The Mystery of Mysteries, part 3: Sub-genres, conclusions


(continued from part 1 & part 2)

The Sub-Genres of Mystery

Notice now that the only examples that don’t fit A, B, C, or D are Stephanie Plum, the cozy mysteries, and the two cross-cultural mystery series by Tony Hillerman and Alexander McCall Smith. At this point I’ll pause and divide mysteries into sub-genres. These sub-genres may have different core narratives, or we may see the same narrative components appear in different ways in the different sub-genres, or be inverted. I stole the attributes of the first 2 from The Thrilling Detective Web Site, which stole them from T.J. Binyon’s Murder Will Out: The detective in fiction:

– The genteel private detective, e.g., Sherlock Holmes:

– Detective is hired to solve a crime

– There are a limited number of known suspects

– The police are honest

– There may or may not be one or more violent scenes

– There is no sex

– First-person POV of the Watson

– The hard-boiled private eye:

– Always in a big city

– Hired to investigate something relatively trivial, which unravels the web of a major crime

– The web of suspects grows over time; everything is connected to something else

– The police are corrupt

– There is constant violence throughout the story

– Sex is omnipresent, but the hero abstains from it

– Lots of alcohol

– First-person POV of the PI

– Cross-cultural mysteries

– May be rural or urban

– Detective (or team) may be a cop

– Detective/team and the crime both span two cultures, one of which is dominant

– The mystery requires respect for the less-dominant culture to solve

– Third-person interior POV

– Romance mysteries

– I’m only familiar with Stephanie Plum

– Many “romance novels” are mysteries, like Key of Light by Nora Roberts

– I don’t think these have much in common with the first 3 kinds

– Cozy mysteries:

– Female hobbyist crime-solver

– Commonly involve cats, cooking, tea, sewing

– No violence except perhaps for the crime

– Solving the crime requires talking to lots of people

– I don’t think these have much in common with the first 3 kinds

– Solvable mysteries:

– Solvable mysteries follow rules of fairness so that the reader has a good chance of solving the mystery before the detective reveals its solution

– I haven’t thought of any famous examples of these! Interesting.


I will ignore romance and cozy mysteries from here on. In light of the literary insignificance of solvable mysteries, I will draw my first conclusion:

1. The purpose of mysteries is not to give the reader a chance to solve the mystery.

I have a very small sample of cross-cultural mysteries, but I notice they don’t include any magical detectives. What is it with these magical detectives?

I think they’re a variant of “Book smarts, but no street smarts” (BS-no-SS). Call it “High IQ, low social/emotional intelligence” (Hi-IQ/low-EQ). The detectives are (allegedly) brilliant logicians, yet they’re single, have at most one friend, and are seldom financially successful.

I think Hi-IQ/low-EQ will come from the same angle as BS-no-SS: told to reassure an insecure audience that their lack of some ability is unimportant, and maybe even a virtue. I’ll draw another conclusion:

2. One core narrative of genteel and hard-boiled detective stories is that human relationships and human society cannot be analyzed logically.

The mystery narrative tries to deal with the evident fact that scientific analysis produces much knowledge that makes us intensely uncomfortable by making a “separate magisteria” rebuttal: The detective can use scientific analysis to solve crime, but not to solve his own life problems.

If we think about superhero stories as offshoots of detective stories, the core narrative for them becomes: Human relationship problems can’t be solved with force.

I originally argued for the possible alternative

2b. One core narrative of genteel and hard-boiled detective stories is that neither logic nor feelings is sufficient by itself to deal with all of life.

This casts the story as the kind of dialectical, tension-filled structure that literary critics (not just post-modern ones) are fond of. We can certainly view (2) as (2b). But it feels dishonest to me. All it does is take the statement in (2) and add the statement “Logical analysis is good for solving crimes”, which is neither controversial nor interesting, to come up with a phony claim to be a dialectic. The only claim of interest is that logic is not helpful in everyday life.

Why magic instead of logic? The simplest theory is that writing logic is hard, and writing magic is easy. I’m not satisfied with this theory, because some of our detectives don’t just use unrealistic logic, they’re often downright idiotic. Their stupidity and trust in luck strikes me as too excessive to be accidental. (It may be literally accidental from the point of view of the writer; it could easily happen that a thousand writers write mysteries, and the detectives that become famous all have some crucial property, which the writers each wrote by accident. But that crucial property, while an accident of the writer, has an effect that is not “accidental”; it is consistent across stories. That’s what I expect to find in a core narrative: a structure that has evolved by random story creation and reader selection.)

Here’s another theory: If the detective were merely super-humanly smart, he might apply his logic to his personal problems and solve them. If he’s magical, intuitive, or lucky, there’s no obvious way for him to make his magic or intuition apply to his own problems. (The magician who can do magic only for others feels like it ought to be a trope, though no examples come to mind.)

This would make the use of magic the kind of straw-manning you’d find in BS-no-SS. Fitting mysteries to the same pattern would be nicely parsimonious. But I’m not happy with this theory either, because very smart people often are socially stupid and have screwed-up lives. There’s no need to fake it.

Here’s my favorite theory at this moment: You don’t want a clever reader to think he’s as smart as the detective! If the reader identifies with the detective, the Hi-EQ/low-EQ narrative would make the reader anxious instead of reassuring him. Therefore,

3. The genteel or hard-boiled detective is a misfit and a magical being in order to distance the detective from the reader, to avoid frightening the reader with the loneliness of the detective.

However, Poe spelled out his reason for making Dupin irrational in a long introductory essay to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, and that wasn’t it. It was worse: He didn’t want to endorse logic at all! The whole story was a deliberate attack on science. (I didn’t realize this until after writing the first draft of this post, because the essay was cut from the condensed version of “Rue Morgue” that I had.)

That first essay contrasted chess with whist. A second essay in “The Purloined Letter”, given by Dupin rather than by the narrator, said the same thing, only instead contrasting math with poetry. In it, Poe tried to re-purpose both the words “abstract” and “analysis”, to exclude mathematics and to include… poetry. It sounds preposterous, but he was quite explicit about it, and at great length.

Poe attacked chess and mathematics as developing abstract skills that are useless for everyday life. It’s a bit confused, since he used the word “abstract” to mean what we would call the real and concrete, and called real life “abstract” as opposed to mathematics. He considered logic to be a system that could be applied to either kind of entity, and said it was useful for life only when applied to “abstract” (concrete) entities. This implies deep misunderstandings of both mathematics and logic. Yet his conclusion, that logic can in some way apply to all of life, is closer to truth than is the standard narrative of artists, which assumes that ordinary life cannot be represented in mathematics. In its particulars Poe’s position is most similar to Aristotle’s, which was that numbers are all well and good if you want to build a boat, but they aren’t logic.

A small excerpt from Poe’s second essay:

“You are mistaken; I know him well; he is both. As poet and mathematician, he would reason well; as mere mathematician, he could not have reasoned at all, and thus would have been at the mercy of the Prefect.”

“You surprise me,” I said, “by these opinions, which have been contradicted by the voice of the world. You do not mean to set at naught the well-digested idea of centuries. The mathematical reason has long been regarded as the reason par excellence.”

… “The mathematicians, I grant you, have done their best to promulgate the popular error to which you allude, and which is none the less an error for its promulgation as truth. With an art worthy a better cause, for example, they have insinuated the term ‘analysis’ into application to algebra…. I dispute the availability, and thus the value, of that reason which is cultivated in any especial form other than the abstractly [concretely] logical. I dispute, in particular, the reason educed by mathematical study. The mathematics are the science of form and quantity; mathematical reasoning is merely logic applied to observation upon form and quantity. The great error lies in supposing that even the truths of what is called pure algebra are abstract [concretely applicable] or general truths. And this error is so egregious that I am confounded at the universality with which it has been received. Mathematical axioms are not axioms of general truth. What is true of relation—of form and quantity—is often grossly false in regard to morals, for example. In this latter science it is very usually untrue that the aggregated parts are equal to the whole. In chemistry also the axiom fails. In the consideration of motive it fails; for two motives, each of a given value, have not, necessarily, a value when united, equal to the sum of their values apart. There are numerous other mathematical truths which are only truths within the limits of relation. But the mathematician argues from his finite truths, through habit, as if they were of an absolutely general applicability—as the world indeed imagines them to be…. In short, I never yet encountered the mere mathematician who would be trusted out of equal roots, or one who did not clandestinely hold it as a point of his faith that x squared + px was absolutely and unconditionally equal to q. Say to one of these gentlemen, by way of experiment, if you please, that you believe occasions may occur where x squared + px is not altogether equal to q, and, having made him understand what you mean, get out of his reach as speedily as convenient, for, beyond doubt, he will endeavor to knock you down.

Edgar Allan Poe. Essential Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Kindle Locations 6981-7013).

The Sherlockian narrative is a Hegelian dialectic between common sense and scientific thought, claiming neither mode is strictly superior. Poe was instead saying that poetic thought is strictly superior!

Poe’s mystery, written in 1841, tries to deny that quantitative analysis is analysis, or that it produces anything useful. Poe meant his Dupin stories as a last-ditch defense of conventional thought against mathematics and the scientific method, using instead psychological analysis and intuition. I did not expect this, since he published another mystery at the same time, “The Gold Bug”, which was largely mathematical.

Greg Sevik’s article “Enlightenment, counter-enlightenment– detection, reason, genius in tales of Poe+Doyle” (Clues v31n2) says that many critics have recently caught on to this anti-rational undercurrent in mysteries, but he doesn’t say that the genre is against reason.  He says the detective is a dialectic between the enlightenment and romanticism. The police represent the sterile “enlightenment” machine (e.g., the police in “The Purloined Letter”, who follow their logical procedures and fail). The police are merely rational; the detective uses reason dusted with his own mystic powers, to prove that reason must be guided by intuition or spirit.

To me, though, horse of the Enlightenment, saying reason must be guided by spirit is like saying it must be guided by the Church, which I would call being against reason. So Sevik’s article, which he framed to sound like the mystery is very even-handed about it, is to me even more anti-rational than just saying reason can’t solve your personal problems.

Anyway. Father Brown, Doctor Who, and Daneel Olivaw seem to belong in the genteel detective camp, but none of them fit the complete pattern. The Doctor is generally happy, and Daneel’s crime-solving ability can in no way be interpreted as the cause of his being a robot. Father Brown is also cheerful, and though he may be a “misfit” in society at large, he fits within the Catholic church far better than anyone can fit into modern society.

