Why Lord El-Melloi II Fails at Mystery Writing

Hello & Welcome – To Replay Value Critical response on Case Files has been pretty
sour and I’m inclined to agree – it’s not that the characters aren’t good, in
fact I’d argue that they along with the soundtrack, are bright spots in an otherwise
murky soup – but rather that from a writing perspective this show basically sank before
it could even launch properly. A lot of the blame has been placed at the
mystery writing – saying that it basically shoots for the “a-ha gotcha” moment without
doing any of the work leading up to it to make those moments…well deserved in anyway
shape or form. Claims that this show is not a mystery story
should be ignored because it actively clothes itself in the genre with terms like
whodunit and whydunit in addition to large scale deductions that encapsulate the core
conflicts in each episode. As an avid reader and fan of the mystery / detective
fiction genre, I too am disappointed by the show – but I want to use this failing on the
part of Lord El-Melloi to analyze and apply some of the rules of mystery to illuminate
what makes a great mystery story tick and why, especially in the first half, these Case
Files are a far cry from that. I’ll be using as my basis for this argument
a severly abbreviated version of Knox’s Ten Commandments and Van Dyne’s Twenty Rules
since not all of their rules are applicable. For example, Knox’s second commandment – “All
supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.” doesn’t jive with a magical mystery nor
does Van Dyne’s seventh rule which requires the mystery to be based around murder. These are pretty well known rules of mystery
that were written in the early 1900s during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, and even
though not every rule is applicable, I do think that there are some that very clearly
elucidate the core elements that need to be consistent in mystery stories – especially
Fair Play ones. We’ll be applying them to to Episode 3 of
the Case Files which in my opinion is the most offensive because it basically ignores
the process of mystery. Episode 3 features a tea house that’s closed
because of an electrical issue – in that its wiring has been shredded and its being drained
somewhere underneath the sewers. As Lord El-Melloi the Second, who I’ll just
be calling Waver, goes to investigate, he and his apprentices eventually come to a mage’s
workshop – where it turns out that the big bad’s been using electricity to try and
control people blah blah blah lots of nasuverse magic stuff. Believe it or not, that’s the entirety of
the deduction – they follow a path in a sewer, find the workshop, and Waver reappears having
solved everything from seemingly the very beginning. Unsurprisingly, this goes against a bunch
of widely agreed upon structure of how to setup a mystery. For example, Knox’s first commandment is
“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.” You don’t have to worry about the latter
half in this case, because we don’t meet the culprit until the very end of the episode
when it’s obvious that he’s the villain, and he’s never mentioned prior to his introduction. We don’t even get his name or his position
until Waver reveals it in the deduction. This also conflicts with Van Dine’s tenth
rule which is: “The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less
prominent part in the story–that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom
he takes an interest.” The only clue that we’re given about who
the culprit might be, is that the zoology department is currently in turmoil. It’s totally possible to correctly guess
that the culprit is from zoology – hey, I even got that far – but there is no way to
know who this Davenant guy is or why the electricity is important. Van Dyne’s first rule gets to this pretty
succinctly, “The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving
the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.” And this is partially why mystery rules tend
to stay away from magic – because there is a lot of explaining that needs to be done
when magic and the supernatural is involved, to understand what’s possible and what isn’t. Given that the “why” requires knowledge
of “The Powers of Zeus” and “elements of Jupiter” and a dozen other magical elements
and we get none of that in this episode or even the previous ones, kind of indicates
why Knox’s second commandment is what it is. That’s not saying it’s impossible, just
that rules of magic – and how the relevant ones work – need to be very clearly established
before the mystery is introduced or in the process of introducing said mystery. If you view mystery as a game between writer
and audience, then the game has been rigged against you since the moment it started, and
the only victory you may find solace in is a partial one at best. All of what I just established are major problems
– we’re talking about massive rule violations – but one of the subtler ones that probably
would be ignored is the lack of clue processing. This is a bit of a mix of Knox’s eighth
commandment: “The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.” and the spirit of Van Dyne’s sixth rule. Waver just holds all the clues and his rationale
to himself until the time comes to deliver a deduction. The second we’re introduced to the problem,
it would seem that he’s already figured it out We don’t get to see Waver contacting Caules
to utilize his database searching capabilities – even though it got tee’d up earlier – to
get the electricity usage for the area, and then Waver sits on the sideline for more than
half the episode while Gray and Flat go marching through the sewers. But it’s not like either of them are acting
as detectives either, they’re just there to get to the end of the line so that Waver
can swoop in and make his grand deduction, using knowledge that – again we never had
because it was never explained – make the clues make sense but…that’s worthless
to the audience since there’s no context. There’s also this line that Waver says that’s
very clearly not being directed at the audience, but like…it’s too perfect to not include
here because of the implication — Partially this lack of clue processing is
because Waver has no sidekick who he’s outlining his deductions to – there’s no Watson here
– and we’re not privy to his thought process through internal monologue either. That’s a pretty strong deviation from the
norm of detective fiction, because without the process that leads to a deduction, we’re
brought back to the simple fact that this isn’t a mystery that the audience could
possibly solve. I could probably deal with one of these issues,
certainly Hyouka Episode 20 features a mystery that I didn’t have the critical clue for
where I was miffed but ultimately okay with because of how close you can get to the answer
without it – and that’s a show where one could argue where the mystery is just a vehicle
for character and thematic development – but the result in this case there’s just so
much beyond the audience’s knowledge that Waver’s deduction at the end just feels…hollow. Like there was no point in anything that happened,
everything we learned that’s relevant for the future deduction on the Rail Zeppelin
could have just been shown to us in lecture or in discussion or…something. It’s basically pretending to be a Fair Play
mystery without actually being one and – to me at least – implied that I was wasting my
time trying to solve it or caring in the first place. In my opinion, the best mysteries are ones
where if the audience were to replay the story, already knowing the conclusion, they would
find the answer apparent throughout, and easily solvable if only the reader had the deduction
skills of the detective. If you do that for the Case Files, this episode
or the one before it especially, you’ll find that to not be the case – and that’s
a shame. To be clear it could very well be that Lord
El-Melloi is not attempting to be a fair play mystery and that the authorial intent is that
I should be as astounded by Waver’s deduction as I would be by Sherlock Holmes’. I concede that that’s possible, but I would
argue that it’s hard to be amazed by a deduction if its being made off of things that one couldn’t
possibly know about because they’re entirely fictional without being properly introduced
to the audience – that doesn’t feel like skilled deduction because it doesn’t feel
like skilled writing. And I ask you this dear audience, if we’re
not following along for the mystery…what is the throughline for enjoying the story? In my case, it’s just my love of Waver from
Fate/Zero…but without that – I’d have nothing, and that’s indicative of a story
that didn’t need to be told. The actual Train section I’ve been enjoying
more – we’re coming up to the final episode as I write this but…I just can’t get the
opening half’s bad taste out of my mouth.

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