Friday, October 30, 2009


I am conflicted -- should I make another attempt at National Novel Writing Month this year? I have other writing projects to work on, but no new story ideas, just editing older pieces and getting them ready for either workshops or submission. If I were to do that much writing each day, perhaps it would be better to channel that energy into Critters critiques, another short story, or blogging (like, say, finishing the Labors of Hercules).

This is complicated by the fact that the only new story idea I have right now would be reasonably good for NaNoWriMo (fun to write, should be easy to get 50k words) and that it might do me good to just throw words on paper toward a deadline.

What do you think? (Check the poll -- it's got a very short deadline)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

National Languages... by just one vote!

I think most of us have heard the story that German almost became the national language of the United States. If you haven't heard it, the basic story is that at the time of American independence, German was spoken by many more people, and that either the Continental Congress or the US Congress (depending on the version of the story you hear) voted on whether English or German should be the national language. English, goes the story, won by a slim margin. (The linked story is more colorful than the version I learned as a kid)

I am reminded of this because I found out this evening that there is a similar story for China. There, the question was between Mandarin and Cantonese, but again: up for vote by a new revolutionary government, very narrow victory.

I just thought that was entertaining.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Interactive Fiction

Just a quick reminder: IF Comp 09 has started, and has some great entries. (Naturally! I beta-tested two of them ;) Go play a bunch, and vote!

eReaders and subscription services

I am getting to a stage in my life where I am willing to pay extra for less clutter. I have come to the point where lack of space is more of a constraint than lack of funds, at least as far as books are concerned. I am therefore an enthusiastic user of my electronic reader, my Kindle 1. But at the same time I share a lot of the concern about DRM that other people have. If I buy a copy of a book, I should own that copy: I should be able to lend it out, I should be able to make a print copy for my personal use. Current DRM regimes appear to me an unseemly mixture of panic and greed.

I think part of the issue is that the current eReader situation is somewhat bizarre. The devices are being sold and supported by booksellers rather than by publishers or groups of authors. I think that this is what is leading to the artificiality of the situation. I've been thinking a lot about what I think the reading industry is going to look like in the coming years.

The easiest way for me to think about it is in terms of the question, "Who adds value (that I find valuable)? What value?" There are several kinds of value. First, the text itself: is it good at what it does? For fiction, does it tell a good story? For non-fiction, is it well-written and factual? For fictitious non-fiction, does it ... provide whatever the hell it's supposed to provide? (Don't look at me, I don't read that kind of thing) There's a lot of value too, though, in guiding selection, value that's increasing all the time. Every minute I spend looking through lists of books is a minute I spend not reading. The cost of missing a book I'd enjoy or find useful is difficult to quantify, but I'm reminded of the 20-odd years of my life spent not knowing that Terry Pratchett existed, and that cost can seem pretty high. That selection applies not only to finding books for yourself, but in finding books to give as gifts.

So, who adds that value? Authors, of course, create the text, and frequently are wonderfully consistent: once you find authors you like, coming back to their work is a great way to skip a lot of searching. Editors and agents help weed out sub-par work, but also work with the author to improve the text. They are less consistent than individual authors, as they work with many more texts, but that can be a very good thing (I'll touch on that again later). Printers (and now device manufacturers) add a lot of value, perhaps not to the text itself, but in producing a comfortable, appropriately-durable reading experience. Marketers perform a needed service, usually badly. (Any occupation that shoves Dan Brown's books in my face and practically hides Charlie Stross's books is irredeemably lost) Libraries, book clubs, and book stores perform similar tasks, of helping you find books that you're likely to find useful or enjoy.

So, thinking in those terms, how do I think things are likely to shake out?

I strongly expect something like the following scheme to surface in the next five years, having seen bits and pieces of it floated in various articles. I think that publishers (particularly strong genre publishers like Tor) and author groups like the Authors Guild or SFWA will begin offering subscription services. A subscriber to this service will pay, say, $50 a year for unlimited digital access to an online catalog. [1] This access would entail unlimited downloads to mobile devices like Kindle, Nook, iPhone, and Microsoft's inevitable me-too eReader (I'm guessing six months until that announcement, BTW), and probably a PC-based reader with search and limited print capability -- you can print to any printer, but it'll be heavily watermarked. The files would probably DRM'd, because let's face it, you're renting, not owning. There will be grumbling, but I don't think much, especially if they let you buy DRM-free copies of books you particularly like. I mean digital by that, though the savvy services will probably work out exclusivity deals for discounts on pre-printed dead tree versions (with all sort of additional enticement, such as exclusive artwork, leather binding, authors' signatures, gold leaf, charity profit-splitting, a sprinkling of cocaine, etc.)

Now, I've been focusing on eReaders above, but that's not the end of the story by any means. Print on Demand services will come into play here in a big way. If the subscription services are smart, they'll embrace it, as will brick-and-mortar stores. Your corner bookstore (or library or coffeehouse) could very well wind up being basically a front end for a couple POD machines and subscriptions to a lot of different services. You walk in, and use either their subscription or yours or print out a copy of a book you'd like to read, paying an appropriate surcharge. I'm guessing that coffeehouses will wind up with a nice big bookshelf full of "donated" used books (read: left behind, not too soaked in coffee) and that libraries will be willing to eat the cost of a book in exchange for keeping it on the shelves when the user is done.

