God’s Blessing on January 2, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the second day of January in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

I watched part of an interesting discussion of why other people than the lady making the video liked the movie Rogue One:

There was a point she came back to several times which I found interesting: that the characters had no arc. I don’t know whether she has a rule that all good fiction has character arcs where the characters grow and develop; certainly that would rule out short fiction which usually is about revealing interesting things about a character, not about developing that character in the sense of the character themselves changing. (And, as a side note, I generally contend that in structure movies are far more like short stories than they are like novels, but that’s a conversation for another day.) There’s also the possibility that her problem with Rogue One was something else—such as boring characters with no personalities—and she is merely describing that as them not having an arc. I’ve read the advice from more than one screenwriter that feedback from non-writers tends to be correct about where the problems are and wrong about what the solutions are. This is, I think, a more general issue that people who are complaining about something will often reach for the most ready description to hand which might fit even a little bit, rather than give a truly accurate complaint. It results in a lot of complaints which at the same time—but in different senses—are correct, but also wrong. This is especially true whenever anyone’s real complaint is that another person’s displaying of a group identity which isn’t shared made the speaker feel out-group, and their complaint is either that or the person in question didn’t do enough to make them feel in-group anyway. Such complaints are almost never of that form, I think in part because people would feel childish saying, “I felt excluded because there are things we don’t have in common.” Unfortunately there’s no way to say that which isn’t childish because it is a childish feeling. Best to control one’s feelings (or rather, how much one pays attention to them and how one acts or doesn’t based on them), but at the very least accurately describing problems would be a step forward. But alas we live in a very fallen world and so such feelings are usually placed on the other person (“she’s trying too hard”, “she doesn’t care about her appearance”, “no one needs an 80# bow”, etc.) in order to preserve the dignity of the person acting in an undignified manner.

Anyway, if we assume for the moment that what might be imprecise passing comments describing a feeling are in fact carefully thought out critiques of story construction, Ms. Nicholson’s comments bring up an interesting question about whether and to what degree we really want the characters in a story to change (or “grow,” which usually means, “become morally better”). Certainly we don’t want all of the characters to change. This is especially the case in one of my favorite genres—detective fiction. I want the detective unraveling the mystery, not personally growing. If he still has significant amounts of growth to do, he shouldn’t be the detective at all. The same is true of wise old men. I want them to be wise and old, not learning and growing. Some people in life should be growing, and ideally they should be young. Others should have already grown. Star Wars wouldn’t have been half as good if Obi Wan had lots of room for character growth. If he had, there would have been no one to make Han Solo and Luke grow up. I don’t know whether stories need characters who are effectively—if not chronologically—children in them, but they certainly need some adults in them, or the children in them have no way of growing.

This only scratches the surface of the topic, which I will certainly revisit later as time permits.

Glory to God in the highest.

Consulting Detectives and the Police

(In this post I’m going to consider the relationship between a consulting detective and the police, from the perspective of writing about them. Nothing in this post is meant as literary criticism of any examples which are considered.)

In most murder mysteries, the police are investigating the murder, which presents the writer the problem of what the relationship between the police and the detective will be. Authors have chosen all over the spectrum, from the police seeking out the help of the consulting detective to the police actively trying to deter the consulting detective. (This has even been true of murder mysteries in which the main detective is the police! In that case it takes the form of his superiors respecting him to his superiors assigning him elsewhere and forbidding him from investigating.)

Authors will also change things up. In The Cadfael Chronicles stories, Sheriff Gilbert Prestcote is mildly antagonistic to Cadfael, whereas his successor Hugh Beringar is a good friend of Cadfael’s and though competent himself, values Cadfael’s opinion highly (it would probably be more accurate to say because he is competent himself). In Murder, She Wrote the different locations for the murder allowed them to try out the entire spectrum, though for some reason the Cabot Cove sheriffs tended to be more on the skeptical side. Perhaps the actors in question were just better at scowling than they were at smiling. Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot had excellent reputations and friends in high places which tended to make the police friendly for them. Dorothy L. Sayers solved this with Lord Peter Wimsey by making the police deferential to his title of nobility. Philo Vance was a long-time friend of the district attorney. That’s only a small sampling and it’s all over the place. Clearly anything will work, but it leaves the question of which is best?

Of course, to even ask the question that way is to highlight that the real question is what sort of stories do the points on the curve allow you to tell? It’s always easiest to start at the extremes. If the police are highly antagonistic to the detective—e.g. the detective is the prime suspect and there is an arrest warrant out for the detective—this tends to be more conducive to stories with a lot of action/suspense. In the examples I can think of (The Fugitive and Minority Report come to mind) most of the focus is on whether the detective will be caught before he can prove he didn’t do it. This also tends to raise the stakes by having an innocent person in danger of being punished for a crime they didn’t commit.

