It's All Moot Anyway

It came up first on Says You!, that PBS radio game of "words and whimsy, bluff and bluster" that's always entertaining. When they asked their panelists to define the word moot, you just knew there had to be a catch. It means not worth talking about, right, a moot point being something that's already been decided? Not exactly. It turns out moot is a bit like inflammable -- it does and it doesn't, if you get my meaning. Yes, one definition of it is "of no legal significance," probably because it's already been decided. I always thought that's what a moot court was -- law students sitting around arguing cases that had already been decided, just for the practice. But it turns out that the word moot is also defined as "arguable or open to debate, as in 'that's a moot question.'"

It got worse when I turned to Merriam-Webster online for help. There it's considered perfectly fine to use moot as a verb meaning to bring up for discussion, i.e. "broach", but it's obsolete to use it in terms of a legal debate, though a moot court is still one in which law students argue hypothetical cases. Oh well. Glancing further down I see that Merriam-Webster thinks that the words moot and mute rhyme, which they clearly do not, so I now feel justified in throwing their opinion out all together. The baby and the bathwater approach works just fine for me, thank you. However, I still have two pretty contradictory definitions using moot as a adjective -- 1. Debatable or 2. Not worth debating because it's already settled or has no meaning.

By the way, the word moot comes from the Ole English gemot which was a meeting of freemen where various affairs and legal issues were discussed. That comes from the Germanic word motam, also meeting. So though the word-pure among us consider that moot actually means worthy of holding a meeting and discussing, it seems we in the US, at least, have taken the legal idea of a hypothetical debate, and turned moot into a word not worth talking about. Thus my frustration while watching Law and Order: SVU yesterday when I informed the actors, "Who cares who gets jurisdiction, you just proved he was insane at the time of the crime so it's a m--t point!" Help! I obviously need a new word for the second meaning of moot. Any suggestions? I suppose I could say hypothetical, but it just “ain’t got that swing,” you know?

Oh, and if you’re looking for some help rhyming, please don’t turn to Merriam-Webster. Moot and mute, indeed.

Read Well, Friend


Rules for the Aspiring Detective, Part Two

Here are the last five of Robert Knox’s 10 Rules for Detective Fiction from the Golden Age of Mysteries.

Rule #6. “No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.” Personally I don’t mind the occasional accident helping to unmask a killer. After all, bizarre events do happen in real life. (Just ask me about my last two years, for example...) I’ll also accept some intuition, mostly in amateur female sleuths. We’re rather known for it, after all. But it must be born out by the facts of the story, which the detective must unearth before the end. What I personally don’t like is smugness on the part of the detective who has a perfectly good reason for suspecting someone, but refuses to reveal it. That's is another reason Sherlock Holmes will never be my favorite guy, though I like some of the stories about him a lot. The Speckled Band, for example. Come to think of it, there is a kind of a secret passage in that story, and another favorite, Hound of the Baskervilles, appears to have a supernatural element to it, (rules #2 and 3.) There may be a trend here...

Rule #7. “The detective himself must not commit the crime.” I like this rule, because it keeps me from feeling the need to peek to the end of the book, just to be sure I can trust what I'm reading. I did once read a book where the criminal turned out to be the sleuth, and I was thoroughly disgusted when I realized I had been tricked that way. Without trust between the writer and audience, reading becomes too much of a mine field for me to enjoy. I’ve never been a big fan of the kind of speculative fiction that keeps me off balance while I’m reading. Too much like real life, perhaps? No, part of the appeal of a mystery is the sense of write and wrong in these stories. Just like in a real western, there must at least one good guy, and I want to know who he is.

Rule #8. “The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.” No more scenes of the detective slowly unfolding a piece of paper, turning it to the light to read it more clearly, then -- folding it back up and sticking it in his pocket. A real man, or woman, shares his clues!

Rule #9. “The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.” Now these are Robert Knox’s words, not mine. But let’s admit it, Watson can be very dense sometimes. I used to worry about his patients, wondering if a man as slow as he was could really be a decent doctor. Fortunately, his physician/neighbor spends so much time covering for him, is patients were probably pretty safe.

Rule #10. “Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.” Or even then. I mean, really. What kind of self respecting mystery writer relies on a body double, twin, or long-lost relative to make their case? In the same vein I dislike undisclosed marriages, innocent looking people who turn out to have worked for the SS or MI-5, and secret wills. In Ngaio Marsh’s The Final Curtain, Sir Henry Ancred has the details of his new will read aloud. When his subsequent death is explained by the existence of a quite different version he had drawn up at the same time, I always cry “Foul.” Mysteries are supposed to be full of lies, cheats, and trickery -- but that’s supposed to be the criminal, not the writer or the sleuth. After all, it can be a scary world out there, and a girl needs to have someone she can trust.

Read Well, Friend


Visit My New Blog

I get frustrated sometimes at only being able to post snippets of poems on this blog. I don't want to overwhelm my posts, and a sidebar can only hold so much. So I've taken advantage of the the ease of designing new blogs in blogger and added another one -- A Few Reasonable Words. It will contain the full text of poems I reference on A Book With a View, and probably other bits and pieces that strike my fancy, too. You can get to it from my sidebar, or with this link -- A Few Reasonable Words.

The title comes from this quote, "One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words." Goethe

Stop by for a visit, please.

