Peter Biella is Director of the Program in Visual Anthropology at San Francisco State University.  He has spent more than 25 years developing a hypermedia ethnography of Ilparakuyo Maasai in Tanzania but last year in Peru he came up for air and shot a regular movie at 17,000 feet.

Coherent Labyrinths

Peter Biella

       Judge Cadwell ripped open the envelope, started looking through the papers.
       "Mr. Mason," he said, "this is a very grave matter."
       "Yes, Your Honor."
       "The papers in this envelope are matters of evidence.  They constitute most important bits of evidence in the case."
      "Evidence of what?"   Mason asked.

Erle Stanley Gardner (1957:126)

1. 13th century labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral.

Part I.  Labyrinth and Maze

     Labyrinths properly speaking require that only one decision be made:  one who enters must decide whether or not to follow the path.  Because of this, labyrinths have played an important symbolic role in Christianity since at least 1201, when this floor of Chartres Cathedral was put in place.  The faithful were instructed to travel its path (often on their knees) in contemplation.  The passage was a microcosm of the journey to faith, a pilgrimage.  Chartres' labyrinth was called Chemin de Jerusalem. 1

2.  Chartres' 11-circuit design

Although the path looks quite confusing, it contains no false leads, no dead ends. 2

3.  The labyrinth as an animated movie.  Click the  Play button. 3

Since the labyrinth represents the Road to Salvation, the journey is a sort of mise-en-abysm, the universe of faith in miniature. 4

4. Labyrinth and spaghetti 

In the 16th century, Church Fathers at Chartres decided that their labyrinth-pilgrims' journeys would be more spiritual if locations along the way were identified with the Fourteen Stations of the Cross.

5.  Stations of the Cross

     The faithful were instructed to meditate at each Station.  If the stops along the way in the labyrinth did hasten a pilgrims' salvation, they did not elicit the confusion of competing paths.  Even with its fourteen meditation points, the labyrinth is unicursal:  it offers only one route on which all nodes are touched.  The path, though meandering, is unambiguous. 5

6.  The Minoan Palace of Knossos

     Strange, then, that the most famous example of what is called a labyrinth was that  riddle of warrens at the Palace of Knossos, in Crete. 6  The Minoan labyrinth should properly be called a maze, since it confounds solution with its many deceptive paths.

7.  A simple maze

     Hardly distinguishable from a labyrinth, this maze contains a single entrance and single exit.

8.  Solved

However, as the white path confirms, only one of several alternatives leads to the solution.  The others, the pink paths with red doorways, lead to the yellow dead ends. The doorways are distracters, offering false choices that are indistinguishable on the ground from those that lead to the solution.

9.  Maze spaghetti

    As this straightened-out spaghetti version shows, the solution path offers a much shorter trip than one would have wandering down the pink distractions.  Each red node increases the likelihood of becoming lost.  As such, nodes make the experience of traveling a maze very different from that of passing through the Stations of the Cross in the labyrinth at Chartres.  Rather than encouraging attainment of the inevitable Solution, they tear one away from it.  Nodes in a maze serve a different inevitability, insuring that one will not  find the solution but instead reach unexpected destinations.  Yet the difference is not necessarily unpleasant.  Going off course, finding the wrong yellow gold, is what makes mazes fun.  I'll return to this point below.

     First, though, I want to consider some implications of labyrinths and mazes for detective stories and visual anthropology.  I will discuss how authors of both types of writings create the unicursal paths to a destination of meaning.  In the next section I'll analyze how three types of empirical evidence are used in detective fiction to approach the final, coherent theory of the crime.  In the third section of the paper, I'll suggest how interactive ethnographies can be designed to help researchers discover new evidence of cultural coherence.



  My well-worn copy (Gardner 1957)

     First, detective stories.  In 1956, Erle Stanley Gardner published his 55th Perry Mason mystery, The Case of the Lucky Loser. 7  I read it first twenty years ago, and thought about it often.  In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication, it is time for me to tell all.

11.  Crucial nodes:  the killer tries to corrupt Perry Mason -- pp. 106 and 107

I read the mystery several more times over the next four years.  Each time I made marginal notes (using different colored inks) and appreciated it more. 8

12.  Pleasures of the text -- p. 17

13.  The incredible story -- p. 91

14. Four theories of the crime

            The Lucky Loser is remarkable, first, because Gardner leads us through four mutually-exclusive theories of the crime.  Each new theory arises when the discovery of new evidence causes its predecessor to collapse. Moreover, each theory entails different Victims, different people Accused, and different Means by which the crime was committed. 

            There is also a great playfulness in the narrative.  The real killer says he once said he was guilty, but then says he was lying.  Two innocent people actually believe they might  be guilty, and one of the innocent people -- unfortunately this one happens to be an anthropologist -- turns out to be the corpse! 

            Despite their basis in deception, detective stories are expected to play fair.  Every piece of evidence must persist in the novel:  no evidence may be forgotten nor may any be left unexplained.  Detective stories are expected to be more than fair.  They are not only required to "drop clues" but must present all of the clues needed for an astute reader to solve the case as quickly as does the detective.  Small wonder that the fictional world of Perry Masons and similar Whodunits is particularly attractive to real-world anthropologists.  For us, the persistence of material reality is disconcertingly fused with the impermanence of interpretation.  A great attraction in detective stories is their demonstration of the modernist faith:  however misguided original interpretations of evidence may be, nothing more than a flexible, skeptical mind is needed to learn the whole story and the incredible story.

             Evidence and interpretation, then, are fundamental in solving mysteries, detective and ethnographic.  I distinguish three types of evidence. 

15. Evidence Type 1 (blue):  Available and Recognized.

Evidence Type 1 is Available to the characters in the novel and Recognized as such by them.  This evidence quickly becomes familiar to the reader.  It piles up dramatically in The Lucky Loser, as one passes through each theory.  In the following, I indicate Evidence Type 1 with blue bullet-point nodes.

.  Evidence Type 2 (red): Available but Not recognized.

Type 2 evidence is available to the reader but not recognized, not appreciated as relevant to a theory of the crime or a solution to the mystery.  Available / Unrecognized Evidence is indicated with red nodes.

