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.

For Writers of Dull Titles of Best of Books Lists

The other day I saw yet another recommended books article with a headline of the type:

  • [number] Books You Must Read
  • [number] Books Every [persontype] Should Read

Ah hah hah hah haa. No. So much no. A non-descriptive headline isn’t an attraction, it’s a turnoff.

Writing a header like that, enthusiastic as it’s probably supposed to be, just comes across as lazy, narrow-minded, lazy, self-centered, and lazy marketing-speak.

Flickr Mundo Resink Frustration Detail

It makes me think that your interests, oh dear random person on the Internet, aren’t even in the same galaxy as mine. Worse off, it sounds like you don’t care enough about your job to throw in even one modifier, not one, to narrow down the audience for your list.

There are no books you get to flat-out tell me I must or should read. For one, you’re not the boss of me. You don’t get to dictate my choices. For another, you’re not the arbiter of universal taste. What you promote is not and cannot ever be a must of anything for the rest of humankind. Furthermore, you know nothing of me; literally, not a thing. You don’t know whether I’m interested in whatever it is you’re promoting, whether I hate it, whether I’m lukewarm, or whether it might be a PTSD trigger. Assuming your recommendations are a must for everyone else is dismissive of priorities, experiences, and circumstances that differ from yours. Lastly, your puny title tells me absolutely nothing about your list. There’s not even an indication of whether we’re talking about fiction or non-fiction. I won’t waste a click on a header that’s laughably generic. Congratulations, you’ve just wasted both your time and your employer’s dollars.

Instead, tell me why I might want to have a look at your list. For example, the headlines below have a significantly higher likelihood of getting a click, provided I’m remotely interested in the topic / genre / protagonist / etc.:

  • [number] Books to Read If You Like [topic]
  • Exploring [genre] Worlds: [number] Books for Newcomers
  • [number] Books with [type of protagonists]
  • Our Favorite [genre] Books in the Style of [popular title]
  • Love [author]? You Might Also Like These [number] Books on [topic]
  • New Books for [popular title] Fans to Check Out
  • [number] Books to Consider for [topic] Enthusiasts
  • Darker, Edgier [genre] Worlds
  • The [number] Most Inventive Books that Break [genre] Barriers
  • [number] Worlds to Delve into If You Like [author]

Much, much more informative, don’t you agree?

Image: detail of photograph by Mundo Resink via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Here there be opinions!

Down with Dull Dystopias

The other day, Prof and I were at the library borrowing some light evening viewing. On my way to the circ desk my eye fell on the Just Returned cart and on a relatively recent SFF novel that I’ve heard good things about. (I always stop to check the cart. It’s often the best spot to pick up the popular new acquisitions.)

I picked it up and flipped over to the book description to remind myself what it was about. The novel is set in an apocalyptic or dystopic world with major environmental issues. And that made me promptly put it back down. I didn’t even finish reading the book description.

What my reaction made me realize is that, for now, I’ve reached my tolerance for dark storylines with brooding characters in dire situations.

Supermoon Lunar Eclipse Starting

My little episode at the library collided with two random online pieces.

I was reading’s coverage on the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award. In his acceptance speech, winner Adrian Tchaikovsky praised the other five shortlisted nominees for a recurring theme:

“One of the things that struck me about the shortlist for this year is empathy as a theme that runs through a lot of these books. Empathy across races, across borders… One of the things [my] book is about is the ability of humanity to seize value in things that are different, and the danger when that doesn’t happen.”

Tchaikovsky’s comment made me conscious of not just how done I am with dystopia, but also how much I’ve been missing stories where the nicer aspects of humanity are clearly present. That doesn’t mean all feel-good stories all the time. It does mean that lifting the darker side of humanity up into the limelight is not enough if, at most, the positive universals get slapped on like a thin coat of paint on a dilapidated theater.