That suggests to me that the regular BaM stores are likely to keep stocks primarily of nicely-bound books (for gifts, particularly beloved books, or to have signed), books that don't do well as POD (coffee table books, books for small children), and very popular books for which people won't want to wait for the machine (and which can be sold more cheaply pre-printed). As today, they'll probably increasingly try to be combination bookstores/something else -- who wants to bet that Barnes and Noble will be thought of primarily as a coffee chain in 20 years?

As to remuneration: The subscription services would likely be ostentatiously fair to authors, since I wouldn't be surprised to see certain books available from multiple groups, and they will live and die by continued customer trust/support, as well as being dependent on links from authorial blogs. I'm guessing that it'll boil down to most publishers taking a certain % off the top, then distributing the yearly earnings proportionately among the authors whose books are downloaded. And while that seems fair, it's likely to be hotly debated. For one thing, it will basically pit authors against each other. Second, it creates a financial incentive to split books up. The readers won't care (unless it causes an outbreak of Dickens Syndrome), but fellow authors will likely get very angry when they see that happening. I'm confident that something reasonably equitable will get worked out, probably something slightly different for each service. (Authors will likely figure out which service gives them the best deal and steer people that way, much as they currently do with Amazon links)

It would be interesting to see what this does to the short fiction market. Right now it seems that novels rule the roost, and for genres like fantasy, serial novels are giants. [2] I wonder whether, with something like this, short fiction and novellas will become more popular. As John Scalzi recently pointed out, short fiction used to be a much more reliable income stream for authors. I wouldn't be surprised to see that happen again. Nor would I be surprised if manga/comics become more popular when digital readers become appropriate for displaying them.

One more prediction, by the way: as metadata becomes more important to people trying to skim through thousands of works, I think we're going to see the re-rise of the celebrity editor. There are already editors known for being associated with good work (The name "Neilsen Hayden" springs to mind) after all, and any decent matching algorithm will surely take editor into account when matching readers to new books. I would not be at all surprised if the author's agent also becomes a useful piece of metadata. Moreover, I'm betting that if "editor" and "publisher" are searchable pieces of metadata, then "editor != none & publisher != none" will become a very common search criterion.

[1] This is not new, by the way. O'Reilly already has something very like this, and it works very well. It is, however, prohibitively expensive for many people. And of course professional societies like IEEE have been doing this for journal papers for years, but they skip over the difficulty of compensation by simply not compensating any of their authors -- indeed, we are charged for membership and conference admission.
[2] My take on it is that this is a consequence of a couple things. First, readers strive for consistency, and finding a prolific author you like is much more valuable than finding one who isn't. This is not only true for readers but for agents and publishers. Second, world-building is a time-consuming task, and setting multiple stories in the same world saves a lot of time. Moreover, once the world is built, it becomes easier to think of stories in that world than in another. In some ways, this results in better stories set in richer worlds. People like Jim Butcher who are very good at planning things out way in advance gain a lot of natural advantages

Friday, October 23, 2009


I forgot to mention the results of sending my short story (well, technically novella) Where Do They Bury the Survivors? off to Critters: I got eight very thoughtful critiques, almost uniformly positive. This is quite heartening, but I got several times a disheartening criticism: it's too long for a new writer. Very few short fiction markets take 20k word stories, and I'm told that those that do, are highly unlikely to take one from a new author. If they're going to devote that many pages to someone, they want the name to sell copies.

I have a dilemma, then. Do I shorten the story, perhaps using some of the lessons I'm learning from Dame Agatha? Or do I lengthen it into a short novel and find a regular publisher? I admit, I'm awfully tempted to try the novel route, but I just don't think the story will take that much extra text. Even the shortest novels are usually twice the length of this piece.

Of course, this dilemma is false. Nothing stops me from revising the story according to the feedback I got, and sending it out to one or two of the markets that might consider it. I lose nothing but printing, postage, time, and possibly self-respect doing this, after all. In fact, that's the most sensible next step for this story.

I say "this story" -- I've been working on another one this last two weeks, trying to apply some of the lessons I've been learning from The Labors of Hercules. I just finished the first draft, at about 9,000 words -- a much better length. I'll send it to Critters this week, I think. If it gets a similar positive reception I think I'll shop it around while I work on Survivors. If that gets sold, then that will be a significant boost to the prospects of the other.

The stench of death

No, not another murder mystery. Just another Microsoft marketing campaign. And I *like* Windows 7! I think it's a fine OS! (Don't watch more than a minute or two of that, by the way, it's not healthy)

This, however, is a pretty watchable version of that video. Probably a more enjoyable party, too.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Labors of Hercules: The Augean Stables

The next Labor of Hercules was to go to King Augeas, who assigned him to go to his stables, kill ten rats, and bring him their tails. Erm, excuse me. [1] King Augeas was the proud owner of a herd of 3000 divine cattle, which he kept in a stable, which he never cleaned. In this way, he is often credited with the invention of factory farming. Augeas, so convinced that this nasty, demeaning job would conquer Hercules, bet him a tenth the herd that he could not do it in a single day.
Hercules diverted two rivers, cleaned out the stables in an hour or so, then went to claim his reward, whereupon we learn the moral of the story: don't mess with a naked bodybuilder. Augeas didn't pay up, Hercules killed him. A lot of people wind up dead around Hercules -- isn't that how he was assigned the Labors in the first place?

