Category Archives: Mysteries

The mystery/crime/suspense genre, to be specific.

Short Complaints About Several Books

This summer hasn’t been great for reading or writing. My concentration and attention span are low; I read the first chapters of a book only to get distracted by another. Still, I have a few longer posts in the works about books I liked enough (or in one case disliked enough) to inspire substantial thoughts. Meanwhile, here are shorter notes on some books that inspired insubstantial thoughts. Most of them I wasn’t impressed with.

Steve Aylett, Lint

I can’t decide how I feel about Lint. It took me weeks to read. Not that it’s bad–far from it. But it only works in small doses.

Lint is a biography of Jeff Lint, a 20th century science fiction writer distantly based on Philip K. Dick. It’s comedy in a style that mostly doesn’t depend on obvious punch lines, which I like. (Only a few pieces of this novel feel like conventional jokes and they’re the bits least likely to work well.) Lint has some genuinely incisive lines: “Truth is unpopular because it doesn’t have a dependent need to be liked or believed–its independence seems like unfriendliness.”) Occasionally descriptions of Lint’s novels aspire to the satire found in Stanislaw Lem’s fake book reviews: “In the novel Jelly Result, half of Eterani city is exactly the same as the other half, because the authorities don’t have enough ideas to cover the whole area.”

But the dominant style of humor here is randomness: “On one occasion Lint fired forty pounds of chili from a turn-of-the-century baseball gun mounted on the roof of a 23rd Street apartment block, and eagerly told a baffled Kerouac about it.” Most of the text is a succession of sentences like this. Parts of the book seem written with a text-processing program like JanusNode: “They behave like rain upon travelers,’ he thought, seeing those spirits. ‘We are a circus of ourselves. We make the sleeve. We the alteration.’” This is amusing more often than not, but after a while the rhythm feels overwhelmingly samey, like a stuck nozzle relentlessly pumping out infinite quantities of cake frosting. After every chapter I had to put it down and read something else for a while.

One chapter, though, stood out: the account of Lint’s short-lived animated TV series, Catty and the Major, is genuinely disturbing. It reads like a half-remembered urban legend, suggesting this nightmarish cartoon show hides some deeper mystery we don’t have enough clues to solve. Should you give Lint a try and find the style hard going, it might be worth pushing on to the Catty and the Major chapter. It’s nothing like the rest of the book.

Fran Wilde, The Jewel and Her Lapidary

I got interested in this one because I’d heard it was written at least partly as a travel guide (the blurb begins “Buried beneath the layers of a traveler’s guide is a hidden history”), and then it got a Hugo nomination. It turns out the travel guide entries are just chapter-heading epigraphs. The bulk of the book is a decent but not unusual epic fantasy, with maybe slightly better than average prose.

Unusually in a genre inclined to bloat, this fantasy may not be long enough. It’s plot, plot, plot all the way, with little room to pry into the oddities and philosophical underpinnings of its world. (And there is some odd stuff here, which might have been interesting if unpacked; the power relationships inherent in most feudal fantasy are heightened, with the constant presence of literal physical chains as a metaphor.)

Someday, someone needs to write that epic fantasy in the form of a travel guide. (Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland isn’t quite the same thing.)

Marie Brennan, Cold-Forged Flame

For me, the single interesting aspect of Cold-Forged Flame is how stripped-down it is, almost experimentally so. It’s pure action, lacking any of the context that makes action meaningful–character, setting, philosophy. The protagonist is an amnesiac born at the moment the novel begins. Most of the story is set in a mutable otherworld, the magic-island equivalent of Star Trek’s holodeck–the kind of setting SF series use when they want to be Symbolic. The novel’s only serious engagement with ideas is a brief conversation about ethics.

As a blank slate, the protagonist knows only as much as the reader, and in experiencing the story she initially works as a proxy for the reader. Like, at first what little we see of this world looks like Celtic Britain, but then the protagonist sees a gun and instantly understands guns are a thing in her world: “I’m just wondering how I recognize that thing… How can I know all that, when I don’t remember anything from before I opened my eyes on that slab?” She knows about guns because the readers of Cold-Forged Flame know about guns, and they deduced what the gun meant in the same moment she did. The protagonist learns her world like a typical fantasy reader, with the same background knowledge and skill in deducing the nature of the world from the cues her author gave her. She is in effect a fantasy fan dumped into a random fantasy story.

Like I said, we don’t learn much about this world before the protagonist reaches Holodeck Island. SF stories don’t usually resort to holodecks (or Lands of Fiction, or insanity pepper hallucinations, or other mutable surrealist dreamscapes) until we’ve gotten to know the characters in their normal context; watching them navigate symbolic landscapes is less revealing when, as in Cold-Forged Flame, we don’t understand who they are or how their world works in the first place. As the protagonist of Cold-Forged Flame learns about herself, it’s less and less apparent what the facts she learns mean. At the climax we learn she’s something called an “Archon,” and we’re given some idea of what an Archon is, but having spent so little time in her world we don’t know what being an Archon means: how should she feel about being an Archon? What do other people think of them? What’s their place in the world? It’s not clear, so the scene meant to deliver the novels’ biggest emotional punch falls flat.

Brian Evanson, The Warren

The Warren is the story of X, an artificial being living in an underground bunker. He’s the latest in a long line of constructs, but the first to be alone instead of part of a pair; his past selves live within himself, perceived as a collection of eyes that open when the personality wakes.

X’s selves trade off the first-person narration as they trade off his body, unaware of any of the others’ actions beyond what they might have written. The prose is perfectly controlled, always clear except where it’s intentionally not, with a strong personality. It’s one of those stories that manage to imply far more about its world than they explain, a landscape packed into a small space. It’s apocalyptic, but it’s apocalyptic surrealism. For me, literary surrealism is one of the main attractions of SF.

So it’s odd I didn’t like The Warren more than I did. Like the last two books, the problem is that it feels insubstantial. There are fewer layers here than there ought to be. Expectations are the problem: SF has literary status anxiety, and fans and marketing copy both have a habit of selling SF books as deeper than they are. (It’s telling how often fan-written reviews say a novel is about certain issues but don’t dig into how it’s about those issues, or what it’s actually saying about them.) The marketing surrounding The Warren is best summed up by Charles Yu’s blurb: “What is a human? What is a person? The Warren is a truly original exploration of these questions―the kind of work that causes one to re-examine long-held certainties. Profound and deeply unsettling, in the best way possible.” And, yeah, the questions What is a human? and What is a person? come up in The Warren. But I honestly don’t think it has much to say about them except that, in a science fictional world, maybe our definition of “person” ought to be as expansive as possible. Which is true, but not any more profound than your average quarter-century old episode of Star Trek.

Two Blake’s 7 Tie-Ins

On the other hand, sometimes my expectations are modest but still aren’t met. The Forgotten and Archangel are tie-in novels based on the TV series Blake’s 7, published by Big Finish, a company that mostly produces audio dramas. There’s one in this series I haven’t yet read that I expect I’ll enjoy–it’s by Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum, who have a good track record with Doctor Who novels.

