Roman Ducky, You’re the One…

You make the caldarium oh so fun.

Roman ducky, I sing of arms and you!

This cute little fellow wearing a legionary’s helmet and lorica segmentata armor comes from the British Museum shop, where you can also find his Egyptian, samurai, Viking, and Greek god pals.

Bathing was important in Roman culture, not just for personal cleanliness but as a social activity. Friends would meet at the baths to exercise, swim in the large cold pools, or relax in the hot pools. Some Roman baths had steam rooms similar to the Finnish sauna. Even at the farthest edge of the empire, Roman forts along Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain had bathhouses. Many were built with sophisticated under-floor heating to keep them toasty even in the winter.

One crucial piece of bathing technology the Romans, lacked, however, was the rubber duck. They never knew what they were missing.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Rating: Leverage, Season 2

We’ve been rewatching and rating Leverage and we’ve got season 2 under our belts now. (For more on how our rating system works, see here, which also covers season 1 of Leverage.) Here’s our take on the season.

Leverage, season 2

  1. “The Beantown Bailout” – 5.5
  2. “The Tap-Out Job” – 2.5
  3. “The Order 23 Job” – 6
  4. “The Fairy Godparents Job” – 4.5
  5. “The Three Days of the Hunter Job” – 8
  6. “The Top Hat Job” – 2
  7. “The Two Live Crew Job” – 8
  8. “The Ice Man Job” – 8
  9. “The Lost Heir Job” – 7
  10. “The Runway Job” – 5.5
  11. “The Bottle Job” – 5.5
  12. “The Zanzibar Marketplace Job” – 4
  13. “The Future Job” – 7
  14. “The Three Strikes Job” – 8
  15. “The Maltese Falcon Job” – 4

This season is a lot of highs and lows. Several weak episodes are balanced out by a number of strong ones. The average for the season is 5.7, which is respectable but a step down from season 1, which averaged just under 6. The show was finding its footing this season and striking out in some new directions, which sometimes paid off but other times just fell flat.

We have a four-way tie for the best episode, all at a solid 8. In “The Three Days of the Hunter Job” the team manufactures a government conspiracy in order to discredit a ruthless reporter. In “The Two Live Crew Job,” they compete with another team (featuring Wil Wheaton as a pain-in-the-ass hacker!) to steal a priceless painting. In “The Ice Man Job,” Hardison, the hacker, gets in over his head while trying to show that he can get out from behind the computer and do an in-person grift, and the rest of the team has to improvise a heist around him to get him out. In “The Three Strikes Job,” the whole team get in over their head as they get tangled up in a larger plot involving the mob, the FBI, and a corrupt mayor. All of these episodes play with the heist/con formula in interesting ways and give the actors a chance to stretch their wings and tackle something new. In these episodes, we really see the creative team’s willingness to tinker with the mechanics of the procedural format pay off well.

The lesser episodes of the season also show attempts to vary the formula, but they don’t come off as well. The worst of the season is “The Top Hat Job,” at only 2. In this episode, the heist is pretty simple and most of the screentime is taken up by the team’s distraction event: Nate, the most mediocre and uninteresting character on the team, putting on a mediocre and uninteresting magic show.

Any Leverage fans out there want to weigh in? Got a different pick for the best or worst episodes of the season? Let us know in the comments!

Image: Leverage cast via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Keep Out

The image above is a papyrus sign found near an ancient temple complex at Saqqara, Egypt. The original is 36 cm (a little more than a foot) wide. The text is in Greek and reads:

By order of Peukestes:

No entry.

This is a sacred enclosure.

My own translation

What does this sign mean and why was it posted in Greek somewhere near an Egyptian temple?

The name Peukestes helps us towards an answer. There is one important Peukestes we know from the sources with a connection to Egypt. In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt with his Greek and Macedonian army. The Egyptian people had lived unhappily under the rule of the Persian empire for generations and they greeted the newcomers as liberators. When Alexander moved on the next year to continue his conquest of Persia, he left Egypt under the charge of two of his commanders, Balakros and Peukestes. (Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander 3.5.5)

The Greeks and Macedonians of Alexander’s army had Egyptian good will on their side and they did not want to lose it. At the same time, Egypt and its great monuments were a source of endless fascination to foreign visitors in antiquity, just as much as today, and not all foreigners knew how to behave with respect. Centuries earlier, Greek mercenaries in the service of the Egyptian pharaohs had carved graffiti into the stones of ancient temples. Balakros and Peukestes, trying to hold onto a valuable province through the turmoil of liberation, certainly did not want any of that going on.