On the other end of the spectrum, the police enthusiastically ask for the detective’s help and will do anything the detectives tells them to. Some episodes of Murder, She Wrote come to mind. Some of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories come close to it as well. Come to think of it, so do a few of the Sherlock Holmes stories. The stakes tend to be lower—though not always; Lord Peter had police cooperation in Strong Poison but Harriet Vane was on trial for a crime she didn’t commit—and most of the action tends to be the actual investigation. This tends to open up more space for theorizing and collaboration. Unless it’s an ongoing murder story—where live characters keep turning into dead bodies—these stories are more likely to have a slower pace and focus more on dialog than action.

(It is of course possible to change locations on this spectrum throughout the story. A detective, once cleared, can be welcomed by the police. A detective who had full access can turn into a suspect (this is especially easy to do if there are ongoing murders). A story can start more in the middle and once the detective proves useful, they can become more welcome. Etc.)

I think that my own preference is for the friendlier side of the spectrum. I enjoy collaboration more than I do conflict. Conflict can certainly be interesting, and is often easier to make interesting than collaboration, but I think that collaboration done well has a greater potential for interest. Individuals are interesting, but people are more themselves in community. Of course, it must be a true community. False community obliterates the individual for the sake of the group, while real community brings each individual to the fullness of themselves, respecting each one’s unique virtues. (As a technical note, I mean their unique natural virtues. Moral virtues are—in an ideal world, at least—not distinct between people. All men should be perfectly honest, but each one’s identical perfect honesty will have a different natural content because they know different things.)

A friendly relationship between the police and a consulting detective is not easy to pull off, however, especially if one is striving for realism. There is something of a natural antagonism between a consulting detective and the police, and further there is a natural reticence the police will have in sharing information which is not public. Still, the police will certainly consult outside experts, and police departments have been known to consult psychics for help. In The Dean Died Over Winter Break the relationship was probably more neutral than welcoming, but the police were reasonably friendly. Still, the information mostly flowed from the detectives to the police, and not the other way around. In the circumstance, it seemed the most natural thing.

One of the more plausible ways of insinuating the consulting detective with the police involves the police being short on resources. Resource shortages have a number of effects on people, most of them tending to increase flexibility. People with too few resources tend to see the upsides of shortcuts and other sorts of flexibility more clearly than do people with enough resources to get everything done. They tend to be less worried about possible downsides, because the downsides compare to the downside of simply not getting their work done. Moreover, the people who are responsible for the short-staffing cannot credibly threaten to replace the overworked person with someone else. Finding people willing to be overworked is not easy, and in any event finding new people for a job is both difficult and expensive. Worse for the person responsible for the short-staffing, since overworked people often make mistakes and don’t get everything done, disciplinary issues will have come up before, and the overworked person will probably have gotten used to the toothlessness of any threats made. Thus by the time the consulting detective comes around, offering to take some of the work off of the overworked police detective’s shoulders, the upside will be all the more obvious while the downsides will already be known to be minimal. And since the worst case is that the overworked person finally stops being overworked, the downsides will seem especially minimal.

Also viable for making police collaboration with the consulting detective plausible is for the forensic evidence to be scant. Really it’s not just the forensic evidence, but all of the evidence in which the police are the best at obtaining: cell phone records, bank records, the sort of evidence for which warrants are generally attainable, etc. If the police don’t really know anything of value, they have very little to lose in a relationship with the consulting detective. The flip side of the fairly impressive powers to subpoena phone records, etc. is that they are bound by rules which private citizens are not. Moreover the police are bound to enforce all rules, though of course in practice they don’t always do so, but this makes the police scary since in the modern age virtually everyone is guilty of some crime or other. We have so many laws its impossible to know what they all are, and some of them run counter to common sense (especially copyright laws). Children and pets offer all sorts of judgement-based ways in which the police could make a person’s life miserable even if they haven’t technically broken any laws; a great many people are rightfully wary about anyone as powerful as the police. None of this applies to a consulting detective, who has no power and is therefore relatively safe. Further, with no superiors to whom a person can complain, a consulting detective is in a less vulnerable position if they take liberties with people who have valuable information (providing those liberties are within the law).