The keys to the Doctor must be those ways he diverges from the pattern: his lack of Sherlockian angst, the magical way the universe’s coincidences accommodate his lack of planning (rather than disrupting his plans, as it does most protagonists), his God-like status as protector of humanity and the universe, and most especially his embracing of conventional morality and virtue ethics over reason (unlike the other detectives!). Like a traditional detective, he holds up our culture for inspection. (This is why he spends so much of his time on Earth, rather than exploring new worlds, as is more common in science fiction.) But he doesn’t represent the logical, as Sherlock does. He represents the authors’, and the audience’s, ideal, the supra-logical God who has the right to judge humanity. He’s a Christianized Sherlock Holmes. He still functions to reassure us that our foolishness is wisdom. Not by contrast with it, but as the Platonic ideal of it, the wise fool who always wins.

That’s my theory today, anyway.

My memory of R. Daneel Olivaw is dim, but those stories certainly weren’t meant to reassure us about conventional morality. Humans were inferior to robots physically, intellectually, and morally. I think that Asimov was inverting the mystery narrative to fit it to the science fiction narrative: Knowledge is not bad, but good for us. The traditional mystery says logic and humanity are opposed, presumably because humanity is spiritual. Asimov’s stories say logic and humanity are opposed, because humans are stupid. Robots are more logical and as a consequence more spiritually developed.

Getting back for a moment to observations on the full set of genteel, hard-boiled, and cultural mysteries:

E. Mysteries comment on society

Most mystery stories include commentaries on society. Sherlockian detectives often reach their conclusions not by reasoning about the particular criminal they’re pursuing, but by applying a broad cognitive or cultural observation to the criminal.

– The solution to “The Purloined Letter” is that people won’t think of looking for something hidden in plain view.

– In “A Scandal in Bohemia”, Holmes deduces that Irene Adler has hidden the letter in her own home partly because “women are naturally secretive, and they like to do their own secreting.”

– In “The Copper Beeches”, Holmes critiques country life: “It is my belief, Watson founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside…. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish.”

– Father Brown mysteries sometimes hinge on dispelling the idea that a secular worldview is more logical than the Catholic one. The Father detects the thief in the very first Father Brown story (“The Blue Cross”) because the thief poses as a priest, and dismisses rationality as he imagines a priest might. Father Brown’s response is, “You attacked reason. It’s bad theology.”

– Spade and Marlowe continually meditate on the corruption of society.

– Hillerman’s novels repeatedly contrast modern American and Navajo society.

Hillerman’s and McCall Smith’s books are in third person interior, and reveal the thoughts of the detectives as they proceed. I predict these cross-cultural books represent some variation on the pattern. In the standard detective novel, we have two worldviews: the conventional worldview, and the world of the detective. I expect that in the cultural mystery, the two worldviews are those of the two cultures coming into conflict, and the detective has one foot in each. The detective then doesn’t need to be especially odd, nor to stand outside both cultures.

In both cases, Sherlockian and cross-cultural, one of the worldviews is that of the reader. (Even in the South African mysteries, the dominant culture, while it diverged from Europe in the 19th century, is recognizably European.) I take it that the reader’s culture is the point of contact with the reader.

Putting all of the above together, I conclude that

4. A mystery scrutinizes the reader’s culture from the outside.

I’ll break the rest of my conclusions into 2 parts: detective mysteries, and cross-cultural stories.  (Remember my dataset for detective mysteries is all stories where there’s a single detective. Buddy-cop TV shows, forensic shows, procedurals, aren’t represented.)

Detective mysteries

Westerns also have an outsider who comes to town and “critiques” it, usually with lead. Hard-boiled detective novels differ from genteel detective novels, and resemble westerns, in their constant violence, and the need for a macho hero who will use violence against violence. They differ from westerns in their cynicism and widespread corruption.  Hookers don’t have hearts of gold. Crimes and suspects are gradually discovered by threads leading to other threads, to imply that all of society is complicit in all crime. I’ll summarize this as:

4a. Genteel detective novels study the reader’s culture, attempting to understand and systematize it, and criticizing individual cases of hypocrisy or moral weakness.

4b. Westerns criticize the reader’s culture as morally corrupt, and call for heroes to fix them.

4c. Hard-boiled detective novels criticize the reader’s culture as morally corrupt and unredeemable.

Post-apocalyptic novels are to westerns something like what hard-boiled detective novels are to genteel detective novels. They succeeded westerns (though later than private eyes succeeded genteel detectives), and they’re stories in which good people are few and the heroes can never save themselves.

Post-apocalyptic stories are post-modern in many ways, such as their total “mash-up” junkyard aesthetic. One way is that they’ve taken one more step toward the romantic, anti-rational, cleansing apocalypse:

4d. Post-apocalyptic stories critique the reader’s culture as morally corrupt and unredeemable, but after it finally destroys itself, its last ugly remnants can be washed away and a better society can be built.

Genteel detective novels came first, then westerns, then hard-boiled detective novels and movies, then post-apocalyptic stories. This suggests a gradual increase in cynicism from 1850 to the present. Logically, there’s just one more genre left to invent in our grand progression from the romantic, through the modernist, to the post-modern:

4e. The Horsemen of the Apocalypse story will critique the reader’s culture as morally corrupt and unredeemable, and the heroes must destroy it and wash away its last ugly remnants before a better society can be built.

Probably the heroes in the earliest ones will have to be forced reluctantly to destroy it in a morally ambiguous story. Once we’re over that hump, more and more stories will take it for granted that society ought to be destroyed.

Oh, snap.

There is definitely more judgement and moralism going on under the hood in westerns, hard-boiled detective novels, and superhero comics, but I haven’t parsed it all out. Here are some parting thoughts along those lines from The Thrilling Detective Web Site:

My personal take is that the private eye story is an American attempt to update the earlier cowboy mythos, placing them in a contemporary American urban setting. But it’s not that simple. The cowboy mythos is merely a frontier update of a much earlier tradition. Grab a piece of chalk, and trace a line from Three Gun Mack to Nick Carter to Sherlock Holmes to Wyatt Earp to Hawkeye in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales, and then continue to Robin Hood and Ivanhoe and Lancelot and King Arthur et al. Draw another line from Hawkeye and Chingcachook (think of ’em as an early version of Spenser and Hawk) studying some footprints in The Last of the Mohicans to that scene where Holmes explains the significance of footprints to Watson.

Cross-cultural mysteries

In the cross-cultural novels, the contrasting culture is not kept mysterious; rather, the writer tries at length to explain it. Assuming that the contrasting culture serves the same basic function as the Sherlockian detective’s worldview, I infer that the detective’s thoughts are kept hidden in the latter kind of story not because the detective’s worldview must remain mysterious, but because authors who aren’t anthropologists aren’t capable of preserving a consistent alien worldview under close scrutiny. The Watson character was introduced to maintain the illusion that the detective was a legitimate outsider.

The Father Brown series has traits of both the Sherlockian and the cross-cultural, with the second culture being Catholicism. It keeps Father Brown’s thoughts hidden, but has a real and elaborate worldview behind them, which it tries to explicate in many stories.

5. The social function of a cross-cultural mystery is to contrast two cultures.

Hillerman and Smith’s mysteries are noted for the respect they show for Navajo and traditional Botswanian culture, not for the respect they show for Western culture. The Father Brown stories are meant to heighten respect for Catholicism.

Does a cross-cultural story necessarily praise the other culture? I could imagine a mystery similar to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which contrasted the writer’s society with medieval Europe, and concluded that the writer’s was much better. I wouldn’t be surprised if Charlie Chan mysteries cast Chinese culture in a dim light. In either case, though, I think the point would be to praise our society, not to write an entire book to critique some other society that the reader’s didn’t particularly care about. I will posit:

5a. The social function of an enlightenment cross-cultural story was to contrast an unenlightened culture with an enlightened culture, and praise the latter, likely invoking the march of progress.

Connecticut Yankee would be an example where the enlightened culture is our own. Stories like that don’t get published anymore. I bet they were common in colonial days, though. Another kind of story where the enlightened culture is our own is the dystopia, though typically the dystopia is an extrapolation from our own culture, to what it will be if those people the author doesn’t like keep getting their way. When the unenlightened culture is ours, we often have a utopia.

5b. The social function of a contemporary cross-cultural mystery is to contrast a “de-privileged” culture with a culture that now dominates it, and heighten respect for the former culture, negating the idea of a “march of progress”.


Genres: What good are they?

In this analysis, I ended up comparing the detective story to westerns and apocalyptic fiction, and contrasting the cross-cultural mystery with science fictional utopias and dystopias. The discussion in the comments brings up buddy-cop dramas, police procedurals, CSI, and swords & sorcery.

I’m beginning to think that there isn’t so much a thing called a “genre” as a set of common elements with different affinities for each other. “Figure out what happened”, “watch the misfit try to understand humans”, “the lone wayfarer”, “honest defenders of society fighting both the criminal and the bureaucracy above them”, “violence”, “moral decay of society”, “romance”, “the damsel in distress”, “street smarts”, “personal moral code”, “revolutionary consciousness”–these are strips you can weave together in many combinations. There’s a set that go together well, or at least frequently, to give us the closed-room mystery, and a set that gives us the western, and adding one or two more strips to the weave could give you swords & sorcery or a science fictional utopia. Stories that appear on the surface to belong to the same genre, like detective novels and cross-cultural mysteries, may on a deeper level be more closely related to stories from “different” novels: detective stories with superhero and western stories, and cross-cultural mysteries with utopias, dystopias, and other stories of cultural comparisons.


And… that’s all I got! Thanks for reading this far. I spent months writing this.

The Mystery of Mysteries, part 2: Famous fictional detectives


(This continues from The Mystery of Mysteries, part 1: Core narratives of genres.)

Famous Fictional Mysteries

The earliest mysteries (ignoring some stories by Voltaire) are usually said to be Edgar Allen Poe’s stories starring his detective Auguste Dupin: “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842), and “The Purloined Letter” (1844). (Although the word “detective” didn’t yet exist.) Dupin has super-human powers of observation, concentration, and analysis, but explains his deductions as being simple and obvious.  This is from the first scene written of Dupin (I have edited some of it out):

We were strolling one night down a long dirty street in the vicinity of the Palais Royal. Being both, apparently, occupied with thought, neither of us had spoken a syllable for fifteen minutes at least. All at once Dupin broke forth with these words:

“He is a very little fellow, that’s true, and would do better for the Theatre des Varieties.”

“There can be no doubt of that,” I replied unwittingly, absorbed in reflection. In an instant I recollected myself. “Tell me, for Heaven’s sake,” I exclaimed, “the method—if method there is—by which you have fathomed my soul in this matter.”

