Forensic Detection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mystery Commandment #2

In this series, I will be examining the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The second commandment of mystery fiction is:

All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

Father Knox’s 1939 commentary on this was:

To solve a detective problem by such means would be like winning a race on the river by the use of a concealed motor-engine. And here I venture to think there is a limitation about Mr. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. He nearly always tries to put us off the scent by suggesting that the crime must have been done by magic; and we know that he is too good a sportsman to fall back upon such a solution. Consequently, although we seldom guess the answer to his riddles, we usually miss the thrill of having suspected the wrong person.


When it comes to committing the murder, I think that this is a fairly non-controversial rule. If there are ghosts who can kill people in the story, then one of two possibilities must be the case:

  1. We know about this from the beginning.
  2. We find out about it later.

If #1 is the case, there is no mystery to a locked-room mystery, or really any murder in the haunted house at all. If #2, this violates the first commandment, since we will not have met the murderer early on in the story.

There is the further problem that the demands of justice do not obtain. If there are spirits who are free to kill the living wandering around, they do not have any particular obligation to us to leave us alive. And as a matter of practice, the solution to the mystery is entirely academic, since one cannot put a ghost in prison.

Similarly, the detective receiving the solution to the problem from omniscient or clairvoyant beings is simply not interesting as an intellectual puzzle. One can try to match wits with the detective, but not with God. And really, there’s no difference between between having a ghost tell the detective the solution to the problem and having a living witness to the crime. And no one would write a murder mystery in which the solution was someone who saw the murder came and told the solution to the detective. After all, in that case, he’s at best a stenographer, not a detective.

There is, however, an exception to the rule, if one wants to put a book simultaneously into both mystery and paranormal genres—it would work to have a ghost be the client of the detective. There are some limits to this, of course—it would be hard to have the ghost unaware of who stabbed him to death, for example. But it could certainly work to have the ghost want to know who poisoned him, or who set a trap which killed him, etc. It would offer a fair amount of leeway, too, for how paranormal one wanted the story to be. The ghost could have no interaction with the detective other than kicking off the mystery, in which case it could be questionable whether there even is a ghost. On the other end of the spectrum, the ghost could become the side-kick of the detective, taking advantage of his ability to walk through walls to do detection which is too dangerous or simply unavailable to the detective, but the detective providing the brains of the operation. As a matter of personal taste, it’s not the sort of story I want to write, but it’s definitely doable.

Though it’s not about the command itself, I think a work is in order about Fr. Knox’s commentary on Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. I think he slightly mischaracterizes what Chesterton was doing when characters in the story would suggest magic or ghosts as the solution. I do not think that Chesterton was trying to fool the reader, any more than Scooby Doo was trying to fool the audience. Rather, I think Chesterton was setting an atmosphere.

There are two environments in which a detective can operate: one of ignorance, and one of confusion. The people can know nothing, and turn to the detective, or the people can be mistaken, and need the detective to correct them. Many of the classic detective stories are the former. A body is found, there are no witnesses and no fingerprints—who did it? But there is the other sort, where people are sure that someone did it, and the detective must prove them wrong. And this is what Chesterton was setting up.

There is also simply the fun of the thing. Chesterton loved to play with the stereotype of faith-vs-reason and the hard-headed skeptic vs. the credulous priest. And it’s fun because the stereotype is wrong. It is, generally, the skeptics who are credulous. And quite often, it should be added, the priests who are skeptical.

This may be best summed up in one of my favorite passages from the Father Brown mysteries, specifically in the first, The Blue Cross. (To give context, Flambeau is the arch criminal who tried to steal the eponymous blue cross from Fr. Brown but was foiled, and Fr. Brown explained various thieves’s tricks which to defend the blue cross he employed or was prepared for Flambeau to try, some of which even Flambeau hadn’t heard of.)

“How in blazes do you know all these horrors?” cried Flambeau.
The shadow of a smile crossed the round, simple face of his clerical opponent.
“Oh, by being a celibate simpleton, I suppose,” he said. “Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men’s real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?”


If you like murder mysteries, you might like murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

tddowb

Mystery Commandment #1

In this series, I will be examining the Mystery Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

The first commandment of mystery fiction is:

I. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

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

The mysterious stranger who turns up from nowhere in particular, from a ship as often as not, whose existence the reader had no means of suspecting from the outset, spoils the play altogether. The second half of the rule is more difficult to state precisely, especially in view of some remarkable performances by Mrs. Christie. It would be more exact to say that the author must not imply an attitude of mystification in the character who turns out to be the criminal.