17.  Evidence Type 3 (green):  Not available but Recognized

           The third type of evidence is, in one way or another, Not available, and characters may never think to look for it.  Despite its invisibility, the existence of Type 3 Evidence can be deduced, and it is always dramatically revealed by the detective at the dénouementNot available but Recognized evidence is bulleted in green.

           In the following, I'll model the appearance of evidence in The Lucky Loser as nodes in a graph.  These nodes are key plot elements to which the mystery's reader may be obliged to return more than once.  Returns are required when new evidence forces the abandonment of old theories.  As this occurs, evidence which was misinterpreted before is reevaluated and recast, to support an alternative (and sometimes also superior) theory of the crime.

            Many readers find the exercise of recasting meaning an enjoyable kind of brain work (particularly if the stakes are no higher than those of most paperback fiction).  Erle Stanley Gardner had perfected his art of making readers rethink what they thought they knew seventeen years before he wrote The Lucky Loser.  In the 1939 Case of the Perjured Parrot, Gardner has his hero describe the strategy of flexibility that a lawyer (and mystery writer) must adopt toward evidence:

I never take a case [Perry explains,] unless I'm convinced my client was incapable of committing the crime charged.  Once I've reached that conclusion, I figure there must be some discrepancy between the evidence and the conclusions the police have drawn from that evidence.  I set out to find them (1947:3).

Later in the same novel, Perry elaborates:

We've been talking quite a bit about becoming hypnotized by circumstantial evidence.  After a person once gets a fixed belief, he interprets everything which happens in light of that belief.  It's a dangerous habit to get into, and I'm afraid I haven't been entirely innocent, myself.  I've been so busy pointing out the trap to others that I've walked into one myself without noticing what I was doing (1947:178).

But, no worries, by the end of the novel Perry does properly uncork the mystery of the evidence.  He never fails to extract himself and the reader from the predicament of fixed beliefs.

18.  Theory 1, Available and Recognized Evidence.

            Now, to The Lucky Loser.  The novel begins, the case opens, with evidence being taken in court.  It is Type 1, blue, Available and Recognized as proof of Theory 1.

19. Accused, Victim and Means of the Crime in Theory 1.

According to that theory, Ted has accidentally killed a pedestrian in a hit-and-run car crash.

Accused:  Ted
Victim: Unknown pedestrian 
Means:  Hit-and-run

Theory 1 is supported with four pieces of Type 1 Evidence (blue).  I define this as evidence that is Available and Recognized.  By these terms I mean that the material evidence is in the possession of the interested parties and it is argued by them to support a theory of the crime.  Blue nodes in Plate 19 represent evidence that the police put forward to prosecute Ted.  The shaded nodes (midway along the edge between evidence and theory) represent the argument by which each piece of evidence is justified in support of the theory.  Justifications that support Theories 1 through 3, in addition often to being obvious, are also often wrong.  For that reason, in these plates I do not dwell on the justifications but only represent them visually.  In Footnote 20, though, I list the ways that characters have misconstrued each piece of evidence and summarize Perry's correct explanation of the role of the evidence in solving the crime.

            I anticipate that a scant few readers will have less interest in the scholarly aspects of The Lucky Loser than I.  So that these troglodytes may easily recognize the sections they want to avoid, I've indented parts of the footnotes that give Lucky Loser plot details and page numbers.  Readers may speed through indented summaries and concentrate on sections of the footnotes in which I draw my conclusions. 9

20.  Myrtle's variant

Theory 1 takes on a variant when Ted's clever first attorney convinces the jury that Ted's accuser, Myrtle, committed the hit-and-run crime herself. 10

21.  Dorla's variant

            I note here in passing the later emergence of a plot twist that ultimately affects Theory 1.  In it, one of the killers -- named Boles -- says he told the other killer -- named Dorla -- to confess to the hit-and-run crime.  Thus Dorla's name, like those of Ted and Myrtle before it, is added to the list of the Accused in a third variant of Theory 1. 11

22.  Problematic evidence in Theory 1

     Meanwhile, Perry goes into gear, spotting anomalous Evidence Type 2 (red).  He notices something suspicious about Myrtle's handwriting.  Although her note was on the evidence bench and could have been interpreted by anyone, neither Howland nor the police pays it any attention, much less uses it to argue a new theory of the crime. 

            Moreover, the police have their own dilemma with another piece of Evidence Type 2.  They have a corpse on hand (Available) but they cannot identify it (it's Not Recognized).

            This same problem, missing identity-evidence, can also be modeled as a node of Evidence Type 3 (green), Recognized through deduction to be significant but Not available.  Perry realizes that the Victim's body has been made unrecognizable by the killers to confound detection. 12

23.  The leap to Theory 2

          Now dramatic new evidence forces the abandonment of Theory 1 and brings about a reinterpretation of preexisting Evidence Type 1.  It leads to a new theory of the crime.

24.  Ted as murderer in Theory 2

Exhumation of the corpse has proved that the Victim was killed by a bullet.  Ted owns the gun and he is rearrested for murder.  Ted fires the first lawyer and hires Perry in his place.

25.  Florence's lie

       In a soon-to-unfold plot twist, Florence will try to throw Perry off the scent and force attention to remain on Theory 2.  She claims to know that Ted killed the Victim.  Ted told her, she says, that he had a gun and said he would use it against a Mafia debt collector.  Florence's verbal evidence is indicated with a dotted line because it has the same characteristics as Boles' deception in Theory 1 (Plate 21):  both harken back to earlier theories in the plot and both are known by the speakers to be untrue. 13

  Theory 2 exploded

 Now readers are exposed to more anomalous clues.  An example of Type 2
(red) develops when Ted reveals that his so-called "Aunt" Dorla often flirted with him:  neither Ted nor the readers recognize the significance of this fact, so Perry has to do the brain work later. 14


.  Movement to Theory 3

            The police remain stuck at Theory 2, but Perry and the novel move on to a third theory of the crime. Two accounts of it are spun privately to Perry;  first it is told reluctantly by Florence, then aggressively by Boles, one of the killers.  Although Florence thinks her "incredible story" (Plate 13)  is true, Perry suspects it is not.  When Perry hears the same story from Boles, woven into bribes and blackmail, Perry begins to realize that he is the real killer.


