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Reading Excuses - 8/20/18 - aeromancer - Missing Painting Caper (2736 words)


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I'll be out of touch for most of this week, incidentally, so no rush. Negative rush, actually. I'm backlogged myself. This is my first submission without any sort of tag. What I'd like specific feedback on, of course, is how well I managed to lay out the clues, if any of you managed to solve it, and how much you enjoyed the submission.Everything else takes a backseat, though by all means I welcome that to.

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Well, I have free time while coming back from WorldCon, so you get an early critique! 

My writeup is below, but specifically to your questions, I had trouble following the clues, and had no idea, really, where the story was going until the end. For a mystery like this, there needs to be a very clear setup at the beginning (a painting is missing; there are three suspect, or something like that), so that the reader knows what puzzle they need to solve.


I think this has the core of a good mystery, but the setup is missing much of the information we need to be able to "solve" the mystery along with the detectives. I had no idea there were three suspects until the end, and that would have made things a lot more interesting. There's also a strange tone in this between mystery and 4th wall-breaking comedy, and it doesn't mesh well enough yet. That can be fixed with more editing passes. I also had a big problem with the way the ending was presented, which I detailed at the bottom. Basically, with case notes, we have no emotional investment, so the payoff doesn't work.
Definitely potential, just needs some more passes!

Pg 1: I'm strugging a bit at the beginning. I'm not sure if this is breaking the fourth wall with the storm, or someone has shown whoever is speaking the storm, or what. Especially for a first paragraph, we need a little smoother introduction.

pg 1: "I’ve never seen the fascination with nicknames"
--I'm still not sure who's here. There are three people, right? one's the museum director, and another is tall? I think some dialogue tags would help. Also, as a joke, this falls flat because the director explains the joke after the quoted line above.

pg 2: "“That … could’ve been wrong a thousand ways.” Arthur sighed."
--Who's POV are we in? The art director? Omniscient?

pg 2, bottom: Ah, we've finally gotten to the point. I think the reason they're all standing around in the lighting should be right at the beginning. That was the source of a lot of my confusion as to what they were doing.

pg 3: "It was a lesser work, but it was the finest."
--The finest lesser work? or a lesser work, but the finest of the collection? This doesn't make a lot of sense to me.  (edit: clarified in the next paragraph, but could be clearer)

pg 3: "Stealing is wrong. Or something."
--Is this going for humor again? Because you've just tanked my confidence in the detective, and up until now I thought he was the most experienced one here.

pg 4: "It’s a simple matter for an experienced pick-pocket to pinch a pretty pittance..."
--This is a big leap in logic. I'm losing confidence in these detectives by the second.

pg 4: "“Back to square one.” Arthur sighed."
--Ok, I figured out what's bugging me about this. Why is the art director participating in the detectives work? Shouldn't he be showing them the scene of the crime, then getting out of the way so they can work?

pg 4: “No janitor, especially one of such a vaunted art museum such as this, would dare forget to clean the glass.”
--These detectives are just making wild assumptions now. I have very little confidence they can solve the mystery. It's like they're Sherlock Holmes' inept younger cousins.

pg 5: "“This isn’t some complex novel."
--I think this is the second swipe at the fourth wall and I am very confused as to the tone of this story.

pg 5: "Therefore, the soot must have been placed there.”
--again, jumping to conclusions. I don't think Y is a very good investigator.

pg 6: "I forgive you, just don’t misspell my name when you pronounce it again.”
--The jokes still aren't landing for me, especially the next couple paragraphs after this.

pg 8: “Just say who it was.”
--Wait--this is the end and it goes to a set of case notes?
hmm...the case notes have the same problem as explaining rules to a game. I gloss over it, when this should be the big reveal. By the time I got to who did it, I didn't really care, and was confused by the explanation. This is why Sherlock Holmes has a whole reveal to Watson with questions, and corrects him all the time. If Sherlock just stated how the criminal did things, we'd find it boring.

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I had a hard time getting through this sub, because so much of it seems to be founded on unrealistic and patently false ideas. I could not connect with any of the characters and every item they mentioned about the theft just pushed me out again and again by its sheer incredulity.  

To answer your questions, I knew what was going on pretty much after the first paragraph. I'm fairly conversant with this particular genre, and everything in the piece is easily within the well-worn genre paths. As such, I didn't find the plot to be particularly interesting, nor were the characters able to hold my interest in lieu of the plot. For me, the clues did not make much sense in the context of the setting, and the conclusions drawn from them seemed almost nonsensical, to the point they interfered with the plot. 