The spirit of the first part is, I think, fairly obvious: the reader must have some chance of figuring out the solution and having some idea that the character who turns out to be the murderer exists is a necessary (though not, except in badly written mysteries, a sufficient) condition for that.

There is, however, an exception to this rule: where the specific identity of the murderer is of no great consequence. If the solution to the problem is some salient characteristic of the murderer, rather than his name, it is fair play to have not introduced his name before so long as the salient characteristic was introduced. For example, if the conclusion of the mystery is that it must have been a policeman who committed the crime, it’s not cheating to have not mentioned the particular policeman before. I should note that this regards the actual plunging of the dagger; it won’t work if the policeman acted alone. It does work, however, if the policeman was acting on behalf of a character we’ve already met.

So a possible reformulation of the rule is that at least one of the criminals must have been mentioned in the early part of the story. If the murderer acted alone, this becomes the rule which Fr. Knox set down. In the case of conspiracies, however, one can omit the pawns from appearing in the early part of the story. One cannot, however, omit them entirely. If the dagger was plunged into the victim by the man cleaning his chimney acting in the pay of his nephew, we do not need to meet the chimneysweep early on, but we do need to learn fairly early on that he had his chimney swept.

I should note that it is less tricky to pull this off if the Chimneysweep turns up dead halfway through the novel.

With regard to the other half of the rule, I think that Fr. Knox’s clarification—that the author must not imply an attitude of mystification in the character who turns out to be the criminal—is quite right. To do this would be to lie to the reader. There is a genre called the unreliable narrator genre, of course, but I’ve never heard of this being done well in mysteries.

(The problem is that nothing can compel the unreliable narrator to eventually reveal the truth. You could, however, have multiple narrators. Probably the best example would be the memoirs of the murderer, which contain lies that misdirect the reader, followed by a postscript explaining which parts were lies, written by the police detective after the murderer’s execution.)

Probably the book which Fr. Knox is referring to, by the way, is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. (There’s no point in spoiler warnings since the context inherently gives away the plot twist.) It is narrated by Dr. Sheppard, who assists Poirot in his investigations, and rather famously concludes with Poirot identifying Dr. Sheppard as the murderer. Christie makes it work by having the novel being written in real-time during the case; thus when Poirot reveals that Dr. Sheppard was the murderer the novel was almost entirely finished; he needed only some minutes to complete it where he admitted his guilt. And it should be noted that Sheppard was chronicling what Poirot did and said, he was not himself actively engaged in trying to solve the crime.

This does raise a curious point, though, that the attitude of mystification which is forbidden is in the murderer’s private thoughts—whether known through omniscent narration or first-person narration—not in the murderer’s actions. It is perfectly permissible for the murderer to have the external attitude of mystification. In fact, it is fine for the murderer to actively investigate the crime in order to throw suspicion off of himself.

I will say, though, that on the last part I tend to find that ruse disappointing. I prefer mysteries in which the good guys are actually good. I realize that in a sense this goes against the heart of the mystery novel—which is figuring out which apparently good person isn’t—but I prefer a mystery story in which there is some solid foundation in the rough waves of deception.


If you like murder mysteries, you might like murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.

The Detective Decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox

If one reads about the golden age of detective fiction (roughly, the inter-war period, circa 1919-1939), one is apt to come across some of the formulations of rules for detective fiction written then. As I’ve noted, detective fiction has from its inception been a self-referential genre, and it was talked about even more outside of the pages of the mystery novel than inside them.

One of the most famous lists of rules is the Decalogue (ten commandments) set down by Fr. Ronald Knox. They are:

1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
8. The detective must not light on any clues are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

I propose to go through each of these in one post per rule (which I will eventually link here) and discuss them. In aid whereof, this page which has some of Fr. Knox’s own commentary on his rules (years after he wrote them) will be especially interesting.

I should note that in general I agree with the Decalogue. My intention is not criticism but consideration—to look at the purpose of the rule and as such when it can be broken in good faith.