These first two, though… they’re competent, but I can’t call them good even by tie-in standards. They read like bald descriptions of a couple of hypothetical TV stories. They don’t feel like real novels and I get the impression the possibility they could have been real novels wasn’t even on the authors’ sensors. The one memorable incident in either is a strange moment in Archangel when we learn Jenna hates going down to the Liberator’s power section because it “always seemed to have the same effect on her. It affected her fingers first, making them ache until it was difficult for her to grip things, then it would slowly seep down her body until her stomach felt bloated and she needed to use the bathroom.” This is more than I wanted to know about the Liberator’s power section.

Agatha Christie, Towards Zero

Towards Zero is a perfectly cromulent Agatha Christie novel. If you’re into Agatha Christie it will pass the time adequately; if not, then not. The only noteworthy moment is when Superintendent Battle notices a clue because it’s something Hercule Poirot would have noticed. This unfortunately just emphasizes that the entirely charisma-free Battle is the detective instead of Poirot.

D. M. Devine, The Sleeping Tiger

D. M. Devine’s The Sleeping Tiger is one of a half-dozen paperback “Crime Classics” I bought off a remainder table. How it’s a “Classic” I have no idea. This is a stupid book.

Some of the problem is values dissonance; a lot of old mysteries have moments that didn’t age well, but The Sleeping Tiger is way out of touch. When protagonist John Prescott declines to cover for a doctor who had an accident driving drunk, we’re meant to think he’s a stick-in-the-mud. When he slaps his unfaithful wife, we’re meant to think he’s standing up for himself. His love interest by the end of the book is a woman he meets in the first chapters, five years earlier, when he’s in his twenties and she’s fifteen. Oh, and John takes antibiotics for flu. I hate this guy.

This is the 1960s, by the way: circa 1962–1967. The novel was published in 1961. One thing that’s not at all interesting about The Sleeping Tiger, but could have been, is that it could have qualified as near-future science fiction if it had occurred to Devine to wonder how the world might change over the next five years. As it is, the novel takes place in the indeterminate 20th century England of your average Agatha Christie adaptation.

Beyond that, John is one of the dumbest mystery-novel heroes I have ever come across. Never mind that he’s willing to get into a car with a drunk. This is a person who upon finding a dead body moves it, gets himself covered in blood, pulls the freaking knife out of its back, and tells the police an easily-disproved lie about when he arrived. Worst of all for a detective novel, John doesn’t clear his name through brilliant deduction–the villain finally just outright tries to kill him. Give this one a pass.

Agatha Christie, Crooked House

Sometimes, as I browse the internet, an article or a blog post syncs up eerily with a book I’m reading. Most recently it was a post by Doctor Science at Obsidian Wings, who created “the John Donne Test”:

At some point in there I came up with what I’ll call the John Donne Test, because he said “Any man’s death diminishes me.” The Test is very simple:

Is there a second murder? (a second incident; two people murdered at once doesn’t count)

If the answer is “Yes”: you fail.

If it’s a mystery story without any murder, you get an A.

There’s nothing wrong with telling stories about murders. These are, after all, fictional people. But, argues Doctor Science, there’s something squalid about stories that don’t treat death as a tragedy–that casually kill characters off merely to raise the stakes, push the story along. Which is not only a problem in mystery stories. (And is, maybe, another example of a tendency I’ve noticed for some stories to treat background characters as literally less important than protagonists.)

I like mysteries but I’ll admit it’s odd the genre is so murder-centric. It’s not like there’s no potential for drama in fraud or embezzlement or a good old-fashioned jewel heist. And Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night, possibly the greatest mystery novel of the “Golden Age,” is murderless. But sometime between Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie the genre decided murders were the only proper subject for detective novels.

Speaking of Agatha Christie, early 20th century mystery novels are comfort reading for a lot of people, me included.[1] Which is a bit weird, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a criticism or condemnation of the genre to acknowledge that. Lots of good things are a bit weird. Mulling over and poking at the weirdness of things, even things you love, can be fun.

Mysteries aren’t the only genre built around grim subject matter. There’s horror, and grimdark fantasy, and dystopian science fiction. But those are genres people go to when they want to be in some way unsettled, whether that means being kept in suspense, being made to think about difficult subjects, or just having their heads enjoyably messed with. (The thing I like about horror movies isn’t the horror, exactly; it’s the surrealism.) The audience is having fun, yes, but it’s fun discomfort. No one talks about “cozy horror” or “cozy dystopias.”[2] But there are “cozy mysteries.”

As to what kind of comfort can be found here… well, it’s a cliché and a truism that the detective novel offers a restoration of order, the rebuilding of a community thrown into turmoil and uncertainty. But in this case I think the truism is, well, true. For myself, given the failures of America’s justice system–the false convictions, the police departments that function as racist protection rackets–imagining some quixotic amateur swooping in to sort out its mistakes is a satisfying wish fulfillment fantasy. (Granted, usually the problem in real life isn’t that prosecuters missed some vital clue, but that they faked forensic evidence; or ignored exculpatory evidence; or, alternately, deliberately let a killer off the hook because he happened to have a badge. Sherlock and Elementary notwithstanding, a modern Sherlock Holmes’s greatest challenge would be less explaining the facts and more shaming the authorities into doing the right thing.)

Cover of Crooked House

When I came across the Donne Test I was reading Agatha Christie’s Crooked House. Christie’s books are synonymous with the cozy mystery. But Christie herself was less cozy than we remember. As I reread her work in recent years I noticed many of her novels are shrouded in a pall of unease never entirely removed by the neat solution. Christie’s most famous novels, remember, include (Spoilers!) The One Where Everybody Dies, The One Where Everybody’s Guilty, and The One Where the Killer is Your Pal, the Narrator. Some of the Miss Marple novels in particular are practically noir.[3] For all that Christie’s books were the kind of mysteries Raymond Chandler hated, I suspect if Philip Marlowe met Miss Marple they’d exchange knowing nods, each recognizing a kindred spirit who’d also Seen Too Much. Crooked House is another unsettling novel, particularly considered in light of the Donne Test. Christie considered it one of her favorites, which is interesting because here she seems to cast a jaundiced eye over her own literary career.

Crooked House doesn’t star any of Christie’s recurring characters but looks like a typical Christie. The title is taken from a nursery rhyme. The narrator is a statistically average bland detective novel love interest.[4] The ending might be considered a twist in that the killer (who I will soon reveal) is a character most mysteries wouldn’t normally lump in with the suspects. And the grasp of proper police procedures on display here is sketchy. The elderly head of a household has been murdered, apparently by his much younger wife. Narrator Charles Hayward is both the fiancé of the old man’s heir and the son of the Scotland Yard commissioner in charge of the case, which is totally convenient and not a conflict of interest at all.

Charles, naturally, does the amateur detective thing, snooping around and interrogating the family. And at one point he finds himself using the phrase “the fun will start,” and thinks to himself:

What extraordinary things one said! The fun! Why must I choose that particular word?

