My son recently mentioned that it’s something of a pity that costume parties in murder mysteries all have basically the same plot: two people are dressed similarly enough that they are confused. This does, of course, betray a lack of breadth in his experience of murder mysteries, but in his defense he’s only eleven years old.
To be fair, there are several basic plots to costume parties:
Two people have similar costumes that are confused for each other, at least in unusual lighting. (This can give the murderer an alibi or make the victim appear alive later than they were.)
One person dresses in the costume of another in order to frame them.
One person can, with a few alterations, make his costume look like another’s.
One person had the costume of another on underneath his own, much bulkier costume.
Curiously, I can’t recall ever seeing someone switch into another costume—that no one had come to the party in—to commit the murder, then don their original costume again. It probably exists, but this does seem pretty rare.
The main difficulty with costume parties in murder mysteries is that there is very little that one can do in a costume party that one can’t do elsewhere except for some confusion of costumes. The only other thing which comes to mind is the disguise of an unusual weapon in costume props. The difficulty there is that there are very few murders where the main difficulty is sneaking the weapon into and out of the scene of the crime, and hence being able to smuggle it in a costume is a solution to this problem, enabling the crime. I suppose one could work something up with a poisoned blow-gun, or something like that, but even there it’s not obvious why the murderer would want to keep the thing. There are too many small weapons concealed easily enough in ordinary clothing to make this really appealing.
Past that, a costume party is such a big thing that it would feel very strange for a writer to set a murder mystery in a costume party and for the murder to have nothing whatever to do with the costume party. I’m sure that’s been done because every setup in murder mysteries will also be used as a bluff, and also a double-bluff. Still, to be fair to my son, if everyone is dressed up in different costumes, it is a fair bet that someone will look like someone else, and the solution will involve figuring out who was really underneath the crucial costumes.
I do have to admit that I am cheating, slightly, when I pose the dichotomy of fun versus realistic. There are fun characters who are realistic; what is unrealistic is really the presence of more than one such character in a story. Whatever exactly the criteria one has for a fun character—whether it’s having interesting hobbies, being wide read in literature, being a wit, etc.—such people are, simply, rare. People are, on average, average. That is no slight against them; God evidently likes many variations on a theme—just look at The Lessons of Beetles.
Anyway, when the question is posed, “should I have interesting characters or realistic characters” the answer is almost self-evident. (Despite having a central conceit as unrealistic as a Franciscan order of consulting detectives, I suppose I still have a hangup about realism that I’m working my way through.) The real question, I guess, is how to make the interesting characters seem realistic.
To some degree I think that the answer is to commit to them. From afar they will seem improbable. However, everyone is normal to himself so if we actually get to know the character sufficiently his odd point of view (that he’s not odd) will tend to rub off on us.
The other important thing, which is really another form of committing to the characters, is to follow through with what makes them interesting. That is, not merely to add it in for spice, but to actually make use of it and even to consider what sorts of things such an interesting person would under the interesting circumstances we’ve put them in. That said, a murder mystery tends be something of an equalizer. As Chesterton observed human beings are most like each other in the great events of their lives—birth and death and so on. I suppose that murder mysteries make life easier on the author this way, that we can throw in interesting characters and they’ll act much the same as any other, except they’ll do it in a more interesting way.
My novels, printed in hardcover, come with the cover art printed on the book itself, and with no dust jacket. Though this is clearly superior to the flimsy paper which easily tears and makes reading more difficult it one tried to do it without setting the dust jacket aside, it did make my books (printed by a small indie publisher) feel less real, somehow. Wondering why a superior bookbinding felt less real, I looked up the history. It turns out to be interesting and different than I expected.
Apparently until the 1820s books were not (typically) bound by their publishers. The publisher’s job was to print the book up, it was left to a bookseller or the customer to bind it in whatever way they wanted. It was a man by the name of William Pickering who, in 1819, first offered inexpensive books bound with a cloth binding. These books were quite popular and it changed the publishing industry forever. It was not long before publishers started making the bindings fancy.
An issue which came up is that fancy bindings do not do well with the rigors of distribution such as being carted around in boxes on trains or thrown into carts. In order to protect these fancy bindings, publishers began to wrap the books in dust jackets, though they were more akin to a paper version of modern plastic wrap—wrapped all around and sealed. Being paper they were not transparent, so some indicating of what book was inside was found to be a good idea, and a name was often printed on this paper, though very plainly. The expectation (and frequent reality) was that the bookseller would remove the protective paper as he was stocking the books in his store.
By the 1850s, the all-around dust jacket was replaced the dust jacket that folds around and is tucked inside the cover, as we typically know it today. It was still very plain and meant to be discarded, but this format provided the requisite protection without costing as much either in material or labor to wrap, as well as to unwrap for display in a bookstore.
In the early 1900s the economics of books changed and since it was cheaper to make the dust jacket fancy than it was to make the book binding fancy, that’s what happened. It seems like the transition was mostly complete by the 1920s, when the price of a (harcover) book was moved to the inside flap, rather than the spine, where it would not get in the way of appreciate the cover art.
Thus hardcover books remained until recently. With printing technology having changed to use what are effectively (as I understand it) industrial scale laser printers and even industrial scale color laser printers, together with other machines of automation and more advanced plastics, it became viable to inexpensively print durable cover art directly onto hardcover books.
This is better in every way than the dust jackets which dominated the twentieth century, and yet it’s curious how powerful associations can be. Instinctively, I still think of a book with a plain, dark cover wrapped in a dust jacket to be better, somehow. In spite of the fact that it is typically much worse, including having no water resistance on the cover. In fact, so annoying is this, that I actually used wood finish on the cover of a beloved copy of Pride and Prejudice in order to make it resist the occasional unlucky drop of water (the dust jacket wasn’t very good and has long-since been lost).
There is a curious relationship, I think, to how we grew used to thinking of classical marble statue as monochromatic (white). In its day it was painted bright colors; by our time the paint has long-since flaked off. We took the simplicity to be deliberate and learned to appreciate it, associating it with good judgement because it so commonly went with good judgement.
In the end of The Three Gables, the woman responsible for the trouble in the story asks Sherlock Holmes for help.
“Well, well,” said he, “I suppose I shall have to compound a felony as usual.”
It’s an interesting phrase, because it’s true—Holmes does often let the criminal go. I was reminded of this when I recently re-watched the Jeremy Brett version of The Priory School, and then re-read the short story to see the differences. Perhaps the biggest change is that in Conan Doyle’s version, Holmes lets the criminals off, while in the Jeremy Brett version there’s one fewer criminal, and the main criminal ends up falling to his death rather than being let off. (To be fair, in the Conan Doyle version, the actual murderer does get caught and is said to be almost certain to hang for the murder.)
This is a rather curious trend. Though the Holmes stories in large part launched the genre of detective stories, in many ways they frequently bucked the trends that quickly came to dominate the genre.
Holmes stories do not tend to feature fair play; in fact they often almost pointedly eschew it with Holmes seeing some evidence which he refuses to show to Watson. The Priory School has an example of this; Holmes stands on Watson’s shoulders to see who is holding the young boy who was kidnapped, but Watson doesn’t get to see who it was and only learns it when Holmes accuses the man.
Holmes stories are frequently not about murder, though admittedly even in the golden age not every mystery story was about murder. I can think of at least three Father Brown stories off of the top of my head which were not. That said, in Holmes stories murder is probably more the exception than the rule.
But perhaps nowhere do Holmes stories buck the trends of the genre they started so much as in how often Holmes lets the criminal off. It’s not merely occasional, it’s all over the place. Perhaps the most memorable instance of it is in the end of The Blue Carbuncle:
“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.
Perhaps it’s the second bucking of the trend which is so often responsible for the first; I can’t think of any case where Holmes lets a murderer go. (I should note that my knowledge of his cases is not encyclopedic. That said, I think that in later stories the preference in both readers and writers developed for the detection in detective stories to have some purpose, that is, to have some effect. It need not be a legal effect, of course, though it commonly was that. The solution should please more than just the detective; it should reconcile people to each other or give someone peace.
There are no hard and fast rules on this, of course. I’m quite fond of the Poirot story Murder on the Orient Express, where Poirot lets the killers off. It’s actually more complicated than that; he does not make the decision at all. The director of the Wagon-Lit company that runs the orient express asked him to investigate and he did. He then presented to the director two possibilities. The first was of an assassin who snuck out through a window when he was done. The director dismisses, but Poirot warns him not to dismiss it so quickly. After he hears the second explanation, he may not think so badly of this one. He then explains what really happened, where the death was, basically, the execution of a foul murderer of an innocent child, who had heretofore escaped justice. When he fully understood what had happened, the director did indeed prefer the first explanation, and it was what was given to the police when they eventually arrived. There was a cathartic effect to the action, though, where an impartial judge was given to judge the case, and pardoned the killers. The detective, effectively, reconciled the killers with society.
I am, in fact, fond of the surprise ending where the detective lets the killer go because he is not really a murderer. I suppose I just think that it should be a rare exception for it to have its real effect.
Ultimately, though, it is right that the detective cares more for justice than for the law, and it is generally best when the detectives are not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies.
There are two types of suspects in murder mysteries: sympathetic and unsympathetic suspects. Oh, a suspect can go from one category to the other. We might not know which category a suspect is in. But ultimately, every suspect will be sympathetic or else not. So, which is better?
I can already all but hear people clamoring that a mystery story needs both. These people are probably right, but “both” is no fun as an answer so bear with me while I consider the question as a simple binary.
The first thing to say in favor of sympathetic suspects is that they are more pleasant. One can stand to read far more about sympathetic characters, in general, than unsympathetic ones. This is an important consideration. There is a danger here, though, which is that if a sympathetic character turns out to be the murderer, it is something of a blow. This is often a popular way to disguise a murderer, but it runs the risk, when overdone—as it often has been—of unintentionally conveying the idea that apparently good people always have some secret evil which they are hiding.
I should clarify that a sympathetic character need not be an outwardly moral character. It is possible to make an explicitly immoral character sympathetic, though care should be taken here not to let that lead the reader to approve of the sympathetic character’s vice. I will say that this sort of sympathetic character would be the better choice for murderer, if one must make the murderer sympathetic.
That is especially true in the modern era, where the general trend is in favor of excusing all vices, or at least almost all vices. Tempting people to excuse the vice of the sympathetic immoral person and then it turning out that they were merely being taken advantage of—there may be a useful corrective in that to the general vices of our time.
Probably the strongest argument to be made in favor of unsympathetic suspects is that it is often better for the murderer to be an unsympathetic character. Having said that, this does have the unfortunate consequence that one must have several unsympathetic characters in order to avoid making it obvious who the murderer is. (I’m speaking in generalities, of course. Enough gambits have been tried, and bluffed, and double-bluffed that one can probably pull off making the murderer unsympathetic, and making everyone suspect him, and starting off with some pretty damning evidence against him, only for the reader—and detective—to refuse to believe it because it’s too obvious. I can’t think off-hand of an Agatha Christie in which this was done, but if anyone could pull it off, she could.)
The downside to unsympathetic suspects is so obvious it may go without saying, but just in case it doesn’t: they tend to be unpleasant to read about. One must, therefore, keep their “screen time” short. A little bit of them will, usually, go a long way. This puts us in an especially bad place if the murderer is unsympathetic, since then we’ll need to have at least a few unsympathetic characters. Several characters, all of whom get fairly little time on the stage in order to spare the reader, will be harder to keep separate in the reader’s mind.
It will be well, therefore, to make them more stylized, in order to make them more memorable. One way of doing this is to give them vices which tend to be excused in popular culture. Poking fun at the vice will be more tolerated in an unsympathetic character, and it will be more memorable. It will also probably be more realistic, too, since vices have a tendency to cluster (as several vices often share a root cause).
In the end, I think that there’s a lot to be said for having a good number of sympathetic characters. Care must be taken if one of them is the murderer, but care will always have to be taken in writing a murder mystery.
I recently watched the Jeremy Brett version of the Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Red Circle. There were a number of changes from the original short story, as there inevitably are in translations of Holmes stories to the screen.
Some of these changes make perfect sense—these are generally of the form of filling in the minor actions which can be elided in prose, or creating dialog which was merely described. Of the former, an example might be greetings exchanged with a servant, the giving of hat and walking stick, etc. Of the latter, an author may write “he gave his consent enthusiastically,” but an actor must actually say specific words. These sorts of things are just a necessary act of translation of the written word to the performed word.
Some of these changes are mere additions. One such are things done to set the scene and tone. Examples of this might be showing the man merely described as a teacher actually teaching a class, or showing a blacksmith working iron. Another mere addition is padding. This is often an issue in the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes episodes based on short stories, as the short story really gave material for about half an hour, while the TV episodes were an hour. It varied from episode to episode, but some of them involve a fair amount of padding. A good example of this might be from the Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle—the TV episode begins with showing the lady who owned the gemstone coming to her hotel after shopping, going to her room, order a bath to be drawn for her, and finally discovering the stone to be missing. None of this appeared in the short story itself, but as presented it was congruent with it. It also served no discernible function beyond avoiding the credits being twenty minutes long.
Padding can be done well, though in later Jeremy Brett episodes the padding often consisted of revealing a good chunk of the mystery right at the beginning. An extreme example of this is the Jeremy Brett version of The Three Gables, in which the opening depicted the relationship between the dead man and the rich lady which was the reveal toward the end of the short story. I don’t think that there’s really any defense of this which can be given; it makes no sense to turn a Sherlock Holmes story into an episode of Colombo. That said, this is just a question of execution; padding need not hurt the story that is being added to.
And then we come to the changes which make no sense, in which something that appeared in the original story was removed and something else substituted in its place. I will draw my example from The Red Circle, since it’s what inspired this blog post. In the short story, Holmes meets inspector Gregson on the street as Gregson had been working with a Pinkerton detective to follow and try to arrest Black Gorgiano of the Red Circle, and Black Gorgiano was after the lodger that Sherlock Holmes had been called in to investigate. In the TV episode, Holmes met Inspector Hawkins (who replaced Gregson, presumably for casting reasons) at the murder scene of an invented character named Enrico Formani, and then the two joined forces. It might be argued that this was done in order to pad the story out, though, so I will move on to another, though shorter, change, as my example.
In the TV episode, Inspector Hawkins insists that Emilia and her husband Gennaro must be tried for the murder of Black Gorgiano, though he expects that they will not be convicted because it was self defense. He even takes tickets for departure on a ship from Gennaro. (There is also a post-script by Watson which says that they were aquitted and lived happily ever after in Australia.)
In the short story, Emilia surmises that it was her husband who killed Gorgiano and tells the story of what happened—how Gorgiano was following them to murder them, and how he must have come upon her husband and he defended himself. At the end, she asks, ” And now, gentlemen, I would ask you whether we have anything to fear from the law, or whether any judge upon earth would condemn my Gennaro for what he has done?” Here’s the rest:
“Well, Mr. Gregson,” said the American, looking across at the official, “I don’t know what your British point of view may be, but I guess that in New York this lady’s husband will receive a pretty general vote of thanks.”
“She will have to come with me and see the chief,” Gregson answered. “If what she says is corroborated, I do not think she or her husband has much to fear.