This kind of detective, the "notice tiny incongruities other people/the bad guy would normally miss and make logical/intuitive leaps based on tiny obscure factoids" kind of detective, is very popular right now. The problem with these types of sleuths however, is that their wild leaps of inference must be grounded in real facts and practices in order to work properly. TV shows often have multiple writers and fact-checkers going over a script to verify the claims being made.  Even though this story is short, it still needs to have that basic level of research put into the setting in order for the conclusions to feel "real enough" to work.  I feel like every fact presented in this case does not hold up to cursory scrutiny, and this makes the characters seem unhinged from reality when they make their conclusions.  Some of the worst for me were

Silver polish: Store-bought silver polishing paste concoctions of the kind that can commonly be bought in a grocery store and nowhere near not standard museum practice and in fact, using such paste harms an artifact over time. Store-bought polishing paste would never be used in a museum, anywhere. I did a little quick research, and it looks like careful application of inert powders such as chalk dust, rubbed in by hand over small areas with a cotton bud is closer to the industry standard. This would never be done in-situ while the piece is on display, but would be done when the artifact is taken down to whatever preservation department the museum has. It would be performed by a trained museum professional, someone with a degree in preservation, conservation, or one of their trained interns and never by the general building cleaning staff using their bare hands. For everyone to just believe that this is a reasonable way to frame anyone working in a museum does not make sense to me and threw me out of the story pretty hard. 

Dust/soot and custodial staff: Again, no museum worthy of calling itself such would ever let general facilities cleaners near the collection pieces. Dust can be tricky to take care of in a museum setting, as its removal has the possibility to damage fragile antiques no matter how careful a person is. As such, most museums have ginormously beefy HVAC systems to filter out as much dust as possible before it even hits the artifacts. Proper (intensive, detailed) building maintenance is also considered a preventative measure, so here the on-site custodial or facilities crew would have a hand in dust removal, though it would be limited to vaccuuming the floors and other non-collection surfaces within an inch of their life. Again, dusting of a painting is never done while the painting is on display. From my quick research, it is taken down, set in a special padded holder at an angle and then brushed with a fine, soft artist's paintbrush, slowly and carefully.  If it was something less fragile like a frame, then the museum might use a special vacuum cleaner with an extra-fine HEPA filter and special extra small brushes. Again, never done while on display. Some artifacts are simply too fragile to dust and are housed in controlled enclosures from which they are only removed under certain circumstances. If the display enclosure is one that can even be touched -- not all of them are, and painting enclosures are one of those types that are rarely allowed to be touched -- general building maintenance staff might be allowed to clean those of fingerprints. Putting dust on the areas to frame the general building staff and again, having all characters involved simply believe this is a valid piece of evidence seems really unbelievable to me. 

At this point, I really wondered why the museum had called in detectives at all, since these are things that would not fool anyone with a basic level of training in museum studies, preservation, conservation, or archival sciences, yet the detectives are relying on them as if they were indicative of ... anything at all, really. 

"Janitors": No museum -- no public building, practically -- has janitors anymore. They are third-party outside cleaning services staff, facilities workers, custodial workers, or some other service staff. Having the curator use an outdated term, one which has somewhat negative connotations within the building maintenance industry, makes him seem unprofessional, and unreal. And anyway, any facilities maintenance and management service staff would not be going near the individual artifacts in a collection to clean them, so having people imply that this happens regularly and that it's a reasonable way to frame someone does not makes sense to me. 

Badges/silver polish: Silver polish on modern badges runs into the same problem as silver polish on antique artifacts -- it's super damaging and a security officer who used enough polish to leave gummy fingerprints on the wall would have a badge so damaged as to be unusable after one or two applications.  Modern electroplated badges also shouldn't really NEED heavy polishing of the kind that requires paste. For the most part, a quick rub with a regular lint-free soft cloth or jewelry cloth is sufficient, on the off chance an officer has had the badge long enough for it to dull. Again, everyone simply agreeing that this was a reasonable and rational way to frame someone makes no sense to me. 

Power outages: I'm not entirely clear how the power outages worked in the story, but it seems like the thieves cut "main power" and that somehow disabled the general security's industry-standard, stand alone battery backups, as well as the battery backups on the individual security systems on the individual artifacts. Once again, I found myself unable to believe that this was a reasonable assumption for detectives to make and that it was at all even possible. Tying it in to the storm just added to the incredulity of this particular piece of evidence. 

I love "notice things" detectives, their quirkiness, their trivia, the way it all gets put together in the end. This however is less a detective story than a brief setting and a bunch of strange conclusions unconnected from reality. The characters seem to snipe at each other without any real sense of personality, and I'm still confused what the elder detective actually did. Like @Mandamon I didn't understand why then ending switched to a pair of dry summaries, and all of the comedy missed its mark with me. I'm always up for a good "notice things" detective, but without the proper grounding in reality and research, this type of story is always going to fall flat.