Theory 3, Variant 1:  Guthrie as  Accused

        Before Florence admits her secret about Theory 3, she tries to hold the novel back at Theory 2, claiming that Ted is guilty.  Perry won't have it, though, and forces Florence's hand:  she then admits that she believes Guthrie committed the crime;  he confessed it to her.  Her admission that she lied about Ted's guilt is the novel's most poignant evidence that Guthrie may be the killer.  Boles tells Perry the same story, but he is lying whereas Florence is only mistaken. 15

29. Theory 3, Variant 2:  Boles' "false" confession

Boles further claims he lied to Dorla, telling her that he himself was guilty of the shooting.  Since Dorla and Boles are the killers, Boles claim of lying is itself a lie meant to deceive Perry.  In telling it, Boles adds his name to the list of the Accused in a variant of Theory 3. 16

30.  Boles' lie:  reflexive reprise of Theory 1

And Boles continues lying to Perry, now saying that he intended to blackmail Dorla, forcing her to confess to Theory 1, the hit-and-run. 17

31.  Florence, Boles and the mise-en-abysm

     Theory 3 is a fascinating turning point in the novel because here the story twice twists back and reflects on itself, like the microcosm of Chartres' labyrinth.  Florence tells her lie for the humdrum detective-story reason of protecting the man she loves.  But the return it brings to Theory 2 foreshadows a much more dramatic move when Boles takes us back to Theory 1.  Boles' account of events at this point in the novel is a complete fabrication.  Yet in it, Boles' lie leads us back to the original theory of the crime, enjoining the killers to confess in fantasy what was their real crime, and all of Boles' fabrication unfolding in a Tale World that is itself a fabrication.  Here in this parsimonious double movement The Lucky Loser gives its readers a lovely mise-en-abysm of the entire novel (Ryan 2001:167). 18

32.  Perry's leap to the Solution

     And at last Perry has the brainstorm that cracks the case, the final example of Evidence Type 2.  Guthrie has been out of touch, Perry realizes, not because he is in Mexico doing anthropological fieldwork, but because he is dead!  Thus Perry leads us inexorably to Theory 4, the Solution.

33.  Perry's new evidence

Knowing that Guthrie is the Victim, Perry proves that Boles and Dorla perjured themselves to hide their crimes.  He also deduces the existence of a missing second bullet, fired by Guthrie.  Perry's deduction gives the novel its final example of Evidence Type 3. 19

34.  The narrative structure [for a higher-resolution version of this plate, click here]

         All the facts are now marshaled to confirm the Solution. 20  With new arguments, the all too familiar, almost always misconstrued Evidence Type 1 suddenly points to the killers.  Type 2 clues, before never recognized as such, now betray them.  And Evidence Type 3, the physical absence of which requires astute deductions by the detective, has now duly been brought to the attention of the authorities. 21

         In the above, I have modeled The Case of the Lucky Loser as a graph.  I've linked together nodes of Evidence with four Theories of the Crime, tracing their relationships through justifications and arguments.  It may appear, with so many theories refuted, that this is a graph of blind alleys, a network of false destinations.  But though detective fiction may appear to be a maze, the best of it is a labyrinth.  In The Lucky Loser, the solution is reached by following a unicursal path from page one to one hundred and forty-eight.  Along the route, every edge is traveled, every clue explained, every node linked to the Solution.


Part III.  The Case of Maasai Interactive


  Maasai Interactive's Text Field
-- transcribed, translated, subtitled

            To conclude this essay, I want to discuss the relevance of the kinds of evidence and attributes of recognition discussed above in relationship to a computer-based visual ethnography.  Maasai Interactive contains many transcribed conversations, like Plate 35, that I recorded cinéma vérité style, in a Tanzania Maasai homestead.  As the audio plays, each line is highlighted.  Lines of transcription are clickable, interactive subtitles.  For the snippet of audio that belongs to this section, play the following:

36.   Main Text Field with footnote numbers marked

More than a thousand moments in the transcripts are footnoted.  These moments constitute nodes like Perry Mason's Evidence Type 1, Available and Recognized.

37.  The Main Text transcript linked to Annotations

     My ethnographic analysis of the transcripts (the Annotation field) is usually on screen.  Linked to footnote numbers in the Main Text field, the Annotation field provides my interpretation of the empirical evidence of the audio recording.   My analysis unfolds in parallel with the transcript's sequential events.  Each annotation is linked to its available evidence node, offering a theory, argument or comment about what I recognize to be significant.

            The simplest way to work through Maasai Interactive is to treat it as a unicursal path. This route, from Transcript to Annotation, would trace a labyrinth:  one would follow each node of evidence to its analysis, then return back to the next. The Greek word boustrophedon, moving as the ox plows, left to right, right to left, captures the idea.

38.  Cross references in the Annotation Field

Annotations do not exclusively refer to the Transcript Main Text, however.  Maasai Interactive allows the reader many opportunities to escape the path of the ox.  Many annotations are cross referenced to other annotations, and thus provide links to distant moments which shed light on the topic at hand.  If the reader clicks on these cross reference nodes, the associated transcript and annotation appear on screen.

39.  Three levels of cross-referenced Annotations [for a higher-resolution version of this plate, click here] .

     Cross references offer side trips to the journey I have designed in Maasai Interactive, but keep the reader within my labyrinth.  The annotation at level A is rich with cross references to related annotations at Level B.  The latter contains cross-reference nodes to many more annotations, on different topics, at Level C. 

     Although my awareness as author is limited primarily to (blue) hard links, readers may yet transcend the paths I understand.  Following cross-reference chains they can easily jump from ideas at A to ideas at C.

40.  Level 2  links, Available but Not recognized

     The readers' jump from A to B and from B to C incorporates whatever knowledge I have gained about these relationships.  But the red leap from A to C can give readers an order of insight beyond what I know.  Such a leap is to information of Type 2, evidence that is easily Available but that I did Not recognize. 22  The leap thus allows readers to exit the labyrinth of my knowledge and enter a maze of their own design.  There they may find golden nuggets, previously undiscovered, dormant in the rich documentary evidence of Maasai life.

41.  A Maasai Interactive search engine

            Readers may also develop independent theories in a second way.  To test for evidence in support of new hypotheses they invent, readers can use Maasai Interactive's search engine.