“I will explain,” he said. “The larger links of the chain run thus—Chantilly, Orion, Dr. Nichols, Epicurus, Stereotomy, the street stones, the fruiterer.  After leaving the Rue C ——, a fruiterer, with a large basket upon his head, brushing quickly past us, thrust you upon a pile of paving stones collected at a spot where the causeway is undergoing repair. You slipped upon one of the loose fragments, slightly strained your ankle, muttered a few words, turned to look at the pile, and then proceeded in silence…. You kept your eyes upon the ground—glancing, with a petulant expression, at the holes and ruts in the pavement, (so that I saw you were still thinking of the stones,) until we reached the little alley called Lamartine, which has been paved with overlapping and riveted blocks. Here your countenance brightened up, and, perceiving your lips move, I could not doubt that you murmured the word ‘stereotomy,’ a term applied to this species of pavement. I knew that you could not say to yourself ‘stereotomy’ without being brought to think of atomies, and thus of the theories of Epicurus; and since, when we discussed this subject not long ago, I mentioned to you how singularly the vague guesses of that noble Greek had met with confirmation in the late nebular cosmogony, I felt that you could not avoid casting your eyes upward to the great nebula in Orion. You did look up; and I was now assured that I had correctly followed your steps. But in that bitter tirade upon Chantilly, which appeared in yesterday’s ‘Musae,’ the satirist, making some disgraceful allusions to the cobbler’s change of name upon assuming the buskin, quoted a Latin line about which we have often conversed. I mean the line

Perdidit antiquum litera sonum.

“I had told you that this was in reference to Orion, formerly written Urion. It was clear, therefore, that you would combine the two ideas of Orion and Chantilly. That you did combine them I saw by the character of the smile which passed over your lips. You thought of the poor cobbler’s immolation. So far, you had been stooping in your gait; but now I saw you draw yourself up to your full height. I was then sure that you reflected upon the diminutive figure of Chantilly. At this point I interrupted your meditations to remark that as, in fact, he was a very little fellow—that Chantilly—he would do better at the Theatre des Varietes.”

Poe was capable of great feats of logic himself. In his article “The Philosophy of Composition”, which I highly recommend, Poe describes the astonishingly logical process by which he wrote “The Raven”, emphasizing that there was no “inspiration” involved, only intelligence, knowledge, and logic. So he knew that logic doesn’t work this way, and could have constructed a feasible feat of logic if he had wanted to. Instead of logical, Dupin’s ability is magical.  We’ll see this again and again in other detectives.

Dupin has an odd detachment from humanity which manifests in his voluntary seclusion, his preference for leaving his home only at night, his lack of interest in being recognized for his accomplishments, and his boasting that “most men, in respect to himself, wore windows in their bosoms.” He disquiets his unnamed Watson, who describes Dupin as having a “diseased intelligence”, by responding to the gruesome murder of a mother and daughter by saying, “An inquiry will afford us amusement.” He is active, bold, and delights in laughing at the police and in concealing how far he has gotten in order to make a sudden dramatic revelation. In short, he is the model for Sherlock Holmes. Jean-Claude Milner claimed that Dupin is the brother of the genius villain D___ in “The Purloined Letter”.


Sherlock Holmes appeared in stories written from 1887-1927, and is based on Dupin, as evidenced by many similarities between them, and by Conan Doyle’s citing Poe’s stories as a model. In the first Holmes story, Holmes resented being compared to Dupin and immediately claimed differences between them which did not, in fact, exist, and in “The Cardboard Box”, after Watson remarks on the implausibility of the scene with Dupin quoted above, Holmes replicates Dupin’s feat for Watson.

Holmes is super-humanly observant and intelligent, arrogant, detached from humanity, never visibly emotional, and seemingly unwilling or unable to fall in love. He has no respect for conventional thought or morals, and sometimes lets criminals escape when he judges their crimes justifiable. Between cases he often descends into depression and drug abuse. His lifetime adversary, Professor Moriarty, is a sort of evil Holmes.

Holmes is misogynistic, and not by accident on the author’s part. From The Sign of the Four, chapter 9:

“I would not tell them too much,” said Holmes. “Women are never to be entirely trusted—not the best of them.”

I did not pause to argue over this atrocious sentiment.

Holmes stories have a moral stance that Dupin stories did not, frequently showing crime as a result of moral weakness.


G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown (1910-1936) is a humble, unimpressive priest who solves mysteries. In many stories, some other characters laughs at the little priest’s plain appearance, jokes about the priest’s presumed simplicity and superstition, concludes the mystery has a supernatural explanation, and is then humiliated when the priest reveals a natural explanation. Unlike Holmes, who uses reason guided solely by empirical observation, Father Brown uses reason guided by observation but also by intuition, a reflection of medieval scholasticism.

Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot (1920-1975) is a physically unimpressive old Belgian exile in England, introduced as “a small man muffled up to the ears of whom nothing was visible but a pink-tipped nose and the two points of an upward-curled moustache.” He speaks apologetically yet impudently, is neurotically fastidious about his appearance and the shine on his shoes, and tries to always keep a bank balance of 444 pounds, 4 shillings, and 4 pence. One of his techniques is to make people dislike and underestimate him:

It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say – a foreigner – he can’t even speak English properly…. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, “A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.” … And so, you see, I put people off their guard.

He sometimes lets criminals escape, or to be punished extra-judicially. In 1960, Christie, probably a little tired of him, called him a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep”. I haven’t read these stories.


Sam Spade, the semi-hero of The Maltese Falcon (1929 novel, 1941 film), was the original hard-boiled noir detective. It is to the usual detective story as a story in which the hero fails to change is to stories in which the hero changes. This is symbolized by the fact that, though Spade unravels the murders that happen, he never solves the original mystery—he never finds the real falcon.

Wikipedia says, “Sam Spade combined several features of previous detectives, most notably his cold detachment, keen eye for detail, and unflinching determination to achieve his own justice.” Sam gives his view of the world towards the end of the novel:

“Now on the other side we’ve got what? All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.”

“You know,” she whispered, “whether you do or not.”

“I don’t. It’s easy enough to be nuts about you.” He looked hungrily from her hair to her feet and up to her eyes again. “But I don’t know what that amounts to. Does anybody ever? But suppose I do? What of it? Maybe next month I won’t. I’ve been through it before–when it lasted that long. Then what? Then I’ll think I played the sap. And if I did it and got sent over then I’d be sure I was the sap. Well, if I send you over I’ll be sorry as hell–I’ll have some rotten nights–but that’ll pass.”

        Sam does not love her, and she doesn’t love him, not in any sense that wouldn’t degrade the word. But his debate with himself shows that he thinks maybe he does love her, because what he feels for her is the closest he can think of as to what “love” might mean.

The novel keeps going after it wraps up the mystery, and ends on a note of psychological horror: Sam tries to flirt with his secretary Effie, teasing her a little cruelly for her innocence, but she shrinks from him in revulsion at—what? What he did? What he is? Or that he can do such things and not be broken by them? Sam turns pale on seeing the distance between them, and turns instead to his dead partner’s wife, Iva. He doesn’t like her very much but has been banging her since before his partner’s death. He realizes, at that moment, that that’s all he’ll ever know of love.

The girl’s brown eyes were peculiarly enlarged and there was a queer twist to her mouth. She stood beside him, staring down at him.

He raised his head, grinned, and said mockingly: “So much for your woman’s intuition.”

Her voice was queer as the expression on her face. “You did that, Sam, to her?”

He nodded. “Your Sam’s a detective.” He looked sharply at her. He put his arm around her waist, his hand on her hip. “She did kill Miles, angel,” he said gently, “offhand, like that.” He snapped the fingers of his other hand.

She escaped from his arm as if it had hurt her. “Don’t, please, don’t touch me,” she said brokenly. “I know—I know you’re right. You’re right. But don’t touch me now—not now.”

Spade’s face became pale as his collar.

The corridor-door’s knob rattled. Effie Perine turned quickly and went into the outer office, shutting time door behind her. When she came in again she shut it behind her.

She said in a small flat voice: “Iva is here.”

Spade, looking down at his desk, nodded almost imperceptibly. “Yes,” he said, and shivered. “Well, send her in.”


If the story is about finding the Maltese Falcon, why does it end with that scene?


Philip Marlowe is Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective, who appeared first in The Big Sleep (1939). He’s outwardly similar to Sam Spade, but rather than being corrupt himself, he’s incorruptible.  Chandler described his philosophy in creating Marlowe in “The Simple Art of Murder” (The Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 1945):

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

Marlowe is a different kind of loner. He’s the one virtuous man surrounded by filth. Chandler’s black-and-white puritanism made Marlowe repulsive to me—he hates gays, gamblers, drug users, rich people, and women, in a world in which the first four are always moral degenerates, and all beautiful women throw themselves at him, usually literally, begging for dirty, vulgar sex, and he slaps them aside, sometimes literally, in contempt.

I pushed her to one side and put the key in the door and opened it and pushed her in through it. I shut the door again and stood there sniffing. The place was horrible by daylight. The Chinese junk on the walls, the rug, the fussy lamps, the teakwood stuff, the sticky riot of colors, the totem pole, the flagon of ether and laudanum–all this in the daytime had a stealthy nastiness, like a fag party.

The girl and I stood looking at each other…. The smile would wash off like water off sand and her pale skin had a harsh granular texture under the stunned and stupid blankness of her eyes. A whitish tongue licked at the corners of her mouth. A pretty, spoiled and not very bright little girl who had gone very, very wrong, and nobody was doing anything about it. To hell with the rich. They made me sick.

— The Big Sleep, chapter 12

I took plenty of the punch. It was meant to be a hard one, but a pansy [gay] has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.

— The Big Sleep, chapter 17

The bed was down. Something in it giggled…. Carmen Sternwood on her back, in my bed, giggling at me…. Her slate eyes peered at me and had the effect, as usual, of peering from behind a barrel. She smiled. Her small sharp teeth glinted.

“Cute, aren’t I?” she said.

I said harshly: “Cute as a Filipino on Saturday night.”

I went over to a floor lamp and pulled the switch, went back to put off the ceiling light, and went across the room again to the chessboard on a card table under the lamp. There was a problem laid out on the board, a six-mover. I couldn’t solve it, like a lot of my problems. I reached down and moved a knight, then pulled my hat and coat off and threw them somewhere. All this time the soft giggling went on from the bed, that sound that made me think of rats behind a wainscoting in an old house.

“You’re cute.” She rolled her head a little, kittenishly. Then she took her left hand from under her head and took hold of the covers, paused dramatically, and swept them aside. She was undressed all right. She lay there on the bed in the lamplight, as naked and glistening as a pearl. The Sternwood girls were giving me both barrels that night.

I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn’t a game for knights.

I looked at her again. She lay still now, her face pale against the pillow, her eyes large and dark and empty as rain barrels in a drought…. There was a vague glimmer of doubt starting to get born in her somewhere. She didn’t know about it yet. It’s so hard for women–even nice women–to realize that their bodies are not irresistible.

I said carefully: “I’ll give you three minutes to get dressed and out of here. If you’re not out by then, I’ll throw you out–by force. Just the way you are, naked. And I’ll throw your clothes after you into the hall. Now–get started.”