Well, there’s your question. Charles isn’t the only one having fun. His fiancé’s young sister, 12-year-old Josephine, loves detective stories. She’s been spying on everyone, collecting secrets and writing them down in her notebook, and she knows how this situation is supposed to go:

“I should say it’s about time for the next murder, wouldn’t you?”
“What do you mean—the next murder?”
“Well, in books there’s always a second murder about now. Someone who knows something is bumped off before they can tell what they know.”

And, sure enough, someone unsuccessfully tries to kill Josephine, and later successfully poisons her nanny. And Josephine knew it was coming because she arranged it herself. She killed her grandfather, for entirely childish reasons. Then she sets up her own death trap because she’s read a million detective novels and now, as a newly-fledged author, she knows it’s time to raise the stakes. And she adds another successful murder to make things more exciting, because the nanny’s just a background character, right? You can just kill background characters off. You know, for effect.

It’s impossible not to read Crooked House as Agatha Christie interrogating her own formula, complicating the entertainment we get from her novels, owning their weirdness. It’s a reminder that detective novels fail when they forget murders are tragedies as well as puzzles. At the end Josephine’s dying great-aunt deliberately wrecks her car with Josephine in it and it’s as though Christie is trying to symbolically dispose of the temptation to focus so thoroughly on the puzzle that the people disappear.

Christie was particularly proud of Crooked House; she wrote an introduction explaining that she saved the idea up for years and worked on it extra-carefully. The people who adapt her novels into films and TV shows have not similarly embraced it. According to Crooked House’s Wikipedia page, this is one of only five unfilmed Christie novels–a movie was planned a few years ago, but so far hasn’t gotten off the ground. Maybe they’re afraid the audience would walk away feeling a bit ghoulish.


  1. Christie’s not my favorite; Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, and Margery Allingham are all more lively.  ↩

  2. Although I’d argue they exist… think of all the dystopias designed expressly to get knocked down by Very Special teenagers. Or the old Universal horror movies where the monsters were lovable and charismatic and the heroes always got away safe in the end.  ↩

  3. For instance, speaking of the Donne Test, A Pocketful of Rye includes what may be the saddest and most unfair secondary murder of any Christie novel.  ↩

  4. Characters weren’t Christie’s strong suit–she wrote types. This is why Miss Marple is such a great detective–her criminological methodology is entirely about recognizing types which, as a Christie protagonist, she’s surrounded by.  ↩

Ellery Queen, And on the Eighth Day

Years ago I read an Ellery Queen mystery (Ellery Queen being both the name of the detective and the pen name of the authors, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee). I don’t remember which one. It was one with a title following the “The [NATIONALITY] [THING] Mystery” template. Probably either The Dutch Shoe Mystery or The Roman Hat Mystery. I didn’t like it. I recall it as a straight puzzle without the sense of humor or shrewd observation of character that make the best mysteries worth reading. Also, Ellery himself was written as one of those piffle-spewing dilettantes who plagued golden age detective novels. The best of these–Albert Campion, say, or Peter Wimsey–quickly toned down the piffle and turned up the three-dimensional characterization. The ones who weren’t are no longer read. Ellery Queen seemed closer to the second group.

Since then I’d heard that a few Queen novels were ghostwritten by Theodore Sturgeon, Avram Davidson, and Jack Vance, from outlines by Dannay. And I recently discovered the Queen novels were available as ebooks, including And on the Eighth Day, secretly by Avram Davidson. It is, as you might expect from Davidson, a weird book. I’m going to have to take another look at the later Queen novels, because if the series could handle And on the Eighth Day it must have gotten a lot more interesting.

(To explain why, I’m going to spoil the whole book. If you want to read it I suggest you bail on the review halfway through.)

Cover of And on the Eighth Day

And on the Eighth Day was published in 1962 but is set in early 1944 and begins with Ellery taking off for Hollywood to write military propaganda films. After a spell of 12-hour days he breaks down and starts mechanically typing the same few words over and over like Jack Torrance, only instead of “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” it’s his father’s name. (Ellery is unmarried and lives with his father, which until this scene I did not find weird.) So Ellery heads back east in his car, still addled, and gets lost somewhere in the Nevada desert. But that’s okay, because he wanders into Shangri La.

Ellery finds a green valley in the middle of the desert. In the valley is a town called Quenan founded 70 years earlier by one of those communist utopian communities that 19th century America bred like very earnest rabbits. Quenan is led by the Teacher, a very old man and the son of the colony’s founders. It’s completely isolated from the outside world, aside from the Teacher’s occasional visits to an equally isolated general store; the Quenanites have no idea there’s a war on, or what those flying things that keep passing over their village might be. They’re sure they’re expecting a messiah, though, and because “Ellery Queen” sounds kind of like the more Biblical and/or locally significant “Elroi Quenan” the Teacher thinks Ellery might be The One. Ellery goes along with this, mostly because he spends the whole novel loopy from exhaustion.

What follows resembles one of those science fiction novels like Looking Backward or Herland where an outsider is taken on a tour of the author’s fictional society… which is what And on the Eighth Day is: a utopian novel about a utopian community in the historical sense. It takes over a third of the novel for the actual mystery to show up. Basically, And on the Eighth Day is what you’d get if News From Nowhere starred Philo Vance.

Ellery learns how Quenan gets by in the desert, how it irrigates its crops, what animals it raises; the Teacher explains its government (it’s run by craftspeople) its marriage customs (everybody has to get married by a certain age, and the Teacher gets multiple wives, though he doesn’t seem to be sleeping with anybody) and its religion. Being so long isolated, Quenan has developed a language of its own; it’s governed by a “Crownsil” and worships “the Wor’d”[1] and has been looking for the lost “Book of Mk’h” which the Teacher is pretty sure he found at the general store a few years back. But not entirely sure, because no one in Quenan can read it.

Ellery and the narrative think of Quenan as a simple unspoiled paradise needing protection from the outside world, like a prime directive-insulated planet on Star Trek. (I’m not as convinced as Ellery that Quenan is idyllic: it once imposed the death penalty on a weaver who hoarded some extra cloth; public offices are said to be open to everybody regardless of gender but the Crownsil is in practice overwhelmingly male; and I have to question Ellery’s assumption that being a Teacher’s wife must be a sweet deal.)

Sadly for Quenan Ellery is one of those detectives. The ones who attract crime the way asbestos deposits attract lung disease clusters. The Teacher notices someone’s moved the keys[2] to the forbidden room containing Quenan’s stash of silver coins and the Book of M’Kh. Someone was too dazzled by Ellery’s fancy car and gold watch; for the first time in decades Quenan knows greed. Soon the thief is found with his skull bashed in. Apparently someone confronted the thief and killed him in self-defense. So Ellery gets his fingerprint kit out of the car[3] and sets to work.

Now the story is traveling further into standard detective novel territory, and yet this doesn’t stop it from getting even weirder. The mystery isn’t even very mysterious; both the red-herring suspect and the real killer are the only obvious choices for the roles. It’s like the detective plot took one look at Quenan, threw up its hands, and surrendered to the weirdness.