There are of course plenty of other ways for a consulting detective to get along with the police. Friends and relatives on the police force have been used innumerable times. If a consulting detective is likable a police detective might simply take a liking to them. Having a mutual friend and helping the consulting detective for the sake of the friend is certainly possible, as is there being someone in authority over the police who wants the consulting detective working on the case.  My memory might be deceiving me, but I think I’ve even seen it work for the consulting detective to—in effect—blackmail the police detective into sharing information. Since precedent is a powerful thing, I’ve also seen it done to bootstrap the consulting detective into a relationship with the police by some means which would only work once—a relative of the deceased having (politically expensive to use) power over the police, for example—which leaves the police eager to work with the detective again. I think that the choice of these techniques, if one wants to go this way, is going to depend on the detectives. In the case of my detectives—The Franciscan Brothers of Investigation—the choice varies with who it was that called the brothers in. In The Dean Died Over Winter Break, since it was the university president, this acted as something of a middle ground. The police were neutral, but they were not hostile, while the university president’s authority gave them full cooperation with the university staff, which was probably more valuable to them. In future mysteries, it’s likely to be different based on who is asking for help.

The Butler Did It?

By an unimportant series of coincidences, I was looking up the origins of the phrase “The butler did it.” The top two relevant results I got were for a trope on tvtropes.com and an article on Mental Floss. The tvtropes article links a Straight Dope on the same subject. All three note that examples of a murder mystery in which the butler was the murderer are rare, but what’s curious is that all three mention a list of rules for murder fiction which SS Van Dine (the pen name of the author who wrote the Philo Vance mysteries) wrote for American Magazine. Though I do have a sneaking suspicion that the two more recent ones may be based on the Straight Dope answer, it is odd that all three cite these rules of detective fiction as if they are authoritative either to what makes a good detective story or to what common tastes were.

Murder Mysteries have been popular for more than a hundred years now, and the idea that there are rules that everyone follows, or that all fans of the genre follows, is absurd. There have been commonalities to detective fiction, to be sure. Giving the readers enough clues to figure out who did it is very common, and very popular, but by no means universal among enjoyable detective fiction. Paranormal, supernatural, and other sorts of detective fiction have been popular. Solutions which could not possibly have been guessed by the reader can be enjoyable as the gradual revealing of an answer. I don’t tend to go for those myself, but pretending that one author’s preference in the 1920s is somehow normative doesn’t accomplish anything.

Within the context of mysteries which aim to be solvable by the reader, most rules (such as Knox’s 10 commandments) aim to give guidance to mystery writers for thinking about the construction of their mysteries. The rules are not meant in an absolute sense, but rather to give sign posts where extra thought is probably required. If the butler, rather than one of the guests, is the murderer, the writer will need to include him as a character enough that the reader thinks that it’s within the spirit of the story to consider the butler.

Now, some might object that it is snobbish to think that the butler is not a possible suspect because he’s just a servant, and indeed it would be, but all problems come with unstated rules, and solving them relies on knowing what these unstated rules are. Consider the classic illustration for teaching people to think outside of the box: Four dots, arranged like the corners of a square, with the instructions to “connect these four dots using only three straight lines without lifting your pen, ending where you started”. The classic solution is to use three lines forming a right triangle where one side goes through two vertices and the other two sides go through one vertex each. This is supposed to surprise people and teach them to “think outside the box” because the rules never said that the end of the lines have to be on one of the four dots. “Don’t limit yourself!” The self-help guru says cheerfully.

The problem with this conclusion is that these sorts of problems are trivial if we’re not helping the person who stated the problem by figuring out what the rules they didn’t state are. No thought would be involved if I just picked up a paint brush and connected all four lines with one thick line. I could even hold my pen against the paper the whole time. Some versions of this mention to not fold the paper; but I haven’t see any rules against cutting and taping the paper. The rules never specified a euclidean geometry; one could easily draw a square then define a geometry in which there were only three straight lines. One could draw new dots and point out that the rules did specify which four dots were the four it was talking about. I could draw three unconnected lines with a pencil while never lifting a pen. etc.

The people who hold this question up as a major revelation are actually practicing a cheap parlor trick. They are really just asking you to try to read their mind and magically know which implied rule they are suspending without telling you. If you were to draw three straight lines plus one curved line, they would balk, rather than applauding you for your willingness to think outside the box in the way that they wanted you to.

The same problem can apply to the butler as the culprit. It would be too easy to assume that the servants are off limits as suspects simply because they all have the opportunity to commit the murder without being noticed, and since detective fiction so often focuses so heavily on alibis, figuring out who had the opportunity is often a large part of the puzzle. Hence this complaint in the tvtropes article:

The butler is the avatar of the most unlikely suspect that, of course, turns out to be guilty because the author wasn’t creative enough to come up with a better way to surprise the reader.

This is a problem only if the butler is the least likely suspect because no time was spent on the butler. Authors who don’t figure out the mystery ahead of the detective, and so who come to the reveal and then have to solve the puzzle for themselves, as it was written so far in order to come up with the ending can run into this. The butler is a good candidate both because he would be surprising since he wasn’t a real character up to this point, and because the servants all have means and opportunity for murder in a great house. This is cheating according to the rules the author implied; to do a good job making the butler the culprit, the author would have had to include the butler as a character in a way that made it clear he wasn’t off limits.