Hercule Poirot takes on the modern day equivalent of the Augean Stables: Politics. A popular prime minister has recently stepped down, and his son-in-law (by all accounts a "sound man") has taken office. Almost immediately, a tabloid gets wind of scandal, and manages to prove that the previous prime minister was a total crook. The new guy looks into it and discovers that it's all true. He and one of his ministers come to Poirot for help. Poirot seriously considers whether to take this case.

What follows is more of a caper story than anything else. Poirot attempts bribery somewhat half-heartedly. (And here Christie breaks the fourth wall in a way she very rarely does, remarking that this refusal was his excuse to do what followed)

Most of the rest of the story is in a very broad view: no characters as such, just very short snippets of reaction to the news coming out. We get a surprise -- the allegations about the Prime Minister take a back seat to allegations of his wife's improprieties. There are pictures of her with some lothario, and there are rumors of all manner of debauchery until finally she has a nervous breakdown!

Her husband, the current (good) PM sues for libel. A star witness is produced who completely refutes the charges. Now nobody believes anything the tabloid says, and it folds. Poirot emerges at the very end, and explains that he was behind the false charges -- he swept away the muck with a different force of nature: sex.

On a personal level, I vacillate on whether I like this story or not. On the one hand, it's well-written and exciting, and a refreshing change of pace from the other stories. On the other hand, it's not very satisfying. True, he allowed the tabloid to do itself in: if it had not been greedy and salacious, it would have never fallen prey to Poirot's trick. But it drives me nuts that he didn't suggest the simple expediency of coming clean, beating the tabloid to the punch.

Anyway, from a writing point of view, I was struck by the sort of zoom effect: it starts focused tightly on Poirot, then completely zooms out for an omniscient view of public reaction as it evolves over weeks. Then it zooms back in.

I have seen this technique before, in works that I thought were not well done. Here, I think it works primarily because it is coupled with a change in style. The writing becomes choppy, abrupt. Several short segments, each starting with, "People were talking." In each we get snippets of nameless people talking, showing how these representative samples are focusing on the salacious details and leaving alone the (true!) political matters. It works well, but only because it is short. The alternative, focusing on Poirot, would have been weaker: he would have betrayed himself to the reader, for one thing, but he would also merely be a filter between the reader and the public whose reaction is at the heart of the story. (There's also a reprise of the "no smoke without fire" theme from earlier, which I thought a nice touch)

I'm also struck by how hard Christie works to make the prime minister an obvious "good guy": oh, he wants honesty, he mocks himself for being just another politician. This is where his companion is useful: the other minister (who wants to hush it up) is an excellent contrast. Tom DeLay would look moral and forthright next to this guy. Oh, and the fellow who would win the election if this government fell would be most unsuitable! Out of the question.

In the end, it's not a bad story, but I think it's fatally weakened by not addressing what I feel is the obvious solution, that of coming clean. By not addressing what looks like an obvious potential solution (it need not be done, just discounted) I felt a little like the whole rigmarole was a bit of a farce. More than that, I felt it broke Poirot's character a bit.

Lessons learned for me: brief periods of "clever" reaction writing can work well. If you're presenting the reader with a Gordian knot, clean the area of would-be Alexanders. (It need not be too explicit, just enough to let a reasonably intelligent reader discount it)

[1] But seriously, I've been struck several times by how similar the Labors of Hercules are to modern RPG quests. "Go here, kill this thing, come back." All it needs is pixellated graphics, a repetitive soundtrack, and a 3/4 perspective and you've got half the RPGs ever made. Most platforms would require the characters to wear more clothing, though.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

short hiatus

For those of you who've been reading the Labors of Hercules posts, sorry for the unplanned hiatus; things are crazy at work right now and I haven't had time to take notes. I figured I could either wing an entry on the Augean Stables (which I reread yesterday), or take my time with it in a couple days, and the latter sounds better to me since I intend to be using these posts for my own reference later.

Unmoderated comments from the peanut gallery

I've figured out how to turn off captchas for commenting, and done so. Let's see if that turns this place into a haven for pharmaceutical ads.

Comments from the peanut gallery

A number of people have pointed out that Blogger's comment system sucks and frequently gives users a hard time. I enable anonymous comments, which includes a Name/URL option. Just select that from near the bottom of the dropdown list, and it should work OK for you. (At least, it does in Firefox)
(Feel free to use this post to experiment)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

eReader war gets interesting

Barnes and Noble just announced/leaked the Nook. I immediately dismissed it as a "me-too" device. I have a Kindle 1, I think it's fantastic, I've spent a lot of money on books for it (though I only buy books that I don't intend to lend to people), and... wow, the Nook is shiny. And it has wi-fi. And PDF support. And a very nice-looking user interface. And it runs Android OS. And hey they were smart and found a way to let you share books with people. I have not gotten my hands on one, obviously, so it could turn out to be cheap crap, but it looks like they did a really good job and thought through things very carefully. I should not be buying gadgets to replace one that works perfectly well, but should I happen to spill a cup of coffee on my Kindle, I'll have to think very seriously about replacing it with a Nook.