42.  Hits for the Swahili word piga

Since independent searches concern ideas which may never have occurred to me, searches explore Evidence Type 3, Recognized   but previously Not available. 23

43.  Search results: Evidence, Type 3  [for a higher-resolution version of this plate, click here].

     By using a search engine and making their own soft links, readers have a second means to depart my road to formulate their own paths.  Each link in the labyrinth invites the invention of a new maze, a new opportunity to form cultural hypotheses.  With them, readers reach unanticipated destinations, and become immersed in the infinite pathways of knowledge.

     I do not want to say that Maasai Interactive, rich as it is, is a microcosm of Ilparakuyo life.  Yet studying the Ilparakuyo with this interactive labyrinth has been for me a mise-en-abysm of fieldwork, and has given all the enjoyment of detective fiction.



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1 Labyrinths predate the Christian era.  A lovely repertoire of early examples may be viewed at Aslaksen (2002). Other beautiful collections may be explored in Eichfelder (nd), Hébert (2006a), and Labyrinth Society (2005).  One of the earliest datable examples, below, is the "Classic 7" found in a cave in Luzzanas, Sardinia, from perhaps 850 BCE.  Authors have speculated about the lines, which I've emphasized in black, that block the labyrinth's entrance and pathways (Fischer and Gerster 1990, Hébert 2006a, Saward 2005).  For a wonderful animation of how this labyrinth can be drawn, see Hébert (2006b).

2  Interest in labyrinths is experiencing a renaissance.  A society and many websites are dedicated to their appreciation.  (For a labyrinth near your home or place of business, visit The Labyrinth Locator.)

            Labyrinths and mazes have also come to prominence in the last twenty years because they form the foundation of many computer games, including my nemesis, Nanosaur.  In it, you have to search the island wastelands to recover stolen dinoeggs, and the image below is a cheat overview of the Nanosaurian archipelago.  I've marked the best route through the maze to get the eggs.

You may think this maze looks easy, but you wouldn't say that if you were on the ground without a map being chased by a dozen jet-launched pterodactyls.

            In any case, the increased commercial value of maze-based computer games has stimulated the invention of many algorithms that create mazes (Wikipedia 2007a).  More commercially significant is the fact that mathematicians and computer programmers have found Graph Theory invaluable.  It is the mathematical foundation of much artificial intelligence and is based on analyzing the maze-like properties of decision trees.  I might add that Graph Theory was invented on a lark in 1736 (Wikipedia 2007b).  One never knows the final reach of  playfulness.

            Few anthropologists have the acumen to apply the mathematics of Graph Theory to ethnographic problems, but the trail has been blazed by Hage and Harary (1983, 1991, 1996).

3 To produce my animated labyrinth, I was obliged to study my model in Chartres.  The length of the straightened-out spaghetti is 20 times the labyrinth's diameter.  To discover this factoid, I attached a copy to a cork board, unwound a string along it as Ariadne's thread, kept the string in place with tacks, and then, after the string completed the journey, I measured the string.  Since the plan was to fill the spaghetti with a growing rainbow, I needed the total length of the unwound spaghetti to know how many pixels would be required for each increment of color. Because I assumed that watching the rainbow grow would be tiresome after 10 seconds, I gave each increment a one frame, one-thirtieth of a second, so that the filling would take 9 seconds, 270 frames.  Friends have said that the labyrinth fills too quickly for their liking.

            To create the individual frames for this animation, I started with the empty labyrinth in PhotoShop, gave it a 410 pixel diameter, and anticipated an 8200 pixel length of spaghetti.  I found a rainbow on the web and divided it into 270 increments (later discovering to my disappointment that quite a few increments were identical in shade).  Since the total length of the spaghetti divided by the number of increments was 30, I assigned to each of the 270 increments about 30 pixels of spaghetti.  (My would-be rigor loosened at each of the labyrinths twenty-eight 180-degree turns and six semi-right angles.  As a result, I ended up needing 290 increments, which explains why the rainbow returns to the color red.)  I then created an individual layer in PhotoShop for each increment, filled each with the accumulation of all preceding layers, and added to each layer one new increment.  Once I had filled the labyrinth, I generated an individual, numbered PICT file for each of the 290 layers and imported the lot into Final Cut Pro.  In that application I made each image one frame long and created the movie.  The process took five or six hours.

            Were I to make another, I would design it so that the filling at the beginning and end moved more slowly than the rest of the journey.  I would also part company with the new age rainbow and try something a bit more subtle, more old age, perhaps like this:

4  Considering the labyrinth as microcosm, Mircea Eliade writes: "The supreme rite of initiation is to enter a labyrinth and return from it, and yet every life, even the least eventful, can be taken as the journey through a labyrinth. The sufferings and trials undergone by Ulysses were fabulous, and yet any man's return home has the value of Ulysses' return to Ithaca" (1970:382).

5  I have taken descriptions of Chartres and definitions of labyrinth and maze from Newman Catholic Fellowship (nd) and Paxworks (nd).

6 The Minotaur and his Maze have disappeared from Crete, but one may still become lost in the ruins through eleven elegant virtual-reality videos Boyd et al. (1998).

7  Gardner's complete Perry Mason bibliography is available at Barrister (nd). For a different evocation of great lawyer detective, listen to this:

borrowed from NPR (2002).      

8  I purchased my copy of The Lucky Loser at a Maine garage sale for 25 cents.  For my first reading in 1986, I made comments in pencil and black ink (lower-case).  I added the red-ink notes in November, 1989, and they are the most beautiful.  Sparse green comments come from December, 1989, and capital-letter black ink was added August, 1991.  I read The Lucky Loser once or twice more in the 1990s, but did not have enough new ideas to justify another color of ink.  I had worked out the basic premises but had not fully cracked the code -- summarized in Plate 34 -- until 2006-7 when I wrote the present essay. 

9  The Case of the Lucky Loser has been reprinted often, with different pagination in at least four editions.  It is currently out of print, although the Ballentine Books/Random House edition is easy to find used, online.  In the following, my citations to the text give page numbers for two editions.  The first are from my copy of the Curtis Publishers' edition (Gardner 1957).  These are followed by a slash and the page numbers from the Ballentine paperback edition (1990).   Other versions include the original serialization in The Saturday Evening Post (1956) and an Avenon Books collection of seven complete novels (1979).

