I present here Chapter 3 of Trichotomy: A Detective Novel of 1929, the twentieth in the Cyrus Skeen Mystery series. A private joke of mine is that Skeen has read more than one book, as opposed to the one book that can be found in Sam Spade’s apartment, “Famous Criminal Cases,” written by a former chief of police of San Francisco. There is not much background to Spade to be found in The Maltese Falcon, but Skeen is a Yale graduate; he worked briefly for the New York City police, before coming to San Francisco to open his own private detective agency and to pursue his literary passion of writing short stories.
Skeen is first introduced China Basin, which is set in December 1928, the same month in which Sam Spade’s case is set. In the series, Skeen has many adventures between the two Decembers, and he has ventured now into political and “social” commentary. His essay, “Trichotomy,” on the predictable but uncorrectable behavior of recidivists, has been published to some acclaim in The American Mercury, a prominent cultural magazine published by H.L. Mencken. The acclaim is such that a professor of criminal behavior at Wexford College in San Francisco has invited Skeen to address a class on the subject. The professor reads the essay to the class, introducing to his students many unique insights into the mind of the career criminal. Skeen takes questions from the class, until…Well, you’ll see.
Cover and Title Page: Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (64/62 BC – 12 BC), Roman statesman, general, and architect, Louvre, Paris; it resembles Cyrus Skeen, according to Dilys, his wife, who owns a copy of the bust.
Chapter 3: Questions, Answers, and More
"Well, there's the progressives’ ideal polity, a vision in which all the parts – parts meaning people, mind you – all the parts move in perfect collective unison, with no friction or conflict or clashes, and all their thoughts and actions mesh without friction or conflict, too, to sustain some imagined 'public good' or ideal society.
“Now, that vision clashes with reality. Reality is inhabited by individuals with their own choices and reasons for choosing one thing over another, all acting independently, and with the freedom to act, and without knowledge of virtually all other individuals and their choices, and even without consideration for the choices all those others make. There are no clashes or conflicts among them, either. There is the ideal society these other 'idealists’ wish to obviate with direct force. Essentially, what the progressives’ wish to neutralize or banish from human action is human volition."
Skeen answered the question from one of the older students, a question posed with some doubt and hostility. He consulted, now and then, some notes he had typed up for the class the night before, mostly to refresh his mind on the subject.
The class had attracted an almost overflow attendance. Aside from the usual thirty students in Caruthers’s class, word had got out that the guest speaker, Cyrus Skeen, would answer questions from the class about what Caruthers called a “ground-breaking” thesis that challenged contemporary thought on criminal behavior and criminal rehabilitation. Some twenty other students had taken the empty places in the rear of the small arena-like lecture hall.
In the audience sat Dilys, Clara Reyes, and Mickey Kane, who was invited especially by Skeen to witness the unprecedented appearance of his friend.
Close to them sat Professor Eustace Raico, the Assistant Dean of the department, and Professor Salvatore Selgen, who taught sociology to freshmen and sophomores. Raico was about fifty years old, Selgen in his mid sixties with a full head of silver hair.
Caruthers, standing at his lectern, had begun the class by reading Skeen’s original “Trichotomy” article, and parts of Skeen’s “The Mental Truancy of the Recidivist.” Skeen had given him a copy of the new “Trichotomy” article which would not appear in The American Mercury until next spring, a copy Clara had had made at Boyle’s Advertising the day before.
The hall boasted a small semicircle of raised seats around the lectern. A blackboard was behind Skeen and Caruthers in the otherwise gray plaster room.
Caruthers had read the new article and had asked Skeen if he could incorporate some of Skeen’s new insights into his introduction, but Skeen had declined. “I think Mr. Mencken has priority in publicizing the material, Professor Caruthers. I don’t think he would be pleased.”
Caruthers relented with a sigh of regret, but nodded understanding.
The hostile student had asked Skeen why he linked the progressives with his Trichotomy thesis. He sat down and tried to glare at Skeen, but not successfully. Another student, a middle-aged woman raised her hand. Skeen nodded to her. She rose and asked, “Do you think it’s possible for a criminal to reconcile his trichotomy?”
He raised a finger. "Now, there's the third level of this trichotomy, which is how these 'idealists' and criminals deal with the reality they face every day, the same reality you and I and everyone else deal with, such as cooking, and driving an automobile, and so on, and with their own individual, practical, everyday choices.
“The first tier of a criminal’s trichotomy is comprised of his metaphysical and epistemological premises, the second tier is his fundamental operative philosophy based on them, and the third tier is his everyday operative code, the one that allows him to deal with others without shooting them or being shot by them….”