… She stood there for a moment and hissed at me, her face still like scraped bone, her eyes still empty and yet full of some jungle emotion. Then she walked quickly to the door and opened it and went out, without speaking, without looking back….

I walked to the windows and pulled the shades up and opened the windows wide. The night air came drifting in with a kind of stale sweetness that still remembered automobile exhausts and the streets of the city. I reached for my drink and drank it slowly…. I went back to the bed and looked down at it. The imprint of her head was still in the pillow, of her small corrupt body still on the sheets.

I put my empty glass down and tore the bed to pieces savagely.

It was raining again the next morning, a slanting gray rain like a swung curtain of crystal beads…. I went out to the kitchenette and drank two cups of black coffee. You can have a hangover from other things than alcohol. I had one from women. Women made me sick.

— The Big Sleep, chapters 24-25

James Ellroy explained why Hammett was a better writer than Chandler like this:

Chandler wrote the man he wanted to be – gallant [and strong, and sexy] and with a lively satirist’s wit. Hammett wrote the man he feared he might be – tenuous and sceptical in all human dealings, corruptible and addicted to violent intrigue.

Marlowe doesn’t appear magical on the surface (except in his ability to be knocked out repeatedly without suffering permanent damage), but he is magically lucky. He’s another brilliant detective who does incredibly stupid things. He’s savvy and street-smart, yet like clockwork, he does the street-dumb thing: he finds murdered bodies or witnesses murders, and instead of informing the police, steals evidence from the scene and leaves his fingerprints behind; he hides murder case evidence from the police based on nothing but a hunch; he goes into potentially lethal encounters for clients he hates and refuses to charge them more than his expenses; he incriminates himself to protect people he doesn’t know from being suspected of crimes they might have committed… the list goes on and on.  Every novel has scenes with him privately meditating on the unjustness of the world, yet Chandler’s world must have some pretty strict karmic laws for him to follow his moral code of hunches and poverty and always get away with it.


Isaac Asimov wrote a series of detective stories and novels (1953-1986) starring Elijah Bayley, a human, and R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot, in a world in which robots have no freedom or rights. The robopsychologist Susan Calvin, a human who identifies with robots, also appears in some stories. The plots usually turn on questions of how to interpret Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, while their themes often deal with human prejudice against robots, and the philosophy of good and evil.


Dr. Who (1963-today) is called science fiction, but the plot is often a mystery: The Doctor appears someplace and sometime where things are not as they at first appear, and he must puzzle out what is happening, and prevent some bad thing from happening. The Doctor’s character is a warmer, fuzzier Sherlock Holmes, who travels with one or more semi-disposable Watsons and finds humans silly but endearing rather than tiresome. (That photo is of Tom Baker playing Dr. Who playing Sherlock Holmes.)

Dr. Who is presented as a genius, yet the Doctor is not rational. He never plans anything; he rushes into traps unarmed and trusts that he’ll come up with something. He refuses to carry a weapon despite having run into hundreds of situations where a weapon would have been helpful. He solves problems with sudden inspiration or intuition rather than logic. He refuses to use consequentialist ethics; he won’t harm a Dalek or an insane Time Lord bent on destroying humanity.  Again, he uses magic, or luck, not logic.


The Pink Panther’s Jacques Clouseau (1964-2009) is a bumbling idiot who solves cases mostly by accident. Yet he’s also dedicated, energetic, and creative (witness his elaborate training methods). Much of the humor comes from Clouseau misunderstanding everything that he sees and, far from being a detached observer, managing to remain all the time in his own fantasy world. He is magically lucky:

        Including The Pink Panther here is like including Spaceballs in an analysis of high fantasy. I don’t expect it to match thematically, since it’s a parody, but it will share some attributes.


The Great Brain (1967-1976) is a series of children’s detectivish novels whose child protagonist, Tom Fitzgerald, alternates between solving crimes and committing them. He cheats his neighbors so often that the other kids eventually kidnap him and put him on trial in The Great Brain Reforms. His younger brother J.D. is his Watson. The stories often contrast Tom’s intelligence but lack of empathy with J.D.’s lesser intelligence but greater humanity, and show Tom mastering the world intellectually, but not really understanding how to relate to it.  Tom is noteworthy for having a great but merely realistic intelligence, and for making money from his great brain.


Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse (books 1975-1999, TV series 1987-2000) is a lonely, secretive, bachelor detective chief, at least in the one book I read (The Dead of Jericho). To quote Wikipedia, and I agree, “He claims that his approach to crime-solving is deductive, and one of his key tenets is that “there is a 50 per cent chance that the last person to see the victim alive was the murderer”. In reality, it is the pathologists who deduce. Morse uses immense intuition and his fantastic memory to get to the killer.”  Rather like Sherlock Holmes, he claims to use logic but actually uses intuition and magic.

After finishing The Dead of Jericho, I went back to check whether it was solvable. Technically, the reader had enough information to solve it before the reveal, but some of the crucial details appeared trivial in context, and I think it was not designed to be solvable, but for the reader to be able to recall all the necessary details after the reveal, and think it was solvable.


Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee (1970-2006) solve crimes on a Navajo reservation. I haven’t read any of them. I’ve read that they’re usually about conflicts between Indian and white culture, religion and materialism, and rich and poor. They’re written in third-person interior (basically first-person written in third-person grammar).


Stephanie Plum is the detective in Janet Evanovich’s novels (1995-present). I learned about her when I read Evanovich’s book on writing. I noticed that

– Janet Evanovich didn’t know anything useful about writing,

– half of the book was Evanovich reading scenes from her books, and

– all of the scenes she chose to read, in her book about writing, were dreck.

Stephanie Plum is an “unSue”, who gets all the benefits of being a Mary Sue while being below average in looks and intelligence. She’s pursued by all the hot sexy bad boys even though her most-described physical attribute is how overweight she is. They are  okay with her banging all of them, though she can’t stand it if they “cheat” on her. It sounds from summaries I’ve read like the crimes are partly an excuse for Stephanie to have emotional drama and shift up her rotation of men. They’re supposed to be romantic comedies, except the romance is unconnected to the comedy.

All characters in the scenes I’ve read act unlike humans, or animals, or even robots. Even when they’re dead, they fail to act like dead people. Exhibit 1: Plum and her sidekick are trailing a truck on the highway, following a truck. A corpse suddenly falls off of the truck and manages (being an athletic yet insubstantial corpse) to hit their windshield, then bounce off, without damaging it.

Are they startled? Do they stop the car to find out who it is? Do they phone the police? No; they crack a joke, laugh, and keep driving. They aren’t humans; they’re Evanovichoids.

In the first novel, Plum doesn’t so much solve the crime as flail about stupidly and somehow not get herself killed until the crime solves itself. She “solves crimes” by incompetence, amazing luck, and being rescued by sexy men. For this, Evanovich gets  called “one of the best and most inventive writers of “Strong Woman” mysteries.” (By herself, apparently.) I do not have the patience to review these books further without exploding into a fireball of indignant rage at their commercial success.


Mma Precious Ramotswe is the detective in Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998-2015). She’s a woman who was educated in Mochudi, the 10th largest city in Botswana, then moved to a very small village, where she decided to set up a detective agency (which is seen as a strange thing for a woman to do). She believes she values Botswana’s traditional ways more than the modern white ways, yet her independence, modern upbringing, and dislike of marriage bring her repeatedly into conflict with the village’s strongly patriarchal and family-oriented attitudes. She feels more than the usual amount of sympathy for the victims of wrong-doing, and this seems to be what drives her to solve a case once she has gotten into it. The novels are in third-person interior with head-hopping. If you’re gonna read just one detective novel, I’d suggest one of these.


Adrian Monk is the consulting detective in the TV series Monk (2002-2009), whose obsessive-compulsive behavior causes him to be unable to hold down a job or function in society, but also makes him aware of tiny details that help him solve cases. Much of the humor of the series is that crimes that are impossible for most people to solve are easy for Monk, yet everyday tasks that most people consider trivial are impossible for Monk.


House, a TV series from 2004 to 2012, stars Dr. House as a sociopathic but brilliant surgeon who is basically an even less-lovable Sherlock Holmes.


Dexter is the forensic expert / detective / serial killer star of eight novels (2004-2015) and a TV series (2006-2013). His father taught him to use his uncontrollable homicidal urges for good, by killing very bad people. He must solve crimes faster than the police to find enough bad people to kill.


There’s a mystery book club at my town’s library, which is composed entirely of retired women, who read nothing but mysteries about cooking, tea, sewing, and cats. It turns out each of these (cooking, tea, sewing, cats) is now a recognized sub-sub-genre of a huge new sub-genre of mysteries called “cozy mysteries”. Mostmysteries published today may be cozy mysteries. They were apparently spawned by Murder, She Wrote. The sleuth is a woman who is not a detective but has a friend or husband who is, or is at least a cop. The town isn’t corrupt and the murders aren’t violent. She solves cases by talking to everyone in town, then putting together pieces of information.

I haven’t read very many mysteries, so please add your own summaries of mystery series or detectives in the comments if you can, before we go to part 3 (Conclusions)!

A Mystery is About the Detective

Why was it so natural to organize famous mysteries by detective? Why do mysteries always have just one or two detectives? Why don’t we see great mysteries in which a team or a town cooperates to solve a mystery, like on CSI, or Scooby Doo?

If mysteries are whodunits, why are the detectives in great mysteries so eccentric and so finely-detailed?

Because the central narrative of the mystery isn’t about the mystery. It’s about the detective.

Let’s look at the commonalities among our detectives.  I’ll enumerate my major summaries of the data with capital letters, and my main conclusions with numbers.

A. The most notable trait of a detective in a mystery is not intelligence. It’s that the detective is a misfit.

Usually either the detective laughs at or scorns the follies of the world (Dupin, Holmes, Spade, Marlowe, The Great Brain, Dr. Who, House), or the world laughs at the detective (Father Brown, Poirot, Clouseau, Ramotswe, Monk). The detective is superior to the others in the story (Dupin, Holmes, Father Brown, Marlowe, Great Brain, Dr. Who, House), even while the clients or criminals consider themselves superior to the detective (Holmes, Father Brown, Poirot, Marlowe, Columbo, Monk, Ramotswe).

The directionality of who laughs at whom might not matter. The point is that the detective is a stranger in a strange land who sees its inhabitants more clearly and objectively than they see themselves. Yet, despite this–or because of it–he can’t establish normal emotional connections with them. He is single, and has only one close friend, or none at all.

The detective often seems driven to action to delay some terrible ennui, or feels his isolation from society painful, and the reader is asked whether the detective’s uniqueness is a blessing or a curse (Holmes, Spade, Marlowe, Daneel Olivaw, The Great Brain, Monk, House).

Detectives are Misfits

Auguste Dupin: Exiled from the aristocracy, lives in seclusion, only comes out at night, sees humans as a source of amusement. Single.