Ellery observes the crime scene, talks to witnesses, and, in a very long scene, explains to the Crownsil how fingerprints work. The evidence seems to point to the Teacher, and when Ellery presents his case to the Crownsil the old man doesn’t deny the crime. But Ellery isn’t satisfied, possibly because he’s noticed the novel still has a couple of chapters to run. Privately, the Teacher admits he framed himself: the real culprit is his young successor, who Quenan can’t afford to lose. So the next day everyone watches as the Teacher, like Socrates, very calmly drinks poison and lies down to die. Ellery stumbles out of town, dazed. But first he makes sure to steal and burn the Book of Mk’h, because it’s actually a copy of Mein Kampf. And then, as he leaves, a pilot bails out of his crashing plane right outside Quenan. A pilot who happens to look just like the teacher only fifty years younger, and whose name, Manuel Aquinas, sounds kind of like the more Biblical and/or locally significant “Emmanuel Quenan.” Ellery suggests Manuel check out the town.

So what we have here is a book that looks like a detective novel, published as just another entry in a long-running series of detective novels, but written by an eccentric fantasist and only perfunctorily performing the usual detective novel functions. Instead, it’s an allegory about a representative of justice who visits a community of innocents, bringing temptation with him; watches their leader, for the good of the community, sacrifice himself for another’s sin; and ferrets out and destroys the unsuspected evil lurking at the center of paradise, after which the Teacher symbolically rises again to rejoin his people.

The detective novel is, I will admit, a formulaic genre. Every one of them has the detective, the murder[4], the investigation, and the moment of revelation; readers have seen so many unimportant details revealed as vital clues that we unerringly sense they’re not actually unimportant. Sometimes, though, a formula is freeing. As long as all the elements of a formula–in this case, the detective, the crime, and the revelation–are present and correct, the audience has no reason to complain when the accompanying material is undisciplined or eccentric. The rest of the story can do anything else. Break the fourth wall and drop in the occasional M. R. James pastiche, reveal the entire cast to be undercover detectives… and then there are outliers like Thomas Hanshew’s Hamilton Cleek stories, which read like somebody’s fever dreams. It’s a freedom that not enough mysteries take advantage of, and even those that do usually do so too timidly.[5] But I keep looking, because there are always that few that recognize that a formula is a license to be eccentric, and let loose. Detective novels are like paintings that do their best work in the negative space; it’s not that the subject isn’t important, but it’s everything around it that keeps me coming back.


  1. The Quenanites love apostrophes almost as much as terrible epic fantasy writers.  ↩

  2. The Teacher keeps his belongings perfectly symmetrical. It’s too bad Ellery didn’t bring Hercule Poirot; he and the Teacher would have gotten along swell.  ↩

  3. Of course Ellery has a fingerprint kit in his car! He’s one of those detectives.  ↩

  4. It’s weird that it’s always a murder. It’s not like it would be hard to make an interesting story from a jewel theft or an embezzlement case.  ↩

  5. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd may have an unreliable narrator, but I have to admit it doesn’t have much else of interest.  ↩

A Very Confused Detective

This year I read two Stanislaw Lem novels I’d never read before. The Invincible didn’t impress me, but The Investigation is one of his better books.

The Investigation is Lem’s take on the British mystery. As you might expect the subject isn’t the usual mundane murder: Lieutenant Gregory of Scotland Yard is assigned to look into reports of dead bodies found moved with no one around to move them. It seems corpses are getting up and walking.

Cover of The Investigation

Generally[1] I think Lem is at his best in his satirical books, like The Cyberiad, The Star Diaries, and A Perfect Vacuum. The Investigation isn’t one of those, but it’s not dry and numbingly earnest like The Invincible. Lem’s prose is good here, with sharp and memorable descriptions, as when Gregory looks at his fellow train passengers and sees “a sea of accidental faces.”

The Investigation is set in detective-novel England as seen from Poland. In the first few pages we hear of places like Engender, Planting, and Spittoon, and minor characters with names like Thicker and Samuel Filthey. Lem drops these into an entirely straight-faced conversation about animate corpses. It reads like a CSI briefing done in Monty Python voices. Lem surrounds straight man Gregory with interestingly grotesque characters.[2] The best is the birdlike, irascible statistician Sciss, who is incensed by the suspicion that someone might be making fun of mathematics.

Where The Investigation shines is in its surrealism. Lem writes like a dream here, literally: when he drops in a dream sequence it’s not a typical allegorical novel dream, it actually has the disjointed, illogical feel of a real nightmare. Yet it’s still one of those dream sequences you don’t initially realize is a dream, which says a lot about the novel’s tone. Gregory is, after all, investigating walking corpses. Meetings with his superior often take place at night, or in darkened rooms, as if Scotland Yard has instituted mood lighting policies. The case culminates with the nightmarish image of a body moving like a wind-up toy, and I can’t imagine a horror movie pulling off a creepier image than the one The Investigation evoked in my imagination.

The more impossible the case seems the more Gregory moves out of the ordinary world, and the more alienated he becomes. His life outside Scotland Yard is a series of small awkward failures to connect to other people, from the bartender whose simple questions about dinner he’s too abstracted to understand to a humiliatingly unsuccessful attempt to give a few coins to a beggar. Gregory is ultimately so confused that he walks down a tunnel, finds another person blocking his way, and only belatedly realizes he’s walked into a mirror.

Like the astronauts in The Invincible, Gregory is dealing with an apparently intelligent phenomenon that may have no intelligence behind it at all. Sciss’s best explanation for the animate corpses is essentially that some random physical phenomena happened to come together in just the right way to make the dead walk. For Gregory this calls to mind a metaphor of the universe as a bowl of soup in which bits randomly clump together to form something whole. Improbable, but as Lem wrote in another novel, mathematically improbable events sometimes happen anyway. Lem was seemingly fascinated by randomness and probability, returning to the theme over and over. (One of the fake book reviews in A Perfect Vacuum covers a book arguing that if the laws of probability are true then the universe itself, being so improbable, cannot possibly exist.) Lem’s characters seek order in statistical chaos. Many of his novels hinge on distinguishing between meaningful, intelligent phenomena and pareidolia: the misapplied pattern-seeking that, for instance, lets us see faces in clouds. His aliens are really alien. Is Solaris bringing visitors’ memories to life for a reason, or is it an autonomic response, like white blood cells reacting to a virus? Is it possible, without anthropomorphizing, for humans to understand what’s happening on Eden? Most of Lem’s stories and themes come back to the limits of human ability to comprehend an infinite, incomprehensible universe.[3] (In this Lem has a weird thematic parallel to H. P. Lovecraft, although happily Lem’s preoccupation with incomprehensibility is based in a sense of wonder, not xenophobia.) The Investigation takes these themes out of their science fictional context and applies them to the detective novel.

How readers interpret the genre of The Investigation will affect how they interpret Sciss’s theory. Gregory can’t decide what genre he’s in. Sometimes he’s seduced by Sciss’s ideas—if the human mind can’t understand everything, he reasons at one point, maybe it’s irrelevant whether an explanation seems to make sense. Sometimes he’s not buying it: the outbreak of walking dead must have some human intelligence behind it, and he increasingly suspects Sciss himself. But because the name on the cover is Stanislaw Lem and not Agatha Christie, the reader knows the impossible may be happening.

