“Just the facts, ma’am”: the private eye and religion

I just read Jerry Coyne’s Faith vs. Fact about the incompatibility of religion and science. The arguments will be familiar to anyone who frequents Coyne’s website Why Evolution Is TrueThe book is a full-throated endorsement of science (broadly construed) as the only way we have of finding out what is true.  That “broadly construed” is important to Coyne’s case; it’s not just “scientists” who do science, in his formulation; a plumber does science when he makes a hypothesis about why a pipe is leaking, tests the hypothesis, and either confirms or rejects it.  That’s the way we achieve truths about plumbing and, Coyne suggests, about anything.  Religion (or listening to Beethoven, or reading Shakespeare) can’t tell you why a pipe is leaking, or how the universe began, or what causes malaria.

It also doesn’t help you solve crimes.  My novel Where All the Ladders Start is, among other things, about the private eye as scientist.  Our hero, Walter Sands, is investigating the disappearance of a cult leader.  There are conventional explanations–the guy was murdered, or kidnapped, or just took off on his own.  But there is also a religious explanation advanced by many cult members: God loved the guy so much that He assumed him into heaven.  Walter is not impressed by the religious explanation, however.  He is relentlessly practical: private eyes aren’t interested in miracles; they’re interested in people — in means, motive, and opportunity.  So he does what private investigators do: he searches for facts, and eventually he uncovers the non-miraculous truth.

That’s all well and good, but there’s a bit of a twist at the end (in a private eye novel, there’s always a twist at the end).  Walter uncovers the truth, but he can’t escape religion’s clutches.  Because, he is told, in everything he has done, he has actually been following God’s plan.  And he finds himself unable to dispute this, because, really, how can he?  How can anyone?  If God has a plan, a private eye is not going to uncover it.

(For those not of a certain age, “Just the facts, ma’am” is a catchphrase associated with no-nonsense Sergeant Joe Friday of the 50’s (and 60’s and 70’s) TV show Dragnet.  Snopes tells us, though, that the character never says exactly that.)

I thought my novel was going to Oakland, but instead it ended up in Auckland

We were discussing the conclusion of my novel in my writing group. The novel had taken a bit of an unexpected direction.  Well, more than a bit.  How had it ended up in a woodshed in the wilds of a parallel-universe Scotland?  Where did that come from?  Jeff said: “It’s like that guy who got on a plane thinking it was going to Oakland, but instead he ended up in Auckland.”

That really happened, and the Internet will never forget.  And now I won’t, either.

Would you write honest reviews in return for free books?

A friend of mine mentioned to me today how much she liked my novel Senator, which she had just finished.  So I thanked her and asked her if she’d written a customer review.  The question seemed to baffle her.  She had never considered writing a review.  Why would she do that?  But of course, now that I asked her…

We’ll see if she gets around to it.

In the ebook world, nothing is more important for sales than customer reviews.  But they’re extraordinarily hard to get, in my experience.  And it’s not just my books–I’ve come across lots of books by fairly well-known authors that have just a handful of reviews.

My publisher has a marketing arm called eBook Discovery that just launched a Read and Review Club to try to address this.  If you sign up, you can download certain books for free every couple of weeks, in return for leaving an honest review at Amazon or other eRetailer.  There’s some additional logistics involved, but that’s the basic idea.  I have no idea if this will work, but it doesn’t seem implausible.  I think the key will be to get a sufficient variety of books from authors they don’t publish, so that readers will stay interested.  Why not click the link and give it a try?

By the way, I believe them when they say they want honest reviews–if you hate the book, say so.  They are of the opinion that it’s the number of reviews that matters, not how positive the reviews are.  I’m not quite sure I believe this, but that’s what they say.

Chekhov’s hunting rifle; Chekhov’s ornamental sword

We’ve talked about “Chekhov’s gun“–the rule in storytelling that when you show a gun early in a story, you have to use it before the end.  You’ve established expectations that need to be fulfilled.  We’ve also noticed its use in movies like Birdman.  Here are a couple more examples I’ve encountered recently.

Israel Horovitz is a well-known playwright who recently turned his play My Old Lady into a movie with Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline, and Kristin Scott Thomas. Kline plays a bitter sad-sack who has been left a French apartment by his father, only to discover that it is inhabited by its elderly former owner and her daughter (Smith and Thomas).  Under a quirky French law, Kline not only can’t sell the apartment, he has to pay Smith a kind of reverse mortgage every month.  Drama, heartbreak, revelation, and resolution ensue. There is much talk of death and suicide.  And there is a hunting rifle, which Kline plays with early on in the movie. We wait patiently for the hunting rifle to make its next appearance. We are not disappointed.

The movie is not bad but not great.  Horovitz obviously knows how to construct a story.  But as is often the case, a good play doesn’t always make a compelling movie. Like many adaptations, this one felt claustrophobic and talky to me, and the basic situation and relationships among the characters felt contrived.  The ultimate hunting rifle scene is well-handled, though — it took place off-camera, so we don’t know what happened at first. Will this be a tragedy, or a comedy?

The other movie is Stolen Moments, a ridiculously bad silent movie that Rudolf Valentino made just before he became a star.  I could write about it in my intermittent series of post about writers in the movies, because Valentino plays “a Brazilian writer of novels in English,” according to the intertitles.  But really, it’s not worth it.  The storytelling is about as primitive as it can be, and that includes the use of Chekhov’s sword.  Valentino’s butler goes takes the sword down from the wall and goes after him in an unmotivated drunken rage.  Valentino easily disarms him and sends him packing.  And then puts the sword on the table, where it sits patiently awaiting the final, confused climax, when, of course, it will be used to better effect.

In which I run into Edgar Allen Poe

I was walking from the Boston Common over to Jacob Wirth’s after my road race when I ran into this guy with his pet raven at twilight:

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Poe was born in Boston in Boston in 1809, although he went to Virginia soon afterwards.

Poe’s reputation has risen since his death and stays high. In addition to being a writer of fiction and poetry, he was also a good literary critic.  Here is Wikipedia summing up Poe’s opinion of our old friend Heny Wadsworth Longfellow:

A favorite target of Poe’s criticism was Boston’s then-acclaimed poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was often defended by his literary friends in what was later called “The Longfellow War”. Poe accused Longfellow of “the heresy of the didactic”, writing poetry that was preachy, derivative, and thematically plagiarized. Poe correctly predicted that Longfellow’s reputation and style of poetry would decline, concluding that “We grant him high qualities, but deny him the Future”.

“We grant him high qualities, but deny him the Future” — is that prescient or what?

Here’s more about the Poe statue.

The road race, you ask?  Don’t ask.  Here’s a photo of the pack going into Kenmore Square.

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Notice that my part of the pack isn’t exactly “running”. The folks heading in the other direction, back from Kenmore Square toward the Common–they’re running. Sheesh.