Murder By Poison

Though I’m only about halfway through writing Wedding Flower Will Do for a Funeral (the second Chronicle of Brother Thomas), it’s good to put some thought into when the next book will be—murder mystery plots are the sort of thing it’s nice to kick around for a while instead of having to come up with in a moment. Accordingly, I bought a book on poisons for mystery writers. I hope to review when I’m done with it, but I wanted to talk about the subject of poison as the murder weapon.

(I should note that this is thinking out a variety of alternatives, and is not aiming at any single conclusion; it’s more like a walk through a workshop than an essay.)

Poisons kill, but they do so in a variety of ways. Some kill quickly, others slowly. Some kill very painfully and some just put the victim to sleep and a short time later into eternal sleep. And as I was reading over descriptions of the effects of various poisons it occurred to me that some poisons have greater differences between them than there are between some of those poisons and more conventional weapons such as knives and bullets.

One of the great differences in poisons is a question of detection. That is, how hard is it to discover that the victim was poisoned? Poisons which cause the victim to writhe in agonizing muscle spasms for days before finally killing them, for example, are not likely to be mistaken for death by natural causes. So why use such a poison?

(Before answering that question I should note, in passing, that these tend not to be popular poisons in television mysteries because they don’t give the opportunity for the detective to spot the clues which indicate poison that most people have missed. If the detective confidentially whispers to the police that a victim taken suddenly ill right after dinner and who thrashes about for several days before finally was probably poisoned, he’d be liked to get a sarcastic, “How did you work that out, then?” if it’s a British show or, “Thank you captain obvious” if it’s an American show. Good television, this does not make.)

I think that the best reason to use obvious poisons—except in the case of pure malice, that is, to want to see the victim suffer—is in order to frame somebody. The big problem that murder mysteries have is that of motive. Cui bono? Whose good? Who is it who benefits so much from someone’s death that they’d commit it in cold blood (and murder by poison almost certainly has to be in cold blood since the poison must be procured beforehand). There are generally only a few people who will benefit to any great degree from the death of a person; this narrows the field of suspects down quite considerably. Good for the detective, not nearly so good for the murderer. (And to actually go through with a plan for murder, one must expect to get away with it.)

There is still a problem with the frame-up: if the case against the person being framed isn’t air-tight the field of suspects will become very small indeed. This can certainly be made to work, but poisons introduce the problem that the murderer doesn’t have to be present when the victim takes the poison. While convenient, it renders alibis useless. (This can to some degree be worked around by contriving to make it seem like the time the victim took the poison was known.)

If the murderer is not trying to frame one of the few other people who will benefit from the death of the victim, an obvious murder which does not readily admit of an alibi seems very unlikely to appear a good idea. I suspect, then, that this is probably best used in revenge killings, and in particular those where the relationship between the killer and the victim is not generally known. In English cozies this is the classic case of the killer being the grandson of someone who the victim murdered forty years ago in Australia.

This can be done extremely well; I think most of the interest is going to lie in establishing the backstory and solving a 40 year old mystery in order to unravel the present mystery.

The other sort of poisoning—the gentle kind—results, I think, in a very different sort of murder investigation. Probably the most notable aspect of this is going to be the overturning of an initial conclusion that the victim died from natural causes. The most classic example of this is, I think, the elderly rich relative.

In many stories the climax of the investigation is the digging up of the body and testing it for poison, which is then found. There’s nothing wrong with that plot, but things get very hard if a monkey wrench is thrown into it. The obvious monkey wrench is the undetectable poison—and there are a few—but it’s interesting to consider the approach that Dorothy L. Sayers used in Unnatural Death. It suffered from the minor problem that the effect she relied on was exaggerated about 100-fold; as one reviewer put it the method would work but the apparatus used would be comically large. But that aside, since a poison wasn’t used none could be found. And the rest of the story tells us, I think, how stories about undetectable poisons have to go.

If the first murder was undetectable, the only real solutions is for there to be more murders, this time imperfect. The murderer had ample time and opportunity to plot the first murder, but latter ones will either be rushed or the murderer will relax because of the overconfidence created by success.

The murderer can be pushed into subsequent, rushed murders either by the detective—who seems to be getting too close—or by someone who witnessed an incriminating part of the murder and is now blackmailing the murderer. (It’s convenient for detectives how few fictional people realize that blackmailing a murderer is a very dangerous way to make money.)