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I like the idea behind the story, but I think the execution was off. The museum seems set in the past, almost, with the polish and the janitor, but then has keycard access (but not normal keycard access). The switch to first person in the last quarter also really threw me, and I'm not certain what the conclusion of the story was. So, good bones, but edits needed.

The clues were okay, but they didn't drive me to any real conclusion. I still have no idea who did it. :(

On 8/20/2018 at 7:58 PM, Mandamon said:

I also had a big problem with the way the ending was presented

I had a similar issue.


As I go

- I don't think you can get away with ripping a famous opening line, no matter how cool

- page 2: the museum doesn't have backup power??

- I'm having a hard time with a janitor being allowed to dust priceless art in a museum. That can't be how that works

- page 3: LOL at 'stealing is wrong, or something'

- page four: what kind of robber wears cufflinks to take stuff? That seems really stupid

- page 6: is this just a really inept thief who steals priceless stuff with dirty hands? Don't they know enough at least to use gloves??

- page nine: wait, POV switch? Did we just got third person to first? What's happening?

- very confused by the end

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On 8/20/2018 at 0:16 AM, aeromancer said:

if any of you managed to solve it,

For a while, I was convinced it was Arthur the art director who stole it. But the "notes" at the end implied the detectives didn't think that. 

On 8/20/2018 at 0:16 AM, aeromancer said:

how much you enjoyed the submission.Everything else takes a backseat

It was fun, but I wasn't sure how seriously or not seriously to take it. It opened with a classic cliche "dark and stormy night" which made me think this was going to be some kind of humor piece meant to poke fun at the detective genre, but then you had a nice description of the storm that showed the dark and stormy night and made the opening line completely irrelevant. 

I did get annoyed trying to figure out how old the "Girl" was meaning was this a teenager or an actual child. 

I liked the form -- how the story was told through dialogue. However, at times it felt too contrived and like the detectives were trying to hard to sound like some kind of sherlockian character. The whole set of clues seemed contrived too, and if it was modern enough for key cards, why weren't there cameras? There are cameras everywhere now. It might have worked a little better if this was set 100 years ago. 


Some thoughts I had while reading:

..."does not help at all" This seemed like a rather long chunk of dialogue. Though as I continued to read, I did notice that was kind of how a lot of it was.

"three were present..." This repeats information that was in the dialogue.

"Or something. Anyway..." Why "or something"?  That phrase threw me off and pulled me out of the narrative. 

...though, suggests that..." I don't think you need the though

"Artur folded his arms" It is Arthur in other places.

"Except you" this last line made me think detective T did it though i was really convinced it was Arthur for half the story.


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Sorry I'm late, but here we go.

The title: I see the word 'caper' and I get kind of onerous. It's like 'cooky' and 'quirky'. If you have to tell me that, them I'm worried (a) that it doesn't come across in the story, or (b) that they story's main raison d'être is to be cooky and quirky, rather than necessarily to be exciting/entertaining. Setting that prejudgement aside, we continue!

The opening line: Ha-ha... (Courtesy of Wiki-P...) "It was a dark and stormy night" is an often-mocked and parodied phrase written by English novelist Edward Bulmer-Lytton in... his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. The phrase is considered to represent "the archetypal example of a florid, melodramatic style of fiction writing", also known as purple prose.

So, I'm guessing from the title of the story that you mean this ironically. I'm still not sure that I'm buying into the cockiness of the story, and proceed with a slightly heightened sense of caution.

Because I'm comfortable with the style so far, with nothing major to draw a comment, I lapse into detail (as I just love to do!! :lol: )... I don't think lightning fades. To me it cuts off near instantly. I think 'faded suddenly' is an oxymoron. (Pretty sure that's 21 Scrabble points right there ;) )

Not sure I get the link from raincoat to veneration. Also, some of the language around the blank space on the wall and people turning is a bit clunky. First or second draft?

Okay, one page in: I'm okay with things so far. The discussion about nicknames is there to introduce the characters, I presume, and it works okay, although there are typos and some language clunkiness, as noted before. I'm still with it though, no major issues.

Given that the girl deduced accurate facts about his past, I'm not sure why the director loses confidence in his hiring.

"Remember, the ongoing storm is the same storm as the one two hours ago" - This sentence presents the storm as two separate ones. I find the wording overcomplicated, compared to, say, "Remember, this is the same storm, two hours later." Also, little details lead to a lack of precision in the wording which stands out to me. e.g. (1) the girl can deduce detailed pieces of personal background from little information, but she can't remember the name of the artist? Implausible, to me. (2) the painting still is a lesser work of Rembrandt, that hasn't changed; so this should be present tense, imo. (3) The painting is no longer in the museums possession, so I think that should be past tense. 