There was absolutely no need to change the ending in this way. It might be argued it followed from the earlier change of pushing the explanation from the scene of the death to Holmes going into Emilia’s room, but that change did not entail this one. Emilia could just as easily have asked if they had anything to fear this way. This change accomplished nothing except to slightly dehumanize the character of the inspector and create an element of fear for the couple which was immediately put to rest by Watson’s postscript.
I can think of no explanation for this sort of change except to try to make the story feel a bit more like a cookie cutter TV episode. The mantra of the time, in television (though more in the US than in the UK) was to “raise the stakes”. This was, more often than not, bad advice, though it made sense in the context of an era in which people had recently gained remote controls for their television and, with a much larger number of available channels than two decades before, people growing restless and changing channels was the TV writer’s greatest fear.
(Less talked about, but also interesting, was the concomitant effect on TV episodes that the writers had to bear in mind that the viewer at any given moment may not have watched the episode from the start and thus cannot be relied upon to remember what happened before the current scene. Keeping a viewer from losing interest and changing channels was of utmost importance, but keeping a viewer who lost interest in his original show and changed channels to yours was also very important, and this definitely had an effect on how TV shows were written.)
The Problem of Thor Bridge was first published in 1922, making it one of the last Sherlock Holmes stories published in The Strand Magazine and towards the last of the Holmes stories published anywhere. (Only ten Holmes stories were published after, the last in March of 1927.)
By this time, other detective stories were well underway. Dr. Thorndyke had been solving cases for fifteen years, Father Brown had been solving cases for twelve years and Poirot for two. I don’t know whether Sir Arthur ever read any of these stories, or to what degree they influenced him. It seems possible, though, as this is one of the only Holmes stories in which there is a ingenious murder device, that is, with a clever and unusual method of committing murder. Far more common in Holmes stories are fairly ordinary means of committing murder that only left a few clues behind. (As well, there are plenty of non-murder cases entirely. Possibly the majority—I haven’t counted.)
Technically all the villain got away with, in the story, was self-murder, and merely attempted to murder the woman she hated by setting the scene to look like murder and framing her rival. It was still a very clever and original technique for murder.
For those who aren’t familiar with the story, Mrs. Maria Gibson was jealous of miss Grace Dunbar, the governess of her children, because her husband had fallen in love with Miss Dunbar. Mrs. Gibson made an appointment with Miss Dunbar for a certain time in the evening and had Miss Dunbar confirm it with a note. After Miss Dunbar came, Mrs. Gibson insulted her until she ran away. Once Miss Dunbar was safely out of earshot, she tied a heavy rock, with a long piece of twine, to a gun, and shot herself, with the note clutched in her other hand. When she fell dead, the rock pulled the gun over the edge of the bridge and into the water below. The final piece of evidence against Miss Dunbar was a duplicate gun, planted in Miss Dunbar’s wardrobe.
The absence of the gun was very strong evidence against suicide, and the timing selected gave most people, except for Miss Dunbar, an alibi for the time of death. It’s quite clever.
I find it curious that this means of murder has been copied so little. I couldn’t think of any examples, and the Wikipedia page mentions only two TV shows which have borrowed the idea, one CSI in an episode titled Who Shot Sherlock? The other is a Murder, She Wrote episode from the eighth season titled To The Last Will I Grapple With Thee.
I watched that episode of Murder, She Wrote, as I didn’t remember it. It’s a good episode, though a bit strange because most of the cast are Irish immigrants; most of the cast except for Jessica Fletcher and the Police Lieutenant speak with an Irish brogue. It’s one of the episodes set in New York City when Jessica is teaching classes as some university. There’s an Irish ex-policeman who moved to America to start a new life, with his adult daughter, and he’s pursued by a career criminal from Ireland, with whom he had a long history including having tried to win the hand of the same woman, who tries to frame the ex-policeman for his murder. He uses a weight on a string tied to a heavy weight to hide the gun in the open cavity of an unfinished wall, but Jessica spots the marks the gun made on the wall and deduces what happened. It turned out that the career criminal had an inoperable brain tumor, and since he had so little time left, he decided to make one last attempt to get back at his old enemy.
He is explicitly likened to Ahab in Moby Dick, and a part of Ahab’s final speech is quoted. It’s worth quoting in full (if you haven’t read Moby Dick, Ahab had dedicated his life to veangeance against the white whale, who has just rammed Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, and the ship is sinking).
I turn my body from the sun. What ho, Tashtego! let me hear thy hammer. Oh! ye three unsurrendered spires of mine; thou uncracked keel; and only god-bullied hull; thou firm deck, and haughty helm, and Pole-pointed prow,—death-glorious ship! must ye then perish, and without me? Am I cut off from the last fond pride of meanest shipwrecked captains? Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!
The most famous of the lines is, of course, “to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee”. (It was also quoted very well by the dying Khan, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, as Khan self-destructed his ship to try to kill Kirk. Ricardo Montalbán was a good actor.) You wouldn’t think that Murder, She Wrote could pull this sort of true drama off, but somehow it did.
I’ve never seen CSI and have no intention of seeing it, so I can’t comment on it, but I find it curious that the only place this murder device has been used was in long-running TV shows, which have a huge demand for material, and only after many years. And in the Murder, She Wrote episode they played somewhat fast and loose with the wall having an open cavity in it. They never really showed us that it had that feature.
I wonder why this is. Is it just that copying the greats feels cheap? But copying the greats is usually the best strategy for a writer, at least while making it one’s own. Mediocrity borrows, genius steals, and all that.
Perhaps it’s just that the disguised suicide of The Problem of Thor’s Bridge is so recognizable? If a body was found on a bridge with a chip in the stonework, a modern audience might scream if the detective does not immediately dredge the lake or stream for the gun. Yet, I have not seen even variants of this—murdering someone and then dropping the gun over a bridge with a rock on a rope to disguise the murder as suicide-disguised-as-murder. With modern materials one need not even use a rock a a counterweight. Elastics, springs, and other things would expand the range of hiding places for a murder weapon. It is, at least, an interesting direction to explore.
Recently, I wrote about Writing Villains and Satanic Banality and Bad Guys Who Think They’re the Good Guys. In the latter, I mentioned an annoying habit some writers have where they mangle bad guys thinking that they’re good guys into bad guys actually being good guys. This leaves them with the problem of coming up with who the real bad guy is, and they usually do a bad job at this since the real bad guy’s motivations and actions are (typically) an afterthought. The way I put it, when explaining how the good guy was convinced that another good guy was actually a bad guy, was:
There’s only one way to do this, and Miss Bennet hit upon it in Pride & Prejudice when she was trying to exculpate both Mr. Darcy and Wickham: interested people have misrepresented each to the other. But there is a problem with this. As Elizabeth Bennet observed in reply, if you cannot clear the interested people, one will be obliged to think ill of someone. It is not an accident that in this sort of story the good guy inevitably discovers that he’s actually working for the real bad guys. The only other way out is the way the X-Files took: behind each good guy who seems to be a bad guy is some other apparent bad guy responsible for the deception. Every time you peel the onion, there’s another layer. If one doesn’t go that sort of unsatisfying route—perhaps because one is writing in a book or movie and not a TV story with hundreds of episodes coming down the pike—then what we end up with are villains who had plausibly convinced the good guy that they were good guys who are performing their evil for no real reason. They always want to take over the world because it’s there, or kill off three fourths of the population of the world because by some convoluted logic this would drive the share price of their company up by fifteen percent.
I want to go into a bit more depth on why the bad guy killing three fourths of the world to drive a stock price up by fifteen percent makes no sense despite the thing making a bad guy a bad guy being a fundamental error about what is good. Or, in other words, I want to discuss what it is that bad guys get right. Having them get the things wrong that they would get right is as bad as having them get nothing wrong.
The key to knowing what mistakes a villain will necessarily make and those he would never make comes from knowing which other beliefs about the world the villain will hold at the same time as he is considering his fundamental mistake. I probably need to pause here to explain what I mean.
When a person makes a mistake about the world, they will inevitably believe something else which contradicts that mistake. That is because there is only one completely consistent set of beliefs about the world—the correct ones. But a person who makes a mistake is unlikely to make all of the mistakes required to be completely consistent with that mistake; in general that would involve believing all sorts of weird things, like dogs not existing or trees being a figment of one’s imagination. For those who have not studied logic, there is a problem that immediately arises: anything follows from a contradiction. What this means is that if you believe two contradictory things, you can logically derive, through entirely valid logic, any conclusion that you want. You can, but the thing is: people don’t actually do that.
There are various ways to work around the problem that anything follows from a contradiction (I discuss one of the more common ways in my post Kant’s Version of Knowledge), but they all have the basic feature that the world becomes fractured to the person who believes the contradiction. The fracture lines are the contradictions. On one side of the contradiction, the person believes a fairly consistent set of beliefs which they only apply when that truth value of the contradiction is relevant. On the other side is another fairly consistent set of beliefs, many of which contradict the first one, which are only applied when the other side of the truth value is relevant. It is the selective application of universal worldviews which is how the person avoids having to deal with the contradiction.
Let’s get back to our hypothetical bad guy who would do anything to raise the price of his company’s stock. His fundamental error is that he takes the price of his company’s stock to be a much greater good than it is. When he is worshiping at the altar of the stock market, he sets the value of human life at zero, or close enough to that. So why is killing three fourths of the population off not something this villain would do? Because it would cause the price of his company’s stock to plummet in the long term. When thinking about the exaggerated value of a stock price, the villain would certainly include those things which are consistent with valuing a stock price, and knowledge of what raises and lowers a stock price most certainly are compatible with exaggerating the value of the stock price. No one would worship the price of stock but ignore what actually affects the price of stock. In fact, his worship of stock prices would lead him to know better than most men what makes stock prices go up and what makes them go down.
There are two things that affect the value of stock more than the performance of the individual company. They are, roughly in order of importance:
General demand for stock
If three fourths of the population die off, markets will be horrifically unstable. This will push what investors remain away from the stock market and into things with more stability, like gold. But in our apocalyptic scenario, and more to the point, if three fourths of the population of the world die off, there won’t be many people left to buy the stock and most of them will be putting all of their money into surviving the post-apocalypse hellscape, not into stocks, if the stock market were even to survive.
If you were to ask anyone, “would killing three fourths of the population of the world off be good for the price of a stock, any stock?” If they were at all knowledgeable about stocks, they would answer “no”. The more knowledgeable, the faster and more emphatic the answer would come. If you found a man so twisted by over-valuing the price of the stock of a company for which he works, he will answer your question before you’ve even finished asking it, since you are causing him to think about the thing which is to him the most painful in the world—the price of his company’s stock dropping like a rock.
None of this in any way contradicts that, at least when he’s thinking about his true love—stock prices—he would set the value of human life near zero. He might not care whether men live or die, but he would care very much what those worthless men would pay for his stock. Something that kills off a few people, he would not mind at all. Something that kills off enough people to affect the markets, he would not give a hearing to.
Now, to fully consider the nature of the fractured mind that results from moral error, none of this means that the villain would not care about the lives of people he interacts with in ways that do not affect stock prices. When that beloved subject is sufficiently far from his mind—and no one can concentrate on one thing forever—he will, mentally, live in a very different world. He will live in a world in which people have value apart from what they will pay for a stock. He might be quite fond of the person who makes the best smoothies at his favorite juicery. He might be quite fond of his wife, or children, when he is home and not working; he might be a dog lover when he is on vacation. He might be strongly in favor of welfare for the poor, when he gives them a thought, at a party.
None of these things are required, but they are all entirely realistic. I nearly said “consistent,” which they would not be. They would be a highly realistic inconsistency, though.
The final thing required, to understand this mentality, is to understand what happens when conflicts do arise between the two worldviews. What happens is that one will win, but it will very rarely win completely. The victory will look like a subordination of the less dominant worldview to the more dominant worldview. But to understand what this subordination will look like, it’s important to bear in mind that the mistake is real and thus the thing which is regarded with exaggerated value really is regarded as having that value. In our example, the villain really does believe that his company’s stock price is of truly enormous importance, far beyond individual human life. When the world view where the person who makes his favorite smoothie contradicts, such as the person being put out of work by a corporate merger, his love for the smoothie maker will subordinate to the value of the share price. That is, he will make out some way that this suffering has value, and that value given by the increase in share price.
Here, if one was writing this character, some knowledge of how corporations actually work would be quite valuable. Unfortunately, writers (especially Hollywood writers) seem to live in an almost perfect ignorance of the stock market, apart from having heard a few terms and know that stocks are bought and sold. There are only two ways in which the price of a company’s shares actually benefit the company, and only of them actually benefits the company. The first is that the company can raise money by creating new shares to sell (diluting the value of the existing shares, but in theory it being worth it to existing shareholders because the value created exceeds the dilution incurred). The other is that shareholders vote for the board of directors, who pick the CEO and determine his salary, and they have a strong tendency to reward CEOs who drive up stock prices and punish CEOs who let share prices fall. That affects behavior, but it doesn’t actually do the company any good. (There is also the fact that a sufficiently high share price protects a company against a hostile takeover, since no one would have the money to buy the company, but this is not typically very relevant.)
The person who worships the stock price will know that this allows the company to gain funds to expand the business, so he would probably rationalize the smoothie guy’s suffering as being for the greater good by pointing to how the increased efficiency makes more capital available to the corporation to grow and provide its services. The mere fact that growth and increased services are secondary goods to the stock-price-worshiper does not mean that he is unaware of them, and this knowledge will be very useful to him when trying to reconcile his love for the smoothie maker with his greater love for the stock price which was increased by the merger.
In short, when faced with this, he will not say that the smoothie maker’s doesn’t matter, but that his (involuntary) sacrifice is for the greater good, and so the smoothie maker, in accepting his fate, is noble and should be praised. He might even try to help the smoothie maker out, so long as there’s a way he can do it which won’t hurt his company’s share price.
A person worshiping a stock price is a somewhat silly example, though not so silly that it has not been done before in fiction. However that goes, it does serve to show how the villain’s thought process works. And if you ever wondered how Hitler could be a vegetarian who loved dogs and also a mass murderer, this is how. Rest assured, he had theories as to how his mass murder was really, truly, in the end, humanitarian. Villains always do.
These explanations that the villain has of how his villainy is really virtuous will always seem convoluted, but only to outsiders. They will not appear convoluted to the villain himself. They seem natural to the villain because he has learned to live with a fractured mind; to reconcile contradictory worldviews. It only seems convoluted to outsiders because they have not learned this mental agility.
These sorts of mistakes are often confused for rationalizations, that is, for excuses made to others. This is to mistake the nature of evil. The evildoer really believes these things, precisely because in his sin he has missed what he’s aiming at. When trying to write a realistic villain, this sort of mistake is not optional. Villains are villains precisely because they are wrong about some moral judgement. These mistakes will have consequences beyond merely doing evil, precisely because the villain actually believes these moral errors.
This phenomenon is why it feels realistic when the bad guy thinks that he’s the good guy. Unfortunately, that trope in stories is very often misunderstood by people who do not understand what evil really is. It is quite true that bad guys will often think that they are the good guys. What isn’t true is that they seem like the good guys to anyone but themselves.
