidents, all of which help the detective. If he achieved a practical societal effect, his reputation would benefit by pure chance. By letting the criminal go, he remains in anonymity and so the accidents which help him produce only an interesting set of circumstances.)

*A carbuncle is a red gemstone, most often a garnet, so a blue carbuncle is something of a contradiction in terms. The story suggests it is a blue diamond, though it could be a blue garnet or even a blue sapphire.

Writing Murder Mystery Endings is Hard

There is no part of writing a story which is truly easy. That said, different sorts of stories have easier and harder endings. This comes from the nature of the story; in some stories the meat of the story is in the main part of the story—or, rather, the reader eats the meat during the main part of the story. Action stories are like this; the meat of the story is the action. When you come to the end, the reader is full and only needs a light desert to finish the meal. That is, one just needs a happy ending which fits.

Murder mysteries, by contrast, delay the meat of the story for the end. There is considerable variation in how murder mysteries are structured—not all of them collect clues in the beginning then gather the suspects together into the accusing parlor for the detective to explain the solution. Many mysteries—often my favorites—make deductions along the way. The mystery unfolds as the story progresses, though often with a final clue that solves the final piece of the puzzle in the end.

But even if the deductions are made throughout the story, they are provisional; what a clue means is rarely certain. All the more so because a clue can generally mean many things. That is, a single clue can be explained by many actions. That one has a plausible interpretation for a clue, considered in isolation, does not mean that it fits with the rest of the story.

It is possible to have various clues which require the murderer to be tall one moment and short the next, striking out in blind rage one moment and coldly calculating the next, trying to disguise the murder as a suicide one moment and trying to frame somebody else the next.

There is, therefore, the moment when all of the deductions, though made earlier, must be put together into one cohesive whole to see if the deductions are compatible with each other.

There’s a good example of this in the Lord Peter Wimsey story Have His Carcass, toward the end of the book. The story told by the clues assembled so far was that of a long-laid conspiracy which involved almost split second timing for the murderer to get from the moment one witness left him to ride hell-for-leather on a horse over the surf, leap upon a rock, slash a man’s throat, leap back upon the horse, and ride hell-for-leather back to his campground with only moments to spare before another witness he could never have predicted would see him. They had timed the actions and it would be, technically, possible. Any given supposition fit the facts immediately next to it, but when told from beginning to end, it simply made no sense. People don’t lay in intricate plots to have to madly dash about for no reason that they could have foreseen. (For those who haven’t read the story, this isn’t the end; there is a twist left to discover that reveals the real story, which does make sense. The detectives find it because they reject the story I just described as too implausible and keep searching.)

Every action is made up of complex parts and simple parts. A story—in this case, the story of the murder (that is revealed within the story of the detection)—can fail either by being complex where it should be simple, or by being simple where it should be complex. It is only by telling the story all the way through that we can see if it has the proper proportions.

Of course, one way this can be difficult in a murder mystery is for the solution to simply make no sense. This can be a problem for some authors, from what I’ve read, but simply can’t be for me because of the way I write murder mysteries. I start, not with the detective story, but with the story of the murder. I write that out as a simple prose story; the motivations, the plan (if there is one), what the murderer did write and what mistakes he made that left clues—all of this gets written out. (To give a sense of detail, so far it has tended to be between 5,000-10,000 words.) Since I start with the story of the murder as one that makes sense, when I finally re-tell it within the detective story it does hold together at least at the factual level and with regard to consistency of character motivations, skill level, height, strength, etc.

But though the way I write mysteries guarantees (as human affairs go) that the solution is free from plot holes, none the less it can still have imperfections as a story. A motive may be insufficient, a killer too cold blooded or not cold blooded enough, the risks taken might be too daring or too safe—my way guarantees that it is at least a coherent story, but it cannot guarantee that it is a good story. Nothing a human being can do in this world can guarantee that one writes a good story.

And here we come to why it is hard to write the endings to murder mysteries. One must, perforce, hold the story of the murder up for examination. But when any work of art is held up for examination, a gap between the perfect thing the author imagined far off and the real thing which he actually wrote becomes apparent. The gap can be bigger or smaller, but it cannot be entirely closed by a fallible human being. To finish a mystery is thus to face this gap, which is painful.

There is no cure for it, one must simply slog through it. As in all things, one must do one’s best and trust God. The only viable alternative is giving up.

(Though, as a note of explanation for many works of art, drugs and hubris can numb this pain enough for an artist to publish. They’re not as good as trusting God, of course, but in this limited respect they will get the job done. This explains why one sees so much of the one, the other, or both, on the part of artists.)

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.