The next day, I ran into an article at Literary Hub by Brandon Taylor. “There is No Secret to Writing About People Who Do Not Look Like You” focuses on the importance of empathy as an aspect of the writing craft:

“Stories have many functions: entertainment, healing, education, illustration, explanation, misdirection, persuasion. Stories have the power to shape worlds and to change lives, and so there is a lot at stake when an author sits down to write. Many people fold stories like delicate paper ships and launch them from obscure corners of the world, hoping that their ships land on distant shores and spread some of the truth of their lives to strangers. It is an act of communion, an act of humanity, the sharing of your story with another person. We each contain within us a private cosmos, and when we write of ourselves, we make visible the constellations that constitute our experience and identity.


“There can be no story without empathy. Our stories begin because we are able to enter the lives of other people. We are able to imagine how a person might move through the world, how their family might operate, what their favorite foods might be, how their nation works, how their town works, and the smallest, most inconsequential aspects of their lives rise up to meet us at our desks. You can’t write if you can’t empathize. Solipsism is anathema to good writing.”

Taylor’s piece crystallized in my mind why dystopias drag me down. It’s because many dystopic stories ignore or trivialize humane acts or traits like cooperative labor or generosity, and in doing so, they omit crucial aspects of humanity. And that—unless extremely, extremely skillfully executed—makes dystopias unsatisfying for me, exactly as I tend to think many utopian stories boring.


Just like darker traits, selfless characteristics exist today because in the past they helped us survive. They still do. We need them, and we’re better for it.

So much of my reading lately has included dystopic worldbuilding. I didn’t realize quite how much that’s been subconsciously bothering me. I’m full, thank you. No wonder books like The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers—one of the Clarke nominees, by the by—make such joyful reading experiences.

Images: Supermoon Lunar Eclipse Starting by Eppu Jensen; Empathy by Pierre Phaneuf (pphaneuf) on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

Quotes: I Don’t Need Characters to Be Likeable

Author Chuck Wendig shared a list of reasons that will make him put down a book he’s reading. Number 16 includes this bit:

“I don’t need characters to be likable. I do, however, need them to be livable — meaning, I need to find some reason to want to live with that individual for 300+ pages. Some things are dealbreakers, though, and a character who is too vile or somehow unredeemable by my own metric… then I just can’t stay in the story.”

– Chuck Wendig

Hear, hear. Well-written characters can save an awkward plot or shoddy pacing, or make an otherwise outdated novel from the 1800s enjoyable. But even a detailed and rich world suffers if there are only unpalatable or cardboard-thin individuals inhabiting it.

Fiction—or non-fiction, for that matter—is at its best when readers form an empathic connection with one or more characters. Depend upon it, readers will notice if authors treat their cast merely as a walking, talking plot delivery system.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: Our Ability to Come Together

“Because it’s those things we celebrate as ‘other’ that make us truly human. It’s what we label ‘soft’ or ‘feminine’ that makes civilization possible. It’s our empathy, our ability to care and nurture and connect. It’s our ability to come together. To build. To remake. Asking men to cut away their ‘feminine’ traits asks them to cut away half their humanity, just as asking women to suppress their ‘masculine’ traits asks them to deny their full autonomy.

“What makes us human is not one or the other–the fist or the open palm–it’s our ability to embrace both, and choose the appropriate action for the suitable situation we’re in. Because to deny one half […] is to deny our humanity and become something less than human.”

– Kameron Hurley: The Geek Feminist Revolution

Because people are not stereotypes. Stereotypes aren’t just lazy, they’re outright dangerous if carelessly applied.

Hurley, Kameron. The Geek Feminist Revolution. New York, NY: Tor, 2016. Chapter “Women and Gentlemen: On Unmasking the Sobering Reality of Hyper-Masculine Characters.”

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Why Wouldn’t Playing Games Get You a Job?

This wall ad by the Finnish game house Remedy deserves wider circulation:

NYT Jussi Pullinen Remedy Wall Ad

“Mom always said that playing games won’t get you a job. From Espoo with love since 1995. Thank you Remedy crew, friends, families, Finnish dev community, fans and gamers around the world. This one is for you.”