Sherlock Holmes: Prefers anonymity, scorns emotions, emotionally crippled, dangerously depressed and bored with humanity. Single, misogynistic.

Father Brown: A deliberate misfit, he dismisses the world’s values and represents Catholic values in contrast to it. Single and celibate.

Hercules Poirot: An oddball foreigner who does not care whether people like him. Single.

Sam Spade: An almost nihilistic mercenary whose crucial strength turns out to be his cold, unemotional self-interest. Single.

Philip Marlowe: The one virtuous man in the valley of filth. The one man all women want, and the one man who won’t have any of them. Neurotically misogynistic.

R. Daneel Olivaw: Literally inhuman. Single. Also a misfit among robots, due to his android appearance.

Dr. Who: Literally an alien. Single, except for whatever he’s got going with River. I haven’t kept up.

Jacques Clouseau: Lives in his own fantasy world. Single.

The Great Brain: Verges on sociopathic; unable to make friends.

Inspector Morse: Single and unhappy about it, private, and sullen, but not neurotically so.

Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee: Living between and mediating between the Indian and the American, the religious and the secular, the rich and the poor. Joe: Married for one book, widowed for eleven. Jim: Single and dating for 11 books, married for one.

Mma Precious Ramotswe: A fiercely independent woman trying to do a “man’s job” and refusing (for several novels) marriage offers; a city person in a small African village; a traditionalist who isn’t traditional. Single; later marries.

Adrian Monk: Freakishly weird; unable to cope with even simple social interactions. Widowed.

Dr. House: A sociopath with a live-in prostitute.

Dexter: A homicidal psychopath. Single; dates. Should be faking his feelings, but the show never had the nerve to portray psychopathology honestly.

B. Detectives claim to use logic, but their deductions are more like magic or luck.

Magically logical, intuitive, or lucky detectives include Dupin, Holmes, Marlowe, Dr. Who, Clouseau, Morse, and Stephanie Plum.

C. The detective stands outside or above the law and conventional morality.

He may consider his own justice (Sherlock Holmes, Hercules Poirot, Dr. Who), or his tradition of justice (Father Brown, Philip Marlowe), superior to conventional morality or the law. He may solve crimes for entertainment or revenge that other people would solve out of moral outrage or patriotism (Dupin). He may be a part-time criminal, con-man, or otherwise sometimes commit crimes himself (Sam Spade, The Great Brain, House, Dexter). He may not be recognized as a person under the law (Daneel Olivaw). If there is a criminal mastermind, the detective will have more in common with that mastermind than with other people (Sherlock & Moriarty, Auguste Dupin & D___, Dr. Who and his two great enemies, The Master and Dr. Who).

D. A detective story is seldom written from the first-person or third-person interior point of view of the detective, and is often written from the first-person point of view of the detective’s companion. (Dupin, Holmes, The Great Brain, Nero Wolfe)

The Watson allows the detective to conceal his suspicions from the reader until it’s time for a dramatic revelation. It was pointed out to me that he doesn’t only preserve the mystery; he also preserves the mystery of the detective’s character.

Coming soon:  The Sub-Genres of Mystery, and Conclusions!

P.S.– Instead of complaining that I left out your favorite detective, write your own summary!

The Mystery of Mysteries, part 1: Core narratives of genres


Mysteries. Everybody thinks they know what they are. I’m beginning to think maybe no one does.

Scholastic’s genre chart says:

Purpose: To engage in and enjoy solving a puzzle. Explore moral satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) at resolution. Consider human condition and how to solve or avoid human problems. says:

The purpose of a mystery novel is to solve a puzzle and to create a feeling of resolution with the audience. says:

The plot usually begins with action, intrigue, or suspense to hook the reader. Then, through a series of clues, the protagonist eventually solves the mystery, sometimes placing himself or herself in jeopardy by facing real or perceived danger. All information in the plot (clues) could be important in solving the case, yet in some cases, the author presents misleading information (a red herring) to challenge the reader and the detective. With foreshadowing often used to heighten the suspense, there usually will be several motives for the crime, lots of plot twists, and plenty of alibis that must be investigated. The solution to the crime must come from known information, not a surprise villain introduced in the last chapter of the book; however, the clues must be cleverly planted so that the mystery is not solved too easily or too soon

PBS says:

The formula Conan Doyle helped establish for the classic English mystery usually involves several predictable elements: a “closed setting” such as an isolated house or a train; a corpse; a small circle of people who are all suspects; and an investigating detective with extraordinary reasoning powers. As each character in the setting begins to suspect the others and the suspense mounts, it comes to light that nearly all had the means, motive, and opportunity to commit the crime. Clues accumulate, and are often revealed to the reader through a narrator like Watson, who is a loyal companion to the brilliant detective. The detective grasps the solution to the crime long before anyone else, and explains it all to the “Watson” at the end.

These state the obvious, but fail to explain the true appeal or source of emotional power of mysteries.

I’ve read three books on fiction writing this year alone that used Sherlock Holmes as an example of a shallow character, including Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing. It seemed outrageous to me that, given the entire universe of commercial fiction to choose from, not one but three writers would independently single out Sherlock Holmes as an especially shallow and uninteresting character.

I think they must not have read many Sherlock Holmes stories. I imagine they thought something like this:

Genre fiction does not have interesting characters.

Mystery is the simplest genre, and so should require the simplest characters.

Sherlock Holmes is the best-known fictional detective.

Therefore, Sherlock Holmes is the simplest well-known fictional character.

Sherlock would not approve.

Sherlock Holmes is the original source of fan-fiction. People are still obsessed with Sherlock Holmes.And it takes only a passing familiarity with either the original stories, or with the fan-fiction, to see that what fascinates people with Sherlock Holmes stories is Sherlock Holmes.

I thought for a long time that this accusation of simplicity was merely unjust to Sherlock Holmes. Then I remembered Monk, television’s obsessive-compulsive detective. He was another exception. And Father Brown, G. K. Chesterton’s soft-spoken detective. In fact, almost every detective I knew was an exception!

What are Genres?

What are genres? Why is there a genre called Western in the bookstore, when the world’s output of Westerns today is incredibly small?

I think that every genre originates around a way of looking at the world, expressed through a central narrative. If I use that as a definition of genre, a lot of things become genres that we currently think of as styles, like Medieval painting, romantic poetry, and Nazi propaganda posters.

Once a genre is established, it mutates and splinters into sub-genres. It gets subverted, meaning its message is reversed. It gets hijacked, its subjects and tropes used as a host to camouflage content from other narratives. (For example, John Keats wrote poems with some romantic values and styles, but neo-classical tropes, characters, and metaphysics.  Star Wars, and all other space opera, is fantasy masquerading as science fiction.  I could call Gormenghast an existential tragedy masquerading as a fantasy.)  A genre’s narrative gets hollowed out and its shell re-used by hack writers who copy all the trappings of a genre, or by clever writers who create something with an entirely different feeling (Murder, She Wrote).

I see these as some of the core worldviews and narratives of some existing genres:

Christian fantasy: The world is fundamentally just. Virtue will be rewarded in the end, even when it defies logic. To overcome evil, a hero must face a conflict between virtue ethics and consequentialist ethics, in which it is obvious that acting virtuously is stupid, illogical, suicidal, and will give victory to the villain. He must then act virtuously anyway, and through some “deeper magic” (C.S. Lewis’ term), this stupid virtuous act will prove to be critical to his victory. (Examples: Aslan letting the Witch kill him in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Sam and Frodo letting Gollum live in Lord of the Rings; Luke switching off his targeting computer in Star Wars.)  The social function of fantasy is to dissuade people from doing their own reasoning about ethics.  This is perfectly reasonable, since half of all people are below average, and half of all Americans voted for that guy you hate.

(I want to be clear about why I chose the term “Christian fantasy”. By this I don’t mean just fantasy written by Christians, but the entire tradition derived from them, including writers who aren’t Christian. This tradition probably starts with George MacDonald, and continues with GK Chesterton, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, & Star Wars. Early 20th-century high fantasy simpliciter focused more on a sense of wonder, and usually approached ethics through the frightening amorality of its other-worldly creatures.Mythago Wood and Dr. Strange and Mr. Norrell are more in that tradition.)

Inversion (Black Company, Game of Thrones): The world ought to be just, yet is not, and the virtuous suffer more than the unvirtuous.

Classic Horror: According to Stephen King, horror is Republican. The central narrative is that evil in the world comes from bad people who’ve been corrupted, and the way to fight evil is to identify those who are impure or corrupted (e.g., vampires, zombies), and kill them. The central narrative is that a town is invaded by an outside evil which can appear like ordinary townsfolk (a vampire, a werewolf, alien body-snatchers), and which must be sniffed out and killed to purify and save the town.

Inversion (Heart of Darkness): Evil comes from good people with good intentions in bad circumstances.

Existential horror (Lovecraft, Lord of the Flies, Sartre, Kafka): Horror is the state of nature, or human nature; “normality” is an illusory construct.

Economic horror: “Civilization” is any social and physical infrastructure that allows good to predominate over evil.

Romance (Harlequin-style): A good man is a bad man who loves a good woman. The central narrative begins when a young woman accidentally meets a man who is slightly older than her, and very successful. She is repulsed by his self-absorbed brooding and his tense paranoia, which makes him seem often on the verge of violence. She antagonizes him in some way. But they’re physically attracted to each other, and meet again, often forced to cooperate by circumstances. She earns his grudging respect, and then his love, which tames his wild ways.

Science fiction: The world fundamentally makes sense. Everything can always be understood. Problems may still be caused by selfishness, but also by misunderstandings and inadequate information. They are never, however, intrinsic, unavoidable, or insoluble as in existential horror, nor due to external circumstances which knowledge alone cannot resolve as in economic horror.

Inversion (“Frankenstein” (the short story, not the movie), Michael Crichton): Science is spiritually arrogant and inherently dangerous.

Western: The world is a violent place that cannot be ruled by law, society, or authority. Government is inherently corrupt. Only lone virtuous violent heroes, unconstrained and uncorrupted by social structures, can cleanse society of its parasites.

Subversion (High Noon, The Gunfighter): Society doesn’t deserve to be saved.

Subversion (The Searchers, Unforgiven): Good guys are just bad guys with good luck and good press.

Mysteries and westerns seem similar. Both conventionally star a lone, eccentric hero who solves problems no one else can, through violence in westerns and logic in mysteries. The main difference is that westerns are drenched in testosterone and self-righteousness, and have happy endings. Mysteries include 2 western-like varieties: the genteel detective stories with happy endings, and the hard-boiled PI stories with violence, testosterone, either self-loathing or self-righteousness, and cynical endings.  It seems to me that westerns and mysteries together cover all of some coherent subset of possible fictions.