This mistake has resulted in a great deal of bad storytelling, where the bad guys are shown to actually have a point. Instead of them having mistaken evil for good and thus be pursuing evil as good, they have, in fact, correctly having identified a good and are legitimately pursuing it. But if that’s the case, why on earth is the good guy in the story fighting these other good guys? There needs to be some explanation for why the good guy thought that the other good guy was actually a bad guy.
There’s only one way to do this, and Miss Bennet hit upon it in Pride & Prejudice when she was trying to exculpate both Mr. Darcy and Wickham: interested people have misrepresented each to the other. But there is a problem with this. As Elizabeth Bennet observed in reply, if you cannot clear the interested people, one will be obliged to think ill of someone. It is not an accident that in this sort of story the good guy inevitably discovers that he’s actually working for the real bad guys. The only other way out is the way the X-Files took: behind each good guy who seems to be a bad guy is some other apparent bad guy responsible for the deception. Every time you peel the onion, there’s another layer. If one doesn’t go that sort of unsatisfying route—perhaps because one is writing in a book or movie and not a TV story with hundreds of episodes coming down the pike—then what we end up with are villains who had plausibly convinced the good guy that they were good guys who are performing their evil for no real reason. They always want to take over the world because it’s there, or kill off three fourths of the population of the world because by some convoluted logic this would drive the share price of their company up by fifteen percent.
There’s rarely a satisfying explanation—in the sense of an explanation where the villains actions could plausibly be connected to his goals, even according to the mistakes he is making. To use the example of killing off most of the world driving the share price of his company up by fifteen percent, the fundamental mistake the villain is making, that is, the evil he is mistaking for good, is the share price of his company being all-important. This is a dubious mistake for someone to make, but it is possible. One can become idolatrous about almost anything. But given this mistake, it is not plausible that the villain would think that killing off three fourths of the world (say, with a bio-engineered plauge of super-locusts) would actually be good for the price of his company’s stock in a way that’s useful to his goal. Sure, in the extremely short term the stock would go up, but it would shortly thereafter crash when no one has the money to buy shares any more since they’re busy eating the rats which died of starvation. His mistake is about the good of his company’s share price, not about how markets work. In fact, his idolatry of his company’s share price would make him the last person who would misunderstand how markets respond to major events. The problem—apart from many writers not understanding how markets work themselves—is often due to the real villain’s character and motivation being an afterthought, because it’s all revealed in the last few pages (or last few minutes).
(It should be noted that this goodguy-as-badguy plotline is largely driven by misunderstanding why a badguy thinks that he’s a goodguy, but once this mistake was made it appealed to writers who want to personally rebel against goodness in order to indulge in some evil of their own, and so to make the world more comfortable for their evil they want to make readers (or viewers) distrustful of the institutions which exist to guard against the sort of evil they wish to indulge in. I think that they merely stumbled on this from the structure, rather than set out to undermine these organizations and incidentally got—partially—closer to a better plot.)
None of this sort of the-good-guys-are-actually-bad-guys would seem necessary if the writer recognized that evil is fundamentally a perversion of good. In grasping at the shadow rather than the substance casting the shadow, the one doing evil does not plausibly think that he’s doing good. He merely thinks that he’s doing good anyway.
The villain will have reasons for his evil deeds, but they will be bad reasons. This is necessarily so. It is not possible to have a good reason for a bad decision.
One of the best videos on my YouTube channel is called Satanic Banality. It’s only tangentially about what is commonly called “the banality of evil”. It is really about the concept of “satanic grandeur” and how evil always looks small from the outside, it only looks impressive from the inside. If you haven’t watched it, I’ll embed the video in case you’re interested:
The applicability to writing is in making realistic villains, and especially in showing that they’re evil in realistic ways. In daytime cartoons for children, villains are shown to be evil by just choosing to be evil for the sake of Evil, then laughing about it. This works well in cartoons for children because children need things intelligible more than they need them realistic. Children only pick up on the broadest strokes, like that evil should be opposed. For children, at the level they understand them, cartoons are actually highly realistic.
In fiction for adults, who understand the narrative in much greater detail, we need it to be realistic on all of the levels that the adult reader understands it. This is the real reason for the addage “show, don’t tell”. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with telling the reader something, it’s just that if you do that in place of showing, you will have a contradictory character. If you tell the reader that the man is evil but then show him being humble, gentle, courteous, kind, thoughtful, brave, reverent, etc.—this is bad writing because he isn’t actually evil.
This brings me to satanic banality as a writing tool. Something important to remember about evil people is that they are always vastly more impressed with themselves than everyone else is. This does not mean that they are vain. They may or may not be vain—vanity consists in wanting others to recognize their greatness. But whether they are vain, they are quite impressed with themselves. They think that their vices are actually virtues. This comes from the nature of evil.
Evil is not a positive thing, but a privation of good. It is like a shadow cast by being; it looks like it has a shape, but it has no actual substance. A person who is evil is trying to act like the shadow is real—as if it can be touched and picked up and used. Thus, to them, what they do when they are evil looks magnificent. It must, or they would not try to do it. To those who see the shadow for what it is, they look banal. To somewhat mix a metaphor, imagine someone shadow boxing who thinks he’s beating the shadow that he’s hitting, and is therefore a great warrior. In his mind, he’s magnificent. To those watching, he cannot be impressive, because they can see that he’s not hitting anything.
This does not mean that the villain is bad at everything he does, of course. It means that the villain is going to think himself grandiose precisely where he is evil. He may not care whether others think he is great—that is, he may or may not be vain—but he will at least expect that they will think him great, or will expect that the smart ones will. This will be one of his weaknesses, since he will be wrong. (If he’s not wrong, here, it will be because he thinks that there are no smart ones, which will be a different sort of weakness.)
The other thing is that the villain will do things that just seem absurd. He will make statues to himself for things that he didn’t do, but thinks that he did. The Kim family in North Korea is a good example of this; you can find monuments they’ve built to themselves about how much of a champion of the people they are, what great movies they’ve made, etc. They are an extreme example, but it’s not hard to dial this back if one wants a less evil sort of villain. A warlord who wants to take over the world will think that he is bringing peace, and may well build statues to himself as a protector of the people. A cheater at sports who has not been caught will think of himself as as great role model for children. A thief will think of himself as enforcing justice, being a Robin Hood who robs from the rich and gives to the poor (in this case, himself). (They never consider that Robin Hood actually robbed from a rapacious government to give to those who were overly heavily taxed.)
These sorts of mistakes are often confused for rationalizations, that is, for excuses made to others. This is to mistake the nature of evil. The evildoer really believes these things, precisely because in his sin he has missed what he’s aiming at. When trying to write a realistic villain, this sort of mistake is not optional. Villains are villains precisely because they are wrong about some moral judgement. These mistakes will have consequences beyond merely doing evil, precisely because the villain actually believes these moral errors. Working these sorts of systemic errors into the villains actions will make him far more realistic, as well as adding a great deal of depth and insight into the story.
I saw this rather odd writing tip on Twitter the other day. I’m quoting it, rather than another, because it does such a good job of summarizing an attitude towards writing I’ve seen over the years.
Writing Tip: If “editing” your first draft consists of fixing a few typos and changing a word here and there, you’re not doing it right. A first draft should be ripped apart, refashioned, and sewn back together. Anything less is vanity.
It’s that last part that’s the key to this weird attitude. If a particular writer has a writing style where the first draft is essentially a protracted brainstorming session and that works for them, then good for them. The weird attitude is that this is how it should be.
In reality, for at least some people, writing a decent first draft is a viable option. If you’ve done enough planning that you’ve constructed the characters and planned out the setting and written the plot in such a way that it flows out of the characters in their circumstances—substantial changes wouldn’t be editing, they’d be just writing a different book where some of the characters have the same names.
Now, again, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. If for some reason a writer cannot bring themselves to do this sort of planning and thinking before they start writing, then I understand doing a book-length brainstorming session in order to generate some material to work with. I’ve written a few first drafts of novels which I haven’t carried through to publishing, and there’s even a very loose sense in which The Dean Died Over Winter Break can be thought of as a substantial rewrite of a previous novel called A Murder At Yalevard—though it was really more of a different book in which I borrowed some elements of the original. But I find it very strange that the writer quoted above cannot conceive of someone who can plan out their books.
There is of course the explanation that such a writer just cannot see beyond their own limitations, but I can’t help but wonder if this attitude isn’t tied in to the idea of the tortured genius. It was an idea that, so far as I know, became popular somewhere in the 1800s, around the time of Byron and Shelley, who were tortured not so much be genius as by their inability to control their lust. Shelley, in particular, seems to have been afflicted in this way, and his vices seem to have been excused by himself and his wife and friends as, not weaknesses, but virtues. To try to say it was not bad for Percy Bysshe Shelly to cheat on his pregnant wife, they invented a new kind of morality where artists were excused from being halfway decent human beings because of the enormous value they gave to humanity. Their art, I mean.
I’m not sure why this idea was popular, but it does seem to have had some currency through at least the 1930s—at least if golden age detective stories are anything to go by. It also seems, curiously, to be more popular with women than with men; it seems to have been female writers who wrote about it approvingly, and within their fiction it was generally only the women (and occasionally a close male friend) who bought the nonsense. Why that is, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s related to the “bad boy” phenomenon. And for that reason, the idea that one should tear a first draft up in a passion of anger at how far it falls short, and completely rework it, may be related.
As a related side-note, actual geniuses never seem to have been tortured, except occasionally by actual problems, like Beethoven being deaf. Shakespeare was, so far as we know, as reasonably happy as a recusant Catholic could have been in England in the late 1500s. Mozart seems to have no greater troubles than having a period when he didn’t make much money because a war made it hard for musicians; summary biographies don’t mention anything which would interest modern people by similarity, such as profound depression.
Shelly’s genius, to the degree that anyone still holds that he was a genius, seems very overrated. Ozymandias is a good poem, but certainly nothing worth excusing adultery for.
Casting the mind’s eye over other examples of tortured geniuses and actual geniuses, it seems like perhaps the thing that’s really attractive about the tortured genius is not the genius part, but the torture part. And I can’t help but think that this attitude that writing should be torture—what else can throwing away something one worked long and hard at be?—is an attempt to try to find some shreds of life in pain, by people who have no idea where to find life in this world.
This is a continuation of my post from yesterday, giving some prelimary thoughts on Dorothy L. Sayers essay Gaudy Night in the book Titles to Fame. Today something Ms. Sayers said about the development of a character over many books caught my attention. I’m going to quote it here because I think that the expression of Ms. Sayers own words are necessary to understand the thing she is trying to communicate:
I had from the outset, of course, envisaged for Peter a prolonged and triumphal career, going on through book after book amid the plaudits of adoring multitudes. It is true that his setting forth did not cause as great a stir as I had expected, and that the adoring multitudes were represented by a small, though faithful, band of adherents. But time would, I hoped, bring the public into a better frame of mind, and I plugged confidently on, putting my puppet through all his tricks and exhibiting him in a number of elegant attitudes. But I had not properly realized—and this shows how far I was from understand what it was I was trying to do with the detective novel—that any character that remains static except for a repertory of tricks and attitudes is bound to become a monstrous weariness to his maker in the course of eight or nine volumes.
I cannot contradict Ms. Sayers from my own experience, yet, as I’m only beginning work on my third Brother Thomas novel. However, there is something here on which I think she is mistaken, or, rather, about which she is over-generalizing.
Before saying what, I also think it’s worth considering the Lord Peter bibliography, bearing in mind that Ms. Sayers had tired of Lord Peter and set off to retire him in Strong Poison:
Clouds of Witness
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
The Five Red Herrings
Have His Carcase
Murder Must Advertise
The Nine Tailors
The eight or nine volumes in which Lord Peter had become a monstrous weariness to his maker was, in fact, four volumes. It’s worth considering what those four volumes were like. In Whose Body? we (and the authoress) meet Lord Peter, and everyone is interesting when you first meet them. Clouds of Witness was an excellently crafted mystery, and there was some character development in it, though in the sense of revealing the character of Wimsey rather than changing it. In Unnatural Death we see a great deel more of Miss Climpson and not nearly as much of Wimsey, and that quite often to serve the plot. In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, we see more of Wimsey, but his personality has largely retreated. Over the stories, we also see the diminution of Charles Parker, in whom Sayers seemed to initially place some personality and intend character development.
What we see, when we look at him, is that he became somewhat more of a puppet in these stories; he was there because someone had to investigate the mysteries, and Sayers balked at introducing a new detective in each story after her experiment with doing so in Unnatural Death. The problem, though, is not really that Lord Peter wasn’t changing. The problem is that Lord Peter didn’t have much of a personality (yet). You can see this in what Ms. Sayers said she needed to do in order to humanize him in order to pull off the romance which was started in Strong Poison but which didn’t work there:
If the story was to go on, Peter had got to become a complete human being, with a past and a future, with a consistent family and social history, with a complicated psychology and even the rudiments of a religious outlook.
None of this requires Peter to change throughout the books. All it requires is to actually do it.
To give an example of what I mean, in the first four books we do learn that Lord Peter likes music, but he never says anything about it. We don’t know what he likes about which pieces. He collects first editions, but we don’t know why he collects first editions, and rarely which things he collects first editions of. He has read literature, but we don’t know what he thinks of it. And then, of course, he’s the sort of pointlessly non-religious character which was extraordinarily common amongst golden age detectives, for no discernible reason.
I don’t mean to keep harping on this point, but it is closely related to the problem Ms. Sayers has with Lord Peter—that he can’t articulate a reason for anything that he does other than sheer curiosity is a massive problem to him being a flesh-and-blood human being. All human beings have curiosity; the detective merely being curious is not enough. He must also either overcome the inhibitions which people have to investigating murders, or he must simply lack them. A religious reason for risking death and people disliking you can overcome this inhibition, as they did for Father Brown. The other detectives of the time seem to merely lack this inhibition. This may partially be why they are all eccentric, but they are mostly eccentric without being interesting because of it.
While there was still the thrill of working out the form and nature of the mystery novel, this could be overlooked. One detective might do as well as another when the reader wasn’t much paying attention to him anyway. As Chesterton showed, however, this was in no way necessary. And I think that this is what Ms. Sayers discovered when she finally started putting flesh onto her detective.
An extremely common feature of golden age detective mysteries is the presence of servants in a household. They acted as witnesses for the police, to place people at the scene of a crime as well as to provide alibis. They were also invaluable sources of information when discretely pumped. It is very difficult to come up with any modern equivalent, though, at least outside of exceedingly rich households.
In real life, servants occupied a curious niche in British culture during the early 1900s; with the rise of the middle class servants were relatively commonplace, since the middle class was comparatively wealthy and the transition from farms to a modern economy was still underway, supplying a large number of people who had few specialized skills but just as much need to earn a living as anyone else. This made servants affordable, and the middle class’s pretensions to be like the aristocracy, combined with a lack of the modern labor-saving devices, made servants indispensable of one could at all employ them.
From the detective writer’s perspective, they were enormously valuable, since they lived intimately with families to whom they rarely had any great allegiance. A brother might lie to protect a brother, or a mother her son, but there was no reason to suppose that a valet would lie to protect his master or a cook to protect her mistress. I can’t recall a single instance of anyone supposing that a charwoman would so much as j-walk for an employer.