The sign was probably originally posted outside of the temple complex at Saqqara as a warning to any Greek troops indulging in a bit of sight-seeing that they had better be on their best behavior, including staying out of places that were sacred to their Egyptian friends.

Multicultural and cross-religious encounters are nothing new in the world. People have been thinking about the problem of how to get along peacefully with those whose ways of life are different from ours for thousands of years. Respecting other peoples’ religious traditions isn’t just polite, it’s sound policy.

Reference for the papyrus: Eric G. Turner, “A Commander-in-Chief’s Order from Saqqara,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 60 (1974): 239-42.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

History Doesn’t Look Historical

It’s an unavoidable fact that when we look at historical artifacts, we’re looking at things that are many years old, sometimes centuries or millennia. Physical objects, even those made of enduring materials like metal or stone, are changed by the processes of time. Exposure to light, moisture, changing temperatures, air pollution, wind, water, and other effects works changes on artifacts that can range from subtle to drastic. Our sense of what history looks like is shaped by things that no longer look like what they were when they were first being made, admired, and used by people in their daily lives.

Take, for example, the sculptures and architecture of ancient Greece. Our perception of ancient Greek art is shaped by the white marble statues and temples that remain today, but the originals were not white. We know from ancient descriptions and a few pieces with surviving traces of paint that the stone buildings and sculptures of ancient Greece were brightly colored.

Examples like this statue of a woman, with traces of paint on her dress, suggest what such a statue might have originally looked like.

Statue of a woman (kore), photograph by Nemracc via Wikimedia (Keratea, Greece, currently Pergamon Museum, Berlin; 580-560 BCE; marble)

Evidence like this makes it possible to attempt to reconstruct what statues of this type looked like when first created. The two reconstructions on the right here offer two possible interpretations of what the original, on the left, may have looked like when it was new.

Statue of a woman (kore) and two reconstructions, composite of photographs by Marsyas, via Wikimedia (original: Acropolis, Athens; c. 530 BCE; marble; reconstructions: Acropolis Museum, Athens)

The striking colors of the past are not just a phenomenon of ancient Greece. At Stirling Castle, in Scotland, a recent restoration project has brought back the original rich yellow color of the walls of the medieval great hall, which was determined from traces of ochre mixed with the remains of the lime wash applied to the stone. You can see the striking contrast between the restored great hall in the background and the bare stone of the buildings in front.

Stirling Castle, photograph by dun_deagh via Flickr (Stirling, Scotland; c. 1500-1600; stone and lime wash)

Studying history requires an act of imagination. Just as we have to imagine ancient monuments are artifacts new and fresh, not as the worn-out relics we see today, we also have to imagine peoples of the past as vibrant, complicated, living societies, not the stilted, dry facts of textbooks. Fiction has a great value to the student of history, as it helps us imagine ourselves into the lives of people different from ourselves. Our history is always somebody else’s daily life.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Rating: Leverage, Season 1

We like to watch tv together and we enjoy rewatching the best episodes of series we’ve seen before, but how do you remember which episodes were worth seeing again and which to skip? We came up with a solution to that problem: now when we watch a series, we rate each episode. Each of us gives each episode a rating from 0 to 5, like this:

  • 0 – Terrible, I never want to see it again.
  • 1 – Pretty bad, but had a few redeeming features
  • 2 – Not awful, but kind of lacking
  • 3 – Decent, solid, nothing special
  • 4 – Pretty good
  • 5 – Awesome!

(We also sometimes give half-points, so a 3.5 might be for an episode that is a little better than average.) Then we add our scores together to get a total rating from 0 to 10. We note this score down on a slip of paper that we keep with our discs. (We like to watch shows on disc. We’re old-fashioned like that.)

We often end up giving the same rating to an episode, so a rating of 6 usually means we both gave it a 3. Part of the fun of watching and rating is chatting about the episode afterwards to see how we both felt about it.

Now when we go back to rewatch a show we can decide what kind of mood we’re in. If we want to plow through everything—good, bad, and indifferent—we can. If we want to just skip the worst episodes, we can watch everything that rated above a 2. If we want only the good stuff, we can stick to 6 and above. If we only want the highlights, we can go for 8 and up. (Or straight to the tens.)