In the former case, this can be done by way of the murderer having an unwitting accomplice—somebody who didn’t understand the significance of an action they knew the murderer did or may have even done at the murderer’s request. The impetus comes when the detective is starting to ask questions which might make the unwitting accomplice realize the significance of what they know. The tricky part about this is that the detective can’t do this on purpose or he’s guilty of the unwitting accomplices’s death. It’s not easy to pull this off even unintentionally, though, since the brilliant detective should—because of his brilliance—foresee the probable outcome of asking the questions he’s asking.

All things considered, I think the cleaner way is for the second victim to blackmail the murderer. The downside is that the detective is thus being handed a piece of luck outside of his control, which isn’t satisfying. On the other hand, this is true of (basically) all possible clues. The murderer’s bad luck is the detective’s good luck. If the murderer committed the perfect murder, the detective couldn’t solve it.

On the one hand, this feels like a cheat. On the other hand, it is appropriate; to murder is imperfect and imperfect people do not do things perfectly. Murder is a sort of short-cut, and people who take one short-cut will take others, too. The real trick is to keep the sort of short-cuts taken that help the detective in-character with the murder itself.

Detective Sidekicks

In his Decalogue (ten commandments) for detective fiction, Fr. Ronald Knox’s ninth commandment was:

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

The Watson in a detective story is generally understood to be a stand-in for the reader, and not without reason. I’ve been wondering how necessary a Watson character is, so I’d like to look at the functions of a Watson:

  1. To have someone to whom the detective must explain this thinking and actions.
  2. To have someone for the detective to talk to.
  3. To have someone who looks up to the detective.

Regarding the first, it can be very helpful for the detective to need to explain himself. How the detective thinks is interesting and apart from having to explain himself we mostly won’t know. It is always possible to give him a habit of thinking out loud, of course; one sees this a bit with Chesterton’s Father Brown (who generally doesn’t have a Watson character).

Regarding the second, this is acknowledging the truth that it is not good for man to be alone. But the companion of a detective does not need to be a reader stand-in and often is better if he isn’t. My favorite example of this is Harriet Vane in the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. She’s not on Lord Peter’s level, but she’s also not—generally—a reader stand-in.

I should mention that Harriet Vane only appears in 4 of the Lord Peter books; Lord Peter’s companion is more often his friend, Charles Parker. Parker is more of the typical Watson character; I suppose my marked preference for Harriet Vane is sufficient to give my opinion of this.

Regarding the third quality of a Watson, this gets to a somewhat tricky aspect of art—most of conveying grandeur is done not by conveying it but by conveying how people react to it. Grandeur is a very difficult thing to show; people being impressed is much easier to show. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the line, supposedly said by Katherine Hepburn, describing Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers, “He gave her class and she gave him sex [appeal]”. It’s true, though not literally so.

Fred Astair had sex appeal, but Ginger Rogers (in how she acted her roles, I mean) recognized it and made it intelligible; she reacted to him as if he had sex appeal, making it clear he did. Ginger Rogers had class, but Fred Astair (again, in how he acted in his roles) treated her as if she was classy, making it clear to the audience that she was. Much of either—how we in the audience know them—is by the reactions to them.

And so it is with the brilliance of the detective. The detective must actually be brilliant or the Watson will only come off as a farce. But if the detective is brilliant, the Watson failing to understand and being enlightened will show the detective’s brilliance off.

Now, when it comes to how necessary these are, I think that the second—companionship—works fairly well, if not better, with an equal. The first and third do require someone who is not an equal, but they don’t need to be an associate of the detective. There will always be bystanders present who can take an interest in what the detective does, and he will suffice to ask questions and be impressed. There is even a potential benefit to this approach in that Watson might be a one-off, but if the detective is constantly running into people who are impressed with him, it lends credence that this is the normal reaction to him.

Of course, the two can be mixed; third parties can relieve the Watson of his duties on occasion in order to spread the work around.

I don’t really have a conclusion, here, other than to say that I don’t think that a Watson is strictly necessary. They’re a good option, but not, I think, a requirement.

A More Modern Recording Alibi, Still Feels Wrong

This is an follow-up to Alibi by Recording. Discussing that post on Twitter made me think of a more modern version of using a recording to convince someone that the murderer is in a place when he’s actually somewhere else committing the murder.

Instead of merely recording a conversation which would be overheard, the murderer could record a series of responses and use voice recognition to map a tree of responses to what a microphone hears. Thus the murderer could actually have a conversation with someone—through a locked door. Something like this:

Janice: [knocks] Are you working late again?