Read Well, Friend


Rules for the Aspiring Detective, Part One

The 1920s and 30s, commonly known as the Golden Age of Detective Stories, saw the rise of many of our most famous mystery writers. Among them were Agatha Christie, GK Chesterton, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Dashiell Hammett, Ellery Queen, Josephine Tey and Raymond Chandler. Mysteries moved from primarily being the sphere of the short story to novel length, and different styles developed. The cozy mystery, the English country house, hard -- boiled, and locked room stories emerged, for example. It was during this period that, in a preface to Best Detective Stories of 1928-29, priest, mystery writer and editor Robert Knox laid down the 10 Rules for Detective Fiction. These rules are often referred to as the corner stone of mystery writing in the Golden Age of Detective Stories. Did he mean them to be taken completely seriously, or were they given tongue -- in -- cheek? Honestly, I can't tell. It's very hard to assign motive and intent to something done years ago. Whatever his attitude, the rules do promote the idea of fair play between the writer and reader, something many of us still appreciate today. Here, with my thoughts added, are those 10 rules.

Rule #1. "The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know." Thus the innocent sounding narrator can't turn out to be the murderer in disguise. The inverted mystery is an exception to this rule. In this type of story we know who did it, how and why. The fun is in watching the detective unravel the clues and track the miscreant down. For some reason, I think these inversions work better when seen than read. Examplers are TV’s Columbo and Law and Order: CI. Is there anyone who doesn't get a secret thrill every time Columbo turns to the bad guy and says, "Oh, just one more question..."

Rule #2. "All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course." This eliminates Gothic novels, generally defined as a combination of horror, mystery, and romance, which is fine by me. I'm not a fan of them, I don't even like Jane Eyre. (Sorry, April.) While I generally prefer to avoid anything smacking of the supernatural in my stories, Knox only asks that any such elements eventually be explained by rational means. Georgette Heyer's Footsteps in the Dark is one such book that I do enjoy; it's long been one of my favorites. A husband and wife, brother, sister and their aunt all move into the Priory, where strange noises and a ghostly monk soon begin to unnerve some of them. I like the common sense attitude of the other characters, the descriptions of the house, the humor, and the relationships between the everyone in this book. The final explanation may stretch my credulity a bit, but I still enjoy every reread.

Rule #3. "Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable." Alas for Nancy Drew! I'm certain she broke this rule many times, and I so glad. I grew up in a very straightforward farmhouse -- no secret passages there. Even Grandma's old Victorian only ran to a damp cellar and a few oddly shaped closets. I think there's something enticing about a house with hidden panels and winding passageways. Come to think of it, Footsteps in the Dark has some of those, too. Even C. S. Lewis used this idea for the wardrobe in his Narnia books -- not mysteries, I know -- but if it's good enough for Aslan it's good enough for me. (Is the tesseract in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time the modern equivalent the old fashioned secret passageway? It's something to ponder...)

Rule #4. "No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end." How about nixing any ending which requires a long drawn out explanation? I love Christie’s What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw, but it does bog down a bit when Miss Marple begins to explain the railway timetable, curves in the track, and exactly how dear Elsa McG. saw what she did. On the other hand, I should be perfectly honest and admit that I don’t really care exactly how it happened, and I always just skip that part of the story, since I’m willing to take it on faith. She sat in one moving train and saw the murder being done on a different one, all right? Who cares how British rail allowed it to happen.

Rule #5 "No Chinaman must figure in the story."
This reference to a Chinamen really alludes to any of the mysterious foreigners equipped with weird, often animal like powers that could be found skulking around many mysteries of the age. I wish Conan Doyle had obeyed this last point. In my opinion The Sign of the Four is ruined in part by his interjection of a mysterious aborigine climbing up drain pipes, hiding in the attic, and shooting poisoned darts with his blow pipe. The unfortunately bizarre and unhuman characterizations of these foreigners is often embarrassingly bigoted to today’s readers. In fairness it should be pointed out that this rule does not, of course, apply to mysteries actually set in China, Chinatown, or a foreign country. In that case Knox would presumably rule out mysterious bands of Englishmen instead.

These are the first five of Robert Knox's rules. What do you think of them, in reference to your favorite mysteries, or any other books for that matter?
The rest of his list will be in my next post. In the meantime...

Read Well, Friend


You Call This Cozy?

I was sitting innocently in my living room,
a PBS Masterpiece Mystery video spinning away in the DVD player, when Diana Rigg said something that shocked me. She introduced an episode of Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley mystery series as a "cozy mystery", based somehow on the idea that it took place in an English country house. At first I was prepared to defer to Dame Diana and the experts at PBS, who surely must know their mysteries. However, the more I watched the more my mind rebeled at calling Inspector Lynley, Superintendent Havers and the many miscreants they've uncovered "cozy".

I've tried off and on over the years to enjoy Elizabeth George's novels and never succeeded. They are mysteries, which I do like. And she sets all of them in England, a country I've visited and love reading about. They're also thick books, well-researched, and the Lynley ones at least follow a set of ever evolving characters -- all characteristics that I look forward to in books. Still, I've never managed to become a fan, and it's purely a matter of taste, not a comment on her skill as writer. I just found the books I tried too dark and too convoluted. So much so, in fact, that I'm glad I didn't realize this series was based on her books, because I might not have bothered to watch them. Perhaps because I often wrestle with my own psychological demons, I've never enjoyed taken much pleasure in such books or movies. Instead I'm an admitted sucker for an uplifting, feel good story. It's one of the reasons I enjoy cozy mysteries -- at least I thought it was. Yet here we have Lynley -- and George -- with stories about incest, abandonment, child stealing, suicides real and faked, school bullying, drug use... well, you get the idea... all gathered under the "cozy" umbrella simply because a man died in a country home. It just didn't sit right, Dame Rigg, CBE, DBE, or not.

So, what IS a cozy mystery?