64% of western readers are men, while 70% of U.S. mystery readers are women. I won’t assume mysteries are just westerns for nerds, but I suspect most readers of PI mysteries are men (especially given Raymond Chandler’s vicious misogynism), and that there is a close link between westerns and hard-boiled detective novels.

(Notice that the core narrative of every genre is a dysfunctional, sometimes psychotic ideology. I wonder why that is? Are genres a type of cult?)

But what are the core narratives for mysteries? Let’s start by looking at famous mysteries and fictional detectives. Grab your pipe and your deerstalker hat—the game is afoot!

Continued in part 2, “Famous fictional detectives”. (I will hyperlink that sentence once it’s posted.)

The history of “show, don’t tell”


I’ve collected instances of the advice “show, don’t tell” from across time.  Here they are, chronologically.  I’ve blogged a couple of them before.

The Wikipedia page on “Show, don’t tell” lists some more recent ones.  (If you read that page, be aware that while Hemingway was a “show, don’t tell” writer, “iceberg theory” is a claim about depth of backstory, not about “show, don’t tell”.)

China, 551 – 479 BC, Confucius

Confucius asked his students their ambitions. The first to answer said that he wanted to help weak countries get stronger. The second said he wanted his people to live a well-off life. The third said he wanted to be a master of ceremonies.

The last student said, “In Spring, having put on my spring clothes, I would like to bathe in the Qihe River with a group of adults and children and, after bathing walk back together, singing as the wind blows our hair dry. This is my ideal, teacher.”

Confucius made no comment on the first three grand ambitions but commended the last. The sage could see from the carefree scene the student described his social ideal and political ambition – of people living and working happily in a peaceful and harmonious social environment.

                — retold in “Confucianism and Chinese Art”

Greece, 350 BC, Aristotle

Aristotle said something that sounds, in retrospect, like “show, don’t tell”:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude… in the form of action, not of narrative. … Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.  Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.  Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions.  Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all.  Again, without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character.

                — Aristotle (350 BC), Poetics, Translated by S. H. Butcher.  From Part 6.

But while he was emphasizing the importance of action, he was contrasting men’s actions with (and judging it more important to drama than) their character.  So on second thought, it sounds like he was saying something different.

But on third thought, character can be revealed:

1. by description:  Scrooge was a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!

2. by the character’s spoken declarations about ethics:  “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.”

3. by another character’s description of the character:  “He was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge!”

4. by the character’s speech acts:  “Are there no prisons?  Are there no workhouses?”

5. or by action:  At the ominous word ‘liberality’’, Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.

1, 2, and 3 are “telling”.  4 and 5 are “showing”.

In dialogue, ancient theater used character revelation types #2 and #3 almost exclusively.  #4 is a more modern technique that requires the playwright to be more aware of multiple perspectives, and to let different characters state different ethical views–which Victor Schlovsky (I think; I’ve mislaid his book) said Greek playwrights didn’t even do until Euripides.  #1 is not available in drama at all, so Aristotle had seen mainly #2, #3, and #5.

Now, what did Aristotle mean by “character”?

If you string together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically constructed incidents….  Character is that which reveals moral purpose, showing what kind of things a man chooses or avoids. Speeches, therefore, which do not make this manifest, or in which the speaker does not choose or avoid anything whatever, are not expressive of character.

                — Aristotle, Poetics, Translated by S. H. Butcher.  From Part 6.

Adding this to the context that Aristotle is contrasting “character” with “action”, it seems that by “character,” Aristotle meant what the character is or says; by “action”, what he does.  So in Aristotle’s context, in which only #2, 3, and 5 are available, “action [#5] is more important than character [#1-4]” is indistinguishable from “show [#4-5], don’t tell [#1-3]”.

Spain, late 12th century, Abū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rušd (Averroes)

Poetry should not employ the weapons of rhetoric or persuasion.  It should simply imitate, and it should do so with such vivid liveliness that the object imitated appears to be present before us.  If the poet discards this methods for straightforward reasoning, he sins against his art.

                — Umberto Eco (1959), Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages.  Yale University Press 1986.  Translation of “Sviluppo dell’estetica medievale” from Momemti e problemi di storia dell’estetica, vol. 1, 1959.  Summarizing Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, p. 310-44 [name of book not given!], who was citing Averroes, the 12th-century Islamic scholar known to the West (through Aquinas) as “the Commentator” on “the Philosopher” (Aristotle).

Russia, 1886, Anton Chekov

Many websites attribute this great quote to Chekov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. tried to track this quote down.  The oldest instance of it they found was in a 2002 book,The Quotable Book Lover.  The closest thing they could find to it that Chekhov wrote was this letter he wrote to his brother Alexander in May of 1886:

In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.

                — Anton Chekhov, The Unknown Chekhov: Stories and Other Writings Hitherto Untranslated by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Avrahm Yarmolinsky. Noonday Press (New York, 1959).  “Introduction”, p. 14.

America, 1927, E. M. Forster, with a contrary opinion

“CHARACTER,” says Aristotle, “gives us qualities, but it is in actions—what we do—that we are happy or the reverse.”  We have already decided that Aristotle is wrong and now we must face the consequences of disagreeing with him.  “All human happiness and misery,” says Aristotle, “take the form of action.”  We know better. We believe that happiness and misery exist in the secret life, which each of us leads privately and to which (in his characters) the novelist has access….

There is, however, no occasion to be hard on Aristotle. He had read few novels and no modern ones… and when he wrote the words quoted above he had in view the drama, where no doubt they hold true….

The speciality of the novel is that the writer can talk about his characters as well as through them or can arrange for us to listen when they talk to them­selves. He has access to self-communings, and from that level he can descend even deeper and peer into the subconscious. A man does not talk to himself quite truly—not even to himself; the happiness or misery that he secretly feels proceeds from causes that he cannot quite explain, because as soon as he raises them to the level of the explicable they lose their native quality.  The novelist has a real pull here.  He can show the subconscious short-circuiting straight into action (the dramatist can do this too); he can also show [tell] it in its relation to soliloquy.  He commands all the secret life, and he must not be robbed of this privilege. “How did the writer know that?” it is sometimes said.  “What’s his standpoint?  He is not being consistent, he’s shifting his point of view from the limited to the omniscient, and now he’s edging back again.”  Questions like these have too much the atmosphere of the law courts about them. All that matters to the reader is whether the shifting of attitude and the secret life are convincing, whether it is πιθανον [“likely”, says Google translate] in fact, and with his favourite word ring­ing in his ears Aristotle may retire.

                — E. M. Forster (1927).  Aspects of the Novel. Harcourt (Orlando, Florida, 1955),  p. 83-84.

America, 1947, Cleanth Brooks

Having in mind the scheme proposed, one could say that a poem does not state ideas but rather tests ideas. Or, to put the matter in other terms, a poem does not deal primarily with ideas and events but rather with the way in which a human being may come to terms with ideas and events. All poems, therefore, including the most objective poems, turn out on careful inspection to be poems really “about” man himself. A poem, then, to sum up, is to be judged not by the truth or falsity as such, of the idea which it incorporates, but rather by its character as drama – by its coherence, sensitivity, depth, richness, and tough-mindedness.

                — Cleanth Brooks (1947), The Well Wrought Urn. Harcourt & Brace (Orlando, Florida, 1975).  Appendix 2, “Problem of Belief and Problem of Cognition”, p. 256.

America, 1979, Cleanth Brooks & Robert Penn Warren

Warning:  When they talk about describing a character, they use “directly describing” to mean “summarizing” (telling), and “indirect” to mean “indirectly describing”, by which they mean “indirectly summarizing”.  That in turn means “indirectly not directly depicting”, or “directly depicting”, which means “showing”.  When they talk about dialogue, they reverse the terms: by “direct discourse” they mean writing out everything the characters mean, or “showing”; by “indirect discourse” they meaning summarizing what they said, or “telling”.  I’ve inserted [showing] and [telling] to clarify.

How shall the author present his character? Directly, with a summary of his traits and characteristics [telling], or indirectly (that is, through dialogue and action [showing])?  The very nature of fiction suggests that the second method is its characteristic means, yet direct presentation is constantly used in fiction, often effectively.  Much depends upon the underlying purpose of the story and much depends upon matters of scope and scale.  If the author made every presentation of character indirectly, insisting that each character gradually unfold himself through natural talk and gesture and action, the procedure might become intolerably boring.  “The Necklace” indicates how direct presentation—and even summary presentation—can be properly and effectively used.  (Look back at the first three paragraphs of this story on page 66.)  But when he comes to the significant scenes of the story, the author of “The Necklace” discards summary in favor of dramatic presentation.

The danger of direct presentation [telling] is that it tends to forfeit the vividness of drama and the reader’s imaginative participation. Direct [telling], descriptive presentation works best, therefore, with rather flat and typical characters, or as a means to get rapidly over more perfunctory materials.  When direct presentation of character becomes also direct comment on a character, the author may find himself “telling” us what to feel and think rather than “rendering” a scene for our imaginative participation.  In “The Furnished Room,” for example, O. Henry tends to “editorialize” on the hero’s motives and beliefs, and constant plucking at the reader’s sleeve and nudging him to sympathize with the hero’s plight may become so irritating that the whole scene seems falsified.  Yet in D. H. Lawrence’s “Tickets, Please,” we shall see that direct [telling] commentary–and even explicit interpretation of the characters’ motives–can on occasion be effectively used by an author.

An author’s selection of modes of character presentation will depend upon a number of things. His decision on when to summarize traits or events [tell], on when to describe directly [tell], and on when to allow the character to express his feelings through dialogue and action [show], will depend upon the general end of the story and upon the way in which the action of the story is to be developed…

Indirect discourse [telling], like [“direct”] character summary and description [telling], is a quicker way of getting over the ground, and in fiction has its very important uses.  Notice, for example, in “War” that the husband’s explanation of why his wife is to be pitied is indirect discourse [telling]: “And he felt it his duty to explain… that the poor woman was to be pitied, for the war was taking away her only son.” But the speeches of the old man who argues for the sublimity of sacrificing one’s son for one’s country are given as direct discourse [showing]. The importance of the old man’s speeches to the story, the need for dramatic vividness, the very pace of the story–all call for direct discourse.

                — Understanding Fiction by Brooks & Warren, 3rd edition (1979), from the intro to chapter 3, “What Character Reveals”. (Not present in the 2nd edition.)

Writing: Subtlety


The biggest single thing I’ve learned from public book review sites, such as, is probably how subtle not to be.  Before, when the only feedback I got from my stories was in writers’ groups, I thought I was pretty good at being subtle, yet still getting my point across.  The other writers understood what I’d written most of the time.

Let me restate that.  When people who’d spent years writing and analyzing stories, and were familiar with my style and way of thinking, had an entire week to study and make comments on a short story of mine which I’d usually already talked over with them before writing it, they were able to understand it slightly more than half of the time.