The girl's mode of speech and her deduction implies significant intelligence, and yet there are several obvious answers to the question that she asks about motive in taking that painting. Also, how on earth does she get to the deduction that the 'suspect' (sic) is still there. What is meant, I presume, is that the thief is still there, since the people still there are automatically suspect because they are there, and have knowledge. But surely they are all suspects. The logic here doesn't scan for me.

Howe can a guest drink espresso if the museum, presumably including the cafe, is closed?

"closed fist out and opened it" - huh?

"seems to right on the money", "besides for that" - numerous typos and clunky language makes it hard to read in places.

"The only one rich enough to afford that to wear as cufflinks is OMW" - Shaky logic. Anyone could have been left such a thing, or have stolen in from another.

Three page in now, and I'm not sure I care about what's happening. What are the stakes? Presumably, the insurance will pay for the loss of the picture. Is the director going to lose his job, his house, his reputation? There are no personal stakes, it seems to me.

"You see, it’s only when we’ve eliminate everything else when the truly improbable could happen" - what does this mean? I can see it's a paraphrasing of Holmes, but I don't follow the logic of it.

"us three" - it's 'we three'. If trying to stick with her dialogue on the basis that she thinks she's talking very properly, but because of her youth, she's making various grammar errors that don't sit with the tone.

"cannot imagine what anything that causes an open fire would do at all within" - loads of extra words make some sentences really hard to read. Speaking formally doesn't mean using lots of words, just the most appropriate ones.

"You are lucky this isn’t a statue gallery, or that wouldn’t have been definitive evidence" - Why? How? I'm getting a bit fed up with people making these sweeping statements that are not explained, and the meaning or logic of which are not at all obvious.

"like a fox trying to trick a turkey into thinking it’s a chicken so the fox can eat it" - What?! I'm... What? Both are flightless and likely to be eaten by a fox, so, how does this make any sense?

"Your point is well seen" - Well made, it's well made. I feel like this is deliberately using the wrong phrasing so that the girl can deliver the line in response, but for me that doesn't work if it means delivering a line that (to me) feels all wrong.

"flagrantly ignoring the man" - which man, or is it men?

Two different spellings of 'grey' in the same sentence. I know it's a typo, but I just had to mention it. Never seen that before :) 

"tapped her foot in the opposite pattern to that of the director" - A good, detailed grammar pass would do a lot to make the story flow better; missing and wrong words make it hard to read in various places. "Near as I can tell"

"then the third man out" - just strange phrasing. This sounds like a baseball analogy, but I don't think it is. The reader, I think, will expect the phrasing 'odd one out', making this sound 'off'.

"this museum require unique electronic key cards" - bit I don't see how this demonstrates who the thief is. Someone could use someone else's card (as is always happening in shows now), a card could be cloned, borrowed and replaced, etc.

"Just say who it was." - Hang on, what's happening here? Where's the end of the story? My reaction to seeing that the narrative stops is to think I've been hoodwinked, and that the absolutely definitive promise to the reader of a whodunnit has not been kept. That better not be the case, or I shall be mad!!

"attempted to thieve it" - 'thieve' here sounds like London Cockney. What nationality are any of these people? Y's narrative was all very well spoken then something like this drops in which is very poor grammar and I don't know what tone it's trying to evoke.

[words] - I just don't think I follow this logic; I'm not convinced it makes sense, but it's almost too convoluted to try to follow.

"the locks are swapped" - I don't follow. The locks are removed and changed over? That's what it sounds like.

What's the stuff about the order of people? It's another layer of complication.

"is the thief!" - Too confusing and complicated for me, by this point, I don't care who the thief is. We've never seen anything of any of the suspects, so we know nothing of them as people. Consequently, I don't care who did it. I want to read stories about people, but it seems to me that the people have almost nothing to do with this one, it's all about the puzzle and the process of deduction.

"The art dealer knows nothing about the museum’s security" - how do we know that? If the dealer goes there a lot (which I think was implied at one point), then he could have observed the security protocols in operation, at least some of them, enough to know something about the security.

"the security guard can’t see the painting from his angle on the camera" - I don't believe we were over told this.

The last line doesn't really zing for me. I can't pick out a clearly identifiable 'personal' mode of though in T's conclusion to distinguishes it from Y's logic.

Like the story about the card game, I don't really have any characters that I want to root for, and the piece seems all about the process, with no personal stakes involved. It doesn't matter who stole the picture, because they are just titles (patron, janitor, guard) not people.

Sorry not to be more positive. I know this story would be better for a good, concentrated language and grammar pass, but that still leaves my issues with character and stakes.These things said, I like the kind of story that you are attempting now, compared to your first period in RE, and you are to be applauded for that. Well done, and keep going!!


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