In which we behave like a metaphor

Topic Sentence #2

Dear reader,

Hello to new subscribers! And thanks to all who wrote letters of introduction, haikus to welcome this incarnation of your humble sentence-related newsletter into reality. Please feel free to email me—both recommendations of sentences, and asking for book recommendations will be well received.

Here’s our topic sentence for today:

“His hair and eyes looked blacker than ever, his complexion paler; his fingertips too were slightly blackened from flicking through damp newsprint: he looked like an invitation card for a rather frivolous wake.”

This comes from Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered, a recommendation from Kathleen. It’s a very Kathleen recommendation: an epistolary murder mystery, about lawyers trying to get their bright-eyed, naive colleague off a murder charge from her art tour in Venice. Not as you might think, with their lawyerly powers, but with a general air of Wodehouse and cocktails, trading witticisms and a deduction here or there:

“‘Let us,’ continued Timothy, ‘be sensible. None of us, surely, can seriously believe that Julia has stabbed anyone. It’s not simply a question of character, it’s a matter of competence. Even if she wanted to, which she wouldn’t, she wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to do it.’

‘That’s true,’ said Cantrip, looking more cheerful. ‘I hadn’t thought of that.’”

The gunpowder in our topic sentence is from its closing metaphor, but first notice how much work the first half of the sentence does. We get an instant snapshot of the character, pale and dark-haired and dark-eyed, as well as the comparison—because of what’s happened he’s even more so. Secondly, we note both the observational prowess of our narrator-detective, and a description of the activity that has kept him late.

On that metaphor, “he looked like an invitation card for a rather frivolous wake” is both surface-level amusing (how can a person look like an invitation card?), but also in its object (what would a frivolous wake even look like? What would an invitation for a frivolous wake look like?)

But it also functions at a deeper level. By it’s very nature a murder mystery is itself “a rather frivolous wake”. On one level, they celebrate that which is least worth celebrating, treating death as a puzzle, rather than a mourning.

Don’t be afraid, I love murder mysteries, but it helps, now and then, to think about the nature of a thing. But in every sense, a murder mystery is contrived. G.K. Chesterton wrote that “mysterious murders belong to the grand and joyful company of the things called jokes. The story is a fancy; an avowedly fictitious fiction. We may say if we like that it is a very artificial form of art.”

But it is also a form of art that succeeds by appealing to our deepest longings—questions of what life is worth, and what deserves justice, of what secrets we hide under the skin, and what innocence actually is.

All of this springs from a simple metaphor: an invitation to a rather frivolous wake.

Under the commas,


p.s. The metaphors under your skin that you can’t let go? Favourite mysteries worth celebrating? Let me know!