We recently finished rewatching and rating the first season of Leverage, an adventure/comedy show about a gang of thieves and con artists who decide to go straight(-ish) and start using their skills to take on wealthy criminals and evil corporations. Here’s how we felt about season 1.

The average of the ratings this season’s episodes is just under 6, which is respectable and pretty solid for the first season of a show.

The highest rating this season was an 8, for which two episodes tied. The first was the pilot, ep. 1 “The Nigerian Job,” about how the team all comes together for revenge on a corrupt executive who used them to steal a rival company’s plans and them sold them out. The other was ep. 8, “The Mile High Job,” in which the team stumbles into an attempted murder on an airplane and has to improvise their way through to keep the target safe. Both of these episodes give all of the characters plenty of time to shine and throw lots of interesting problems in their way for them to solve.

Our lowest-rated episode this season was only a 3, ep. 11 “The Juror #6 Job,” in which Parker, the team’s not-exactly-social thief, finds herself doing jury duty under one of her aliases. We found the case uninspiring and the character interactions a little icky.

Our full ratings:

Leverage, season 1

  1. “The Nigerian Job” – 8
  2. “The Homecoming Job” – 6
  3. “The Two Horse Job” – 7
  4. “The Miracle Job” – 5
  5. “The Bank Shot Job” – 5.5
  6. “The Stork Job” – 4.5
  7. “The Wedding Job” – 5
  8. “The Mile High Job” – 8
  9. “The Snow Job” – 6
  10. “The 12-Step Job” – 7.5
  11. “The Juror #6 Job” – 3
  12. “The First David Job” – 5
  13. “The Second David Job” – 7

Any Leverage fans out there want to weigh in? Got a different pick for the best or worst episodes of the season? Let us know in the comments!

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Bad Day at the Office, 257 BCE

Being in middle management sucks. You’re stuck between unreasonable bosses and uncooperative workers. If you’ve ever been in that position, you might have some sympathy with Panakestor, the overseer of a farm in Ptolemaic Egypt some of whose daily correspondence has been preserved on papyrus in the desert climate.

Between 323 and 30 BCE, Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemies, descendants of one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Ruling from Alexandria on the coast, the Greek-speaking Ptolemies depended on a large class of local administrators and subordinates to deal with the Egyptian-speaking population. Some of these subordinates were immigrants from Greece or other regions around the Aegean Sea; others were native Egyptians who saw opportunities working for the new regime. Panakestor was a Carian, from southwestern Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). He oversaw an estate near a town called Philadelphia belonging to Apollonius, a big shot in Alexandria who owned many such estates around Egypt.

The original agreement between Apollonius and the Egyptian farmers who worked his land was simple: at harvest time, they would hand over one third of their crop as rent and keep two thirds for themselves. In 257, however, Apollonius decided he wanted to change the system, even though it was very late in the season and almost harvest time anyway. Now he wanted the farmers to estimate the value of their crop at the beginning of the growing season and pay a portion of that as rent up front. This new arrangement would be good for Apollonius as he could guarantee his income, but if the crops failed the whole risk would be on the farmers.

Apollonius sent out a message ordering Panakestor to put the new system in place. Panakestor did his best, but soon wrote back explaining that things were not going well. Apollonius then sent out an impatient second memo:

[To Panakestor] from Apollonius. I was astounded at your negligence that you have written nothing, either about the estimation or about the harvest of the grain. Write to me now how each matter stands.

– PSI (Papiri della Societa Italiana) 5.502

(My own translations)

Panakestor wrote back giving fuller details of the problem. His letter also survives:

Continue reading

How to Helsinki: Finnish Summer

“Kesätie” = Summer Road

Worldcon is in Helsinki this year. As a Finnish-American couple, we are very excited about this! In the coming months, we’d like to offer some practical advice about visiting Finland to our fellow fans who are considering going to the event but haven’t had experience with Finland and Finns before.