(Also, odd coincidence: I live not too far from a store named Kindlenook. Weird.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Labors of Hercules: The Erymanthean Boar

The next labor of Hercules was the live capture of the Erymanthean Boar. This is the sort of thing that Hercules excels at. The more interesting part of the story, in some tellings, is that he got drunk with a centaur buddy, the other centaurs got angry at him for drinking their sacred wine, and he shot them with poisoned arrows. And shot Chiron, a kindly and immortal centaur, who was so tormented by the poison that he voluntarily gave up his immortality. So, Hercules kinda screwed the pooch on this one, but he did get around to capturing the boar by driving it into deep snow, and brought it back to his cousin the king, who was terrified of it. (Presumably they ate the boar)

Hercule Poirot's Erymanthean Boar is the French murderer Marrascaud, a dangerous and desperate criminal. He receives word of the criminal's planned rendezvous at the same remote Swiss chalet at which Poirot is staying, but fortunately there is a policeman already on the scene. (The person who passed the note would have recognized Poirot's mustaches anywhere!)

There are very few people staying at the chalet: an over-friendly American, a woman who visits every year, a trio of horse-racing enthusiasts (apparently at this time these people are seedy or dangerous and not hopelessly quaint), and a famous Austrian doctor. Poirot is sure that one of these is the killer Marrascaud -- but who?

The waiter reveals himself as the police officer mentioned to Poirot, and the two consult. He took the place of the old waiter, who the chalet owners were happy to get rid of as a complete incompetent. During the night, the train up to the chalet had broken down -- a suspicious accident. They are trapped with the killer, and those horse enthusiasts are surely his gang! But who is Marrascaud? And why did he choose to rendezvous here?

The investigations are cut short, however. The "waiter" is assaulted in the night, and his face cut up very badly. Poirot is also attacked, but fortunately the American, like all Americans, is carrying a pistol and rescues him from those knife-wielding Frenchmen. (... yeah...) They search the chalet, and find the body of the old waiter, stabbed and with a note on him indicating that this was Marrascaud, and this is what happens to people who cross his gang! But Poirot knows exactly who Marrascaud really is, and why he was there.

So how do you tell an effective thriller in *estimates* 5,000 words? Christie gets a bit of savings out of the fact that chasing a killer is always prime Poirot provender: no need to explain! She jumps into the action relatively quickly. She takes a mere thousand words to set the scene, including the lengthy letter from the Swiss police (pro tip: apparently learning about your case in a letter removes the need for lengthy dialog!) and introduce most of the characters. Another short section introduces the scene, the little hotel in which Poirot is staying, posing briefly as a silk merchant.

These scenes still managed to be fairly slow, but coming after the information about the killer on the loose, I think that serves the story rather than detracts: it adds a little to the tension. If the letter had come later, say after Poirot arrived at the hotel, then the long discussion of his fellow passengers on the funicular train would take on a much different cast. He would be merely people-watching (as he does in many of the novels) and the short scene would be more difficult to take, I'd have been much more likely to skim.

There is very little madness in Poirot stories. The violence is rarely senseless. Christie's killers may be passionate, but they do not kill or wound indiscriminately. When the policeman shows up with his face bandaged, I've been trained to wonder: why was he not killed? What imbecile thugs merely leave a threat cut up and not put out of the way for good? And once you think of them as rational, then why on earth would they leave a note on Marrascaud. Really, the only point of the note was to say, "Hey, the guy you're chasing is dead, stop looking!" ... and nobody really believes that.

That brings me, I think, to my real take-home lesson from the Erymanthean Boar: crazy villains are a cheat. The villains might be reckless or desperate, but they're not killers just for the sake of killing, nor can they be beyond rational acting. I am sure that there are authors out there who understand mental illness well enough to be able to actually write an insane villain, but for most of us "insane" just means "I'm going to have this guy do this, and I don't have to think up a reason because he's craaaaaaazy!"

To put it another way, in a fair mystery, whenever the reader starts to think, "That was really dumb of the killer" the reader should always be able to conclude, "I'm not getting a clear picture of what's really going on." Confusion should be an excuse for re-examination. The point of seeing the policeman's bandaged face should for the trained reader be the first point of saying that, and the point of finding the body should be the second.

And Christie does something else interesting: there's almost no time to breathe between those two points. The reader could stop and think, I suppose, but there's just a few more pages... I think that once the main clues start coming in like that in a short story, pauses are fatal. Only after it is all in place, and she's had a little opportunity to sow some doubt, does the story slow down again. And there is a somewhat satisfying length of time before the twist, which I also appreciate.

Had I been in Christie's editor's shoes, though, I'd have advised against the bit with the American and the gun. There's no reason for it, and it's such a Deus Ex Machina -- especially when Poirot boasts about having been so careful in another matter and of knowing all along certain identities. Maybe she felt bad about having gently mocked the character [1], but if she feels the need to have Poirot pre-emptively complain that it might have well been "a drama upon the stage" then it could have stood a rewrite. (Of course, she also disliked Poirot, so maybe she enjoyed the opportunity of having him slip up in a potentially fatal way)

Anyway, it's getting late. Next time, the Augean Stables.
Edit: I had forgotten to point out a subtle way that Christie has been fitting these stories to the originals. While the dangerous killer is very much like a wild boar, it's true, there's also an interesting parallel between Hercules catching the boar by driving it into deep snow, and Marrascaud being caught while trapped in a snow-bound Swiss hotel.