            Giving page citations, I'll here elaborate on the information I presented in  the main text of this essay and its plates.  In the first variant of Theory 1 we see:

Accused:  Ted (pp. 6 / 5)
Victim:  Unknown pedestrian (pp. 6 / 5)
Means:  Hit-and-run (pp. 6 / 5)

            Theory 1 is supported with four pieces of Type 1 Evidence (blue), Available and Recognized.  As the novel makes clear, evidence that is recognized in this sense is often misunderstood and used to support a false or partly-incorrect theory.
             Theory 1 introduces four evidence nodes of Type 1:

A dead body is found in the road (pp. 9 / 9)

The police receive an anonymous tip that the hit-and-run car belongs to Ted (police acknowledgment -- pp. 11 / 11;  Boles' version -- pp. 105 / 127)

Blood is found on the bumper of Ted's car (pp. 7 / 6)

Myrtle testifies that she saw the car swerve and hit something (pp. 16 / 17)

10  Myrtle joins the list of the accused in a second variant of Theory 1.  She says that she wrote down the license number while she was driving, and Ted's first attorney, the half shyster Mortimer Dean Howland, construes the evidence of her handwritten note in the following way:

•  Ted is innocent of the crime.  Myrtle herself hit the pedestrian because she was not looking at the road while she was writing her note (pp. 17 / 18-9).

            Howland has the evidence of Myrtle's handwritten note available, and he recognizes it to support his hare-brained theory.  Perry ultimately recognizes the real significance of the note and overturns Howland's theory (Plate 22 and Footnote 12.)

11  In an effort first to bribe and then to blackmail Perry, the killer Boles tells him a number of lies, including the following:

  Boles says he once attempted to force Dorla into confessing the hit-and-run crime (pp. 105 / 126). 

This variant of Theory 1 is discussed at Plate 30 and Footnote 17.

12  I want to clarify how I use the concept of recognition in this essay.  At Plate 19 and Footnote 9, where I describe Evidence Type 1 (materially Available and Recognized), I define recognition as the interpretation of evidence and its use in support of a theory of the crime, whether or not that theory is true.  When events mandate, evidence incorrectly recognized to support one theory will be re-recognized to support another.

            Evidence in the Type 2 category (red), Available and Not recognized, entails additional defining attributes of recognition, as seen in two examples from Theory 1

In the first, Perry notices that the handwriting of Myrtle's note is so steady that the writer could not have been driving (pp. 25 / 35). Ted's first lawyer, Howland, had failed to notice the significance of this available evidence (Footnote 9). 

No one except Perry looks for a better explanation.  The fact that the evidence has been characterized at all dissuades better efforts.
            A second example of Type 2 in support of Theory 1 reveals a different twist on the problem.  

The police do not know the identity of the corpse (pp. 42 / 50)

Unlike the first example, the police in this case do understood that identification of the corpse is needed.  Here, however, they do not recognize that such identification is necessary for the solution of the crime, and they therefore drop the ball.

            The problem of identifying the corpse also gives rise to an example of Evidence Type 3, Not available although Recognized to be significant. 

Whereas the police construe the inability to identify the corpse as an insignificant detail, Perry recognizes that it is essential to the solution of the crime (Perry hypothesizes this -- pp. 56 / 67;  he is proved correct -- pp. 139 / 168). 

            Two aspects of recognition errors have thus been identified.  A person may have an explanation, but have it wrong.  Or, a person may know that an explanation is lacking, but not realize how important having the explanation would be.

13   With Theory 2, the police version shifts dramatically.  The police do keep the same Accused (Ted), but they impose a name and a new status on the Victim and recognize a new Means of the crime.

Accused:  Ted (pp. 56 / 67)
Victim:  Jackson Eagan (police identification -- pp. 56 / 67), described as a Mafia debt collector (Ted's version -- pp. 83 / 101;  Florence's version -- pp. 88 / 107;  Boles' version -- pp. 119 / 144)
Means:  Gun shot (pp. 56 / 67)

              Evidence that is Available and Recognized abounds in Theory 2.  The recognitions, however, are again all focused on a false explanation of the crime.  New evidence in Theory 2 includes:

The Victim is misidentified on the basis of association with stolen IDs (pp. 41-2 / 50).
A gun shot was reported at a motel in which the Victim was believed to have been registered (pp. 52 / 63)
The body is exhumed and the Victim is found to have been killed by a bullet (pp. 52 / 63)
Ballistics evidence proves that the bullet was fired from Ted's gun (Perry discovers the gun -- pp. 61 / 74;  police describe their belated discovery -- pp. 113 / 137).
Florence throws Perry a curve, claiming that Ted shot the Mafia debt collector (pp. 88 / 107)

14 Anomalous evidence of Type 2 also abounds at this turn in the novel:

Ted fails to realize that Dorla flirted with him and that she was interested in his inheritance (pp. 76 / 92)
Perry learns that the police have misidentified the Victim on the basis of false evidence (pp. 67 / 81).  Their misconstrual might be modeled as Type 2, in which the real significance of available evidence is not recognized;  it could also be seen as an example of Type 3, the Recognition, by Perry, that key information is Not available.  Until the identity of the Victim is available, the crime cannot be solved.
A similar analytical duality relates to the fact that Florence has disappeared.  Since the police know this but do not recognize it as significant, it can be modeled as a case of Type 2.  But it can also be modeled as Type 3, since Perry recognizes it as significant.  As he says, "When a witness runs away I want to know what she's running from and why" (pp. 87 / 106).
Ted was drugged, remembers nothing, and does not know if he is guilty of the shooting or not (pp. 83 / 100).  This recognized ignorance is an example of Evidence, Type 3
Perry finds an audio recorder in which the tape is partly erased.  Because Perry intuits that someone must have caused the evidence to be unavailable, he recognizes that its disappearance (like that of Florence) is important. 

            If Type 1 Evidence is on everyone's mind, Type 2 is the 600 pound gorilla that nobody quite sees.  Evidence Type 3 is the missing link, the structuring absence (Althusser 1971), a material fact whose existence must first be deduced in order that it be discovered. 