Erik here. There is something special about the summertime in Finland and if you haven’t experienced it before, you have a lot to look forward to. If you’re not used to the summer at high latitudes, though, you should know what to expect. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • The Finnish summer is a time of light. In northern parts of the country near midsummer, the sun is in the sky all night long and there’s no visible difference between midnight and noon. In Helsinki in August, although the sun does set for a few hours, it doesn’t get darker than twilight. Expect to see a lot of sun.
  • Unless it rains, which can happen a lot. There’s an old joke: “The Finnish summer may be short, but at least it doesn’t snow much.” Summer weather can be changeable, from cold, raw, and rainy to clear and hot. Be prepared for all possibilities.
  • If you’re not accustomed to the light summer nights, they can mess with your body clock (especially when piled on top of jet lag). You may find it easy to lose track of time without the changing light to cue your body to feel hungry or tired. Keep an eye on the time and make sure you’re eating and sleeping regularly.
  • If you’re like me, the light nights may also make it hard for you to sleep. Most hotels in Finland will have light-blocking curtains, but you may also want to consider a sleep mask. (I find melatonin very helpful for regulating my sleep as well.)
  • With the light nights, it cal also be easy to lose track of time if you have an appointment to make or shopping to do. Many Finnish shops and restaurants are not open as long as Americans may be used to, and they may have different hours in the summer (including some that have very limited weekend hours). It’s always a good idea to check store hours ahead of time.
  • Summer is also mosquito and tick season. If you’re going to the woods (which you definitely should, if you have the chance), make sure you protect yourself well with long, loose, light clothing and bug spray.
Finnish summer night
  • Despite these warnings, the Finnish summer is magical. There is really nothing to compare with the light, quiet summer nights. If you have the opportunity, go for a late-night walk. You’ll be glad you did.
  • Speaking of magical, don’t miss out on Finnish ice cream. Ice cream kiosks pop up all around in the summertime where you can get a cone or ice cream bar. Finns make good ice cream, and a lot of it is low-lactose or lactose-free (look for “VL” / “vähälaktoosinen” or “laktoositon”), and/or gluten-free (“GL” or “gluteeniton”).

I hope you enjoy seeing Finland in the summer. It is one of the best times to visit the country. It is also one of the best times for meeting Finns. The summer is a relief from the cold, dark winter and, at least for some people, it can have an effect on temperament. Characteristically dour, taciturn Finns can become more relaxed and open in the summer sun, even a little goofy. Summer is when this sort of thing happens:

Thunderstruck by Steve’n’Seagulls (LIVE) by Steve Seagulls

Enjoy it!

Images by Erik and Eppu Jensen

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

Random Thoughts on Kong: Skull Island

In no particular order. Spoiler warning in effect.

  • Kong: Skull Island is a much better movie than anything called Kong: Skull Island has any right to be. We went in with pretty low expectations and we were pleasantly surprised.
  • This movie is a fine demonstration of how important good acting is, even in a movie that is mostly about a giant ape smashing stuff. Tom Hiddleston and Samuel L. Jackson stand out, but the entire cast is solid. (After this movie and Avengers, I’m going to say yes to any movie that includes Hiddleston and Jackson squaring off.)
  • Kong very smartly avoids two of the major tropes for what happens when modern white westerners encounter native cultures. One is the Heart of Darkness / Apocalypse Now trope: the westerner goes out of control and loses his sense of humanity. The other is the Dances With Wolves / Avatar trope: the westerner “goes native” and becomes a better native than the natives. In Kong (despite the ways the movie plays with Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now), the newcomers and natives achieve mutual understanding and respect while still remaining who they are.
  • The movie is littered with the sorts of characters who always die in this kind of film: the nerdy sidekick who provides occasional comic relief; the soldier who keeps talking about how much he wants to go home; the crazy old man in the wilderness who has information vital for everyone’s survival. Two of these guys are even black. And they all survive to see the end credits.
  • It’s so nice that we have started to see movies that respect that men and women can go through difficult experiences and form close bonds of friendship without automatically becoming romantically attached.
  • It wasn’t a surprise when Deadpool used the post-credits scene for a meta joke, but when big action movies like this start doing it, that might be a sign that the post-credits scene is getting played out.