[1] Among other things she called him a "bore" which I had hoped was a pun and the American would turn out to be Marrascaud, but no. I would not be at all surprised to learn that in a previous draft, the American had been the villain, though.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Labors of Hercules: The Arcadian Deer

Hercules was charged for his third (or fourth) labor with the capture of the Arcadian Hind, a sacred deer belonging to the goddess Artemis, an uncatchable animal. Hercules chased it all over Greece until he got sick of the chase and shot it in the leg. He then carried it back, but who did he run into but Artemis? He talked his away out of that one and brought it in for full credit. (Presumably they ate the deer)

Poirot's Arcadian Deer is a beautiful young lady's maid being sought by a poor country mechanic who met her at a rich fellow's house when he was there to do repairs. Poirot discovers that she was the maid to a Russian ballet dancer. His chase leads him all over England and to the maid's native Italy... and a graveside. Does Poirot give up there? Mais, non! On a hunch, he goes to Switzerland to the hospital bed of the dancer herself. Guess who was playing lady's maid at a friend's house and met a cute mechanic? Aww.

Didn't enjoy this one as much, it seemed like a straight-forward chase with a predictable end. Christie flirted with a subplot involving blackmail, which had the effect of confounding the chase, but I felt it didn't amount to much.

What to learn from The Arcadian Deer? If I were writing a chase story, sure: the irrelevant subplot wasn't bad, and Christie gave the reader credit by not allowing the story to seriously consider the death theory for long. But it's not a mystery. Only the one twist (the mechanic's lady not being a maid) is fair in the sense that it was telegraphed, but I thought it was pretty weak.

Edit: I may have written off that subplot too soon. While at first I considered it weak, I thought it over and realized that in addition to confounding the chase, it did so in a clever way: it introduced the theme of mistaken identity into the plot. Everyone thought the maid being asked about was the more recent maid, not the dead one. Poirot got led down the garden path because he was not specific enough about his quarry. There are lots of potential ways to confuse a chase, but this confuses matters in a thematically appropriate way, and constitutes an additional clue.

Sorry, kid, they can't all be winners. But hey, this puts Poirot in Switzerland, just in time for the story of the live capture of the Erymanthean Boar!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Labors of Hercules: The Lernean Hydra

[Spoilers of very good stories]
The Hydra is one of those monsters that people tend to still know: the many-headed beast, whose heads grew back double when amputated. The Hydra of legend also had incredibly poisonous blood and a single immortal head. Hercules did not take on the Hydra alone, he went in a-chopping while his nephew used a firebrand to sear the bloody stumps, thereby preventing the heads from re-growing. When he finally found the immortal head, he tore it off, and buried it so that while alive, it could not regrow. On re-reading these old stories, I'm impressed by how much each story has a component of outsmarting (which we'll revisit for the Augean Stables) rather than just pure strength.

Hercule Poirot's Hydra is a rather more slippery beast: Rumor. Dr. Oldfield, a middle-aged country doctor, has discovered just that with the death of his wife. Now his practice is falling off, people give him stares on the street, and he's even received nasty letters. Poirot eventually gets out of him the particulars: people believe that he poisoned his wife with arsenic in order to marry his pretty young assistant.

Poirot visits the town and interviews a few people, including a servant (dismissed immediately after the wife's death) and a nurse. He tells people in "strict confidence" that he is there to investigate Mrs. Oldfield's death, so naturally word gets around town much faster than otherwise. The assistant, Jean, is horrified by the idea of exhuming the body for an official investigation. Nurse Harrison, on the other hand, comes around to the idea, and recounts an overhead conversation that seems quite damning to Jean and Dr. Oldfield. Poirot calls up the Home Office, who exhume and autopsy the body, and discover lethal levels of arsenic.

Someone comes forward with further information: another suspect behaved quite suspiciously in the days leading up to Mrs. Oldfield's death! Poirot encourages her, but when she comes forward with news of a compact filled with arsenic, she's gone too far. She's been followed in secret by Poirot's valet Georges, who saw her purchase the compact and hide it. She is the one who poisoned Mrs. Oldfield, under the delusion that Dr. Oldfield was in love with her and would marry her. She started the vicious rumors, and then seized on the chance to do away with her rival when Poirot arrived -- oh, but she overstepped.

This story is even shorter than the first, between 5,000 and 6,000 words by my estimation. The cast of main characters is kept small, and I noticed that the character names are very different so that it's easy to keep track. Which is helpful, because the story is entirely populated with stock characters and stock motivations. That doesn't make it a bad story, but it's hard for a character to catch in one's mind without anything interesting to grab hold of. Ergo, differentiating the characters as much as possible through names and speaking styles.

"There's no smoke without fire" is the most important phrase of the story, almost a theme. It's a horrible phrase in terms of spreading gossip, circular logic that lets a rumor perpetuate itself. But instead of repudiating it, Poirot takes it as true in a way that Dr. Oldfield refused, and that was enough of a clue for him to find a way forward.

I had been thinking of this as a very fair puzzle, but in that case it's hard to account for the compact. I spent the morning thinking about it, and I decided that a mystery in fact has two basic parts: figuring out whodunnit, and figuring out how to prove it. I believe that the Fairness Doctrine applies only to the first part by necessity.