Bob: Yes. I have to get these reports done for tomorrow.

Janice: Can I get you some coffee?

Bob: No thanks, I already got myself some coffee. In the big mug. It’s going to be a late night.

Janice: OK, I’ll leave you to it.

Bob: Good night.

Janice would swear to the police that she had a conversation with Bob while Bob was really off murdering his Aunt for the inheritance she was leaving him. Since these sorts of programs can have a history, it could eventually go to some default response like “I’m sorry but I have to concentrate on work. I’ll talk to you in the morning.”

Not foolproof, of course, but that most interesting murders are at least a little bit daring.

I still think that this would be a completely unsatisfying reveal to a modern audience. And yet it would be very directly analogous to, say, the murderer of Roger Ackroyd using a phonograph of the deceased to convince people that the deceased was alive when he was already dead (as happened in the Poirot story, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).

And I maintain, as I did in my previous post on the subject, that it’s because a technological solution is simply not very interesting. We’ve got technology up the wazoo and back out again, these days. What we find very interesting is the human element.

Alibi By Recording

I was recently thinking about the way that the TV version of Poirot sometimes re-sets the stories in the 1920s. (Poirot stories were generally written contemporaneously, spanning the 1920s through the 1960s.) It makes sense on television for a variety of reasons—including that the 1920s were far more visually interesting than most of the decades which followed. That said, it is curious because the sorts of plots one finds change somewhat over the decades.

Nowhere is this so obvious as in the case of murder by ingenious invention. It was a common enough plot in the golden age of mysteries but seems to have fallen out of favor more recently. And a particular kind of ingenious invention has really fallen into disuse these days: the alibi by recording.

In the golden age of fiction it was a not uncommon plot that either the murder’s presence or the victim’s being alive when he was already dead was established on the basis of an overheard conversation which turned out to be a recording. (Both give the murderer an alibi, though in different ways.)

I’m curious why this has fallen out of fashion. (And of course I don’t mean that it never happens—I can think of a few TV mysteries which have employed the murderer using a recording to fake being on a stage giving a presentation when they ducked out for a minute to commit the murder. But I think that’s more properly regarded as a variant of the being-on-stage alibi rather than the recording-alibi.)

There was a certain amount of fascination with the progress of technology which one finds in the 1920s because it was an era of rapid technological progress. But our era is also one of rapid technological progress. More so, in absolute terms.

I think, though, that we’ve become exhausted with technological progress. It’s not merely that we wonder whether all the change is actually for the better—we do, but so did the people in the 1920s. In many ways more than we do, actually, since they had just come off of the horrors of the first world war and its deadly machines and poison gasses. Nuclear annihilation isn’t much of a threat any more, though technically it is still possible.

It’s also not that technology has become the realm of the specialist. It was always the realm of the specialist. It wasn’t ordinary people who invented gadgets, and it took more expensive equipment to record a phonograph in the 1920s than it does to record voice on a cell phone now.

I think it’s rather that we have a sense that life doesn’t change nearly as much as one would think it does. I don’t mean that life is mostly the same minute-by-minute. That would be ridiculous. We do far more driving and far less walking; we are constantly stimulated by electric devices and never has mediocre music been nearly as omni-present. But we remain human beings with much the same problems; our problems are just far more convenient and fast-paced.

Being so inundated by technology, we find it boring. These days (with expensive software) one could edit video to remove somebody from a security camera recording. So what? That’s not an interesting reveal. It’s really no more interesting than a mystery about wizards involving the reveal that the murderer used an invisibility spell.

What’s far more interesting in murder mysteries is the human element.

I should also note that this is probably also partially a result of short stories being mostly dead and gimmics (by which I mean clever murders) being far more the domain of short stories than they are of novels. Not that the murders in novels aren’t clever, only that they’re not generally based on one large reveal. That said, as I’ve argued in the past, structurally speaking, television murder mysteries are much closer to long short stories than they are to novels. So murder mystery short stories have generally moved to television from the written word.

And even there, recordings are not a popular alibi.

Dysfunctional Families in Murder Mysteries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Chasers

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

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

That’s hard. And not cheap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pride & Prejudice and Gaudy Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaudy Night

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

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

So, what’s the problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Disclaimer on Gaudy Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Novel Writers Should Read Novels?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing a Novel is Hard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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