Remedy (of the Max Payne and Alan Wake fame) designed this ad to celebrate their April 05, 2016, launch of a new game, Quantum Break, reportedly the most expensive entertainment production ever made in Finland.

The ad’s irony at one’s own expense sounds very Finnish to me. In Finland, it’s a little embarrassing to be successful or rich, and Finns don’t tend to draw attention to their achievements. At the same time, as a Finn, it’s very satisfying to see Finnish game companies grow up into mature businesses with large, world-wide audiences.

It’s also high time for people to recognize that storytelling is an integral part of human nature and that games are just as viable a medium for telling stories as are myths, songs, novels, image-based art, and the like.

Image by Jussi Pullinen via Nyt.

Disclosure: A friend of mine works at Remedy, but this post is in no way compensated or even requested by them.

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Proud and Prejudiced Zombies

160212ppzI’m really the wrong person to say anything about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, since I am not a fan of zombie stories to begin with, but having a fondness for Jane Austen I went to the movie hoping for something entertaining. I was not entirely disappointed, but something about the movie bothers me.

It’s not just that it feels like a joke that has gone on too long without getting to a punchline. It is Pride and Prejudice with zombies added, exactly as advertised. The confined and unvarying quality of the movie is a feature, not a bug, and I can live with that. What bothers me about it is what it does to Austen’s characters and in particular the female characters.

Continue reading

Things I Can Do Without

We all have our storytelling pet peeves: the things that make us yell in frustration at the screen or put down a book in disgust. Some things have been done to death already and we want to see something new. Some things play on outdated assumptions and problematic tropes. Some are just lazy writing.

Misery loves company, so let’s share. Here’s a few of mine.

1. Fathers and sons who have a bad relationship.

A father who was never emotionally available to his son and is now disappointed in his son’s failure to live up to his expectations? A son who resents the pressure put on him to be like his father and craves the love and approval his father never gave him?

It’s been done. Really, it has. Everyone from Homer to Shakespeare to George Lucas has done it. That dead horse has been pounded into subatomic particles by now. There is nothing new to be said on the subject. Time to move on.


160107Kirk2. Heroes who have no plan

Or if they do have a plan, it depends on factors that the hero can’t control or predict.

This doesn’t mean that plans have to be perfect or go off without a hitch. You can’t control for everything. Plans have to change in response to unforeseen events. There can be plenty of good drama in the uncertainties of chance, and I’ll even take the occasional deus ex machina if it’s clever enough. But a hero who’s counting on the deus ex machina for victory? That’s right out.


160107Moriarty3. Villains who have no goal

A good villain has a goal they are trying to accomplish and a plan for achieving that goal. No matter how fiendishly complicated the plan, if the goal is just to indulge a vaguely sexual obsession with the hero, something has gone wrong in the writing.

“Annoy the hero and force them to play with me” isn’t a goal, it’s a toddler tantrum.
160107CSI4. Weirdos who can’t tell fantasy from reality

A terrible murder has happened at an SFF convention. When the police show up to question witnesses, the bystanders refuse to speak English and answer all their questions in Klingon. It turns out a vampire cosplayer killed a werewolf LARPer. Why? Because vampires hate werewolves! No other motive required!

This one isn’t just lazy writing, it’s insulting. The usual targets are fandom or kink communities, but anyone who isn’t in the mainstream can be a victim. I’m a history professor. According to popular media, that means I must show up in class wearing a toga and insist that my students address me as “emperor.”

Writers of the world: the inability to distinguish reality and fantasy is a sign of a serious mental illness. It is not how those of us who belong to non-mainstream interest groups go through life.


160107Se7en5. “Gimmick” serial killers

This one is really just the intersection of 3 and 4, but it shows up often enough to merit special mention. These are the characters who kill people as part of some elaborate symbolic game. “My God, the killer is targeting people whose names are anagrams of Alice in Wonderland characters and staging their bodies to look like scenes from Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, and they’re doing them in reverse alphabetical order when translated into Albanian!”