In books, servants were not omniscient; it was possible to fool them or even to hide a body on the premises and dispose of it without their seeing. Neither were they disloyal. They would answer the questions of the police, so far as they were legally obliged to, but they did, in general, hold that repeating what they saw to strangers was no business of theirs. Discretion was important no less in maids than in doctors. However close to reality this was, it was plausible—if for no other reason than in keeping with other fiction from the timer period—and phenomenally useful to the detective writer.
The writers of mysteries has two opposing problems, and they arise out of the two principle characters of the mystery story. On the one hand, there must be sufficient evidence of the crime that the detective can detect it. On the other hand, there must be sufficiently little evidence of the crime that the murderer is willing to commit the crime at all. The near-ubiquity of servants, combined with their limitations, answer this need quite admirably, which goes a long way to explaining how frequently they showed up for the purpose.
Times have changed and servants no longer make any economic sense, outside of the homes of the unbelievably rich. The most significant factor here is that the transition in farming is mostly complete. In the United States, approximately 2% of the population are farmers; mechanization has taken its toll and the toll has been paid. Immigrants do supply a small stream of unspecialized labor, but even here the economy as a whole has developed enough jobs for people who can learn specialized skills that they do not concentrate in any particular industry. Even where they do show up in service jobs, these service jobs tend to be done on a contract basis. People no longer employ gardeners but lawn services. People rarely have maids though they may have a cleaning service. Much of the work a maid might do has been rendered doable in a short time by a washing machine, a dryer, or a vacuum cleaner. In short, live-in servants are no longer plausible. Are there any other professions which might fill the role?
I fear that, for the most part, there are not. Where people congregate they tend to pack in too closely, for the sake of efficiency, to make it easy for someone to slip something by the witnesses. Where people do not congregate, they tend to live only with people whose testimony is worthless for an alibi.
There are, of course, exceptions. Resorts will have people who work at them and at least temporarily live there, but who live in sufficiently low density that they will not observe everything which goes on. Museums, art galleries, libraries and the like also (sometimes) have approximately the right density of impartial witnesses, though they tend to be closed outside of business hours and over-packed with guests during business hours. That said, they will have slack times, of course. There are also some academic settings, such as a laboratory, that may work for the purpose, too.
All of these substitutes will have their peculiarities that will, perforce, change the stories set with them. This is no disaster, but it will make some of the spirit of the golden age mysteries harder to recapture because part of that spirit was the ordinariness that the extraordinary events took place in. One cannot make an extraordinary setting feel ordinary. Even if an volcanic observation post has the same density of impartial witnesses that a Victorian home might, it will need to be filled with the sort of odd people who might live an work in a volcanic observation post. Nearly anyone might be forced into the circumstances which make a job as a cook the only job they can get, but few people are forced by the need to avoid starvation into being a librarian. Modern writers, if we try to recapture the atmosphere of golden age mysteries, are forced to turn the characters who in the original would have been comic relief into everymen. Circumstances having changed, we must work very hard to have both the circumstances and the humanity that golden age mysteries had.
I had a reasonably major character who was waiting someplace for some other characters to arrive, and she was reading a book to pass the time. Then I decided to go for it. Not only am I going to actually say which book it is, it’s going to be Pride and Prejudice.
Not only is she going to like the book, I think she’s going to talk about it with the brothers.
For some odd reason, this feels almost transgressive. I don’t know why; there’s no rule against having a character read a good book. In fact, there are plenty of instances in golden age mysteries of characters talking about other fictional detectives. There’s no reason I can’t have the characters talk about an interesting subject on occasion.
The history of fingerprints in detective stories is a curious one; their use in detective stories almost never parallels their use in real life. Which is to say, fingerprints in detective stories are always something to be worked around, while in real life they are a tool for catching criminals.
Fingerprints have been known for a very long time, of course, but their use to identify criminals is comparatively recent. Like most things the history of the technology around fingerprints is a long one, but we can suitably take it up with a book by Sir Francis Galton, entitled Finger Prints, in which he a published detailed statistical analysis showing that finger prints were sufficiently unique that they could be used as identification. That is, if a finger print found somewhere matched a finger print taken from a person, you could be confident that it was, in fact, that person’s fingerprint.
Details are a little hazy to my very cursory reading on the subject, but shortly after Paul-Jean Coulier developed a method of transferring fingerprints from objects to paper using iodine fuming we see fingerprints start to be used to identify criminals by police forces in 1901, with the first conviction for murder based upon fingerprint evidence in 1902.
It is not long after this that we see fingerprints start to appear in detective stories; the first I can think of off of the top of my head in the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Norwood Builder. In it, a bloody thumb mark is found near where Mr. McFarlane would have gotten his hat before leaving. The thumb print was a false one, of course, made from a cast of a thumb mark left in sealing wax. This discovery has nothing to do with the fingerprint itself, however—the criminal had put it there overnight, and Holmes had observed that there was no mark in that place the day before, proving McFarlane’s innocence.
The next instance I’m aware of—I’m sure that there are others before it—is the first Dr. Thorndyke story, The Red Thumb Mark, published in 1907. Here we have another fingerprint, again in blood, but this time the case revolves almost entirely around the thumb print. It turns out to be a forgery, which Thorndyke proves by careful examination of the thumb print under high magnification. The denouement, for so it might be called, is entirely about the process for using photo-lithographic techniques for creating a stamper capable of creating duplicates of a fingerprint.
I would like to skip forward, now, to 1921, and The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner. This features the detective Malcolm Sage, and he delivers a very curious lecture on the use of photographs and fingerprints. I will quote it in full, because it’s worth reading for the historical curiosity:
“There is no witness so sure as the camera,” remarked Malcolm Sage as he gazed from one to the other of two photographs before him, one representing him holding an automatic pistol to his own head, and the other in which Sir James was posing as a murderer.
“It is strange that it should be so neglected at Scotland Yard,” he added.
Silent and absorbed when engaged upon a problem, Malcolm Sage resented speech as a sick man resents arrowroot. At other times he seemed to find pleasure in lengthy monologues, invariably of a professional nature.
“But we use it a lot, Mr. Sage,” protested Inspector Wensdale.
“For recording the features of criminals,” was the retort. “No, Wensdale, you are obsessed by the finger-print heresy, quite regardless of the fact that none but an amateur ever leaves such a thing behind him, and the amateur is never difficult to trace.”
He paused for a moment; but the inspector made no comment.
“The two greatest factors in the suppression of crime,” continued Malcolm Sage, “are photography and finger-prints. Both are in use at Scotland Yard; but each in place of the other. Finger-prints are regarded as clues, and photography is a means of identification, whereas finger-prints are of little use except to identify past offenders, and photography is the greatest aid to the actual tracing of the criminal.”
By the later 1920s, fingerprints, where they exist at all, are almost exclusively red herrings, and I think by the 1930s they more-or-less never show up. Consider this scene from Gaudy Night, in 1935.
“Is there no material evidence to be obtained from an examination of the documents themseves?” asked Miss Pyke. “Speaking for myself, I am quite ready to have my fingerprints taken or to undergo any other kind of precautionary measure that may be considered necessary.”
“I’m afraid,” said Harriet,” the evidence of finger-prints isn’t quite so easy a matter as we make it appear in books. I mean, we could take finger-prints, naturally, from the S.C.R. and, possibly, from the scouts—though they wouldn’t like it much. But I should doubt very much whether rough scribbling-paper like this would show distinguishable prints. And besides—”
“Besides,” said the Dean, “every malefactor nowadays knows enough about finger-prints to wear gloves.”
There’s also a later scene where Lord Peter dusts a door for fingerprints.
“Am I really going to see finger-prints discovered?” asked the Dean.
“Why, of course,” said Wimsey. “It won’t tell us anything, but it impresses the spectator and inspires confidence…”
He went on to dust for fingerprints right up to the top of the door, which he said was “merely a shopwindow display of thoroughness and efficiency. All a matter of routine, as the policeman says. Your college is kept very well dusted; I congratulate you.” In fact, he suspected the use of strings over a door to manipulate things inside, and was checking to see if there were marks; at this late juncture checking for fingerprints is merely cover for some other, more useful, activity.
As we move out of the golden age and into more contemporary detective fiction, we tend to find that fingerprints either implicate an innocent person in a meeting with the victim prior to his death or else turn out to belong to the victim in very strange places. In short, they turn out to be either red herrings or further puzzles. (Obviously, I am painting with a very large brush, here.)
Curiously, while there seems to have been a spate of forged fingerprints shortly after the things became used as evidence, I can’t recall seeing or reading of any forged fingerprints in stories written in the last 100 years. Most of the time, fingerprints are like cell phones in horror stories—something the author feels duty bound to add a line or two explaining away, but otherwise things one would just as soon forget.
There is a close analogy in DNA evidence, which to some degree are the fingerprints of our day. Any idiot can get a lab result saying that person A was in place B where the crime was committed, and he should never have been in place B, therefore he committed the crime. This requires not a detective but merely a well-trained monkey. It is, therefore, entirely uninteresting. Fingerprints at least have the advantage that the amateur can take fingerprints almost as well as the professional; DNA evidence simply cannot be found by the amateur. DNA evidence is, therefore, merely annoying, from the perspective of the mystery author. It can be used, as fingerprints were, to frame innocent people, but not really better than any other evidence. Hair is a great place to take DNA from, but matching hair to a person is an age-old thing; finding the innocent suspect’s hair at the scene of the crime can be done without DNA evidence.
I know in my own stories I occasionally feel obliged to explain why there is no DNA evidence, though I’m always annoyed by it. To be fair, I also used DNA evidence in one of my stories, though only as potential clinching evidence that would have been worthless without knowing who to test (the test would have happened after the book was over).
I suspect that DNA evidence will eventually go the way of fingerprints—something that needs only the most cursory explanation to wave away, since the reader is as uninterested in it as the author is.
Since murder—in a detective story—requires a motive, money is a very frequent one, as is revenge. Since confusion as to motive helps a detective story to be interesting, Comingling the possible motives of money and revenge can make for a story being very interesting.
In golden age mysteries, this often took the form of a relative who went off and made his fortune in Africa, or in Australia, or in America. To England in the early 1900s, there were a large number of far-off places in which it was possible to make a fortune and to make deadly enemies while one was doing it. This, rather usefully, made for a ready supply of fictional millionaires with dubious pasts in detective fiction. A story might go any way of it, with the millionaire being killed for his money, or for how he got his money, and this, in turn, made any detective story which featured a millionaire who made his fortune in foreign lands instantly inscrutable. There were many ways the story could go until sufficient facts were put into place to know which way it had gone.
I am not sure that this sort of plot is really open to contemporary stories any more. For one thing, there is noplace where popular imagination will accept that fortunes are easily made (if you don’t contract a deadly disease, etc). The closest I think one can come would be a tech startup of some kind. The problem is that tech startups happen within the bosom of civilization. Worse, they are started by the most harmless people that one can imagine: nerds. Popular imagination may accept someone making a fortune in a tech startup, but will not accept the nerd who made this fortune having murdered someone in order to keep it to himself.
It would actually be somewhat plausible to have a more daring person use the small amount of money he had from his parents to fund a startup with a nerd friend and then to get rich from it, so we need not be strictly limited to having a nerd as our rich man. The problem is that it would still be the nerd who would have to get revenge, and this would not be very plausible. At the outskirts, the nerd might somehow have acquired a wife and children—though I think this would tend to strain the credulity of the average reader (more because the nerd is conceived of like a sorcerer, and sorcerers must be virgins to be powerful)—and one of the children of the nerd might grow up to seek vengeance for his father. That said, I don’t think that anyone will really buy it.
I do think it could be made to work if you want to go the dark route, though. You can have the millionaire who cheated the nerd also have cuckolded him, so that the child who kills him is actually his own offspring, having inherited his daring and risk-taking from his biological father. It would make for one heck of a reveal at the end, but I don’t like to go the dark route, myself.
To some degree the problem is that the world has become over-technologized for there to be anyone to kill in order to keep a fortune to oneself. Precious metals, oil, etc.—all these are now located by experts using expensive machines, and cannot be extracted without the sort of precise data provided by these experts. The other thing is that technology is a magnifier. Where it does provide wealth, it provides it in such abundance that it is no great hardship to share. The diamond mines, or oil wells, or whatever the millionaire made his millions on in the early 1900s provided enough wealth for one man, but would have provided only prosperity for two. Diamond mines might very plausibly produce a few hundred diamonds; a gold mine might very plausibly produce only a few hundred pounds of gold. That would be wonderful in one year; it’s not actually that much to buy a mansion on and keep servants for another forty years.
The other problem is that the modern ways of making a fortune, though they take a lot of work, involve very little suffering. No one digs all day under a scorching sun to develop a cell phone app. No one gets an almost deadly fever, or is bitten by venomous insects, or is mauled by a jaguar, while creating a website that takes pictures of your cat and gives you wine suggestions. In short, modern fortunes are not made in a romantic way. Something as dramatic as a deadly vengeance simply doesn’t go with the utterly prosaic ways in which modern fortunes are made.
I have faith that the basic outline of the plot can be made to work, but I think it will take a great deal of work, indeed, to come up with the way to do it.
It’s interesting that here in the United States, 2020 is a troubled time, in a somewhat similar way to how the 1920s in America were a troubled time. So far, at least, they are troubled for different reasons, though of course one should never count on the future as certain. I don’t think that the specifics of the troubles matter very much, though, to the subject I want to talk about.
As you may remember from previous posts, I’m very much in the camp that approximately the first thirty five years of the twentieth century (in England) were the golden age of detective fiction. That is not to say that there hasn’t been good detective fiction since, of course. The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael are some of my favorite mysteries and they were written between 1977 and 1994. The period from 1900-1935 was, however, one of astonishing growth and development of the genre that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created in the 1887. (In a sense Poe created it with Murders in the Rue Morgue, and A Study in Scarlet even references Dupin, but there seems to be very little between the two, and an explosion in the style only after Sherlock Holmes was born.)
While there was a great deal of development in the early part of the 1900s, the 1920s are sort-of smack-dab in the middle of the golden age and were the origin of some of its most celebrated sleuths. Coming shortly after the first world war shattered the optimism which had, to some degree, dominated the late nineteenth and very early 20th centuries, the 1920s involved a great deal of exhaustion, both religious and moral. America, though across an ocean, was deep into the rise in organized crime which Prohibition had caused and exported many sensational stories about organized crime to England. Divorce was ceasing to be scandalous. Contraceptives were becoming more popular and sex outside of wedlock was becoming far more accepted. It was a troubled time.
In spite of that, it was an artistically creative time. Detective stories, which are almost always rigorously moral stories, were wildly popular, and writing them was also popular. We tend to forget the troubles of the past because we don’t live them; even when we’re aware of them it’s hard to feel their concerns because ours are different. Moreover, we know how things turned out for previous ages and so the many worries that people at the time had seem unreal to us because we know which worries never came to pass. Given that we, in 2020, know that the 1920s was a troubled time, that should give us some idea of how troubled must it have been to live in it!