And that’s what Gregory ultimately confirms. But his superintendant has a more mundane theory—a truck-driving prankster—that almost fits. And it’s a tidy theory, since the suspect has since died and wouldn’t be inconvenienced by the accusation. In the end it’s not clear what Scotland Yard’s going to go with. Is a tidy but probably wrong explanation better, or an unsatisfactory mystery? Lem, as you might expect from somebody who lived in Communist Poland, suggests the authorities would rather be satisfied than right. The real horror isn’t the walking dead—it’s the thought that the universe might be too big, random, and weird for human beings to get their heads around.


  1. Exceptions include Solaris, natch.  ↩

  2. The biggest problem with The Investigation is that, as is often the case with older SF, it’s lopsidedly male. Only a handful of women appear and we’re well into the novel before one even gets any lines. I’m mentioning the biggest flaw in a footnote because it’s an all too common problem in older SF, and not even an interesting problem. There’s only so much I can think of to say about it beyond “it’s this crap again.”  ↩

  3. I haven’t read Lem’s philosophical book Summa Technologiae, but in it he apparently argues for something like the Singularity: eventually, he suspects, humans will reach the point where we have so much information we can’t process it all.  ↩

Agatha Christie, At Bertram’s Hotel

As a Miss Marple novel, At Bertram’s Hotel is a dud. It’s a detective novel that doesn’t allow its hero to solve the crime. Miss Marple does some eavesdropping and makes a couple of deductions at the same time as a police detective, but never gets to tell him anything he doesn’t already know. At one point she plays the role of the witness amazed when the brilliant detective explains the surprising truth behind what she saw. That’s just backwards.

What makes At Bertram’s Hotel interesting is what Miss Marple does while she’s failing to detect. Bertram’s Hotel caters to elderly guests who want an environment that reminds them of their youth, and tourists who want to see the London of fifty years ago. Christie belabors how Bertram’s serves proper muffins and poached eggs and seed cake. The rooms are done up in tasteful archaic styles, camouflaging their modern fittings. The staff resemble the happily efficient servants who only ever existed in P. G. Wodehouse novels. The guests resemble the aging gentry who only ever existed in… um, Agatha Christie novels. During her stay at Bertram’s Miss Marple shops for the plain old-fashioned dish towels she has trouble finding nowadays, and visits places she remembers from her youth.

But Miss Marple finds that most of the places she remembers have changed or been built over. Bertram’s out-of-time fittings begin to look unnatural. Even the guests don’t look quite how she expects elderly people to look in the world of 1965. She concludes “that one should not ever try to go back–that the essence of life is going forward.”

It’s generally an error to assume an author’s biography has anything at all to do with her writing. But in this case it’s tempting to draw conclusions from the fact that, when At Bertram’s Hotel was published, Agatha Christie was 75 years old, near Miss Marple’s age. At Bertram’s Hotel feels like Christie letting herself indulge in nostalgia for the old days, then spending the rest of the novel gently scolding herself for doing so.

In Which I am Unconvinced by The Daughter of Time

An early portrait of Richard III

In January1, I picked up Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. I was in the mood for a mystery, and this is reputedly a great one. It’s a witty, compulsively readable, entertaining book, and it managed to convince me that Josephine Tey was Completely Wrong.

The author of a detective story is usually the ultimate authority on who killed who, she being the one who shoved killer and victim together and said “Let’s you and him fight.” However, The Daughter of Time is the one where Tey’s detective, Alan Grant, livens up a hospital stay by “investigating” the murder of the 12-year-old King Edward V and his brother in 1483, accepted by most historians as having been ordered by Richard III. On that last point, Josephine Tey chooses to dissent.

Some Wikipedia-style canned context might be useful. Edward IV died in April of 1483. The heir to the throne was Edward V, then 12. Even 15th-century monarchists weren’t dumb enough to hand absolute power over to a 12-year-old, so England needed a regent.

Edward IV had intended his brother Richard for the role, but there was a problem. Three years into his reign, Edward revealed that–surprise!–he’d secretly married a woman named Elizabeth Woodville. Not everybody was happy about this. For one thing, Edward’s supporters had planned to ally with France by marrying him off to a French princess, and the sudden appearance of Elizabeth sunk the whole deal. The bigger problem was that, although Elizabeth was the daughter of an earl, she was still technically a commoner. The Woodvilles were now dramatically upwardly mobile, and some of the existing nobility thought of them the way David Broder thought of Bill Clinton: they came in and trashed the place, and it wasn’t their place. Apparently one of the people who thought this way was Richard.

With Edward V raised by and surrounded by Woodvilles, Richard’s chances of hanging on to the role of Lord Protector were not great. Also, to be fair, the more power the Woodvilles had the less safe he probably felt, this being an era when political blunders didn’t just put you in danger of spending more time with your family. So as Edward V and his brother–also Richard, because like most royal families the Yorks were very bad at thinking up names–were on their way to London for the coronation Richard intercepted them, arrested their Woodville escorts, and installed them in the Tower of London (which at the time was a palace rather than a prison).

In June, Richard announced that Edward IV liked secret marriages so much that he’d had another one a few years before marrying Elizabeth Woodville, rendering that marriage invalid and the princes illegitimate. Next in line to the throne was–gosh fellas, what a coincidence–Richard III.

As summer wore on into fall, it began to occur to people that it had been a while since anyone had seen the princes.

So. I should say first that I was open to The Daughter of Time’s argument, mostly because I’m not big on monarchy. I’m okay with True Kings as long as they’re safely trapped in the pages of Big Fat Fantasy novels, but I’d prefer they stay out of the real world, thanks. As far as I’m concerned, the whole “hereditary absolute ruler” deal taints everyone it touches. I have no emotional attachment to either side of the was-Richard-a-killer argument because a “no” answer doesn’t stop me filing Richard under “villain.” But the further I got into The Daughter of Time, the more I wanted to argue with it. Something about it was… well, almost creepy. And, I eventually realized, familiar.

Last year I read James Shapiro’s Contested Will, a history of the belief that Shakespeare’s plays weren’t written by Shakespeare (or, as the anti-Shakespeare partisans like to call him, the “Stratford Man”). Shapiro grounds the most common arguments, and the shift in favorite secret identity from Francis Bacon to the Earl of Oxford, in their historical context. The anti-Stratfordians’ arguments are, it turns out, very much of their times, and changed with the literary fashions, but a certain style of argument–for the purposes of this essay it needs a name, so I’ll call it “Heroic Contrarianism”–recurs throughout Shapiro’s survey, as it does when I see an Oxfordian in the wild. Or a creationist. Or a climate change skeptic.