That sound you hear is my suspension of disbelief repeatedly slamming its head into a wall in hopes of inducing a coma.


I could go on, but that’s enough from me for now. Your turn. Got something on your mind that you could do without ever reading or watching again? Share in the comments!

Images: Community via ScreenCrush. Kirk via Memory Beta. Moriarty via Baker Street. CSI Blood Moon via dkompare. Se7en via Crash/Burn

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

Our Star Wars Rewatch Project: Epsidode VI

Our Star Wars rewatch concludes with Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.

1. Best Fight

Eppu: The space battle above Endor! Epic! (Even if it’s modeled after aerial dogfights, but nostalgia…)

151217atstErik: Ewoks vs. stormtroopers. I know some people think it’s too silly, but I disagree. The rebellion vs. the empire was always a case of guts and inventiveness vs. industry and regimentation. The fact that the empire never even considered that the ewoks could be a threat was their undoing. Besides, there’s nothing like seeing an imperial walker get smushed between two dropping logs.

2. Best Line

Erik: “I don’t know. Fly casual.” Han’s approach to life in five words.

Eppu: “How are we doing?” Luke: “Same as always.” Han: “That bad, huh?”

3. Best Minor Character

Eppu: This may be a little corny, but Admiral Ackbar! (“It’s a trap!”)

Erik: The commander in charge of the Death Star construction. He seems like a well-organized, conscientious leader, just the sort of person you’d want to put in charge of such a huge project. Too bad he works for a genocidal totalitarian dictatorship.

4. Best Reveal

Erik: R2-D2 was carrying Luke’s lightsaber in Jabba’s palace all along. The moment that lightsaber handle pops up out of the droid’s top is the moment when “Luke, you naive idiot!” turns into “Luke, you cunning bastard!”

LG_CRACK lennongirl Han epi626

Eppu: A two-parter: Luke finds out on Dagobah that Leia’s his sister, and Leia tells Han that Luke’s her brother. Mostly the latter because of the expression on Han’s face (click, click, click… you can see the wheels turning).

5. Best Save

Eppu: Chewie and ewoks commandeering a walker on Endor and turning its guns against the Imperial troops. Pew pew!

Erik: Luke Force-floating C-3PO in the ewok village to convince the ewoks to let them go. C-3PO’s mid-air freak-out pushes it just far enough over the top to go from ridiculous to hilarious.

6. Best Visual

151217MFErik: The Millennium Falcon racing the fireball out of the exploding Death Star. It still gets me on the edge of my seat.

Eppu: The rebel fleet coming out of hyperspace to attack the new Death Star.

Extra: Best Guess for an Episode VII Hook

Eppu: Leia’s become a Jedi. Her title has been revealed to be General, which lines up nicely with her holo-message line to Obi-Wan in Episode IV (“General Kenobi. Years ago, you served my father in the Clone Wars…”).

[And a week after writing the above, the world came crashing down: J.J. Abrams revealed in an interview with IGN (as reported by Moviepilot) that Leia chose to lead the rebellion instead of becoming a Jedi. Ohwell.]

Erik: Palpatine has been pulling the rebellion’s strings all along. He’s a master manipulator who can foresee the future. Did he have a contingency plan for Vader’s betrayal and his own (apparent?) death? Are his dead(?) hands still pulling the strings?

Images: Ewok log trap via History Bomb. Han’s bafflement via lennongirl / LG-CRACK on LiveJournal. Millennium Falcon escaping Death Star via Starscream & Hutch

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

Our Star Wars Rewatch Project: Episode V

The Star Wars rewatch returns with Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

1. Best Fight

Eppu: As Han and Leia et al. are trying to flee Hoth, Millennium Falcon vs. three Imperial destroyers and their T.I.E fighters. You can tell that the special effects technology had taken a huge leap forwards in between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Spin it!