Despite their troubles, the authors of the 1920s were able to write, and often to write a lot. Granted, many of them made money at it, but not always a lot, at least not at first. For example, it was not until after she published her fifth Lord Peter Wimsey story that Dorothy L. Sayers was able to quit her day job to write full-time. And even if they did it for money, creativity is not something can simply turn on, like a spigot, regardless of the conditions.
One possibility is that writing was itself a refuge for the writer. Many of us like to read detective stories in part because we seek refuge from the troubles of our own lives, and want to take a holiday in a place where intelligence is used well and wrongs are set right. It is possible that for some writers, writing allows them that escape while they are writing. I don’t find that so much for myself, but others might.
The other possibility that comes to mind is that the writers who were successful in the 1920s were those who were good at pushing the stresses of the day aside and focusing on the task at hand. It’s a very useful skill, and one that probably needs no argument for trying to get better at.
Freeman Wills Crofts was an Irish mystery writer during the golden age of mysteries. His most famous detective was Inspector French. According to Masters of Mystery, he worked on a railroad and included his extensive knowledge of railways systems and places that they visit into his stories.
What I didn’t realize, until I recently read an article about him, was that many of his stories, and especially his earlier stories, were inverted detective stories. That is, rather than being whodunnits, they were howcatchems. I was surprised to learn that style of story (one can’t quite call it a mystery) was popular so early on. (Crofts sold hundreds of thousands of copies of his novels.)
The same article in which I found this out also said that the novels featuring Dr. Thorndyke, the detective of R. Austin Freeman, were also howcatchems rather than whodunnits. In fact, the Dr. Thorndyke novels were supposed to be so entirely about how the culprit was caught that scientific experiments—all of them performed by the author himself prior to writing about them—were (apparently) the chief amusement of the books.
Prior to learning about these detectives, the only inverted detective stories with which I was familiar were the episodes of the TV show Columbo. I never gave it much thought, but while if I was forced to make a guess I’d have guessed that someone had done an inverted detective story prior to Columbo, I never realized that it was actually popular prior to Columbo. It’s curious how much, in the circle of people I know, the earlier examples faded into obscurity. Though sometimes the characters are preserved longer than their authors.
I cannot recall having encountered, in my own time, anyone talking about Freeman Wills Crofts, nor have I heard anyone talk about R. Austin Freema. Dr. Thorndyke, however, is referred to fairly often in at least one of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, and if my memory doesn’t deceive me, more than one. In the banter between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, they sometimes talk about what Dr. Thorndyke would make of what they’ve found.
I find it a bit surprising to learn that Dr. Thorndyke wasn’t in mysteries but rather howcatchems. Perhaps I shouldn’t be, though. It was only a howcatchem from the reader’s perspective. From Dr. Thorndyke’s perspective, he was every bit as engaged in trying to solve a mystery as Lord Peter was.
The references to Dr. Thorndyke and learning more about him are also a curious vantage point onto popular culture references aging. The first few times I read the stories I had no idea who Dr. Thorndyke was except what was implied by how he was referenced; he was a brilliant Sherlock Holmes type. Past that, I knew nothing. Now that I know more, it is curious that the reference doesn’t really mean more to me than it did. Perhaps that would change if I were to actually read the Dr. Thorndyke stories—I can’t really say without having read them, of course. (I did just order the first book, The Red Thumb Mark, off of Amazon to at least read the first chapter.)
I think that this does point to popular culture references, if done with enough context to explain them, working reasonably well. It is handy, for example, that Dr. Thorndyke is a doctor; the prefix helps to clarify that the name refers to a person and not a company or a place, for example. Having the other person respond in some fashion also helps, because the response will, itself, help to fill in some of the knowledge necessary to understand the reference.
Popular culture references also adds something interesting to track down and to discuss with one’s friends. It’s curious what little tid bits of history get preserved by offhand comments from people who only ever existed in a writer’s imagination, prompting others to research these things and write down what they were.
Thinking over the settings for the golden age of detection fiction, it was relatively common for a detective to run into a mystery while on vacation. I think that this served two primary purposes, which I’d like to consider in turn.
The first function of encountering mysteries while on vacation is to spread the murders out, geographically. You can see the reverse of this problem in Murder, She Wrote when Sheriff Metzger asked, after the third or fourth murder since he moved from New York City to get away from the constant violence, whether Cabot Cove was the death capital of Maine. Unless you put your detective in a huge city, as Sherlock Holmes was in London, it is rather limiting to have to set all of his cases locally.
That said, a consulting detective can be called in by someone who does not live near him, just as Sherlock Holmes often was. Vacations, then, serve another purpose, too. Vacations give us interesting places as settings.
This is related, I think, to Lord Peter being very rich. It’s worth looking at the quote from Dorothy L. Sayers on why she did this; the detective’s vacation fulfills a similar function:
Lord Peter’s large income… I deliberately gave him… After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it. I can heartily recommend this inexpensive way of furnishing to all who are discontented with their incomes. It relieves the mind and does no harm to anybody.
There’s an element of this which I think applies to all writers, or at least almost all writers. We are not a bunch known for actually going on many vacations. Fictional writers do, of course. They travel to book signings the world over to meet legions of adoring fans who wait in long lines to see them for a few seconds. (To be fair, book tours were a thing, once, though like the Wild West they may have lasted longer in fiction than in reality.) Be that as it may, since giving up their personal secretaries and learning to type for themselves, real writers spend a lot of time alone. That’s how the books actually get written.
Sending one’s detective on a vacation can be a good substitute. It also does away with many of the disadvantages of traveling. Plane rides are something to be endured, not enjoyed. The Caribbean may be beautiful, but it is hot in the sun, and for some of us, at least, sunburn is not a highlight of one’s day. No one enjoys donating blood to biting insects. All these inconveniences, and more, can be placed onto the shoulders of our long-suffering detective, while we, in our imaginations, can enjoy only the highlights of the vacation.
What is true of the writer is also true of the reader; it is a pleasure to read about places that incur inconvenience to actually go to.
This question of setting is one that I think mystery writers (though not the great ones) sometimes neglect. That probably sounds like a more sweeping generalization that I mean it; to stand on firmer ground: I, at least, am prone to neglecting it. I tend to be very plot-focused, and as a result think of the setting primarily as it impacts the plot. Obviously, a setting does need to work with the plot and not against it, but I suspect that a good starting point for a mystery is an excellent setting, and then one can consider what sorts of plots would work well in it. At that point selecting characters becomes easier because one has the guidance of the question: who would do such a thing, at such a place? Then just add in some eccentric acquaintances, a romantic sub-plot, and you’re good to go!
As I mentioned, I’ve been working on the story for He Didn’t Drown in the Lake (the third chronicle of Brother Thomas). I have the “what really happened” written out, and it’s about 5000 words. And I realized I need more.
The first thing I have to do is to add to what-really-happened and include what was going on until the Brothers arrived. There’s a whole bunch of characterization that will happen in those hours between when the police arrive to view the body and when the brothers arrive. In theory, I could just make notes of that, but I tried a bit and it seems like there’s no substitute for actually writing out the story as if it were a novel, even though it won’t (directly) go into the novel.
The other thing I need to write out, in addition to the outline I’m working on, is a schedule for the camp. When does paddleboard yoga happen every day, when are the horseback rides every day, etc. The camp would have a schedule, and I can already tell that I’m going to get horribly lost unless I come up with one, too.
At least I have one paragraph of the actual story written.
One of the problems that detectives investigating complicated murders have is that there is all sorts of evidence that probably exists which it would be convenient for them to have which they don’t. It would be great to have a recording of every phone call every suspect made, for example. Better still would be 24/7 surveillance footage of all suspects. Of course, these would make for very boring detective stories, so no detectives have these.
There is an intermediate case, though, which is the police; the police have broad powers to obtain evidence which ordinary people cannot use. Police can get phone records, they have a network of people to track the movements of an individual, they can compel banks to give them bank records, etc. Sometimes the detective has these advantages because he is a police detective; sometimes he has these advantages because he has a friend on the police force. Perhaps one of the more creative examples was Lord Peter Wimsey, who was able to obtain all sorts of privileges because of his prefix.
There is a curious interaction of these special privileges with the fair play principle. Of course, strictly interpreted any such privilege is fair play if the reader is given the same privilege by being given the information that the detective is, but in another sense this violates part of the spirit of fair play because it takes from the reader the possibility of imagining himself doing what the detective did, under similar circumstances.
This is, for all its flaws, one of the great triumphs of Encyclopedia Brown. His proofs are often pedantic or trivial, and occasionally factually incorrect, but they are all proofs that anyone who has read a lot of non-fiction books could make. The glory of Encyclopedia Brown is that, allowing for the fact that in real life no one would go to the Brown Detective Agency, anyone who reads the books could open their own Brown Detective Agency and make a go of it.
I should also note that I think that this is one reason why some detectives resort to criminal means (more generally, things unavailable to the police) to obtain evidence. This is, essentially, a sort of special privilege for the detective. I suspect this is one of the reasons why I think that such behavior—and, in a sense, lying to witnesses to obtain their testimony—is not as good as the alternative. By doing things which the reader cannot or should not do, the detective gains special privileges which help to explain his special success.
I do not think that there is anything wrong with a detective with special privileges—there have been many great ones—but I think that the great detective without special privileges is a difficult ideal worth being aimed at, at least.
A common enough plot device in murder mysteries is the murder being taken to be an accident or a suicide. This often follows from the murderer trying to disguise the murder as an accident or suicide; any number of things may lead to it being taken that way. The ones that I particularly have in mind, though, are the ones where the detective is unsure of whether it was murder or not.
The problem with this is one of genre—what with the story being a murder mystery, something has gone wrong if the murder isn’t actually a murder. Granted, this does come up from time to time, but such stories are almost invariably disappointing. They can be partially redeemed by the accident or suicide being disguised as murder as part of an attempted murder (framing an innocent person for the not-a-crime, or at least not-their-crime in the case of suicide). However, even this is only tenuously in the genre of murder mystery. The worst, though, is where a series of accidents served to obscure some evidence, which then led the detective to think that this was the one clue which didn’t fit. I get why such things exist—if something is never an alternative, there is no suspense—but it’s deeply unsatisfying for the detective to unravel a problem which he created. It’s not good when the best case is equivalent to the detective having stayed home and taken a nap.
Anyway, whichever way this goes, there is a further problem of genre: unless the book is in the wrong genre, we the reader know that the accident wasn’t an accident. This reminds me of something that James Cameron said in a conversation with his co-writer of Terminator 2. The quirk of the movie is that this time the terminator from the first movie is sent back in time by the human faction to protect a kid from a more advanced terminator sent back in time by the machine faction. However, this is only revealed about 20 minutes in to the movie; they shoot all of the scenes with the original terminator in an ominous way, as if he’s the bad guy. But, as Cameron pointed out, the problem is that in the leadup to the movie Arnold Schwarzenegger was doing hundreds of promotional interviews that started with, “So, Arnold, this time you play a good guy”—that is, it’s not like the audience was actually going to be fooled. So what’s the point?
And that’s a good question. I’m not sure that such pretenses really have a point. They can be a plot device to put the detective in an antagonistic position with the police—especially when the detective is himself the police, leading to the chief of police saying “you have 24 hours to prove this was murder”. They can be a plot device to put the detective in an antagonistic position with the family or other witnesses and suspects. But it just doesn’t work for the detective to be unsure that the death really was murder, because from the point of view of the audience it’s not an open question. If the detective is trying to figure out whether the death was murder, the reader is in the position of having to wait for the author to get to the good part.
Something I can’t recall ever having seen, which I think would be very interesting, would be a murder mystery in which the first “murder” was an accident but the second “murder” was a genuine murder. With the murderer hiding in the shadow of the accident which people take to be murder, he would probably be putting himself out of the reckoning because he has a forged steel alibi for the first “murder”. Only once that death was discovered to be an accident would his breakable alibi for the second murder come under real suspicion.
Given the sheer number of murder mysteries already written, I’m sure that this has actually been done. What I think is more common is a variation on it, where one person commits a murder, then a different person commits a copycat murder, hoping to hide in the first murderer’s shadow. I know I’ve seen that, at least in an episode of Numb3rs. Stretching the concept slightly, you can also see it in the Brother Cadfael story One Corpse Too Many. This is definitely an interesting plot for a murder mystery. It makes things nicely complicated. So complicated that it really can only be done in a mystery novel, not a short story. (The episode of Numb3rs, being a TV show and therefore structurally a short story, managed this with a multiplicity of murders that just made a single villain impossible and further had the solving of the individual murders happen off-screen.)
That said, I think it would be an interesting variation to have a murderer stumble onto an accidental death that he had an alibi for and set it up to be a murder, then during that investigation—or better yet, I think, once it has concluded in frustration—to commit another murder with the same modus operandi and other clues pointing to it being the same murderer.
I’m working on the what-really-happened story for the third chronicle of Brother Thomas, tentatively titled He Didn’t Drown in the Lake. (As I’ve mentioned before, I think of a murder mystery as a story-within-a-story, except that the interior story is told backwards; I write that interior story first to ensure consistency.)
I’m up to about 3,000 words so far. The murderer killed the victim and the search party is out looking for the murdered man (because he didn’t come home for hours from his short evening walk). It’s coming along well and I’m happy with it so far, but man is it a lot of work, on a per-word basis.
The reason it’s a lot of work is, of course, because it’s compressed. I’m only describing the parts that will be relevant later, and so I’m having to make a lot of decisions per sentence. To give an example, how does the search party split up? That will certainly come into play later, and having influence on suspicions. Another big one I had to decide was whether the search party found the body that night, or in the morning. That determines whether the footprints down to the lake where the body went in are easy to find, or not. The problem is, since the search party doesn’t know that this is a murder investigation, if the footprints are easy to find they will be mostly obliterated by the search party walking over them. If they’re in good condition, it will be because the search party didn’t find them—but then the body will have drifted in the lake and the spot where he went in will be hard to find. Both of these are very workable, but I have to decide which one to go with. (I’ve about 95% decided on the search party finding the footprints.)
This decision also affects the timing of the story; the police need to be called in and some suspicion of murder has to arise before the brothers can be called in. I have a preference for them to be called in sooner rather than later, since the evidence will be fresher and guests won’t have left yet, etc.
For all of the jokes about people dropping like flies wherever Jessica Fletcher went, it certainly saved a lot of time and effort over having to have an excuse for her to be called in.
One White Rose For Death is the fourth episode in the third season of Murder, She Wrote.
It’s not one of the most memorable episodes, probably because the setup of Jessica being used to help a classical performer from behind the Iron Curtain to defect while on an American tour was used in the first season (Death Takes a Curtain Call) and had the extremely memorable Major Anatole Karzof of the KGB. That said, this is a fun and interesting episode.
The plot is very different; instead of a former Russian defector and relative of the performer, who brought Jessica to the theater, being the one to help the couple, it’s a British secret agent they met at the theater, and instead of hiding out at Jessica’s house they end up hiding out at the British embassy in whatever country they’re in (most everyone has a British accent, but they hide out at the British embassy so the one country they can’t be in is Great Britain). It’s this later part that makes the episode so interesting: since the murder is committed inside of the embassy, it becomes a closed-mansion mystery.