 

Additional randomness by Eppu

  • I agree—KSI is an exceptionally good monster movie.
  • I also noticed the presence of several competent black men who weren’t clones of each other and who didn’t die first. (About fricking time!) Now do the same for black women!
  • Speaking of women, it’s really rather pathetic that there are only two female characters with a major speaking role in this movie. Even more pathetic than that, we saw the photographer (played by Brie Larson, whose coat check girl in The Community is fantastic) shoot plenty of film throughout the story, but the biologist (Tian Jing, whom we first saw being awesome in The Great Wall) had hardly anything to do that showcased her expertise. Jing’s character didn’t get an arc, either. Boo.
  • Also seconding the merits of no forced romance.
  • KSI was also brutal, as it should, what with the predators the size of skyscrapers. I hesitate to say “refreshingly brutal” because I don’t find explicit gruesomeness appealing (like Game of Thrones, blech). On the other hand, I’m also quite fed up with sanitized movie violence (Warcraft: The Beginning was particularly ridiculous in this respect). I guess what I’m trying to say really is that, for my taste, KSI danced the line between making the stakes high and turning off the audience expertly.
  • It was nice that Kong got to stay on his island instead of being dragged off.
  • I saw several reviews that praised KSI‘s visuals. I was sceptical—how special can you make a war movie with a giant primate?—but, boy, was I wrong. It. Was. Beautiful. The directing and cinematography (as far as I can tell, being a complete civilian) were fresh and innovative.
  • KSI referred to historical events from the storytelling point of view effectively and efficiently, and the movie was really well styled and propped. The usage of archival film footage, photos, and other visuals was plentiful but not overwhelming, and the invented elements fit in seamlessly. Kudos. (And I don’t even like the 1960s-1970s style!)

Image: Kong: Skull Island poster via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

The Long and Pointless War

One of the common tropes in stories about war is that war is pointless and goes on far too long. This trope goes back at least as far as the Trojan War cycle in Greek mythology but a particularly strong version of it became prominent in twentieth-century American science fiction with works like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Haldeman’s The Forever War. These works portrayed wars that have gone on for as long as anyone can remember and which show no signs of ever ending. The original causes for the war are long forgotten and both sides just continue to fight for no reason other than to avenge the ravages of previous battles. In more optimistic stories, all it takes to stop the carnage is for an outsider to point out to the combatants how meaningless their war is. In more pessimistic versions, the war just keeps going as the populations on both sides are blinded by warmongering propaganda and either unable or unwilling to ask what they’re fighting for in the first place. While stories of this kind may have a lot to say about what it feels like to be at war, however, they don’t match with what history shows us about the real causes of war.

Almost every society large enough to organize a substantial number of fighters, from ancient hunter-gatherer tribes to modern nations, has engaged in war. Some societies go to war readily, other reluctantly, and the immediate causes of individual conflicts vary, but certain patterns recur throughout history. Most wars ultimately come down to the need to control the resources that are essential to survival and prevent outsiders from threatening those resources. Most crucially, this means food, but other kinds of resources, such as access to trade routes, metals, and labor also contribute. People go to war because they are afraid of starving to death, not because they hate their neighbors.

The threat to survival may not always be immediate. Some wars are fought not for a direct tangible gain but to preserve reputation or prevent hostile forces from acquiring a competitive advantage. The danger that people fear when they go to war is also sometimes illusory or misjudged. Just because wars happen for a reason doesn’t mean that we all will (or should) agree that those reasons are good ones. Still, when you look behind the rhetoric and propaganda of a nation at war, you will almost always find a real fear about fundamental survival.

Ideologies, religions, political ideals, and other kinds of identities do play a role in shaping conflicts. They help to draw the lines between “us” and “them” and to justify why, in a time of crisis, “we” should live and “they” should die. Differences of identity alone, however, are not enough to cause wars. The history of the world is full of people of different faiths, ethnicities, and political persuasions living together in peace—not always harmony, but at least peace. War is the rare exception. To put it another way: war is a practical problem, not a moral problem.

Wars that arise from pragmatic fears will tend to last as long as those fears remain, or until the cost of continuing to fight outweighs the cost of accepting a settlement. History offers us plenty of examples of long wars. There were conflicts that lasted decades of more or less continual hostilities such as the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta or the Thirty Years’ War in early modern Europe. There were also conflicts that recurred between the same forces on more or less the same terms over generations or centuries, such as between the Roman and Parthian Empires or China and the peoples of the Central Asian steppes. From the point of view of ordinary soldiers and civilians living through them, any of these wars may well have seemed interminable and pointless, but behind all of them were real and practical fears of the threat that rival powers posed to control of essential resources. They continued for so long because these fears remained unresolved, not because of ingrained hostility. When they ended, it was because circumstances had changed—one power decisively defeated another, all powers were too exhausted to continue, or an outside force changed the dynamics of the conflict—not because people suddenly came to their senses and stopped hating one another.