Caruthers, sitting in a chair beside the lectern, looked pleased that the event was going so smoothly.
Skeen, standing at the lectern, answered, “He can't reconcile the parts of his trichotomy, not in any long-lasting sense. And if he tried, one part of the trichotomy would dissolve the others, and he’d either acknowledge the supremacy of reality, or of existence, or he would go mad, or his mind would stall or grind gears. To return to my original path of inquiry, that's why a criminal can't truly honor a debt of gratitude or want to fulfill an obligation. A criminal, no matter how effusive his expression of thanks, will always resent having to feel gratitude or having a debt placed on his shoulders. Criminals do not like to owe anything.
"You know that saying, there's no honor among thieves? Well, of course there isn't. Thieves aren’t capable of honor, except one that's based on fear or the disapprobation of their peers. But, then, that's not a virtue, that's no way to live. I always had trouble trying to understand that saying. Did the people who popularized it know what they were talking about? I think not."
The woman student seemed to be satisfied with Skeen’s answer. Another person rose and asked, “Could you discuss the relationship between general philosophy and your trichotomy thesis?”
Skeen nodded. “That’s a tall order, sir, but I'll try. “What is the ‘Trichotomy’? The first part is an individual’s primary metaphysics. A criminal’s metaphysics is basically one based on David Hume’s dictum that reality can change for no apparent reason from one moment to another. Thus, there is no good reason, he says, that the sun will not rise the next morning. However, it could sit stationary or go backwards and rise in the West. Or change into a scoop of ice cream.
“Thus, to a criminal, because reality isn’t steady, or stable, or predictable, or perhaps n0t even open to sensory perception, no ethics are necessary to act in it. Criminals need not have heard of Hume or Spinoza or Leibniz to subscribe to that idea.
“It is an interesting note that Immanuel Kant, the inventor of what I have called elsewhere the schizophrenic view of reality, admired Hume and his philosophy. Kant, by the way, cadged much of his own thought from Plato and his Ideal Forms. Because reality is, to a criminal, always in flux, the best way to survive in it is to adapt one’s actions to the reality of the moment. Theirs is the phenomenal world, while the noumenal world, if it existed, remains unknowable to them. They certainly do not search for it, or inquire in any serious depth about it. Things just are, and that’s where the criminal is happy to leave it.
“Lest any reader assume that I am discussing a novel form of the theological Trinity, I wish to disabuse him here and now of the notion. As explained in the original ‘Trichotomy’ article, and detailed at length in its briefer successor, ‘The Moral Truancy of the Recidivist,’ I am referring exclusively to the mental and moral makeup of criminals notorious and unknown, that is, to how and why they function in the real world without becoming a casualty of it and of their own actions. It is, strictly speaking, an issue of epistemology and how a criminal’s epistemology influences his metaphysics. And vice versa.
“After all, Al Capone and Frank Nitty and others of their ilk rely on a minimal and tenuous fealty to reality to survive their denial of and violation of reality, which they labor to keep at arm’s length, or compartmentalize in a separate quarter of their minds, before it envelops them and smothers them. For example, neither would order a plate of meat salted with rat poison or tainted, spoiled meat for dinner, thinking they could defy the fatal consequences of ingesting it and smack their lips as they attacked the meal with knife and fork. Capone and Nitty would both ‘know’ that somehow the chemical composition of rat poison was in direct conflict with their digestive mechanisms.
“Their metaphysics is based chance or happenstance that the sun will always rise in the morning, because there’s no reason why it should not rise. Likewise, because they knew third-hand that all men who ate rat poison died of it, there was no reason for any gangster to believe that neither would not die of it. Capone might think he is exempt from the laws of perilous food consumption, but there was no pressing reason for him to test the idea! Or so he would think. The experiment might prove fatal, unless there was a physician nearby ready with the quick-acting antidote….”
The audience chuckled.
Skeen added, “One thing that criminologists seem to have forgotten, or never conceded, or even explored, is the possibility that criminals are deathly afraid of reality and the justice it can met out when something goes awry with their felonious plans or if the dice role of chance doesn’t fall in their favor. Thus it is with the actions and world views of conniving politicians, which is why I put the latter in the same class as common criminals, who, as readers will recall, were not the original subject of my thesis.
“But one can’t discuss the pathology of criminals in regards to reality without touching on the pathology of crooked politicians. The two classes of humanity are brothers under the skin. That fact is eminently observable even to the person with a meanest capacity for honest thought. The newspapers are full of stories of the latest political scandals. Remember the Teapot Dome scandal? As a criminal’s chief motive is to escape reality, or rather to escape the justice reality is sure to bring him, or hold it at arm’s length, so is that of a thieving or dishonest politician or bureaucrat.”