There is the added tension from the defection story; only the brother (Franz) defected—he had been a spy for the British after the secret police murder his wife—while his sister (Gretta) was dragged along and isn’t happy about it. Then they find out that the East German secret police is holding their parents hostage. This spy-thrilleresque thread vies with the murder mystery thread to be the main plot; it keeps the tension up for the entire episode.
The murder victim gives us a clue—his dead hand clutches the titular white rose.
Jessica overheard the victim asking spy headquarters for information on a mission that had been called White Rose. Fortunately, Michael, the spy who got Jessica into this mess, knows what it was about—it was a failed mission to protect an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, ten years before. (The activist was assassinated.)
The victim was also a spy, in fact Michael had recruited him into the spying business, so he took the murder very personally. He came from a long line of stuffy bankers and his “banker’s face” made him perfect for the spy businesses. The most important thing about being a spy is to be able to pass oneself off as anything, such as a tradesman.
Fortunately for everyone, not least of all the audience, because everyone in the embassy is a suspect, the diplomat in charge of the embassy gives Jessica free run to investigate the murder. I didn’t quite follow his logic, here, but it’s always more pleasant when the detective has the right to investigate, so I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Initial investigations turn up that:
the doctor had ties to anti-apartheid activists in South Africa
the diplomat’s wife is from Rhodesia
the victim’s fingernails and eyes show “moons”. He was killed with a fast-acting poison, which Jessica takes to mean a poisoned weapon.
#3 means that the murder weapon was probably professional; not many people besides professionals carry poisoned stabbing weapons. With the white rose connection, it seems likely that the victim recognized the assassin from operation White Rose. #1 gets dismissed fairly quickly because he was on the wrong side to have assassinated the activist being protected in operation White Rose. #2 bears more investigation, which happens fairly quickly.
The diplomat and his wife come clean.
While she came from Rhodesia, she was the daughter of a light-skinned servant who had been raped by one of her white masters. She was taken from Rhodesia as a child and grew up in England; she hadn’t been near South Africa in over a decade when the assassination happened. The diplomat was stationed in Hong Kong back then. They had been secretive and not forthcoming with their alibis because they wanted to keep the wife’s background a secret due to the diplomat’s needing social standing for his job. After this is revealed Michael walks in with the news that the doctor can be ruled out too because he was in prison (for having participated in a peace march) the day that the activist was killed.
Michael declares the theory that the victim was killed because he recognized the assassin a bust. “I mean, what would a professional assassin be doing here at the embassy?” This question is the spark which gives Jessica the answer. “Unless here is not where he was supposed to be,” she replies.
At this point we can figure out who did it by simple process of elimination. There’s no way it could be the East Germans, so the only person left is the literary agent who met Jessica at the airport and accompanied her to the concert.
There’s a brief scene at the beginning where we meet the literary agent who escorts Jessica and he apologized for the person, Jeffrey, who she expected wasn’t able to meet her because he got tied up in some meeting. Jessica reveals that she just called her agency and they knew nothing about Jeffrey being on any sort of assignment. The police went to his apartment and found him strangled in bed.
The literary agent pulls out his pipe, which the secret agent grabs from him. It turns out that there was a secret stiletto blade in it, presumably poisoned. Later on, we see him arrested. Jessica complains to the British spy that the faux literary agent used her to try to get at the Prime Minister to assassinate him, and it would have worked had the British spy not brought them to the embassy at gunpoint.
The setting of this episode is really excellent. Especially when it comes to a TV show, the embassy of a reasonably rich country like Great Britain makes for a spectacular setting. It’s one of the few places where you can have an ornate, old-fashioned mansion outside of England. Even more, it’s one of the few places where you can have a sealed mansion in America that’s not on a private island. It’s a really great setting. It’s not surprising that embassies are a popular place to set a murder. Really, it’s only surprising that they’re not more popular. After all, there are a lot of embassies in the world.
The construction of this episode is interesting. The dramatic event of an East German trying to defect to the west is merely the setting for the murder. This complicates the plot and serves as an excellent distraction. Further, it does a very good job of hiding the murderer to have him brought along at gunpoint to where he would rather not be. As Chesterton put it:
A great part of the craft or trick of writing mystery stories consists in finding a convincing but misleading reason for the prominence of the criminal, over and above his legitimate business of committing the crime. Many mysteries fail merely by leaving him at loose ends in the story, with apparently nothing to do except to commit the crime. He is generally well off, or our just and equal law would probably have him arrested as a vagrant long before he was arrested as a murderer. We reach the stage of suspecting such a character by a very rapid if unconscious process of elimination. Generally we suspect him merely because he has not been suspected. The art of narrative consists in convincing the reader for a time, not only that the character might have come on the premises with no intention to commit a felony, but that the author has put him there with some intention that is not felonious.
Now, the device of the murderer having to improvise a murder because he was recognized by someone he was thrown together with by chance fulfills this criteria exceedingly well. It does so with a trade-off, of course. That trade-off is that there is exceedingly little that could point to one person instead of another as the murderer. Structurally, the murderer could be anyone since he has an entirely secret relationship to the victim. There is no alternative to examining each person in turn and arriving at the correct conclusion by a process of elimination.
The best the author can do is to eliminate all of the suspects, in which case there is some deductive work to do in figuring out which suspect should not have been eliminated. The second best one can do is what was done in this episode, where it merely seems that all of the suspects have been eliminated because there was one we never thought of.
There is a difficult question which comes up here of giving the murderer an opportunity to murder the victim. This is difficult precisely because it must be done in a way that the reader sees, but not in a way that he notices.
That was done in this episode by an exchange where the faux literary agent demanded to leave and when he was told that he was not yet free to leave no matter who in the home office he knows, he excused himself to go to the bathroom. This exchange was colorful and mildly humorous, which seemed to explain its presence. It did put him alone for a time, which gives him opportunity, but it didn’t give him much opportunity. The body is discovered about two and a half minutes later in the episode, which is close to what it would have been in the story. There’s only one scene break, and it’s Jessica going to find Gretta—they discover the body together after their conversation. This gave the faux literary agent very little time to find his man, stab him, and make his escape. Other than that very brief time, he was always in the lounge, at least as far as we can tell, and always with one or more others there with him. It was enough time, but only if he was lucky and ran into his man, alone, almost immediately.
One thing that was never explained—and possibly because this would have been difficult, never questioned—was what the victim was doing in the garden. We last saw him trying to dig up information on operation White Rose on the telephone. There’s no obvious reason for him to go into the garden. And the body was not hidden, so it pretty much had to have been killed in the garden. If the body was moved to the garden, it would have been hidden. The last thing that the faux literary agent wanted was for the body to be found. The garden was clearly large enough to hide a body such that it would take a while for people who weren’t looking for it to find it. Where it was, Gretta only found it by tripping over an extended foot. (Also, had the body been moved, the killer would presumably have removed the white rose which pointed to him.)
The final thing to discuss, I think, is the choice of killer and victim. The killer was a professional assassin and the victim a professional spy. Granted, the professional assassin murdered the victim only in order to protect himself from being recognized and not because he was being paid for it, but it still removes the murder from those ordinary motives and passions which make murder mysteries morality plays. It’s just difficult to relate to someone being able to identify one as a professional assassin when one has never killed for money.
(Also, come to think of it, how on earth did the victim recognize the killer? The activist who was killed during operation White Rose was stabbed to death, but the assassin escaped into the crowd “before anyone knew what had happened”. That’s not really the sort of circumstance under which one will get a really good look at the assassin, to recognize him 9 years later in a completely different context. And, given that the victim did recognize him, why did the victim let him get within stabbing range in the garden? He was stabbed in the chest, not in the back. A solitary garden, even in the dark, is a sub-optimal place to sneak up on a man to stab him in the chest. I suppose he could have sneaked up on the victim from behind and at the last moment the victim heard him and wheeled around, too late to defend himself.)
Overall, I think that the plotting and structure of this episode are above average for Murder, She Wrote. It’s a fun episode, though of course part of that is the setting. That said, the setting is a choice, and it was a good one. A good setting can go a long way to making a good plot easier to pull off.
I first watched Murder, She Wrote when it aired on television and had seen more than a single season before reaching my tenth birthday. Most episodes, though enjoyable, are not all that memorable, but some really stick with me. One such episode is The Night of the Headless Horseman.
It’s an episode in the middle of the third season and borrows heavily, as the title implies, from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It’s a very interesting episode and I’m going to discuss its plot and characterization, but first I’m going to give a brief recap of the plot in the reader has not watched this episode recently.
We begin by being introduced to Dorian, a tall, gaunt poetry teacher in a rural boarding school/horse riding academy. He is very much Ichabod Crane. He is reading a poem to the lady he’s courting, Sarah, who is the daughter of the wealthy owner of the school/riding academy. She, too, is very much Katrina Van Tassel (Ichabod’s love interest, if you don’t remember).
The school is set in the south, at least to the degree that the actors can do southern accents (it varies), so we even have the plot element of Dorian being a Yankee outsider (in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Sleepy Hollow it was a Dutch settlement). Further borrowing from the famous story, as Dorian walks home, he is comes to a covered bridge:
And then, to pay off the title, out of nowhere a headless horseman carrying a jack-o-lantern rides up.
The rider chases Dorian onto the bridge and throws the jack-o-lantern at him. As the rider rides off, Dorian shakes his fist and exclaims, “Damn you, Nate Finley!”
So far, we have a remarkable homage to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. We’re only about three minutes in, however, and things will begin to diverge, as they must, when Jessica arrives. Speaking of which…
The scene now changes to Jessica arriving from Cabot Cove via the train; Nate picks her up at the station. They begin to catch up, then in what is ostensibly an explanation of what Dorian is doing at the prestigious Wenton Academy (the school/riding academy), we get some obviously important backstory.
Dorian has the job because over the summer the previous poetry teacher, a beautiful young woman named Gretchen, died under mysterious circumstances. The daughter of the Academy’s stable master, she drowned in the river, and—hint, hint—rumor has it that there was a man with her who was the one behind the wheel. If you can’t guess that the earlier mystery will drive the murder we haven’t seen in this episode, you clearly haven’t been watching Murder, She Wrote for long. They do work it in as backstory and gossip well enough that you can feel clever for spotting it, though.
Next, Dr. Penn Walker, the town dentist, shows up:
In this encounter we learn two major things:
The doctor has a strong interest in jewelry; it’s a hobby of his.
He thinks that Jessica is Dorian’s mother.
On the car ride from the train station, Dorian tries to stall Jessica with conversation, in which we learn that the good doctor was engaged to Gretchen, the poetry teacher who died under mysterious circumstances. Also, he was in Europe when it happened. (This simultaneously clears the doctor of being the man behind the wheel and also sets him up with a very strong revenge motive.)
After these important details, Jessica forces Dorian to come clean, and he admits that he’s fallen in love but his intended fiancé’s father has a fixation with pedigrees and so, being an orphan, he wanted to present at least one parent and so lied that Jessica is his mother. This conversation is interrupted by Nate Finley, who rides his horse in front of their car for no reason, then laughs at them.
Clearly, we’re not meant to feel sorry for him when he turns up dead.
(Nate Finley does match the character of Abraham Van Brunt, in being the other suitor for Sarah’s hand and a far better physical specimen, though less socially adept. His character does depart from Van Brunt’s, though, as we’ll see.)
Jessica and Dorian get to the school where some awkwardness ensues as Jessica isn’t sure whether to play along with the lie of being Dorian’s mother. We then get introduced to a trio of boys who play a prank on the stablemaster (driving the horses off, out of the stable). The stablemaster appears to be German; he is named Van Stottard and has a thick German accent, anyway.
Nate Finley happens to be around and threatens the stablemaster that he will find a new stablemaster if the current one cannot keep control of the horses. It’s a noble effort on the part of the writers to distract from the characters just introduced by highlighting what a bad guy Nate Finley is, but one of the problems that Murder, She Wrote writers labor under is that they don’t have the budget for unimportant characters. That said, they do at least have the freedom to make characters important for surprising reasons, so we don’t really know what part the boys play in this.
Dorian accuses Nate Finley of being the headless horseman, which he doesn’t deny. Finley then rides off.
In the next scene, we get the owner of the school telling the headmistress that he wants Nate Finley fired.
This is an unusual move for a television show; ordinarily bullies on TV have the unconditional support of authority figures. The headmistress tells him to calm down; he knows as well as she does that Nate Finley is as good as they come in the saddle, and their riding program is, for some reason, of the utmost importance to the school. Why, is never explained. Even in the 1980s it was a bit of a stretch that wealthy parents would choose to send their children to a boarding school primarily on the basis of its riding program.
The headmistress surmises that the owner is afraid for his daughter, and suggests he should look out for the new English teacher instead. Some more introductions are made and the stablemaster barges in holding all three boys we met earlier. He charges them with committing pranks and they do not deny it; the headmistress says that she will deal with them later.
That night, the headmistress interrupts Nate Finley saddling up his horse to tell him to stay away from the owner’s daughter.
“I want you to stay away from Edwin’s daughter. Satisfy your needs elsewhere.” “Is that an order, or an offer?”
This dialog is a bit odd in that we learn moments later that the two were involved with each other; she threatens to fire him if he doesn’t stay away from the owner’s daughter and he threatens to tell the owner that they were together. Either way, though, Nate Finley clearly deserves the murdering he’s about to receive, and I suppose that this scene serves to establish the headmistress as a possible culprit.
The next scene moves to a restaurant in which the wait staff dress up in period costume for some reason, and we meet the waittress, Bobbie.
She seems to be set up almost as a love interest for Dorian, except that he never really pays any attention to her. The dentist comes in and sits down with Jessica and Dorian. He notices Bobbie’s neclace, and asks where she got it. She replies, “Nate Finley, Doc. Guess he figures it will get him somewhere, which it won’t.” And before anyone else has a chance to speak, Nate Finley walks into the bar. Jessica warns Dorian not to start anything, but in vain, because Finley starts it.
Finley tries to warn Dorian off of Sarah, but Dorian punches him in the mouth. They fight for a while, and Dorian gets shoved against the wall where he knocks down an old saber. He picks it up, as several of Nate Finley’s friends are standing around him.
If you think that there’s any chance that Dorian isn’t holding the murder weapon, you haven’t seen Murder, She Wrote before. Nothing happens here, though, because the Sheriff—who had been conveniently on his way to dinner, I suppose—breaks up the fight.
The fight over, Nate mentions that he thinks he broke a tooth, and a raw nerve in his mouth being exposed, he does the logical thing and asks for a stiff drink from the bartender.
Dorian leaves. As Jessica leaves, she notices the leader of the three trouble-making students feeding Nate Finley’s horse. She says hello to him, but he just walks off.
Dorian goes to Sarah’s house, but no one is home. On his way back, right before the covered bridge, Nate Finley’s friends show up in a yellow pickup truck. He asks them for a ride back to the academy but instead they give him the murder weapon.
They drive off. Dorian only makes it a few more steps before the headless horseman rides again. Dorian tries to defend himself with the sabre…
…but only gets knocked down. His head hits a rock and he falls unconscious.