15  In Theory 3, Variant 1:

Accused:  Guthrie (pp. 93 / 113)
Victim:  Dorla's lover (pp. 93 / 113)
Means:  Gun shot (pp. 93 / 113)

Evidence, Type 1 in Theory 3 begins with:

Florence admits she lied, lending credence to her penitently-revealed evidence about Guthrie's guilt (pp. 93 / 113)
Florence and Boles tell Perry of Guthrie's confession (Florence's honest revelation -- pp. 93 / 113;  Boles' deceitful one -- pp. 103 / 124)

Guthrie did shoot at someone in the dark, and that person, Boles, did pretend to die.  Guthrie then fled the scene and confessed to Florence what he thought he had done.  Boles, who was Dorla's lover, knew Guthrie believed he had killed someone.

16  In Variant 2 of Theory 3, Boles adds his name to the list of the Accused:

Boles tells Perry that he told Dorla he killed her lover -- (pp. 105 / 126)

Boles prefaces this story of his own guilt to Perry by saying that it is false and that Guthrie is the real killer.  Thus, nothing about Boles' confession-of-a-confession was meant to be believed.  This proclaimed deception, though, is particularly clever in the narrative:  because Boles and Dorla are the killers, Boles' nominally-deceptive confession is actually the truth.  It has the additional benefit of increasing the elegance of The Lucky Loser's structure of misguided theories and free-floating signifiers:  even deceit can be deceitful.   The elegance of this structure is increased in the next plot move as well (Plate 29 and Footnote 17).

17 The narrative's playful reflexivity, first expressed in Florence's' deception, then more strongly echoed in Boles' phony / true confession, is increased with a yet third plot twist:

Boles pretends to Perry that he told Dorla to confess to the hit-and-run crime (pp. 104-5 / 126).

This leap back to the first theory of the novel gives readers a music-like reprise of the narrative pleasure they experienced before (Plate 20, Footnote 10).

18  Theory 3 offers a mise-en-abysm which proposes that Crimes, Criminals and Evidence are all interchangeable, all falsifiable, all grist for the narrative mill.   By posing the real killer as the false killer, Gardner playfully continues to exhaust as many formal possibilities as he can, making use of a multi-dimensional matrix of the Sincere and False, the Cast of Characters, and the Roles of Accused and Victim.  Almost everyone is almost everything.


In the upper matrix, Ted is accused of the murder in Theories 1 and 2, Myrtle in Theory 1, Guthrie in Theory 3 and Boles and Dorla in Theory 4.  Because the accusations are sincere, if usually false, I've indicated them with bright colors.  However, I've marked Boles (in the Theory 3 column) and Dorla (in Theory 1) with pale colors.  This is to signify that Boles confesses and accuses Dorla of the crime insincerely.  

In the lower matrix, the Victim's identity shifts as well.  In Theory 2, the police have not heard the Mafia theory, but Ted sincerely proposes it, and Florence insincerely does so.  It is thus half pale. Dorla's Lover (who turns out to be Boles) is deceptively proposed for the part in Theory 3 so his box in the matrix has to be pale.  But Guthrie finally wins the semiological audition and he does wind up dead in Theory 4.   With all this playfulness, Gardner must have been disappointed that only one character was able to serve both as the killer and the killed.  But there was, after all, only one corpse!  At least he could have two bad guys.  Compare this model of the novel with that in Plate 14.

19  Perry now puts together all the evidence that the reader has seen him gather in the preceding pages.  Everything of an evidential nature is sorted out:  Perry has cracked another case:

    Accused:  Dorla and Boles (pp. 144 / 174)
    Victim:  Guthrie (pp. 144 / 174)
    Means:  Gun shot (pp. 144 / 174)

As Perry makes his final argument before the judge, all is Recognized, and almost all is Available.  Perry explains the following:

  Boles was responsible for Myrtle Lie in Theory 1 because he bribed her (pp. 106 / 126;  Plate 12). 
  Boles' effort to bribe and blackmail Perry is put into perspective;  the killers hired him with the intention of corrupting him and destroying his client (pp. 107 / 128).
  Boles' guilt is further evidenced when Perry proves that Boles committed perjury (pp. 124 / 149)
  Perry also provides evidence that reveals the true identity of the Victim (pp. 139 / 168)
  And Perry traps Dorla in a lie on the witness stand:  she testifies that she was with Guthrie at a time when he is now known to have been dead (pp. 139 / 168)
  Perry explains the anomaly that the Victim thought he was the killer.  Guthrie fired his gun at Dorla's lover, saw the man fall, and confessed to Florence (Plate 28, Footnote 15). 

Thus Perry deduces the existence of unseen evidence:

  The bullet that Guthrie fired at Boles must be lodged somewhere in the floor of the motel room (pp. 145 / 175).

20  Evidence must be linked to theory through argument and justification.  By the end of the novel, Perry has justified and explained each piece of accumulated evidence in support of his theory of the crime.  (For a high-resolution graphic of all Perry's justifications, click here.)

Theory 1

When, at the beginning of the novel, the police receive an anonymous tip, they believe it.  Perry learns that the tip was sent by the killers to mislead the police (pp. 105 / 127).
The police see blood on Ted's car and believe that the car killed the Victim. Perry explains the blood as part of Boles' cover-up (pp. 105 / 127).
Boles seeks to confuse Perry with lies about Dorla, but his efforts only make Perry more suspicious and resolute.  Boles' threats prompt Perry to utter of his deathless lines:  "I'll also tell you something to remember:  I don't suborn perjury and I don't go for all this crooked business.  I rely on the truth.  The truth is a better weapon than all these crooked schemes of yours" (pp. 107 / 129).
When the police see a dead body in the road, they assume that the body was killed in the road.  Perry explains that the body was planted there as part of a cover-up (pp. 105 /127).
The police are satisfied with Myrtle's contradictory testimony, and Howland does not understand it properly.  Perry deduces that it must be a lie.  He concludes rightly that if Myrtle is lying about the hit-and-run, she must be in league with the killers (pp. 106 / 127).
The police understand only that they must identify the Victim.  Perry shows that the difficulty of identification is itself evidence (pp. 56 / 68).