I suspect that this is primarily a problem in mysteries where the author doesn’t know who the culprit is, because it’s all too easy as the evidence is being discovered and alibis are being produced to have accidentally ruled out all of the actual suspects by the end. If that happens, the author will need to introduce a previous non-character who hasn’t been ruled out simply because the author hadn’t thought of the character as a suspect before. I can’t see how such a story can be well crafted; if the author doesn’t know what’s going on, it seems far too likely the story will be inconsistent and not hang together well, though for any technique there is probably someone who can pull it off decently.

But for an example of art criticism which simply wants there to be rules in order to make the task of art criticism easier, consider this from the Mental Floss article:

While The Door was a hit for Rinehart and her sons, who released it through a publishing house they’d just started up, her pinning the crime on the butler has gone down in history as a serious misstep…That The Door was a commercial success while flaunting a hallmark of what some considered lousy mystery writing made it an easy target for jokes. Stories and books like “What, No Butler?” and The Butler Did It soon turned murderous manservants into shorthand for a cheap ending.

Of course this attempt to invoke normative rules of fiction makes heavy use of the passive voice. “Has gone down in history as a serious misstep,” and “flaunting a hallmark of what some considered lousy mystery writing” buys authority with anonymity. There are indeed things which do not need to be attributed—that people will talk about the weather in default of another topic in common does not need to be established with evidence—but common opinion of literary techniques certainly doesn’t fall into that category.

This attempt to have rules of fiction, or more properly rules of art criticism, is not really about the fiction. It is about the desire for stability and intelligibility by a person not willing to do the work of understanding, or without the courage of owning up to their own prejudices and so attempting to displace those preferences onto everyone else.

Incidentally, I looked up the two works cited. “What, No Butler?” seems to be a short story by Damon Runyon. I can’t find much information about it; according to Wikipedia it was in a book called Runyon on Broadway. It was performed on radio in 1946 and that performance is available on youtube. I don’t know when it was originally published. The story does have humor in it, but to call it satire seems like quite a stretch. Early in the story, the character Broadway (who I believe is a theater critic) says authoritatively upon finding out that a man was murdered that the butler did it. When he’s told that the victim didn’t have a butler, he insists that they have to find the butler, because in every play he sees with a murder in it, the butler did it. No one pays attention and he is dismissed because this is stupid advice. In the end we learn that the murderer was a neighbor of the victim, who heard that the victim was rich and so he broke in to the apartment with a duplicated key and killed the victim when he was caught in the act. When asked why he would stoop to robbery, he explained that he was out of work and wasn’t likely to get it again soon. He had served some of the best families in New York, and couldn’t accept just any old employer, because he was an excellent butler. Very clearly, in context, this was not a criticism of the butler as a culprit, but playing with the audience’s expectations to set up a joke.

In 1957 P.G. Wodehouse published a book called Something Fishy. When Simon & Schuster published it in America they used the title,  The Butler Did It. Wikipedia gave this plot summary:

The plot concerns a tontine formed by a group of wealthy men weeks before the 1929 stock market crash, and a butler named Keggs who, having overheard the planning of the scheme, years later decides to try to make money out of his knowledge.

(Tontines are in themselves an interesting read. It’s easy to see why they would show up frequently in older detective literature.)

According to the further description of the plot, Keggs is long retired by the time the book takes place. His being a butler is incidental to the story, so far as I can tell, and doesn’t seem like it can be taken as any sort of criticism of detective fiction where the butler is the murderer. This seems doubly true given that The Butler Did It was not the original title, and was only changed because it would resonate better with Americans.

And now that I mention that, it occurs to me that all of the discussion of butlers, from Rhinehart’s story to the supposed criticism of it is all American. Aside from Poe’s character of Dupin starting the genre of detective fiction, much of the most influential detective fiction is British. Now I wonder whether “the butler did it” is a primarily American phenomenon. In any event it does seem to be a very curious example of a saying without much basis, used at least as often to joke about the saying as even to say anything about detective stories.

If I had to guess, I suspect that it originated with someone who was complaining that detective fiction is very formulaic. If so, it is ironic that they picked to exemplify this putative formula a feature which is extremely uncommon in detective fiction.

Having said that, it occurs to me that this idea could even have originated to mean nearly the opposite. It could have started as a parody of the sort of person who doesn’t know how detective fiction goes, and who leaps to the butler as the obvious suspect because he had the means an opportunity for the murder. It would make a more effective criticism of a naive reader than of murder mysteries. “Pffh. He’s the sort of guy who decides ten pages in that the butler did it!” As it stands, I see no more evidence for any other theory of where the phrase came from.