My thinking is as follows: the reader has only access to a certain subset of the clues available to the detective, and has the inability to act in the detective's space. The first part of the story, then, is a matter of presenting all the information needed to come to the correct conclusion. This is do-able, like writing a logic puzzle. With care, you can ensure that the reader has all the information that the detective uses to solve the crime (or more!) and thereby make the puzzle fair.
The second part, however, is where real art comes in. In a good story, the reader can become convinced of the guilt of one of the suspects -- but a real mystery can remain about how on earth to prove it. And this second part, it seems to me, is often where mystery stories fall down. This is where the detective tends to do things behind the scenes, where coincidences tend to most help the detective, and where suspects do dumb things and fall into traps. And frequently the reader doesn't have a fair chance to evaluate just how artificial it all is, because he or she does not know who the detective is targeting (even if it is known exactly what the detective is doing!).

Proof, the essential element of this second part, requires certain things: a solid understanding of the setting and the people, and the ability to act in this space. In order to feel fair, the reader needs as much of the first as possible in order the judge the outcome -- but the reader will never have the second. There will always be more than one way to do it, as Mr. Wall would say. One person would have Georges follow the suspect, another person might lay a careful logical trap and prove a contradiction, another might reconstruct the crime and prove that only one person had means, motive, and opportunity.

I'm unsure about how well Christie manages the second part in The Lernean Hydra. She loves these "induce the criminal to incriminate herself" endings, but they're so hard to get right, and the reader is left with a sense of a house of cards, that by making one sensible move, the criminal could have evaded detection. Remember too that often in this step the detective is proving his case not only to the characters but also to the reader! Poirot's actions in this story just seem reckless on first examination. If the murderer had just remained calm, then Dr. Oldfield would likely have been hanged. Of course, Poirot relies always on "the psychology": he tailored his plan according to the sort of person the criminal was. (And had this plan failed, we assume, he would have had another up his sleeve.) This is not the sort of plan he would have used for a stolid and cautious individual who doesn't care about blaming someone else for the crime.

From a craft point of view, this suggests an easy way to expand a short story into a novel: making plans fail and then recovering from them, or simply taking more time with it. Stretch it out, throw in lots of red herrings to make it look like someone else might have done it, and build up the tension a bit more. The best example of this is Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles (public domain in the US), where it was perfectly clear who did it and why, but proving it was a terrible ordeal that involved shifting attention from the real criminal.

So, what did I learn from the Lernean Hydra? Again, a simple plot is necessary, something that won't take too long to explain, giving you room to elaborate and confuse the issue. Second, that as long as you're careful and spend a lot of thought on it, you can save a lot of space in the proving step with a trap rather than a careful (and potentially boring) logical analysis. If you writer the story knowing how the criminal will get caught, then you can probably do a better job of setting the stage early on. Third, Christie's use of stock characters is interesting to me. The country doctor, the invalid wife, the inveterate gossip -- varying too much from the stereotypes would attract too much attention. It might have made the doctor more interesting as a person to have a passion for juggling, but it would be distracting and Chekhov would definitely disapprove.

Friday, October 16, 2009

RSS Change

I'd gotten a few... not complaints, exactly, but comments, about the length of some of my posts when viewed in peoples' feeds. With a number of posts planned that spoil stories I particularly like, I thought I'd look again and see if I can make it truncate posts in the RSS feed, with a link back to the full post. I believe I've accomplished this.

If you saw the above paragraph in your feed, but had to go to the site for this one, then it worked! I apologize if this is an inconvenience, but the old way was also an inconvenience, so hey.

The Labors of Hercules: The Nemean Lion

[ As mentioned earlier, these posts will contain spoilers. I do recommend you read the stories involved, because they're good and they're short ]

The original story of Hercules and the Nemean Lion was simple: go kill this ginormous lion that's been gnawing on the peasantry. After an arrow or two, Hercules discovers that the lion, like Achilles, has an impenetrable hide. Unlike the entire freaking Trojan army, he realized that the solution was to simply (depending on the version) either strangle it or beat it to death -- no need to break the skin! He then used the beast's own claws to skin it, and thereafter wore its hide (somewhat ineffectively) as armor. That's a big cloak to fill for the little Belgian detective!

Hercule Poirot's version of the tale is rather more mundane. His attention is caught one morning by a letter set aside by his secretary: a society lady has lost her Pekinese dog. Not exactly the stuff of legends. And yet he is intrigued, for while he receives no end of letters from society ladies who have lost their yapping little dogs, this is the first he has received from one of their husbands!

Things get more interesting: the dog has already been recovered! The husband (Sir Joseph Hoggin) objects, rather, to his wife having paid the £200 (without consulting him), discovered that one of his friends' wives had paid £300 over a similar kidnapping and wishes the thief to be caught. His wife objects to bringing in the police, so Poirot is consulted.

Poirot interviews Lady Hoggin and her companion, an older and somewhat batty woman named Carnaby who is much put-upon, not least because she was the one who was walking the dog at the time of its capture. There's some observation of the pair, and the cut leash is produced. Poirot then interviews the companion's references, visits both the scene of the kidnapping and the hotel where the money was to be sent, goes to visit the other victim (another society lady with a Pekinese and a timid put-upon companion), and goes home. From home, he instructs his valet to make certain investigations (we are not at this point privy to the instructions) and an address is produced. Poirot arrives at the address and finds the first companion, Amy Carnaby, along with her invalid sister... and a third Pekinese dog.