Skeen smiled. “It cannot be denied that criminals and politicians think. Of course they think. But when their minds turn to cheating honest men and bypassing reality, their thoughts are not honest. Then their mental efforts erect a circus tent to put on fabulous mental contortions and conjurer’s tricks to persuade themselves of the efficacy of his estimate of reality, and having as an audience only those with the meanest capacity of awareness coupled with a weakness to be fascinated by the colorful legerdemain…
“Such minds are but the clucking, noisy pullets otherwise known as voters who detect in the political artist an offer of something for nothing, and who are ready for the chopping block. But, the editor of this fine publication has written far better and more eloquent indictments of the human poultry species than I have and ever will…”
Most of the audience laughed. Dilys was grinning from ear to ear. She raised her hands and applauded. Others followed suit. Caruthers rose and applauded.
Assistant Dean Raico, however, raised a hand. “One last question, if you please, Mr. Skeen. I believe your answer will be brief, so I do not think it would detain you much longer.”
Skeen sighed and nodded. “Yes, Professor Raico?”
“Surely this subject of trichotomies comes under the subject of sociology. I am curious to know if you are familiar with the works of Ibn Khaldun, who is regarded in sociological circles as the first sociologist. His major work, Muquadimah, could be said to be the founding work of the subject of sociology.”
Skeen made a face. “Who? If I know anything about Muhammadan names, and that’s not much, his is probably half a mile long.”
Raico nodded, not happy with Skeen’s answer. “Yes. His full name was Abdurahman bin Muhammad bin Muhammad bin Muhammad bin Al-Hasan bin Jabir bin Muhammad bin Ibrahim bin Abdurahman bin Ibn Khaldun. He was a prominent fourteenth century Muhammadan historian and social critic from Andalusia and North Africa. He also wrote about political science and economics. Are you familiar with him?”
Skeen shrugged and shook his head in amusement. “I confess total ignorance of him, sir.”
Raico sat down wearing a sour expression. His seat companion, Professor Salvatore Selgen, heard him mutter, “I thought so.”
Skeen overheard the remark, and grimaced again. “Well, I guess I’m to be faulted for not knowing how many angels can do the Charleston on the top of a pin, either.”
Caruthers glanced at his Assistant Dean and did not give his colleague a kindly look. He thought, and he was determined to express it personally after the event, was, “Professor Raico, that question was unworthy of you to ask Mr. Skeen. Mr. Skeen has never professed to be anything more than a diligent and well-read amateur. ”
Caruthers rose from his chair and shook Skeen’s hand. “Words cannot suffice to tell you how grateful I am for your appearance, and I think I speak for most of my class, as well. You speak like no valedictorian I have ever heard, I learned so much just listening to you today. You had the attention of everyone in this room.”
Several students and visitors had already filed out. Dilys and Kane stood where they had sat and waited for the Dean to stop speaking with Skeen. Some of the invited guests also held back. Neither Caruthers, Raico, nor Selgen had introduced their guests to Skeen or to anyone else. They were pointed out by Caruthers. Skeen had introduced Dilys and Kane to Caruthers before the talk.
One woman in a red overcoat and with a black cloche pulled tightly over her hair went quickly down the steps to the lectern. “Oh! Mr. Caruthers! What a wonderful talk!”
“Thank you, my dear,” said Caruthers, turning to the woman. “You’re Chastity Biddle, aren’t you? Professor Raico’s guest? And your husband is here, too, I see – ”
Suddenly the woman screamed, “To avenge my father!! To avenge my father!!” She took a butcher’s knife from her purse and plunged it several times into Caruthers’s chest, and then whipped it once across his throat.
Caruthers gasped, and then gurgled as blood poured from his chest and neck, soaking the woman’s clothes. The Dean finally collapsed at the woman’s feet.
Skeen was stunned for a moment.
The woman turned to him. “To avenge my father!! To avenge my father!!” An otherwise handsome, pale face was twisted into one of single-minded madness. Her blue eyes were implacable marbles of hatred. She raised the bloody knife and took several stabs at Skeen.
Skeen had stepped back to evade the thrusting knife, which he barely avoided, and then bent and moved closer to the woman. He kicked her once in a shin, which distracted her for a moment, and then struck her face with a roundhouse punch. The woman dropped the knife, emitting a sound much like a hiccup, and fell unconscious to the floor on her back into the spreading pool of Caruthers’s blood at the foot of the lectern.
Skeen stooped down to examine Caruthers.
But he knew without having to feel the man’s pulse that he was dead.