And here was the same Heroic Contrarianism, in a different context, in The Daughter of Time. It took me over a week to get through this slim novel because I ended up reading two conventional popular histories at the same time, as an antidote.2

What reminded me of the Oxfordians was Josephine Tey’s implacable, unshakeable faith in her own Rightness. By this I don’t just mean that she thought she was right. Most of us do, most of the time. Capital-R Rightness is to ordinary conviction as triple espresso is to chamomile. The Daughter of Time is Right like a concrete bunker impervious to logic, rhetoric, or fact. The fact that, by backing Richard III, Tey is rejecting the judgement of legions of professional historians inspires not an instant of self-doubt. In fact, it’s crucial. Bucking conventional wisdom is a fundamental characteristic of Heroic Contrarianism, and what makes it invulnerable. Tey is bravely right. It’s not just a belief, it’s a moral conviction: being a truth-teller feels righteous… and maybe a little romantic, like she’s set herself apart from the sheeple. Which is what makes this kind of argument so infuriating: you can’t miss the implication that the sheeple is you.3

The Daughter of Time is a book-length argument, but this argument doesn’t exist to convince anyone else. It exists to protect the author’s own convictions. The Daughter of Time isn’t defending the truth. It’s defending the feeling that the author is one of the few enlightened forward-thinking souls who can see the truth.

Presented with a fact, we all look for a way to fit it into our existing assumptions. Ideally, if the new fact doesn’t fit what we think we know, and we can’t find a reason to believe it isn’t actually a fact, then at some point, to some extent, however reluctantly, we modify our assumptions. “Reluctantly” is usually the operative word–even reasonable people don’t like changing their minds–but for a Heroic Contrarian like Alan Grant, there’s no give and take at all. Grant never integrates new information into his theory–he integrates his theory into the new information. Every fact is interpreted in the light of Grant’s preconceptions. The jigsaw puzzle must show the picture Grant has in mind, even if Grant has to mash the pieces together to make them fit. Sometimes this is easier when Grant lets the less-convenient pieces fall beneath the table.

Alan Grant snags a research assistant to do the legwork and starts digging into the evidence–or at least what evidence he can find, and find satisfying. Many of his conversations with his assistant run along these lines:

“Wait a minute–I’ve discovered a new fact that appears to throw our entire theory into doubt!”

“Ah, but this explains it.”

“This” being a massive assumption. As soon as the assumption stands on its own, however shakily, Grant finds a reason to stop looking.

Grant’s theory depends partly on the notion that no one during Richard’s lifetime believed that anything had happened to the princes at all. When he discovers that in 1483 rumors were already circulating that the princes were dead, Grant is put out. For a few minutes. He immediately argues himself into believing the rumors never spread beyond a couple of isolated areas where Richard’s enemies were strongest. This isn’t true: even before the murders, rumors that the princes were dead, or in mortal danger, spread all over London. Four men were executed for concocting a harebrained scheme to rescue the princes by setting fires around the city as a distraction. (This account, from a Tudor partisan, is the only one I could find on the internet.) Grant could have argued that the fact that the rumors existed, and travelled widely, doesn’t mean they were true. Instead he simply denies that the rumors were widespread, and moves on to something else.

“Something else” almost always begins with an incredulous tirade on the stupidity of historians. How can they be so gullible as to believe that Richard arranged those murders? After Grant repeats the point a few times it begins to sound like he isn’t criticizing the historians so much as congratulating himself. Alan Grant is a policeman. The historians he’s reading are respected professionals with degrees and weighty academic reputations. How can they not see what Grant sees?

The Heroic Contrarian would suggest that it’s because they’re professionals. One of the oddest received ideas in our culture is the notion that wisdom can be found in ignorance. We look down on eggheads. In our movies and on TV, the intellectual’s book-learning fails while the hero’s street smarts and the innocent’s naivete win out. Ignorance is purer than knowledge; education is treated as though it’s some kind of grit gumming up the workings of scholarly brains.

This is the perfect narrative for Heroic Contrarians. Biologists are hidebound. Shakespearian scholars are mired in orthodoxy. Complacent historians chant a litany of rote-memorized Tudor propaganda without understanding what any of it means. The Heroic Contrarian, as an ignorant outsider, comes to the problem with no preconceptions, and his day job gives him special insights denied to the professionals. It is thus that he sees the truth.4 Surprisingly often, the Heroic Contrarian is an engineer. Alan Grant is a policeman. What Grant believes his police experience gives him, and what he believes the historians lack, is insight into human behavior.

A later portrait of Richard III

Grant’s ideas about criminal psychology are black-and-white. Richard III’s policies in office were, in Grant’s opinion, admirable.5 It is inconceivable to Grant that Richard could have been both a good administrator and a ruthless killer. When Grant learns that Richard, prior to the “Edward V is a bastard” gambit, floated the idea that it was his own brother Edward IV who was illegitimate, Grant simply refuses to believe it. He has no evidence against it. Richard was simply too nice to do that to his own mother.6 As a murder suspect Grant prefers Henry VII, a master of “sharp practice” whose reign brought heavy taxes and the Star Chamber.

Grant also thinks it’s significant that Elizabeth Woodville came out of sanctuary and brought her daughters to court in the spring of 1484. That must mean the princes were still alive! Who could believe, asks Grant, that a bereaved mother would reconcile with the man who murdered her sons? Those historians! So crazy!

Grant doesn’t consider that historians might also have special knowledge that he doesn’t. They may know facts his amateur research didn’t uncover: for instance, it’s notable that, before she agreed to leave sanctuary, Elizabeth insisted that Richard publicly swear a detailed oath to ensure her daughters’ safety. Beyond that, historians have context. Alan Grant judges Elizabeth’s actions by the standards of a 1950s middle-class country house inhabitant, and in those terms her behavior doesn’t make sense–but Elizabeth made her decisions in 1484, in a completely different culture and environment. She was an ex-queen, out of favor in a time and place when being out of favor was genuinely dangerous. Keep in mind that there was no police inspector handy to investigate her sons’ murder. Assume that her first priority was to safeguard the lives of her remaining children, and preserve for them whatever status and access to power she could. In that case, making nice with Richard might actually have been the pragmatic choice. But to think of that, Grant would have to be able to think his way into another time–to think less like a policeman and more like a historian.

Not that there aren’t legitimate historians who believe Richard III was innocent. The biggest difference between the Oxfordians and the Ricardians is that there’s some actual non-insane controversy about Richard III. But legitimate historians don’t argue like Alan Grant. They’re not even starting from the same point. The clue that starts Grant’s investigation is the flimsiest thing in The Daughter of Time–so silly my willingness to entertain its argument took a hit before it began, and never recovered. I have no idea how Josephine Tey herself came to believe Richard III didn’t have the princes killed. Grant believes it because he can pick criminals out by their faces. That seems like an inconveniently plot-short-circuiting skill for a detective-novel hero, but never mind: Grant sees a portrait of Richard and thinks Richard just doesn’t look like a killer. Before he realizes it’s Richard, Grant thinks it looks like the portrait of a judge.7 By contrast, once Grant settles on Henry VII as prime suspect Grant can’t help remarking on his thinning hair and bad teeth.

Most Heroic Contrarianism starts from apparently common-sensical but entirely wrong assumptions about how the world is supposed to work. To a creationist, it feels right that the Earth always existed as it has now. To an Oxfordian, it feels right that Shakespeare’s great plays were written by a noble spirit, not a money-grubbing tradesman. If some common actor and part-time malt-speculator could write a transcendent work like King Lear… well, something would be wrong with the world. To Grant it feels right that criminals have a certain look. It feels right that criminals have certain features, behaviors, and attitudes that don’t match the image of Richard that Grant formed from an idealized portrait painted a century after the man’s death. Grant catches a glimpse of Richard III that doesn’t match his prejudices, and spends the rest of The Daughter of Time reassuring himself that he lives in a world where a criminal has a certain kind of face.