That’s not as good as it sounded at first.

Subtlety became a thing in the 20th century.  Before that, authors would write in the omniscient point of view (POV), and tell the reader everything everyone was thinking, in long sentences full of clarifying adjectives and adverbs, like Jane Austen.  There was little room for doubt about what the characters were thinking.

Then around 1880, Henry James popularized the 3rd-person limited POV, and readers were cut off from the minds of protagonists.  This was perhaps necessary after Freud, when characters don’t always know why they do what they do, and might respond to the connotations of a particular word or phrase, or to implications not made logically, but by association.  It makes it possible to show protagonists who don’t realize that they’re ridiculous.  “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (the story, not the movies), the narrator had to keep interrupting and explaining how Walter’s fantasies made him feel, and how his wife’s micro-management made him feel, and why the sound pocketa-pocketa-pocketa signified masculine mechanical or scientific competence to him, and then explain that actually Walter felt differently deep inside about all of it but wasn’t letting himself admit that, though he was dimly aware of how silly he looked to others…

Subtlety means writing down enough cues that the reader who knows how people work can figure out what’s really going on, even if it’s long and complicated and not really logical, and even if none of the people in the story figure it out.

But subtlety is a trade-off between story power and popularity.  More subtlety, even when done right, makes a story more powerful for a smaller number of readers, and weak or forgettable to a larger number of readers.

I was shocked when I started reading reviews from the populous that readers so often failed to read my mind.  I used to play the blame game, trying to decide whose fault each misunderstanding was, mine or theirs.  But eventually I realized that, while I do want to understand why things weren’t clear, it’s always my fault.  It’s my fault if a subtle point was ambiguous, but it’s still my fault even if it would be perfectly clear to a careful reader, because I knew when I wrote it that readers aren’t careful all the time.

Using subtlety is a strategic decision to lose some readers in order to have some extra effect on those who remain.  It’s a choice I make, not a random reader failure that I have no control over.

The typical famous author isn’t even in a writing group.  She usually doesn’t even read reviews of her stories.  She has an editor who spends a year corresponding over details in each book.  She probably thinks she’s doing well if her famous editor, who’s probably analyzed books for 40 years and has spent an entire year thinking about this one, understands it half the time.  Without feedback from real readers in the wild, professional authors vastly overestimate how easy it is to understand them.  So they’re much too subtle.  They write beautiful stories that, sometimes, nobody understands.


“The Chrysanthemums”:  Too Subtle

Sometime in high school or college, I read “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck, published in Harper’s Magazine in 1937.  I seem to recall my teacher praising the story’s subtlety.  I thought that was the way to write.

You might want to read the story right now, through this link.  It’s a good story, and short.  I can wait.

You didn’t read it, did you?

Okay, I’ll summarize:  Elisa is stuck at home on the farm, out in nowhere, by herself, forever.  Her husband Henry is a good guy, treats her well, but he has workers to supervise, men to do business with, while Elisa has nobody to talk to all day.  She raises chrysanthemums, which as far as we know are the one thing in her life that’s hers, and that she does well.

A tinker comes by looking for work.  Elisa says she hasn’t got any for him, and waits for him to leave. Instead, he asks her about her chrysanthemums.  She talks, and warms to him.  He takes her seriously, which nobody else has that we’ve seen.  She ends up giving him some chrysanthemum sprouts in a pot, with instructions on how to take care of them.

Now that they’re friendly, Elisa has a spot of work for him after all.  He mends a couple of useless pots, she pays him 50 cents, and he drives his wagon off down the road.  Then Henry comes home to take her out for dinner in his roadster.

The story ends like this.  No point spoiler-blotting it, because I’m gonna talk about it in detail after.

The little roadster bounced along on the dirt road by the river, raising the birds and driving the rabbits into the brush. Two cranes flapped heavily over the willow-line and dropped into the river-bed.

Far ahead on the road Elisa saw a dark speck. She knew.

She tried not to look as they passed it, but her eyes would not obey. She whispered to herself sadly, “He might have thrown them off the road. That wouldn’t have been much trouble, not very much. But he kept the pot,” she explained. “He had to keep the pot. That’s why he couldn’t get them off the road.”

The roadster turned a bend and she saw the caravan ahead. She swung full around toward her husband so she could not see the little covered wagon and the mismatched team as the car passed them.

In a moment it was over. The thing was done. She did not look back. She said loudly, to be heard above the motor, “It will be good, tonight, a good dinner.”

“Now you’re changed again,” Henry complained. He took one hand from the wheel and patted her knee. “I ought to take you in to dinner oftener. It would be good for both of us. We get so heavy out on the ranch.”

“Henry,” she asked, “could we have wine at dinner?”

“Sure we could. Say! That will be fine.”

She was silent for a while; then she said, “Henry, at those prize fights, do the men hurt each other very much?”

“Sometimes a little, not often. Why?”

“Well, I’ve read how they break noses, and blood runs down their chests. I’ve read how the fighting gloves get heavy and soggy with blood.”

He looked around at her. “What’s the matter, Elisa? I didn’t know you read things like that.” He brought the car to a stop, then turned to the right over the Salinas River bridge.

“Do any women ever go to the fights?” she asked.

“Oh, sure, some. What’s the matter, Elisa? Do you want to go? I don’t think you’d like it, but I’ll take you if you really want to go.”

She relaxed limply in the seat. “Oh, no. No. I don’t want to go. I’m sure I don’t.” Her face was turned away from him. “It will be enough if we can have wine. It will be plenty.”

She turned up her coat collar so he could not see that she was crying weakly—like an old woman.

Now, I love “The Chrysanthemums”.

But how many of you feel like you understood “The Chrysanthemums”?

First there’s that stuff at the end about “the fights”.  That calls back to this part from the start of the story:

“You’ve got a gift with things,” Henry observed. “Some of those yellow chrysanthemums you had this year were ten inches across. I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big.”

Her eyes sharpened. “Maybe I could do it, too. I’ve a gift with things, all right. My mother had it. She could stick anything in the ground and make it grow. She said it was having planters’ hands that knew how to do it.”

“Well, it sure works with flowers,” he said.

“Henry, who were those men you were talking to?”

“Why, sure, that’s what I came to tell you. They were from the Western Meat Company. I sold those thirty head of three-year-old steers. Got nearly my own price, too.”

“Good,” she said. “Good for you.”

“And I thought,” he continued, “I thought how it’s Saturday afternoon, and we might go into Salinas for dinner at a restaurant, and then to a picture show—to celebrate, you see.”

“Good,” she repeated. “Oh, yes. That will be good.”

Henry put on his joking tone. “There’s fights tonight. How’d you like to go to the fights?”

“Oh, no,” she said breathlessly. “No, I wouldn’t like fights.”

“Just fooling, Elisa. We’ll go to a movie.”

Then, at the end, she brings up the fights, as if she’s thinking about going, thinking maybe she’s strong like a man.  But his answer frightens her, and she gives up on being that strong, forever.  I didn’t figure that out.  That’s what this essay says.  I was just puzzled.

This essay says that when Henry admired her flowers, it made her feel a little manly or powerful for a moment, but then he offered to take her out for dinner, and made a joke about how different she was from men, both emphasizing her girliness.  That sounds consistent with the rest of the story.  The problem is that he suggested she could work in the orchard instead of just with flowers, and she liked the idea, but didn’t do anything about it.  She changed the subject.  She let it drop.

Or maybe he let it drop.  If she thought that he wasn’t being serious, that would make all the pieces of the story fit together, and the ending would make sense.  But if he was serious and she let it drop, which was how I read it, then it wrecks the story.  It makes her isolation with her flowers, and her not being taken seriously, self-imposed.

A lot of essays claim that Henry didn’t understand Elisa, her pride in her flowers, her desire for independence, and/or her need to be taken sexually.  That would make sense, too, if it were in the story, but I don’t see it.  He admires her flowers (perhaps symbolizing fertility); he admires how nice she looks, and how strong she looks; he takes her out to town—he specifically addresses each of the insecurities the critics say she has: lack of fertility, not enough femininity, too much femininity, loneliness.  He appreciates out loud every aspect of her that’s at stake.  The only one who could be at fault for him not understanding or appreciate her better is Steinbeck, for not giving him time to say more.

Let’s break it down.  Here’s two interpretations of some things Henry says and does:

“You’ve got a gift with things,” Henry observed. “Some of those yellow chrysanthemums you had this year were ten inches across. I wish you’d work out in the orchard and raise some apples that big.”

Favorable:  Henry compliments Elisa on her competence, and invites her to join the working men, a sign of masculine power.

Unfavorable:  Henry demeans Elisa’s chrysanthemums, and symbolically, her fertility and femininity, by saying apples are more important.

“And I thought,” he continued, “I thought how it’s Saturday afternoon, and we might go into Salinas for dinner at a restaurant, and then to a picture show—to celebrate, you see.”

Favorable:  Henry respects and desires Elisa’s feminine side, and also sees that she’s lonely for other people.

Unfavorable:  Henry sees Elisa only as a silly woman who desires only pleasure and escape from reality.

After a while she began to dress, slowly. She put on her newest underclothing and her nicest stockings and the dress which was the symbol of her prettiness. She worked carefully on her hair, pencilled her eyebrows and rouged her lips. …

Henry came banging out of the door, shoving his tie inside his vest as he came. Elisa stiffened and her face grew tight. Henry stopped short and looked at her. “Why—why, Elisa. You look so nice!”

“Nice? You think I look nice? What do you mean by ‘nice’?”

Henry blundered on. “I don’t know. I mean you look different, strong and happy.”

“I am strong? Yes, strong. What do you mean ‘strong’?”

He looked bewildered. “You’re playing some kind of a game,” he said helplessly. “It’s a kind of a play. You look strong enough to break a calf over your knee, happy enough to eat it like a watermelon.”

For a second she lost her rigidity. “Henry! Don’t talk like that. You didn’t know what you said.” She grew complete again. “I’m strong,” she boasted. “I never knew before how strong.”

Favorable:  Elisa wants to look nice.  Henry says she looks nice, complimenting her feminine side, but also that she looks strong, meaning masculine power.

Unfavorable:  Henry says she looks nice, denying her masculine power, and that she looks strong, denying her feminine side.

The critics make Henry’s admiration fit their narrative only by always making the unfavorable interpretation:  criticizing him for not admiring her masculinity when he admires her feminine qualities, and for not recognizing her femininity when he admires her masculine qualities.  He can’t win.  I don’t doubt that the critics are right about Steinbeck’s intent, but it doesn’t work.  If Steinbeck had been less subtle, he would’ve noticed he was sending conflicting signals.  Having her feel insecure both for not being feminine enough, and for being too feminine, can’t work on a first reading.  You have to read the story iteratively, doing energy minimization over all your interpretations until you converge on a set of interpretations of story elements that all fit together.