The next day the stablemaster and headmistress are concerned about Nate Finley’s horse. He had been ridden hard but not cleaned. The sweat has dried into his fur. (This is a problem for horses because the tack the wear—bridle, saddle, etc—will tend to rub the sweat into their skin, causing irritation. Any good horseman will always clean his horse after riding him, for the horse’s sake.) The attentive viewer will infer that Nate Finley has finally been murdered, though the characters don’t catch on just yet. This does yield an interesting problem for the viewer, though, since as far as we know Nate Finley was the headless horseman, and the headless horseman was the last person we saw alive.
Dorian stumbles into the stable and announces his intention to get even with Nate Finley. No one knows where Finley is, though.
Jessica, out on her morning bike ride, runs into the police who have found Nate Finley’s body. The Sheriff asks if Jessica knows where “her son” is, but she doesn’t. No sooner has she said this than a car pulls up with the headmistress and Dorian in it. Dorian launches into a complaint at the Sheriff about how Nate Finley had attacked him the night before. The Sheriff is interested, and asks questions that don’t seem entirely related. Jessica puts two and two together and realizes that Nate Finley has been killed. They see the body under a tarp, or possibly a black cloak. Jessica notices something about the feet:
The boots are on the wrong feet! I’m not giving anything away here, at least by more than a few seconds, as Jessica starts pointing this out to anyone who will listen almost immediately.
It is revealed that Nate Finley was decapitated, so the Sheriff arrests Dorian as having recently threatened Nate Finley with a saber. Curiously, it never occurs to anyone to ask whether a wall decoration at a restaurant was actually sharp. It’s actually pretty rare for wall decorations to be kept in fighting condition. I suppose we’re meant to assume that it was, since the saber is later referred to as “bloody”.
Jessica argues with the Sheriff, pointing out problems with his case, and finishes with the fact that Dorian has sworn that he didn’t do it. That’s supposed to hold weight because Dorian doesn’t lie. When the Sheriff points out that of course she thinks that, being his mother, Jessica accidentally admits that she’s not his mother. As he puts Dorian into the jail cell, he tells Jessica that it’s encouraging to hear that Dorian doesn’t lie.
In the next scene, Jessica and Dorian talk over the situation.
A little bit is added to what we already know. Dorian saw the owner of the school driving off from his house in a hurry. When Jessica talks to Sarah about it, Sarah claims to be the one who drove off, but is obviously lying. The owner comes out and admits to being the one who nearly ran Dorian over. He had gotten an anonymous note that the headmistress was embezzling funds, so he waited until his daughter was asleep and drove off in a hurry to confront her. He did, she denied it, the owner said he would retain an independent auditor, then returned home. (The owner also asks her to tell Dorian to stay away from his daughter or there would be another killing.)
Back at the academy, Jessica runs into one of the three boys, but he runs off when he’s questioned. She runs into the stablemaster, but he refuses to answer questions, except to say that he had no reason to kill Finley but there are others who did. He walks off when Jessica asks if he meant the headmistress, perhaps. So, on to the headmistress.
We get a small scene of the three boys in a secret room at the top of the stables, where one says that they need to tell someone, and the ringleader says that they won’t tell anyone. What won’t be told is, of course, suggestively left off.
When Jessica talks with the headmistress, she says that there is a problem but she’s not the thief. Jessica wonders who knew about the problem and the headmistress gets defensive, asking if she’s trying to implicate her in Nate Finley’s death. Jessica deflects by asking if she’s seen the note.
The spelling is so bad it could even be written by a German! (The stablemaster, you will recall, is German.)
The next scene takes place at the restaurant; it turns out that Dorian has been released from jail, though whether on bail or what is unclear. The waitress, Bobbie, comes over and tells Dorian that she believes that he’s innocent, but if he did kill Finley she could totally understand. It comes out that Bobbie saw Nate riding through town with his black cloak and black floppy hat pulled down low. This was at 11:30, but the Sheriff said that Nate was at the restaurant until 10:30. What happened in that missing hour?
Dorian then breaks a took on an olive, which necessitates a trip to the dentist.
It turns out that he only loosened a cap, which the dentist can re-cement for him. Jessica asks if the doc noticed anything odd about Nate’s dress last night, as he was found with his boots on the wrong feet. The doc observed it would be hard to walk like that; perhaps he had gotten undressed and re-dressed in a hurry. He heard Nate did that quite often, usually with an irate husband in the vicinity.
Jessica then notices a picture on the Dentist’s bureau.
(The inscription reads, “Love Forever, Gretchen”. It’s curious how often people in TV murder mysteries give each other signed headshots as keepsakes.)
That night we see a fight between the owner and his daughter, then one of the three boys spies the stablemaster burying something in a horse stall.
The next morning Jessica is with the headmistress, who tells her that it is the stablemaster who stole the money. Jessica goes to talk to him, but can’t find him. She does, however, hear the boys in their secret loft in the stables, and goes to investigate. She uses the secret knock she heard earlier, then as she opens the door tells them, “When I was a little girl, if you knew the secret knock it entitled you to enter.”
She talks to the boys and they admit to having been the headless horsemen who harassed Dorian the first time, but had nothing to do with the second time. Also, one of them saw the stablemaster bury something (he took to be Nate’s head) in a sack.
In the next scene the Sheriff has his deputy digging up the spot. As the Sheriff goes to open the box that had been buried, Jessica shields the boys from the terrible sight, but it turns out that the box contains only money. The stablemaster had been embezzling money in order to pay a detective to investigate the death of his daughter. He hands over the file that the detective had assembled. There was nothing of value in it, but for some reason it did include another headshot of Gretchen.
Luckily for Jessica, this time Gretchen was wearing a necklace. Jessica recognizes it and solves the puzzle.
In the next scene the dentist comes to visit Jessica in the restaurant which hasn’t yet opened. Dorian told him that Jessica wanted to talk to him.
This can mean only one thing. If you hadn’t figured it out from the clues or by simple process of elimination, the doctor is the killer.
She realized that the necklace Gretchen was wearing in the headshot was the same necklace that Nate Finley had given to Bobbie. The dentist, who makes jewelry as a hobby, had made it and given it to Gretchen and recognized it when it was on Bobbie’s neck. He couldn’t help but know what it meant—that Nate Finley had been the man with Gretchen when she died. (Presumably he snatched the necklace off of her neck before swimming to safety and leaving her to drown.)
Finley had complained of a busted tooth after his altercation with Dorian, and presumably went to a dentist about it. A lot of things in the case didn’t make sense, like the severed head, unless there was something about the head that would instantly point to the killer, such as fresh dental work.
The dentist broke down and told Jessica what happened. Finley did come, and, seeing the picture of Gretchen, started laughing and telling the dentist all about how he had been drunk and drove the car into a lake and abandoned Gretchen to die. Finley was apparently very drunk, because in the re-enactment, he found the whole thing very funny.
At his bragging about leaving Gretchen to die, something snapped in the dentist and he jammed a pick into Nate’s neck. He died quickly. The dentist then figured that he had to make it seem like Nate died elsewhere, so he stripped Nate, put on the clothes, and rode Nate’s horse out of town, making a lot of noise to ensure he would be noticed. He ran into Dorian and knocked him out, then got the idea to frame Dorian using the saber Dorian was holding. The rest, we already know.
The use of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow setting is definitely very interesting, but it faded pretty quickly. Really, after the first few minutes the only thing that was left was the headless horseman. To some degree this was inevitable as they made the horseman the victim, rather than the murderer. That is simply unrelated to the original story.
Now, variation from Sleepy Hollow was inevitable, since that was not a murder mystery. However, I can’t help but think that they didn’t really make as much use of the headless horseman as they could have. First, I’d like to explain why, then I’d like to talk about how they could have made more use of it.
The big problem that the writers had was that in the original story, Ichabod Crane was not the hero. He was wooing Katrina Van Tassel for her money, not out of love. Worse, Katrina didn’t love him, either. The original story isn’t explicit, but it is very strongly hinted that Ichabod proposed marriage to her and she rejected him. It is further implied that her reason for encouraging Ichabod was to stoke the interest, by jealousy, of Abraham Van Blunt. Van Blunt is not as smart as Ichabod, nor as socially graceful, but he was the man Katrina wanted. This, coupled with Ichabod’s mean motive for wooing Katrina really make him a thoroughly unsympathetic character. So right off the bat, making Dorian the underdog-hero of the story creates a lot of distance from the original.
Further, the structure of the story just isn’t paralleled, because the headless horseman (a decapitated Hessian soldier) was a local legend and Ichabod Crane was an extremely superstitious man. Van Blunt used the legend and Ichabod’s cowardice and superstition to drive him out of town. Indeed, for all of his quicker wits, Ichabod was in a way the intellectual inferior for being superstitious. It’s an evocative story in which a pretentious man was shown up for what he truly was. Except for the way that Dorian is a bit full of himself—which is portrayed in a sympathetic way by the writers—none of this comes forward.
To now consider how it could have been used: the more traditional approach to dealing with this sort of thing is for the murderer to try to use the legend or story which everyone knows and to use it to divert suspicion onto the person who most fits the villain of the original legend or story.
If this were a Scooby Doo episode, then someone could pretend to be the headless horseman in order to try to get people to believe that it was actually the headless horseman who committed the crime. Since this isn’t Scooby Doo, we would need the Ichabod Crane figure to be the victim and the Van Blunt character to be the suspect.
Now, obviously the setup in this episode is nothing like that, but that’s why the episode didn’t really live up to its first few minutes. In fact, they stuck to it too closely at the time of the murder—it really makes no sense for the victim to have knocked the killer unconscious immediately prior to his own murder.
There is, admittedly, something interesting about the idea of the headless horseman turning up to be really headless, but I don’t think that idea can really be made to last any longer than the words necessary to describe it.
The other typical way to handle something like this would be to have someone who rides as the headless horseman then try to frame the victim as the headless horseman, and frame someone else for the murder, as revenge.
This approach would still entail a large divergence from the original story, but it would at least keep up the appearance of being related to the original story, and on purpose. The killer would need to benefit from getting rid of both the victim and the person he frames for the death, of course. This motive would be obscured behind the bigger grudge between the victim and the one framed.
This approach could have been made to fit much better with the setup, though it would need to be the horse instructor who was Jessica’s friend, not the Ichabod character. The doctor, instead of seeking revenge for his dead (unfaithful) fiancé, would be in love with Sarah, too. The doctor would have ridden as the headless horseman, possibly two or three times, then would have killed the Ichabod character. The riding instructor friend of Jessica would then come under strong suspicion of the crime, and she would need to clear his name. The gullible Sheriff could actively point to the legend of sleepy hollow, and how it pointed to the riding friend as the guilty party. If they wanted, they could even have made the parallel stronger by making the death accidental, with the doctor only meaning to scare off the Ichabod character and instead frightening the coward into jumping into the river, where he drowned because he couldn’t swim, or the river was too fast, or whatever. His original plan could have been to just frame the riding instructor for being mean to the poet, and using that to make Sarah dislike him as a suitor, with the homicide and subsequent framing of the riding instructor for murder being accidental.
All that said, this is a very memorable episode, owing largely to the first few minutes and how well they remind one of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. However much they could have done better, it is a testament to the power of being evocative that this episode sticks with one.
Give people something to remember you by, and they will probably remember you.
I’ve mentioned before that my general approach to mystery writing is to first write out the murder from the murderer’s perspective, including whatever mistakes the murderer made. This is basically a prose story of only mild interest in this form—what makes it interesting is being told (more or less) backwards, from the detective’s perspective. He starts with the murder and the clues and works back to what happened before and during the murder, then eventually to further back about why it happened.
I’m currently on that stage in (the tentatively titled) He Didn’t Drown in the Lake. I’d love to talk about how I’m working it out, except I can’t really do that with anyone who might actually want to read the book, since it would spoil the book. That leaves me with people who wouldn’t want to read the book, but they probably don’t want to read it because it doesn’t interest them. So there’s really no one to talk about it with.
That’s not quite 100% true, as I do have a nerd friend or two who are sufficiently interested in biology and chemicals and what-not that they will discuss the very narrow aspect of poisons, if I wanted to go the route of poisons.
Just as an aside: one of the real problems with poisons, from a mystery writer’s perspective, is that getting reliable information on dosing and effects is very hard to come by. Take this like from the Wikipedia page on nicotine poisining:
Standard textbooks, databases, and safety sheets consistently state that the lethal dose of nicotine for adults is 60 mg or less (30–60 mg), but there is overwhelming data indicating that more than 0.5 g of oral nicotine is required to kill an adult.
The other problem is that poisons almost require being passed in food or drink. Aside from skin-contact poisons, which are rare, hard to get, and dangerous for the murderer, other routes of delivering poison will let the victim know, and it takes a while to die or pass out from any sort of reasonable dose. This gives the victim a lot of time to call out for help or mark the murderer, both of which are sub-optimal from the murderer’s perspective.
As I’m getting started on the third Chronicle of Brother Thomas, He Didn’t Drown in The Lake, I can’t help but think of one of the classic Murder, She Wrote episodes. I’m not entirely sure why, but I still have fairly vivid memories of the first time that I saw A Lady in The Lake.
I’m going to discuss the construction of plot of this episode, but because I suspect most people don’t remember it as well as I do, I’ll give a brief recap of the plot so everyone can follow along.
Jessica goes off for a writing retreat at a lakeside resort near Cabot cove. There she meets an assortment of guests—a wealthy, older, overbearing husband (Howard Crane) and put-upon younger wife (Carolyn Crane), an older man who is devoted to bird watching (Burton), a young woman who loves to run naked in the forest (Joanna), and a younger husband and wife where the husband (Kyle Jordan) likes to go fishing and the wife (Betty Jordan) likes to fool around with the boat house manager (Jack Turney) while her husband goes fishing. Not entirely surprisingly, at least given how much screen time the overbearing husband gets, while on a morning bird-watching walk that Burton invited her to, Jessica sees Howard and Carolyn in a boat, wrestling with each other. She calls out, but the wrestling continues then Carolyn goes into the water.
Apparently she doesn’t come back up; what happens in the immediate aftermath happens off screen. Sheriff Tupper arrives soon afterward and looses no time in jumping to the conclusion that Howard Crane murdered his wife.
Jessica isn’t so sure, but doesn’t say much. Kyle Jordan approaches the Sheriff and gives some damning evidence. He had asked the Cranes to go fishing many times, but the they always declined. He thinks Howard couldn’t have meant to go fishing otherwise the Jordans would have come with them; clearly this meant Howard needed them out of the way to commit the murder.
Worse, the previous night Kyle and his wife overheard the Cranes having a loud argument in their room. Carolyn wanted a divorce but Howard said that she wouldn’t get a penny of his money.
After this, Sheriff Tupper goes to the room where Doctor Hazlet is tending to Howard Crane (he jumped in the lake after his wife, which apparently requires medical attention for some reason) to interview him.
Doctor Hazlet gave him a sedative (apparently, getting wet in a lake takes a lot out of you and rest is important), so the interview will need to be short. Howard says that his wife just went crazy and jumped out. He jumped in after her and tried to save her, but he can’t swim so he had to keep a hand on the boat and thus couldn’t reach her. In answer to a question, he says that not only could Caroline swim but she had actually won medals for it in school.