The plot, then, had been simple: Carnaby had taken advantage of being called upon to walk her employer's dog. She brought the dog home, then walked her own dog, Augustus. She'd go to the park, be seen by lots of people, then cut the leash. Augustus, being well-trained, would simply trot home, and she would make a big scene, then tell her employer that she'd been distracted by a baby in a perambulator. She had in fact done this many times, enlisting friends of hers whose employers owned Pekinese dogs, and sharing the ransoms in a pool. Augustus, the Nemean Lion of the story, had a hide that made him not invulnerable, but invisible: one yappy dog looks just like another, after all.

I estimate the length of the story (25 mass-market paperback pages at the standard 250 words per page estimation) to be between 6,000 and 7,000 words: just about the length I'm hoping to learn about. The simplicity of the plot seems to be a major help. And Christie has developed a number of ways to get a lot of information across quickly. For example, by naming the second Pekinese dog "Nanki Poo" she really doesn't need to describe the dog's owner very thoroughly: the reader already has a very clear image of the sort of people who give Pekinese dogs that sort of name. In fact, she gets a lot of mileage out of stereotypes.

One thing that fascinated me is that she didn't make use of all the clues she dropped. Poirot didn't explain himself that much when he confronted Carnaby. Two clues in particular were not mentioned: there was a nod to Conan Doyle in that the stolen dog did not yap at its kidnapper (though instead of knowing the kidnapper -- yappy dogs yap at everyone anyway -- there was no kidnapper), and the fact that the case involving Carnaby was for less money than the others (she was not splitting the money with an extra partner). I think that last one was important, as there is otherwise a bit of a plot hole: if there really were dozens of these kidnappings, who's to say Carnaby was the mastermind and not just one of the serial accomplices? But then, paying the money into a pool seems to defeat this, perhaps this is a remnant of an early draft? Either way, there's a kind of confidence at work in letting clues slide that I don't think I developed in my own stories. I'll have to give this some serious thought.

The final lesson from this story is the significant role played by inter-personal relationships. The story revolves around how wealthy society ladies relate to the world: their relationships to their paid companions, to their husbands, and to their dogs. All combine to expose a neat little blind spot through which money may escape. The relationships and the results need very little in the way of explanation.

All told, a neat little story. By having a fairly simple mystery behind the scenes and leaning pretty heavily on the personal relationships, Christie had a lot of space in which to work. She was also very clever in identifying which bits of the story did not need to be shared: no need to go into the effort to track down Carnaby's invalid sister, for example, nor more than one other kidnapped Pekinese to establish the pattern. So, by keeping these details to a minimum, using easily-grasped personal relationships, and not even going into all the clues, there was plenty of room for setting and texture (not to mention a subplot I haven't gone into here!).

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Labors of Hercules

When I started reading mysteries long ago as a teenager, I went straight for Sherlock Holmes. I still like those stories. But on vacation one year, visiting my grandparents, I was up late and had finished the last of the books I'd brought. Fortunately my grandmother has a good collection of books, including some nicely bound volumes of Agatha Christie -- the one that grabbed my eye was entitled, "The Labors of Hercules". I don't remember what I thought it would be when I picked it up, but I enjoyed it thoroughly... and then picked up another Poirot book, then another. Fast forward to now where I've got a notebook full of partial mysteries of my own devising, one of them completed and just finished with a round of workshopping.

I've been thinking a lot lately about effective short mysteries -- how do you tell a compelling mystery story in so few words? I decided to go back to the Labors, reread them and take notes this time: what works, and what doesn't? And while I'm at it, why not do the classic blog move of posting my thoughts on each one? That never gets old!


So, I'll probably be posting spoilers for the stories in this book over the coming days as I go through each one. [1] I'll try not to gratuitously spoil them, of course, but now would be a great chance to pick up a copy from your local library :)

Anyway, the basic conceit is pretty simple. Hercule Poirot, nearing retirement, has become wealthy and famous and wants to pick his last cases with care. Having a glass of wine with a friend, the subject comes up of his unusual first name. What a difference between this dandified little gentleman relaxing in his modern sitting room, compared to his namesake! Poirot would never retire and breed squash (ugh, what a thought) because his were labors of love, not the punishments of Hercules. Poirot rejects the thought: is he not a modern version of that ancient hero, roving the countryside righting wrongs? He'll pick his remaining cases, then, to correspond to the Labors of Hercules. Ta-da.

Christie then has Poirot take on each Labor in turn -- with, of course, a modern twist and a healthy dose of humor. Some of them are a stretch, most are at best tangentially related to the original story. But they're all entertaining, and as I recall, they're all good short mysteries.

Coming up next: my thoughts on The Nemean Lion.

[1] OK, OK. I realize that there is something of a time limit on spoilers. Hamlet's dad was murdered. Odysseus gets home. But mysteries have a longer time limit, it seems to me, and there's just no sense in spoiling a good one, I don't care how old it is.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

In Summary, You Drive Like a Maniac

After my trip to New York, I've been thinking that there needs to be a driving version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. The way you drive changes the way you think. Or to put it a snappier more quotable version for all the link-texts, "As go the drivers, so go the pedestrians." New Yorkers (at least the ones I saw) have a very aggressive driving style, pushing their cars in wherever there's an opening, but at the same time they respect the traffic signals. I noticed that the pedestrians acted much the same way: walk quickly without acknowledging the people around them, no pushing but no patience for people standing around gawking -- and surprisingly little jaywalking, really only doing so when they know from experience that the light is about to change or when there's no crosswalk nearby. But when they expect to be able to walk, they walk with perfect confidence. Pushy, pragmatic, but in their own way polite.