It’s plausible.  A real woman might feel insecure about being too feminine and not feminine enough at the same time.  And she might interpret everything her husband says in the worst way possible.  That’s why reality isn’t art.  Reality is confused and ambiguous.  Art can sometimes be ambiguous, but not if one possible interpretation makes a satisfying story and another does not.  In that case the unsatisfying interpretation is what we scientists call “wrong”.

Exercise for the reader:  Supposing all of the above unfavorable interpretations, why does Elisa ask for wine, and then say, “It will be enough if we can have wine.  It will be plenty.”

But how about that dark speck?

How many of you realized what it was?  ‘Coz if you didn’t, the story wouldn’t make any sense at all.  Steinbeck probably didn’t even realize he was being subtle there.

“No Place for You, my Love”:  WAY Too Subtle

Eudora Welty wrote a story called “No Place for You, my Love”, published in 1955.  That same year she wrote an article for the Virginia Quarterly Review on how she wrote it.  The story and her article are both reprinted in the 3rd edition of Understanding Fiction, the book I keep telling you to buy.

The story is about a man and a woman, strangers to each other, who meet at a luncheon among friends in New Orleans.  They leave together and drive south, possibly planning a fling.  They don’t seem to know themselves what they’re doing.  We find out gradually, across 5000 words, that they are both married; that he is from Syracuse; that she is from Toledo; that they are both almost-thinking about having an affair.  They say and see many things.  We never learn their names, or if they learn each other’s names.  Then they come to the end of the road, and turn around to go home.  At 6000 words, he stops the car and kisses her once.  Then they continue.  At the end of the journey, after 7000 words, when it becomes clear that they’re not going to have sex, two sentences fall out of the sky, perhaps from some gothic fantasy in a nearby chapter of the book:

Something that must have been with them all along suddenly, then, was not. In a moment, tall as panic, it rose, cried like a human, and dropped back.

Not one word of context before or after illuminates these words.  It’s a mysterious, sudden injection of personification and mysticism into an otherwise realistic story. It was obviously meant to have some meaning, but none that I could find.

It was meant to have meaning.  A whole lot of meaning.  It was the point of the whole story.  The entire 7000-word journey was an accumulation of minor details and stray thoughts that were all supposed to hint that their relationship was fleeting and meaningless, yet somehow significant to them both—a relationship that would destroy them if they consummated it, and unsex them if they did not, because—

—well, I don’t know.  Here, let Eudora Welty explain it:

The cry that rose up at the story’s end was, I hope unmistakably, the cry of a fading relationship—personal, individual, psychic—admitted in order to be denied, a cry that the characters were first able (and prone) to listen to, and then able in part to ignore. The cry was authentic to my story and so I didn’t care if it did seem a little odd: the end of a journey can set up a cry, the shallowest provocation to sympathy and loves does hate to give up the ghost. A relationship of the most fleeting kind has the power inherent to loom like a genie—to become vocative at the last, as it has already become present and taken up room; as it has spread out as a destination however makeshift; as it has, more faintly, more sparsely, glimmered and rushed by in the dark and dust outside.

Okay, that was way too goddamn subtle.

Seriously—they go on a road trip, encounter a shoeshine boy and a family walking down the highway, cross a river on a ferry, meet shrimp truckers, an alligator, drive through a cemetery, see a priest in his underwear, join a party in a beer shack, almost get into a fight—I’m skimming here; lots of stuff happens, and the only purpose of it all was to show that this man and woman were on an adventure together and thinking about screwing, then decided not to and felt relieved but also a little sad about it.

That paragraph of strained, metaphoric explanation she wrote was a point the reader had to understand from those two sentences to make sense of the story. Even though it took her an entire paragraph and was barely comprehensible when she tried to explain it plainly, she felt that those two sentences made it “unmistakably” clear in the story.

If she’d left those sentences out, maybe somebody would’ve sort of grokked the whole experience emotionally.  But with those two sentences from outer space screaming “LOOK AT ME!  I’m important!”, even the reader who would have gotten it is going to sit there wondering what was with them all along that cried like a human and dropped back when it found out he was going to drop her off at her hotel.

That’s a perfect example of what not to do.

My advice is, Try not to be subtle about anything critical to your story.  It’s probably okay if the reader doesn’t catch that Julia’s fear of dogs is a symbol for her discomfort with men, or that she has cats to replace the children she never had.  It’s not okay if the story is about how her discomfort with men has led to her childlessness, and those are the only clues given that she’s uncomfortable with men or that she cares about being childless.

In “The Chrysanthemums”, the reader has to understand that the tinker threw out the flowers; she has to understand each problem Elisa is struggling with (powerlessness?  loneliness?  not being taken seriously?  not being one of the guys?  loss of fertility or sexual potency?); she has to match up each of Henry’s lines, and the wine, and the fights, to the correct insecurity, to understand why Henry’s kindness and admiration makes things worse rather than better, and to understand what and why Elisa gives up in the end.  Miss any one of those, and the story makes no sense.

And Eudora Welty was on crack.  I doubt any reader ever understood that story.

Everything is more subtle than you think it is.  If you wonder whether something is too subtle, it’s too subtle.  And every time you’re subtle, some readers will miss it.  Even if you do it well.  Even if they’re smart.  It’s a numbers game.  Every critical point not spelled out is a roll of the dice, and even the best reader’s out of the game if it comes up snake eyes.

This post took 8 hours to write.

Completeness in stories, poems, and songs


I’ve been thinking about what makes a story complete and it occurred to me that that story would be considered complete if it were a song. Stories, songs, and poems can all be recognized as being complete or incomplete, but the standards for them are very different.

Is this sensible, or merely convention?

You find songs that would be regarded as complete stories in certain genres—ballads, country, & Christmas carols, for instance. “Good King Wenceslas” self-consciously, though not very successfully, tries to imitate story structure with an obstacle in the middle verse. “The Little Drummer Boy”, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “The MTA Song”, “Ode to Billy Joe”, and “A Boy Named Sue” are also complete stories. “Norwegian Wood” is a story once you know that the original final words were “Knowing she would”. But even within these genres, we usually find songs that would not be considered complete if they were stories. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is your basic plotless sad fiction, introducing a bunch of characters, killing them off, and then holding a funeral for them. Songs and poems routinely present a single emotion, like a single scene in a story. Love songs live in a single moment of bliss; sad songs have no resolution.

Poems, also, can be complete stories. Many Robert Frost poems are (“Mending Wall”, “The Death of the Hired Man”, “The Tuft of Flowers”). Some, like New Yorker “stories”, are tantalizingly close to being stories (“Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”). But most poems are not stories. They’re more like songs. They choose one moment in time and invoke its mood, with no plot or dramatic structure or climax or resolution.

It seems that stories are a strict subset of poems and songs. Anything that could be written as a story could be written as a (perhaps overly long) poem or song, but not vice-versa.

Poems are allowed to jump from particulars to universals in a way that stories are not. Here’s “Buffalo Bill’s / defunct” by e. e. cummings:

Buffalo Bill ‘s


                     who used to

                     ride a watersmooth-silver


and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat


he was a handsome man

                                                            and what i want to know is

how do you like your blueeyed boy

Mister Death

It gives details from the life of Buffalo Bill, then stops abruptly on informing us that he is dead, the author leaping through the fourth wall to grab the reader by the collar and say, “This is not about Buffalo Bill; it is about you.” But you couldn’t just drop the narrative and conclude with “He’s dead now, as we all will be” in a story. Poem readers have come to expect that sort of thing. They don’t forget themselves in a poem the way they do in a story; the deliberate obtrusiveness of style keeps the reader always aware of the poet’s presence.

Consider the poem “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson (1897), later turned into a song by Simon and Garfunkel.

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,

We people on the pavement looked at him:

He was a gentleman from sole to crown,

Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,

And he was always human when he talked;

But still he fluttered pulses when he said,

“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –

And admirably schooled in every grace:

In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Here again we jump from the particulars of Richard Cory to a universal statement, this one about happiness and fulfillment. If you tried to do this in a story or movie, readers would be bewildered and demand an explanation of what he was thinking and what led up to it.  Citizen Kane is just such a movie. Were it a poem, it could’ve ended after the first scene, with perhaps one extra paragraph of explanation.

Modern story readers won’t operate at the level of abstraction needed for “Buffalo Bill’s / defunct” or “Richard Cory”; they expect the characters to be real people who matter, not to be reduced to morality-play cutouts standing for Everyman. The convention used to be the opposite: Medieval plays frequently used an Everyman protagonist and caricatured villains, and, I suppose, jumped to universals at the end (or all the way through, as in Pilgrim’s Progress and other allegories).

Songs without a dramatic structure to the narrative sometimes have a dramatic structure to the melody, at least your basic verse and refrain structure, usually elaborated on by changes in instrumentation and voicing that change the mood across verses. And yet poems have a bit of structure, even free verse, but hardly enough to make up for a lack of a dramatic structure. If songs were allowed to have incomplete stories because the musical performance provides structure instead, we would require the text of poems to be more complete than the text of songs to make up for the lack of that auditory structure — and yet, we do not.

It is not possible that this distinction makes any absolute sense. Prose, poetry, and song all exist to have an impact on the reader or listener. It can’t be acceptable for a song, but not for a story, to bring alive one moment in time. Any prose that accomplishes the same thing as a song is a good and complete work of art. It’s only historical accident that prevents us from accepting it as such. At least, that’s the only conclusion that makes sense to me.

This conclusion unfortunately means that it is impossible to devise a theory of story, because our notions of what makes a story are tightly constricted by arbitrary cultural conventions.

The best way to test these ideas would be to compare contemporary Western stories to stories from distant time periods, and from cultures isolated from Europe: Native American, Asian, Indian, Arabian, African, Polynesian. I haven’t read enough of those to do that. I suspect that the stories from those cultures that we find translated into English are only the ones that match English expectations of story. But if it turns out that all those cultures have similar rules for what counts as a story and what does not, then I am wrong, and there is some objective explanation for why we expect different things from stories, poems, and songs.

You can’t tell by the color


In one corner, against the wall, colorful cushions have been spread out over a Persian carpet. Some of us are sitting propped up against the cushions. The wine and vodka are homemade, but you can’t tell by the color.

Reading Lolita in Tehran, IV.15

You can’t tell by the color?

Changing that one word from “taste” to “color” says so much.

The narrator is describing a party in Iran in the 1990s. Wine and vodka are illegal, and Persian carpets are shyly subversive, because they represent pre-Islamic Iran. The wine and vodka are homemade, and of course you can tell by the taste. But you can’t tell by the color.

That means the party is a success. It paints a picture of normalcy, an illusion that they can enjoy as they would a movie (if they were allowed to see any good movies). That’s all they can hope for. They don’t expect to enjoy the wine and the vodka. They just want to be able to pretend that they do.