Jessica and Sheriff Tupper confer, and Jessica thinks that Howard’s version makes more sense than the idea that he tried to kill his wife. Inspiration strikes and Jessica goes to look at the boat. In the boat room she finds Betty Jordan and Jack Turney kissing. Betty is bold, saying that her husband doesn’t mind how she amuses herself so long as she doesn’t disturb his fishing, but Jack hopes that Jessica won’t mention it to Betty’s husband. Jessica assures him that she has no intention of telling anyone, anything. She then examines the boat and finds a hook on the bottom of it.
Jack has no idea what that’s doing there, nor when it got there. Some time passes and Sheriff Tupper and Jessica confer. Sheriff Tupper’s research confirms that Carolyn was a champion swimmer, which he takes to mean that Howard must have held her under the water.
Jessica points out that it’s implausible that a non-swimmer would try to kill a champion swimmer by drowning her in a lake. It occurs to Jessica that another explanation would be that Carolyn had made the thing up, to pretend that her husband tried to kill her in order to get a big divorce settlement. This tête-a-tête is broken up by the discovery of Carolyn’s body. It was on the north side of the lake, which apparently is pretty far away from where the resort is (they never say that they’re on the south side of the lake, nor how big the lake is). Sheriff Tupper says that this blows Jessica’s theory out of the water and clearly Howard killed as Tupper had been saying all along. Jessica asks him how the body got to the other side of the lake so quickly, to which Sheriff Tupper has no answer.
Some time later, Jessica is investigating something in a bird book.
What she is looking up we are almost conspicuously not told. This leads to a conversation with the owner of the hotel, who we find out is also a widow. Jessica asks to look at the reservation book, and makes an interesting discovery: Joanna and the Cranes both made their reservation from the same telephone number. Jessica goes and confronts Joanna.
It turns out that Joanna was Howard’s mistress. Howard had been talking like he was going to divorce his wife and marry Joanna, but then this trip came along. It turns out that the trip was actually Carolyn’s idea, and Joanna made the reservations for Howard to prove that there were no hard feelings. She did, however, make reservations for herself and come up early, to disguise her connection to Howard.
Jessica surprises Burton, who was taking (poloroid) pictures of birds, and asks to borrow one that also has a picture of Jack Turney in it. They then see the Sheriff arresting Howard, and Burton says that Howard won’t like jail, as he can’t stand to be cooped up.
Jessica accompanies the Sheriff and Howard Crane back to Cabot Cove. On the car ride it comes out that Howard is claustrophobic, and he accuses Jessica of having talked to his psychiatrist.
It also comes out that Howard is indeed rich, but has no living relatives. He was an only child and his parents are dead. His only uncle and aunt are dead. Even his cousin Arthur died a few years ago, or at least so he’d heard.
Back in Cabot Cove, Jessica, Dr. Halzet, and Sheriff Tupper confer over the autopsy report.
It turns out that Carolyn Crane did indeed drown, but she hand mud in her lungs. Further, she had bits of glass embedded in the skin of her skull. Also, she was wearing a bathing suit under her dress.
At this point a deputy comes in with the information that Jack Turney is a wanted man, for blackmailing married women with whom he’d had affairs and even for assaulting one of them.
We then jump to a scene between the Jordans.
It turns out that Mr. Jordan tried to surprise Mrs. Jordan on her bike ride, only to find out that no bicycles had been taken out that day. He asks her what is going on, then figures out that she’s having an affair with Jack Turney. Apparently, he does actually care how his wife amuses herself while he’s fishing.
There’s some very unimportant events that happen where Jessica and Sheriff Tupper talk to the owner of the inn, where it turns out that Jack Turney is her brother and she’s been protecting him, but didn’t know the extent of his crimes. We then move to the boat house where Mr. Jordan is threatening to kill Jack Turney.
Sheriff Tupper and Jessica arrive, and we have the denouement. Jessica explains the whole thing, though only after a series of misunderstandings and jumped conclusions by Sheriff Tupper.
It turns out that scuba equipment was missing, which Jack Turney had forgotten to mention. Carolyn Crane had a lover, with whom she had planned to fake an attempt on her life by her husband. She had attached the stolen scuba gear to the bottom of the boat via the hook she had installed, then when she was sure of her witness she wrestled with her husband and jumped out of the boat. She put on the scuba gear under water and leisurely swam, under water, to the north shore of the lake. There, her lover met her, but instead of love and support he killed her. He hit her with a pair of binoculars, the only weapon he had to hand.
It turns out that Burton is actually cousin Arthur—that’s how he knew that Howard was claustrophobic—and had planned the whole thing from the start, including killing Carolyn. Howard’s father had accused Burton’s father of embezzling money and had stolen the family business from him. Burton went through the whole elaborate murder scheme in order to get the money he was owed back.
Later on Jessica is asked what made her suspect Burton was not just an innocent birdwatcher, and she replies that he said that he would look for the nest of the yellow bellied flycatcher in a tree. They nest on the ground, she confirmed in the book on birds in that scene where she conspicuously didn’t say what she found.
This is a very fun episode, and takes advantage of what may be one of the cardinal rules of murder mysteries: have a beautiful setting that the reader (or viewer) would love to visit. It’s also got a great setup, and takes a number of well-paced twists and turns on its way to the ending. Something is clearly up with Jack Turney, and they play out the discovery of this at a fairly good pace to distract from the main murder investigation. The reveals on Jack Turney with Betty Jordan work especially well in this regard, as it does hint at the possibility he might have been involved with Carolyn, too. Additionally, the simple human drama of it is distracting.
Speaking of human drama, I didn’t hit on it much in my plot summary, since I was focusing on the murder, but there was a sub-plot in which the widow who is renting the hotel is trying to figure out what to do with her life and whether she wants to run the inn. It’s done sparingly, but comes up often enough to introduce a thread of human interest which pretty clearly as nothing to do with the murder. This is a good move, I think, because it helps to leaven the murder story. It keeps the story more anchored; murder mysteries tend to be better when real life goes on during the murder investigation.
The big problem is the ending. It doesn’t make sense, and ignoring that, it has a significant plot hole in the murder. Ignoring that, a key piece of evidence is very contrived.
I’ll start with the contrived evidence, which is Burton saying, as he and Jessica watched Sheriff Tupper taking Howard into custody, “Howard is not going to like jail. He can’t stand to be cooped up.” There was no earthly reason for him to say this. No one likes jail. It was just volunteering information, that he shouldn’t have had, for no reason whatever. It’s almost on par with the bad guy in Encyclopedia Brown saying, “I never looked inside the kid’s box. I certainly didn’t eat the chocolate chip oatmeal cookies with just a hint of cinnamon that were in it!” It’s one thing when the murderer reveals something he should have known to further his own ends, such as telling a fact he shouldn’t know that implicates someone else in the murder. The distraction of framing the other person can cover for the fact that he shouldn’t have known it. At the very least, there was some temptation for him to do it. Here, there was no reason for Burton to have said anything.
Let’s move on to the plot hole. According to Jessica’s theory of the murder, Cousin Arthur, that is, Burton, planned the whole thing before any of them ever got to the inn. He was, therefore, fulfilling his plan to murder Carolyn when he met her at the shore. Why on earth were his binoculars the only weapon to hand? Had he only put a single minute into the planning, he could have picked up a rock or a stick. Several minutes of planning might have yielded a better weapon still. When it comes to murder weapons, one’s own pair of binoculars, which one not only has been seen with but even drew attention to, is a terrible choice. And without the binocular glass embedded in Carolyn’s skin, there would have been no physical evidence linking him to the murder.
The other problem with the ending is even harder to get over—why on earth did Cousin Arthur kill Carolyn? Both Jessica and Burton seemed to talk as if he would inherit Howard’s money, now that the only other possible heir was dead. The problem, however, is that Howard Crane was still alive, and would presumably remain so for decades. The worst that would happen to him would be that he would be convicted for murder and go to prison for a long time. A person going to prison keeps their money. It does not get disbursed to heirs. (For those curious, the state of Maine abolished the death penalty—for the final time—in 1887.)
In Maine in the 1980s, framing Howard for the murder of Carolyn would mean that Cousin Arthur would never see a penny of the money he believed to be rightfully his. In fact—assuming he didn’t murder Howard—the only way for Cousin Arthur to have gotten his hands on any of Howard’s money would be to keep Carolyn very much alive and marry her after she got a large divorce settlement.
This feels almost like someone ripped the plot off from a British golden age detective story in which a man being convicted of murder would mean that he was hanged within a few weeks and thus framing a man for murder was an effective means of inheriting money from him. In that context, this ending—apart from volunteering private information about Howard and using binoculars as a murder weapon—would make sense. In Maine in the 1980s, it’s quite a head scratcher.
As I believe I’ve mentioned before, the third Chronicle of Brother Thomas is set in a resort camp in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York. I’ve begun work on the setting, which in this case means drawing a map of the resort.
This is just my first sketch and everything is subject to change, but here’s where I am now:
Please pardon the terrible handwriting. I’m thinking that once I’ve settled on a map, I’m going to draw it over on unlined paper and include it in the book. I’ve always liked mysteries that included a map in the beginning. That said, we’ll see what I actually have time and energy for.
Presently available on my publisher’s website (and, in print, generally cheaper there after it goes to wide distribution), I’m pleased to say that Wedding Flowers Will Do for a Funeral is now in print!
It’s even available in hardcover, though admittedly it’s a bit pricey in that form. But it’s a nice hardcover where the cover art is printed directly onto the book itself and there’s no dust jacket to rip or lose, or as so often happens, rip then lose.
In a great many detective stories, the detective will seize upon a single clue that, to him, does not fit, but—if we’re being honest—readily has an innocuous explanation. A partially drunk cup of tea, a single dumbbell, no bookmark in his book—it can be anything. The people around him will often scoff that there are many simple explanations, but he will persevere. Until that detail is adequately explained, we do not have the real solution.
This trope is often quite a lot of fun, but it can be a tricky rope to walk.
On the one hand, if the clue is too readily explained, the detective is not justified in clinging so tightly to it. On the other hand, if there is no reasonable explanation for the clue, then it becomes an obvious clue and no one is justified in scoffing at the detective. The main fun of this sort of clue consists in walking right on the edge—the detective being justified in clinging to it, but just barely.
A fun variant of this approach is for the detective to set the irksome clue aside and focus on other things, only to discover, in the end, what the meaning of the irksome clue was. This, I suspect, works best in detective stories that have the structure of a short story—clues, then turn the page for a denouement. (TV murder mysteries tend to have this structure, spread out over a little more time. This is why the detective so often figures out who did it after some almost meaningless clue which gets him thinking of things the right way—it’s the pretext used to give the audience some time to consider the clues presented up to this point and guess before the detective reveals it.) I suspect that the Poirot-style mystery where the clues are gathered in a confusing order and then Poirot sets everything straight in the accusing parlor would work to.
I tend to favor a more gradual process, where the reader is closer to the detective’s thoughts, so I haven’t used this sort of clue in my murder mysteries yet. I’ve also tended to stay away from solutions that hinge in a single piece of physical evidence. That’s not a policy, it’s just where I’ve gone. The critical piece of physical evidence is very tricky to pull off right—it’s very difficult to make it both conclusive and yet non-obvious.
The one clue which doesn’t fit is even harder to pull off in a novel, since it (more or less) has to be the key to looking at things from the correct perspective. From the correct perspective, things make sense and the evidence to get leaps to mind; in a novel it is hard to have this perspective but never have anyone consider it. It is, of course, doable—the key seems to be to have an alternative perspective which seems more plausible and almost makes sense, in which the detectives can labor until they come at the problem from the right angle. The problem with this approach is that though it does have the effect of startling the reader, I think that it diminishes the enjoyment of re-reading the story, since one knows that the detective is walking down useless paths. (To make them non-useless basically requires lucky discoveries, and luck is not what fun is made of in a detective story.)
It is interesting to consider how to use this sort of clue well. It can be a lot of fun, and I would enjoy working one into a novel that I write.
In the golden age of mystery writing there was the idea that a murder mystery was a game between the author and the reader. The author would give all of the clues necessary and would win if the reader couldn’t guess the solution before the detective reveals it; the reader would win if he guessed first.
The idea was all over the place at the time. For example, you can see aspects of this in Fr. Ronald Knox’s 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction. Most of the rules ensure that the necessary evidence is actually given to the reader.
Fair play is a great idea, and makes for good books. The only problem is that it—mostly—doesn’t actually work for its intended purpose.
The problem with “fair play” in murder mysteries, as a game, is that there are usually too many degrees of freedom. Ambiguity can be resolved in too many ways. For example, it is possible that the murderer managed to pretend to come into the room he was already in, but then it was also possible someone in the séance circle holding hands with the victim could have let go and stabbed the victim before he could cry out. Neither is probable and neither is impossible. Which is more likely? The reader is not really solving the problem, but instead reading the mind of the author.
This sort of ambiguity comes up a lot because ambiguity is the heart of mystery. If there’s only one interpretation, there’s nothing to detect, or at least there’s no value in the detective being brilliant. More than that, there is always ambiguity so long as there is a next page—it is always possible that the next page will contain new evidence which changes the meaning of evidence which showed up before.
On the flip side, if sufficient evidence to obtain a criminal conviction is given prior to the suspects gathering in the accusing parlor, the game will be too easy. If there is insufficient evidence for a conviction, the solution will be unsatisfying. It seems like there should be a happy medium, but there isn’t. The most common attempt is for the detective to withhold from the reader some conclusive peace of evidence and only present it when the formal accusation is made. This does not solve the problem, though, because it is almost always the case that a different piece of conclusive evidence could be given for at least one other suspect. In short, if there is any point in guessing, there will always be more than one reasonable guess.
Fair play doesn’t really work for its intended purpose, but it does make for good book.
There are two main reasons for this. The first is that fair play unites the reader with the detective. The second is that fair play forces the writer to make the mystery mysterious because it is clever.
When the author hides clues from the reader, it means that the reader doesn’t know why the detective does what he does. The detective, himself, becomes a mystery. In this case the reader is united, not to the detective, but to the Watson. (To some degree this explains the original Watson, who was, in theory, the author of the stories and hence they were from his perspective.) On the plus side, this multiplies the mysteries. The downside is that it makes the detective an unsympathetic character, in the strict sense that the reader cannot sympathize with him.
Interestingly, Sherlock Holmes was originally meant to be an unsympathetic character in the other sense—aloof, unapproachable, eccentric in the extreme. It did not last; Holmes was humanized, over time. Part of this was that there were often sub-mysteries which Holmes would explain, allowing us to get close to the detective.
The other aspect of fair play—that it forces the writer to write good mysteries—is also important to a good novel. A mystery in which the mystery is maintained only by withholding clues is, generally, a very simple mystery. If there is nothing much for the detective to think about, the solution will not be very satisfying when it is finally offered.
Another effect fair play has on plot construction is that it forces the author to be careful with the rate at which clues are given, and the circumstances which produced them. If the author has to reveal what the clue is when the reader has time to think about it, it being unreasonable for the culprit to have left the clue will stand out more.
For these reasons, and probably for others, too, fair play is as important now as it ever was. I think we merely lack the societal explanation which was never really adequate, even in its own day.