Compare that behavior to the drivers here in New Hampshire, and you see a kind of wishful timidity: people generally obey the speed limits (well, add 10 mph to the posted limit, and people obey that number pretty faithfully) but they'll gladly speed up when a Beemer comes along even faster to act as a lightning rod for police irritation. Drivers here tend to be abundantly cautious, to the point of stopping at yellow lights, or slowing down just in case that pedestrian might be thinking about crossing the street. You'd expect that sort of thing in an area where the pedestrians are kamikaze jaywalkers, but the folks on foot are often just as timid as the drivers, waiting far too long before taking that second step into the crosswalk, waiting patiently for the walk sign on a street with no cars, etc.

In other words, if there were not some shared element going on, I would expect the NYC driving environment to produce NH-style timid pedestrians, and the NH drivers to produce NYC-style pedestrians. And at least in the latter case, it does: but only in a college town like Hanover where the pedestrians are usually not also drivers!

I'd extend this example to Boston, but I think there's a highly promising paper to be written on that one, maybe for a journal of abnormal psychology...

Friday, October 9, 2009

Eyes on the Prize

I'm somewhat puzzled by the selection of President Obama for the Nobel Peace Prize. I like the guy, I voted for him, but is he really the person who's done the most to further the cause of peace in the last year? I appreciate that his nuclear disarmament work is important, but it's still in progress -- and anyway, a lot of the progress I don't think was his doing. Iran is desperate for international legitimacy right now, and North Korea is almost certainly being strong-armed by their Chinese patrons. That leaves the Russia/missile defense fiasco, and the best that can be said there is that he undid one of Bush's dumber international moves. More to the point, the botched Afghan election was under Obama's watch, and I'm still quite unhappy not to hear him make a clearer stand on the vote-rigging allegations. What, it's not OK when it happens in Iran, but we wink at it when our puppet government does it?

There are plenty of people who could have been selected either for their work or for the symbol of the award. I think they missed a serious opportunity in not selecting Mir-Hossein Moussavi, personally, but they could also have selected Iftikhar Chaudhry (the Pakistani Chief Justice whose dismissal and campaign for reinstatement played a large role in restoring that country's democracy), Aung-San Suu Kyi (who was yet again denied release from house arrest this past year), or the Dalai Lama (who showed impressive restraint during the riots in Tibet, and it seems to me had a significant role in preventing a bloodbath). Heck, they could have picked Bill and Melinda Gates for the work of their Foundation.

It seems to me that the classiest thing Obama could do at this point would be to decline the prize and say, "Thank you, but you ain't seen nothing yet."

Monday, October 5, 2009

Thought of the day

It is a deep public shame that movie companies are still allowed to region-encode their DVDs. Seriously, what the hell?

Instant Coffee

It has long been a pet peeve of mine that it's so difficult to get good instant coffee in the US. Even brands like Nescafe, which are perfectly drinkable in Europe (and, I'm told, in South America) feel the need to sell swill to the US market: a thin, harsh, acidic brew that tastes like it was underbrewed then burnt. Maybe they think that's what we like.

So it was with trepidation that I tried Starbucks's new offering, Via, specifically their Italian Roast. I'm somewhat pleasantly surprised. It's not perfect: it tastes burnt to me. But it's reasonably full-bodied, and it's not acidic. It even has an OK aftertaste. It's actually quite acceptable as an instant coffee, and I'm willing to believe that the burned flavor is their idea of an Italian roast (that is, it's intentional, not accidental). A little one-dimensional, but acceptable as a substitute, and probably quite useful for things like coffee ice cream.

Doing a little digging, it looks to me that Via is actually a combination of traditional instant coffee (that is, brewed coffee that's been freeze-dried and powdered) and powdered coffee beans. This is clever: It's like making a super-smooth (but thin) Turkish coffee for the oils and other more obvious flavors, then making up the rest of the flavors that we don't notice as much with a probably very muted brew. (In this way it's a bit like karaoke: there's a background flavor trying as hard as possible to be inoffensively competent, and most of the effect comes from the predominant flavors that are added on) Because the coffee is ground so finely, I'm guessing that the extraction of flavor is basically finished by the time you finish pouring the water, so they don't have to worry about you tasting it too soon, or leaving it on your desk too long. (As an experiment I let the dregs sit for half an hour before finishing them. Not quite as good, but not horrible)

Anyway, I guess my recommendation is, if you periodically find yourself with access to hot water but not decent coffee, find a flavor you like and carry it with you... but don't use it unless you have to. (You'd still be better off carrying K-cups, scissors, and a funnel, but this is not always an option)

Saturday, October 3, 2009


I've returned from my trip to New York. I had a great time, but my feet are killing me. We met up with a few old friends, spent several days visiting museums, saw Wicked (which was very good), visited a Japanese bookstore, and ate a lot. A lot. All together, a great vacation.