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The hyper-sensitivity of the fictional conscience

That profound-sounding title actually introduces a rather easy post (I think) for the lazy or exhausted days after Christmas when no one feels, or at least I do not feel, like blogging and am stumped for ideas.

This scenario comes from a lightweight and entertaining novel by an author who can write much higher-level novels--Ellis Peters. This one is called The Horn of Roland, and, the cover advertising to the contrary notwithstanding, it is not a "classic whodunit," as no one gets killed in the entire book, except in the back-story, and then only by Nazis. You can't have a classic whodunit without a body.

The backstory isn't exactly a plot spoiler, as it is told within the first couple chapters, and here it is. See what y'all think:

The year is 1944. In a small Austrian mountain village, a 19-year-old boy, Lucas, is part of a secret group that guides people running from the Nazis through the Alps and safely into Switzerland. They have a system for getting false identity papers for the people they help, in case they are stopped. The group learns that their cover has been blown and that the SS are closing in within the next few days. The last remaining three members of the group, including Lucas, get identity papers made for themselves this time and arrange to meet and get away. Lucas is to pick up the papers for all three, meet his mentor, whom we'll call #1, and then go with him to meet #2, who for whatever reason needs help finding his way through the pass. (Perhaps he had some non-guide role in the group.)

Lucas comes back to the village with the papers only to find that the Nazis are already making their move and have cordoned off the entire small wooded area where he was to meet #1. He cannot get to the rendezvous without running straight into their arms. He waits for a couple of hours until they inexplicably call off the patrol and all go away. He slips quietly through the darkness to the rendezvous. Of course, #1 isn't there, but he meets a man who appears to be a gypsy who tells him that he heard a man arrested and that the patrol waited around for another hour after the arrest for someone else to come along. He leaves #1's fake identity papers with the gypsy, whom he instinctively trusts, with instructions as to how he might be able to get them to him if #1 should escape. Then he goes to meet #2 in the mountains, and both of them get away safely.

Nearly thirty years later, Lucas learns that #1's widow was told by the Nazis that he left immediately upon finding the rendezvous area cordoned off and that the widow has hated him ever since for ostensibly "betraying" her husband and "running for his life" in a cowardly manner. He spends the rest of the book trying to find a witness to prove that he did come to the rendezvous after all, though uselessly, as it turned out.

Question: Would it really have been wrong and cowardly for Lucas to have left immediately or after only a short wait in hiding when he returned to the town and saw the rendezvous area surrounded by a Nazi patrol?

It seems to me that he could quite reasonably have concluded what was, in fact, true--that his friend was doomed, either already arrested or merely being left to wait a while as bait in a trap for himself. If captured, Lucas would probably have been tortured and might have given away further information, harming others. Moreover, #2 was also his responsibility, waiting in the mountains for both his identity papers and for guidance. It seems to me that it was supererogatory for Lucas to wait the two hours and then to go to the rendezvous. In fact, the Nazis might quite easily have only appeared to go away while leaving some hunters still in hiding to catch him, so it could be argued that going when the evidence was so strong that his friend was already captured was itself unjustifiably reckless.

What do you think?

Comments (11)

How would the Nazis have known that he ran off without seeing him and had they seen him how had they not chased and likely captured him? Had he evaded them and escaped how was that a betrayal of her husband?

The Nazis are supposed to have inferred that that's what he did from the fact that they waited around an extra hour and he didn't come. It's a reasonable assumption, as far as it goes. I still think they were kind of careless Nazis not to have left some hunters in hiding for the rest of the night if they were really determined to catch him.

Still, al's question should have occurred to the widow: "You saw him but let him get away? Doesn't sound right to me."

But, since it apparently did not, what did she expect Lucas to do upon discovering a cordon of Nazis? Go Rambo on them? And how did the Nazis know to cordon off that particular wooded area, unless they'd already extracted the information from #1? Since he was already their prisoner, what help did she think Lucas could provide?

Well, allowing that everything is explicable, Lucas done the right thing and #1's widow is a bitter old bag.

_And_ she raises her child to try to take revenge for the alleged "betrayal," which is where the action of the plot comes from.

So who's the central character? The child? Seems to me transferring her vengeful, bitter old bagness to the child would have to be made convincing. If it is, could be a fun read. In any case, mama better change her ways or she could end up in the hot place.

She's already dead. Lucas (now a composer returning to his birthplace to conduct a new piece) and his daughter are the central characters. Who the child is is the mystery.

Well...are you liking the book?

You can't have a classic whodunit without a body.

My life is so boring that I have taken to sending hand-written short stories to friends instead of letters. (otherwise, I could just send a form letter: Got up, did pretty much the same thing as yesterday, went to bed).

One story I was working on involved a monk/mystery writer who got called into the abbot's office to describe his latest work. After he described the work, the abbot said the same thing you did: you can't have a mystery story without a body. The short story, set at Christmas, was written to prove that you can. It was a really cool story involving an angel who came to earth to communicate a message from God, but God sent him in the form of a mouse. It is hilarious watching the angel try to get the monk's attention and communicate with him. The title of the story was: The Second Star of Bethlehem.

The Chicken

But that's not a classic whodunit, MC. :-)

Bill, I finished it, and I did like it, but I'm easy to please when the person can write well, the plot moves quickly, and there's nothing seriously unpleasant that happens before one's eyes. I know she can do much better things. I highly recommend her Heaven Tree Trilogy.

From the perspective even of a shorter thriller by her, _Death Mask_ is better than this one.

But that's not a classic whodunit, MC. :-)

Well, as a card-carrying mystery reader, I hold to the rules published by The Detection Club back in 1930 as promulgated by Mnsr. Ronald Knox:

Knox's "Ten Commandments" (or "Decalogue") are as follows:

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.
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
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.
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

See, no mention of a dead body. On the other hand, S. S. Van Dine's Commandments (twenty of them) lists, as rule no. 7:

There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much bother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader's trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.

So, the classic field is divided. We are both right.

The Chicken

Lydia, perhaps the superficial definition of a classic "whodunit" must include a literal dead body, but there are other ways of having a story that has all the important literary features of the whodunit form without a literal dead body. A missing body can serve the purpose just as well, if for some reason we are brought to think that "missing" implies dead, though we don't know where the body is (and may need never find out). Indeed, the supposed death may be an erroneous supposition: when we finally uncover who dun' it and what exactly they dun', we may find out that the death was faked altogether.

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