But what kind of world is that? Shortly after I read The Daughter of Time, I read something else that clarified the problem: fantasy writer Theodora Goss posted a short essay on her blog about Agatha Christie’s novels, and how Christie and other “golden age” mystery novelists stereotype their characters and then present those characters’ behavior, and its adherence to or deviation from stereotype, as clues:

We’ve seen such dresses and know what sorts of women wear them. And if we haven’t—well, in a sense Christie indoctrinates us into a world in which there are such women, and we begin to understand the code. We begin to understand that certain things mean certain other things. As Hercule Poirot points out, the fact that Mr. Fanthorp wears an Old Etonian tie means that he simply wouldn’t interrupt a conversation taking place between people he doesn’t know—and the fact that he does is therefore meaningful.

Compare this to Alan Grant’s first snap judgement of Richard III based on his portrait, and his conviction that Richard was just too nice to arrange an assassination. This isn’t historical thinking. It isn’t even genuine police-detective thinking. It’s detective-novel thinking.

Before evidence, before logic, Grant’s theory is based on class. It’s striking that, within the novel, the reactions to Grant’s theory divide neatly along class lines. Upper-class characters, Grant’s friends and family, listen seriously and agree that of course Grant’s ideas make sense. Lower-class characters, like the nurses and messengers who visit Grant’s hospital ward, believe the standard story. Not because they’ve thought it through–in Josephine Tey’s eyes, they seem barely capable of thought–but because they’ve accepted it placidly, like sheep.

I mentioned that Grant isn’t big on historians. He saves his greatest scorn for Thomas More, whose History of Richard III is the primary source for the conventional story of the murders. Grant dubs him “the sainted More”–when he says it, you can see the spit fly–and works on the principle that, if More said it, it must be a lie. More did have an axe to grind, his work wasn’t written according to anything we would recognize as acceptable academic standards, and it ought to be read skeptically, but Grant doesn’t give him any credit at all–not even for talking to people with firsthand knowledge of Richard’s reign. Actually, who More talked to seems to be the main problem. Too damn many of them were servants, and “backstairs gossip” is worthless by definition. Again, evidence doesn’t enter into it. More is unreliable not because he was a bad historian but because he lacks “sensibility.”

Grant is relieved to run across the idea that More’s account was actually written by John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury. Morton was Henry VII’s Lord Chancellor, and administered Henry’s tax policies. He was immortalized as the creator of “Morton’s Fork”: If a noble was a big spender, he must be making enough money to spare some for the king. If a noble lived frugally, he must be saving enough money to spare some for the king. Morton is exactly the kind of guy Grant can’t stand. He’s a “climber” mooching off his betters, a resentful ingrate who doesn’t know his place–exactly the kind of guy you’d expect to throw in with Henry VII.

Henry himself is a bounder. He’s “shabby,” an “adventurer” with “no public office or employment.” He’s a flashy, vulgar, throne-grabbing social climber, an obnoxious second cousin wearing a loud checked suit. Richard, on the other hand, looked like Grant’s idea of a respectable well-bred English nobleman. He behaved the way Grant thinks a respectable well-bred English nobleman ought to behave–at least, Grant refuses to believe the stories that he didn’t. And that’s all the evidence Grant needs:

That charming men of great integrity had committed murder in their day Grant knew only too well. But not that kind of murder and not for that kind of reason. […] He would murder his wife for unfaithfulness suddenly discovered, perhaps. Or kill the partner whose secret speculation had ruined their firm and the future of his children. Whatever murder he committed would be the result of acute emotion, it would never be planned; and it would never be a base murder.

I’m trying to get my head around the concept of a murder that isn’t base. I think it’s the kind of thing you only get in novels, and only in certain kinds of novels.

James Thurber wrote a story called “The Macbeth Murder Mystery” about a detective-novel fan who spends a boring evening in a hotel with nothing to read but Macbeth. She concludes the real murderer was Macduff. Not to spoil the joke, but what’s actually happened is that she’s run afoul of something known as genre protocols. Different genres of writing–not only the categories used to market fiction, but also different forms like essays, memoirs, or poetry–have their own rules and conventions. A novel is different from a memoir. You approach and understand it differently, according to different protocols.8 Read a story with the protocols of another genre–assume Macbeth should work like an Agatha Christie novel, say–and you’re likely to misinterpret or miss something.

I argued earlier that Heroic Contrarianism usually starts from some wrong assumptions about how the world is supposed to work. Alan Grant–who is, I think, a mouthpiece for Josephine Tey’s actual beliefs–thinks he lives in a world of good breeding and bad blood, of decent people and bounders and nothing in between. Alan Grant views the world through all the worst impulses of the stereotypical golden age detective novel. He’s a detective-story protagonist responding to the story of Richard III as though it were one of his cases. Like Thurber’s mystery fan, he’s reading history with the wrong genre protocols.


  1. Yes, it’s taken me that long to finish this. I know I apologize a lot on this blog for writing slowly, but look at it this way: the fact that I haven’t written much this past year means that apologies that are close in sequence still probably came months apart. ↩

  2. The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir and A Brief History of the Wars of the Roses by Desmond Seward. Not necessarily perfect works themselves–I was suspicious of the Weir book’s total absence of footnotes–but I couldn’t read any further in Tey without an alternate view. ↩

  3. This is how Heroic Contrarianism differs from ordinary disagreement. I myself insist, against all argument, that Robert Altman’s Popeye is one of the best musicals ever filmed, but I hope I’m not goddamn smug about it. ↩

  4. This is another one of our culture’s weird received ideas, related to the one I already mentioned: the idea that someone with no expertise at a particular thing can succeed at it by applying their experience doing something not at all similar. In fiction, this usually results in comedies about washed-up drywall contractors using their drywall contracting skills to whip misfit small-town baseball teams into shape; in real life, it leads to the idea that we can solve our problems by electing corporate CEOs to public office and having them run the government like a business. ↩

  5. Richard also supposedly comes off as an affable sort in his letters, although Tey is cheating here: Grant’s evidence is a “translation” of a letter that reads as rather neutral in the original. ↩

  6. It’s worth noting here that Richard’s mother didn’t bother to attend Richard’s coronation. ↩

  7. In real life Richard didn’t have a withered arm and wasn’t hunchbacked. At most, his shoulders were a bit asymmetrical. ↩

  8. Which is how David Frey got in trouble: he wrote a novel and told his audience to read it as a memoir. ↩

My Best of 2010, Part Two

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country

A short novel about a First World War veteran who recovers from PTSD and a broken marriage as he restores a fresco by an unknown medieval artist in a village church. If you have much experience with a certain determinedly whimsical subgenre of story, you may think you know what kind of story this is: over several small, gentle adventures, a menagerie of eccentric locals bond with our hero and bring him out of his shell (shock). There is some of this, yes. But the narrator’s closest relationship is with the anonymous medieval artist: we never learn the man’s name, but by the end of the book the narrator has deduced the outline of his life from his art. A Month in the Country is about the healing power of professionalism and love of a craft, and about how we connect to long-vanished people through the work they leave behind.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

We live in a society where the cream of Wall Street can crash the economy and be rewarded with six-figure bonuses, and the idea of looking into possible crimes in high places is dismissed as looking backwards. So Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, about a student who kills a pawnbroker because he thinks he’s too extraordinary to be held to the same rules as us peons, is as relevant as it’s ever been. Russian novels have a reputation as bleak and heavy stuff, so it might surprise you to learn that Crime and Punishment is also as unbearably suspenseful as any good Hitchcock movie, and at times very funny.