Erik: Snow speeders vs. imperial walkers on Hoth. The fight feels like a desperate, doomed rearguard action, but even in doomed rearguard actions there is room for heroism.

2. Best Line

Erik: “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” An elegant description of the Force from a more civilized age, before the dark times, before the midichlorians.

Eppu: There are so many fantastic lines in Episode V, it’s really hard to choose! I guess it’ll have to be “Who’s scruffy-looking?” by the one, the only Han Solo, delivered as if that’s the most insulting term in Leia’s outburst. Also, C-3PO’s “Sir, it’s quite possible this asteroid is not entirely stable.” is fantastic, and one of Leia’s shiny moments that I really like is “You’re not actually going into an asteroid field?”.

QuotesGram Norma Rapier Whos Scruffy Looking

3. Best Minor Character

Eppu: Rebel officer Toryn Farr, played by Brigitte Kahn. Incredibly, she’s the only other woman besides Leia to have a line in Episode V. (WTF, Lucas?!?) I’m terribly fond of her line for no discernible reason and, in fact, use it in daily life – “Stand by ion control. Fire!”

FANGirl Blog Hoth-3-ESB

Erik: General Rieekan who commands the rebel forces on Hoth. Plainspoken, understated, and you can tell that he cares about the people under his command. He’s exactly the sort of person who should be in charge of a military operation.

4. Best Reveal

151210YodaErik: The strange old hermit on Dagobah is Yoda, former head of the Jedi council. Frank Oz gives the character such life that you can tell he’s not just playing the fool to test Luke’s patience (although he’s totally doing that, too), but that Yoda is wise enough to take a childish delight in rummaging through Luke’s luggage and playing with his flashlight. It’s a test and a lesson wrapped up in one.

Eppu: A three-way tie: 1) this funny, disheveled character on Dagobah turns out to be Yoda; 2) Lando is actually not a traitor, but looks out for his people – his decisions are often the least worst in tough situations; 3) Darth Vader = Luke’s father. Having seen the original trilogy young, when the Internet didn’t yet exist (so no spoilery rumors through there) and having grown up a non-native speaker of English (didn’t pick it up from the zeitgeist), the latter was a surprise to me. [I think. It’s too long ago to remember for sure.]

5. Best Save

Eppu: R2-D2 tweaking the hyperdrive on Millennium Falcon to allow for our POV characters to flee the Cloud City.

Erik: The Millennium Falcon dodging TIE fighters and star destroyers as it escapes from Hoth. Now we know that Han isn’t just all talk when it comes to his piloting skills.

6. Best Visual

151210atatErik: The pan up from an enormous foot landing on the ice of Hoth to see an imperial AT-AT walker, then zooming out to see more of them coming. Even on a small screen, it’s a great “Oh crap” moment.

Eppu: Vader standing on top of the stairs in Cloud City’s carbon freezing room, silhouetted against blue, with reddish light on the stairs below. Emily Asher-Perrin in her write-up at calls The Empire Strikes Back “a shockingly beautiful film”, and it fully is. The lighting, especially, is breathtaking; love it. Also, Cloud City against a red sky / sunset.

Vader Cloud City carbon freeze room

Extra: Best Response

Eppu: One of Leia’s brilliant lines – although terribly frustrating for her – is “I am not a committee!”. He’s awfully dry and (sadly) played as a comic relief, but I like a lot of C-3PO’s retorts, too (e.g. “Of course I’ve looked better!” and “R2-D2, you know better than to trust a strange computer.”).

Erik: “Yeah, you’re a real hero.” Han to Lando, when Lando tries to dodge the blame for letting the empire set a trap for Han and Leia in Cloud City. It says a lot about how Han’s character has changed since we first met him in the cantina at Mos Eisley.

Images: Who’s scruffy-looking? by Norma Rapier via QuotesGram. Ion control via FANGirl Blog. “Mine!” via Walden. AT-ATs on Hoth via Star Wars Technical Commentaries. Vader in Cloud City via

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