Theory 2

The police discover that their misidentified Victim was supposed to have been at a motel, and they assume he was killed there.  Perry deduces that though a shot was fired in the motel, it must have missed its target and that the Victim was killed elsewhere (pp. 145 /175).
The police learn the true Means of the death, but remain wrong about their identification of the Victim and the Accused.  Perry explains the truth about all three in his final argument (pp. 141-4 / 171-7).
Perry understands Florence's lie for what it is, the desperate effort of a woman to protect the man she loves.
Perry realizes that the disappearance of Florence must mean she has something to hide, and he forces her to explain Guthrie's behavior (pp. 90-95 / 109-104).
When Perry learns that the police identification of the Victim is incorrect, he predicts an explosion that will crack the case (pp. 68 / 82).
A partially blank audio tape gives Perry his first insight into what happened at the motel.  Guthrie used the recorder, Perry concludes, to get proof of Dorla's infidelity (pp. 142 / 172).
Ted's blank memory makes him believe he may be the killer.  Perry recognizes it to mean that Ted was drugged by the killers (pp. 144 / 174).
Ted does not see significance in his "Aunt" Dorla's flirtation, but Perry recognizes that she has designs on his inheritance (pp.  50-1 / 61-2).

Theory 3

Deeply in love, Florence took Guthrie at his word when he confessed to the killing.  But Perry understands Guthrie better, knowing that he is a "dreamer" (pp. 50 / 61), and ultimately realizes that Guthrie's confession was the result of having been deceived by the killers (pp. 143 / 173).
Perry understands that Boles' false confession, like his claims about blackmailing Dorla, are the deceptions of a criminal (pp. 108 / 130).
Perry's discovery that Guthrie is the Victim allows him to explain the role of the tape recorder in spying on Dorla and Dorla's motives for the crime:  she murdered her husband to prevent him from divorcing her on the grounds of adultery (pp. 144 / 174).

Theory 4

Boles' confessions of bribery (pp. 106-7 / 127-29) convince Perry of Boles' criminality (pp. 108 / 130).
The prosecution draws testimony from Boles (pp. 124 / 149-50) which, when revealed by Perry to be perjury, confirms Boles' guilt (pp. 145-6 /  176).
Once Perry has shown that Guthrie is the Victim, he can explain the motive for the murder, the concealment of adultery and the inheritance of Guthrie's fortune (pp. 143-4 /  173-177).
Perry also draws false testimony from Dorla (pp. 139 / 168), and then argues that her perjury is an effort to conceal her guilt (pp. 143-4 / 172-3).
Perry confirms his theory with the prediction of evidence that the murder did not take place in the motel (pp. 145 / 175-6).

21  In S/Z, Roland Barthes (1977) speaks of the weave of the bourgeois novel through which a textured impression of the real is sustained by reiterations, constancies and the persistence of signifieds.  The Case of the Lucky Loser is so closely crafted that it creates a remarkably believable tapestry.  In the present analysis, I have concentrated on the perfections of the weave.  In saying good-bye to it, though, I cannot help wondering about a few almost imperceptible flaws that I have noticed along the way.  I fear that these little details may constitute some radically new evidence and require a radically new theory of the crime.  I'll mention them here because, well, I'm troubled by them.

As the novel begins, Ted's future girlfriend Marilyn anonymously hires Perry to investigate.  Perry demands that the courier who delivered Marilyn's retainer to him return a receipt to Marilyn.  The courier supposedly does so, but could never really have found Marilyn to accomplish his task:  immediately after sending the courier to find Perry, Marilyn had ensconced herself in a crowded courtroom (pp. 5 / 3).
A policeman is pointlessly evasive and lies under oath when he says he did not ask permission to examine Ted's garage (pp. 6 / 6).  He admits having asked permission only a moment later.
Myrtle Anne Haley takes her oath in court twice, once at the end of Chapter 2 and once again at the beginning of Chapter 3 (pp. 14 and 15 / 15 and 16)!  What's going on?
No one in the courtroom notices when Myrtle testifies that a car headlight was illuminated, even though everyone had just been told that the headlight was broken (testimony that it is broken -- pp. 6 / 6;  Myrtle's contradiction -- pp. 16 / 17).
  Myrtle voluntarily contacts the police to inform them that she witnessed the accident;  yet if she had committed the crime -- as Howland asserts and everyone except Perry seems to believe -- she would never have alerted the police to her involvement (pp. 17 / 18-19).
The license plate number of Ted's car has seven digits (pp. 18 / 19;  cf. Plate 12).  But California did not adopt seven-digit license plates until twenty years after the novel was written.  Editions of the novel published after 1976 change Ted's plate back to six digits.  What was Ted's license number really??
The prosecution never shows that Ted was driving a car even though he has been put in jail for hit-and-run driving (pp. 22 / 23). 
The killers hire Perry Mason thinking they can corrupt him!  Are they insane?!?! (Boles contacts Perry -- pp. 29 / 33;  Dorla gives Perry a check -- pp. 40 / 47.)
The police eventually misidentify the Victim as "Jackson Eagan," but do not check the California State Vital Statistics Record for Eagan;   Paul Drake's operatives readily discover that Eagan was dead and buried two years before the case ever came up (pp. 67 / 81).
While Ted is in jail, Perry cooks up a legal technicality to free him;  after Perry recites court cases in support of this scheme, the judge is dumbfounded with admiration (pp. 70-72 / 86-89);  lawyers with whom I've spoken, however, say that Perry's technicality is utterly bogus and would have made no impression whatsoever on a real judge.
When Ted sees Perry, he asks about Perry's legal scheme;  yet with Ted isolated in his cell, seeing no one, he had no opportunity to learn that the scheme existed (pp. 84 / 102).
Dorla says the Mafia gamblers dealt Ted "second-best hands" although she had no opportunity of knowing this fact (pp. 88 / 107).
Boles too knows precisely how Ted was forced into a gambling debt, yet Ted distrusted him and was ashamed to admit his debts to anyone except Florence (pp. 119 / 144).
The police and prosecution never check fingerprint records to determine the identity of the corpse;  Perry's genius is required to come up with that novel idea (pp. 139 / 168).