Dry high school English classes (which often expose us to books before we’re ready to enjoy them) train us to think of The Classics as medicinal: dreary, bitter, but good for you. In fact, more often than you’d expect, classics become classics by entertaining the hell out of people.

Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver

The alphabet arbitrarily put The True Deceiver next to Crime and Punishment, but seeing them together made a new connection in my head: both novels attack an Ayn Randish philosophy which has way too much influence in 21st-century America. Crime and Punishment argues against the impulse to divide the human race into a mass of commoners and a special super-creative producer class. The True Deceiver ridicules the mindset that thinks the world is a Social Darwinist tooth-and-claw struggle, selfishness is a virtue, and other people are marks to be exploited for one’s own gain; and that believes thinking this way means one is clear-eyed, realistic, and tough-minded.

The True Deceiver is about two women, Katri Kling and Anna Amelin, whose characters are expressed by their names. Katri is a struggling shop assistant who lives with a huge wolfish dog; Anna a wealthy but financially naive artist who seems as mild as the rabbits she paints for her children’s books. Katri intends to insinuate herself into Anna’s confidence and take over the older woman’s affairs, house, and money. It doesn’t go as she expects. This is a little two-paragraph review, not an analytical essay, so I don’t want to give away too many details, but I’ll say that Anna unknowingly derails Katri with a kind of moral judo throw, and that real strength isn’t what or where Katri believed it was. Everyone comes out ahead in a way that utterly dismantles Katri’s worldview.

(More to come in part three…)

In which I attempt to read what everybody else is reading, and wind up depressed and horrified.

I don’t watch much TV. I don’t listen to top 40 radio. I’m not enticed by most of what ends up on the New York Times bestseller list. Almost invariably, my first hints that a new pop culture phenomenon is in town are articles, blog posts, or casual conversations full of mysterious references to things I’m clearly supposed to know all about. (“‘Lady Gaga?’ Are people just stringing random words together, now?”) I don’t want to drift off into an entirely different universe from the rest of America, so I sometimes try to watch or read the Hot New Thing that Everyone’s Talking About. This, plus the fact that the waiting list at the library was something like 50 hold requests long, is how I ended up buying a copy of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

I did not enjoy The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. If it wasn’t a runaway bestseller—if I hadn’t been curious about why it was a runaway bestseller—I would have quit reading after fifty pages. (When I was a kid I felt honor-bound to finish everything I read. Growing up, and understanding in my gut that my life and reading time were finite, cured that.) Continue reading In which I attempt to read what everybody else is reading, and wind up depressed and horrified.

The City and the City

Cover Art

China Miéville’s The City and the City is another Nebula nominee. It’s a police procedural set in two imaginary cities. If you haven’t read it, it might be best to stop reading this review now. The City and the City doesn’t dump its premise on you all at once; odd details pile up, and one or two chapters in the true premise hits you and remaps your entire perception of the story.

On the other hand, if you’ve heard of The City and the City at all, you probably know the concept. Some stories have twists that will never surprise anyone again, because they’re part of our common mental furniture. Everyone who sees Psycho knows not to get too attached to Marion Crane. Among SF fans the premise of The City and the City is already just as well known. So I won’t be spoiling anything for most people when I explain that The City and the City is set in two imaginary cities that occupy the same space.

The citizens of Beszel walk the same streets as the citizens of Ul Quoma. No one remembers how, or why, the cities split, but over the centuries the divergent cultures maintained separate identities with complicated mental defenses. The cities learned to unsee each other. Tyador Borlú, the Beszel police detective at the center of the story, walks among Ul Quomans and is effectively alone. All his life he’s been trained in selective attention. He doesn’t acknowledge that Ul Quoma is there. If he did, he’d be in trouble; no one wants to come to the attention of Breach, the group that polices the imaginary boundary between the two cities.

This sounds like fantasy, and maybe it is… but only just barely. We “unsee” things all the time. Things we don’t want to acknowledge… or people we don’t want to acknowledge. When I Googled The City and the City to check the spelling of names and places, I found a review that mentioned the secret cartography of London gangs:

These political alignments and the ground they contest are unknown to most of the inhabitants of the city, but mean life and death to others. A fascinating but depressing report released by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last year explored this territoriality. It included maps drawn by teenagers that revealed their neighbourhoods as patchworks of “safe” and “no-go” areas, an exquisitely complex secret topography.

That sounds just like the “crosshatched” maps of Beszel and Ul Quoma.

Unseeing isn’t always a bad thing. The human brain can only process so many things at once; if we consciously acknowledged everything we perceived, all the time, it would be hard to sort out which details were immediately important. You don’t want anyone stopping in the middle of a crosswalk, distracted by the ants and the weeds and the cracks in the asphalt, while a car hurtles towards the intersection! And when you’re traveling home on a crowded bus, politely “unseeing” the other passengers lets everyone read or talk to friends or just unwind in the pretense of privacy.

But sometimes people take selective attention too far. One of the clichés that get thrown around a lot when people talk about the United States is the “melting pot.” This isn’t a great metaphor—it raises images of people rendered down into homogenous goo, being assimilated but not assimilating anything themselves. But it does at least approach something true: put cultures next to each other, and they mix. They trade. They fall in love. Which is scary for the people who’ve built their identities around belonging to the culture on the top of the pyramid. So they build walls, and patrol the deserts. Certain neighborhoods become anathema. Certain people are not “real” citizens. They squint suspiciously at anyone who looks like they don’t belong, and refuse to acknowledge that sometimes the people who “don’t belong” have actually been around longer than they have…

Beszel and Ul Quoma can only maintain their purity as totalitarian states. No one in either city has a choice in what to see or unsee—no one gets to decide what’s important to them. The division between the cities takes precedence over everything, even life and death. If Borlú came upon an Ul Quoman dying on the street, he’d have to unsee and walk away, or face Breach.

This is a problem for a man investigating a murder that crosses between cities. I could predict Borlú would have to choose between catching a killer and throwing away a lifetime of mental training. What surprised me was that Borlú steps outside the barrier between Beszel and Ul Quoma but doesn’t permanently disrupt it. Order is maintained, the status quo continues. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised—Miéville’s never seemed optimistic about the possibility that things might change for the better. (Iron Council ended with the image of a revolution that perpetually approaches but never arrives.) You can climb over the walls, but you can’t tear them down. Borlú can refuse to look away from the unseen, but once he does he can never return to ordinary life.