Thoughts for writers

I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t write stories about long and pointless wars. This trope exists for a reason and it has an important place in our literature. It’s no surprise that the trope became popular among writers who lived through the Cold War and, in the United States, the war in Vietnam. Both of those conflicts seemed especially pointless to many, soldiers and civilians alike. Almost any war can seem meaningless from the point of view of the common soldier following orders and just trying to stay alive. Stories of this kind express something important about the dehumanizing effects of war and the common yearning for peace.

It’s not our job as fiction writers to try to perfectly replicate history. We have the freedom to be unrealistic, but we should know when we’re doing it. If you want to have noisy explosions in space because they make your story more exciting, go ahead and have them. If you want to write a story about vampires in Victorian London, don’t let the fact that vampires aren’t real stop you. Likewise, if you have a story to tell about war, tell it the way you want to tell it. Just be aware that actual wars begin and end because of practical need and fears, not because people just can’t get along.

Image: Modern soldiers visit the ancient city of Hatra in northern Iraq, photograph by George Gieske via Wikimedia

Post edited for clarity.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Mysteries vs. Puzzles: The Problem with Sherlock

170309sherlockNote: this post contains spoilers for some of the original Sherlock Holmes stories and some episodes of Sherlock.

I’m a fan of the BBC series Sherlock. I enjoy the show and its inventive modern take on the Sherlock Holmes mythos. When I say that I have a problem with the show, it comes from a place of love. But I do have a problem with the show, and it largely comes down to this: not enough mysteries, too many puzzles.

Here’s what I mean by mysteries and puzzles. A mystery is when a real event is made obscure because we either don’t have all the facts or don’t see how the facts fit together. The pleasure of watching a mystery comes in the moment of revelation when we see past the obscurity to the truth and suddenly understand how the separate pieces fit together.

The original Sherlock Holmes stories are masterpiece mysteries. Most stories begin with a client consulting Holmes about some odd occurrence. Often, it is nothing overtly criminal or even threatening, just peculiar. In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” a young lady comes to see Mr. Holmes because she has been woken in the night by a whistling sound followed by a clang. She had heard the same whistle years before, on the night her sister died; her sister’s last words were about a “speckled band.” Holmes investigates and finds that the bell-pull in the lady’s bedroom is a dummy hanging from a hook on the wall. At first, none of these facts makes any sense, but when the truth is revealed, everything falls into place. The client’s step-father is attempting to kill her for her inheritance, just as he killed her older sister. He has been sending a deadly snake through a grate from the adjoining room, down the fake bell-pull to her bed at night. To cover his tracks, he recalls the trained snake with a whistle, then shuts it in a safe, hence the clang. The sister’s last words were her delirious attempt to describe the creature that had bitten her. The mystery works because all of the clues turn out to have a rational basis. Once you know the truth, everything makes sense.

Sometimes, the obscurity in a mystery is deliberately created, but even then it serves a practical purpose. In “The Adventure of the Read-Headed League,” the client is lured out of his place of business by the promise of high-paying easy work in a fake company concocted by the criminals. They had a reason for getting him out of the way, though: they were digging a tunnel from his basement to a nearby bank for a robbery. Holmes easily sees through the con, but that still leaves the mystery of why the con was perpetrated in the first place.

Puzzles are different. In a puzzle, there is no reality hiding behind the obscurity, just obscurity for obscurity’s sake. When you solve a puzzle, there is no reveal. The clues don’t suddenly make sense. There is no “why” to a puzzle other than “Someone wanted to make a puzzle.”

Sherlock has a few mysteries. In “The Blind Banker,” spray-painted symbols and a disappearing bank employee eventually reveal a smuggling ring moving illicit Chinese antiquities to the European market. In “The Sign of Three,” a collection of seemingly unrelated events, including a wounded soldier and a ghost date, adds up to an attempted murder at a wedding.

Too much of Sherlock, however, depends on puzzles rather than mysteries. Once the clues are solved and the questions are answered, all we learn is that Moriarty is bored and wants to play, or that Eurus is unstable and wants a hug. There’s no satisfaction in the reveal, just some clever person expounding on how clever they are. Instead of discovering that the inexplicable pieces all mean something once you know what was behind them, we discover that they were all meaningless and there was never anything behind them at all.

Even a well done puzzle (and some of Sherlock‘s puzzles are quite well done) is still a puzzle. If I want a puzzle, I’ll do a crossword. I want mysteries in my mystery stories, not puzzles.

Image via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.