        Those are the problems I've found -- and they are disturbing.  All those are on one side.  Maybe some of them are unimportant.  I won't argue about that.  But look at the number of them.  What have we got on the other side?  All we've got is that maybe Boles killed Guthrie and maybe Guthrie killed Boles. 
        All right, I'm quoting The Maltese Falcon here (Hammett 1972:227) -- or, well -- the film version (Houston 1941) since the dialog there is better.  But, I am starting to get a bad feeling about this Lucky Loser  thing.  I'm wondering maybe the whole business is just some story that somebody made up!  I guess I'm just suspicious, but can I help it if everything I ever learned came from detective stories?  And I haven't even said one word about my total hero Nero Wolfe whose integrity is the stuff that dreams are made of.

22  It is more accurate to say that I do recognize some links between levels A and C, since every time I look at the darn transcripts I see something new.  It's an all right thing, though, "to leave others the pleasure of discovery" (Descartes 1952).  Where would Della and Paul be if Perry did all the work?

       A peer reviewer of this essay requested that I add a demonstration of how Maasai Interactive can provide Type 2 evidence, how it can allow readers to discover something that I had made available but had not recognized myself.   I created Plate 39 from the Daudi chapter of Maasai Interactive, and I'll use the ethnographic material referenced in that plate for my demonstration. 
       The Daudi chapter documents a potentially explosive situation I recorded between men and women of two ethnic groups - Maasai pastoralists and Wakwere cultivators.  Daudi, an eligible Maasai bachelor of the ilmurran (or  "warrior") age grade had been carrying on a love affair with Mother-of-Rajabu, a feisty Mukwere from a nearby village.  Mother-of-Rajabu somehow discovered that Daudi had begun a new affair with a new woman from Boga.  As the scene begins, Mother-of-Rajabu has just arrived at Daudi's homestead to tell him she is ending their affair.  For her purpose, she brings two Wakwere companions.  The first is Muharami, an eager young farmer whom Mother-of-Rajabu invited to be her new consort.  He is at first very pleased to step into the Maasai warrior's shoes, but by the end of the morning realizes that he was only placed there to make Daudi jealous:  Mother-of-Rajabu has no real feelings for him.  The second companion is Mother-of-Rajabu's female friend Kiwalole, whose skill as a diplomat and comedienne might be expected to keep tempers from rising too high in this difficult situation.

       The task now is to seek new insights, using evidence Type 2 available in this ethnographic event.  I am supposed to demonstrate how arguments that I made at Level A - here, footnote *39 to the Daudi chapter represented in Plate 39 - might be enhanced or augmented when juxtaposed with ideas available at level C.  In considering the issues, I realized something new about Level C's footnote *28 which is linked to Level A through the mediation of note *17.   Both footnote *39 (at A) and *28 (at C) refer to *17 (at B), but they do not refer to each other (see Plate 39).
       My Level A footnote comments on a moment in the recording when Kiwalole speaks with Daudi soon after he was told that Mother-of-Rajabu has ended their affair.   Kiwalole proposes that if Daudi is going to beat her, as he has jokingly just said he would do, then the two of them should beat each other.  The footnote argues that Kiwalole's suggestion and the situation itself is highly metaphorical.  If Daudi were to beat Kiwalole in a violent way, she could stand for Muharami while the beating itself would be a metaphor for what Daudi might like to do to his rival;  but if Daudi were to beat Kiwalole in a sensuous way, the way suggested by Kiwalole's tone, by her suggestion that they beat each other, and by her other flirtatious actions, then she could stand for Mother-of-Rajabu while the beating would be a metaphor for the sensuous relationship Daudi once had with Kiwalole's friend.
       Through the mediation of a Level B footnote, which describes the Maasai olkuma (the phallus-shaped club which Maasai of Daudi's age use for beating predators in the bush), I was able to leap-frog from Level A to note *28 at Level C, which introduces the following parallels in the story's primary love triangles:

Daudi  :  his new lover from Boga  :  Mother-of-Rajabu
Mother-of-Rajabu  :  her false lover, Muharami  :  Daudi

I considered this Level C metaphor in relation to my argument about Kiwalole's metaphorical beating.   In doing so, it occurred to me that Kiwalole's Level A offer to beat and be beaten by Daudi placed her in the middle of a third transformation of the love triangles described at Level C:

Daudi  :  his play lover, Kiwalole  :  Mother-of-Rajabu

Although I had been aware that Kiwalole's flirtation with Daudi had not been pleasant for Mother-of-Rajabu, I did not previously realize that, when Kiwalole joked with Daudi at *39, she was also recapitulating his flirtation with the woman from Boga which had so seriously angered her friend.  This suggested to me a new perspective on Kiwalole's friendship with Mother-of-Rajabu, that the two women were not perhaps as close as I had previously believed.  It showed that Kiwalole was not completely sympathetic with her friend's effort to hurt Daudi's feelings.
       My consideration of metaphorical actions at Level C gave me a new perspective on the metaphorical significance of flirtation at Level A.  The new association of ideas in A and C, which I had earlier unknowingly made available by creating the mediating link at Level B, allowed me to discover something I had had not before recognized. 

23   In addition to being translated into English, the forty-minute long audio recording in Maasai Interactive of the Daudi chapter is also transcribed in Swahili.  Phrase by phrase subtitles of the audio track allows users to hear each sentence and, simultaneously, read them transcribed.  Thus, the transcriptions are potential linguistic resources which may be recognized as such but - without some effort on the part of the user - are not immediately available as learning tools.  They fall into my definition of Evidence Type 3.   Plate 43 shows how such evidence might become useful for independent linguistic research.  It demonstrates the results of a text search in the Daudi chapter for the Swahili root verb -piga (Eng.: hit, cut, fight and photograph).  The search found that twelve variants of the root were uttered in the forty-minute recording.
       These twelve cases exemplify important qualities of verb formation in Swahili.  Among other attributes (including a grammatical error), they demonstrate conjugations in the present, simple past, perfect progressive, and future tenses, as well as the use of the first person singular and plural, second person and third person plural. They provide examples of the infinitive, imperative, reflexive, negative, interrogative as well as the transitive and intransitive uses of the verb.  This lexicon is also valuable for independent research because the chapter's synchronous audio track can be made available for the study of pronunciation in different linguistic contexts.