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
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
and architect, Louvre, Paris; it resembles Cyrus Skeen, according to Dilys, his
wife, who owns a copy of the bust.
3: Questions, Answers, and More
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Kane, who was invited especially by Skeen to witness the unprecedented
appearance of his friend.
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.
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.
around the lectern. A blackboard was behind Skeen and Caruthers in the
otherwise gray plaster room.
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
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?”
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.
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….”
looked pleased that the event was going so smoothly.
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
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.”
Skeen’s answer. Another person rose and asked, “Could you discuss the
relationship between general philosophy and your trichotomy thesis?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….”
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.
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.”
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…
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
laughed. Dilys was grinning from ear to ear. She raised her hands and applauded.
Others followed suit. Caruthers rose and applauded.
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
nodded. “Yes, Professor Raico?”
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
“Who? If I know anything about Muhammadan names, and that’s not much, his is
probably half a mile long.”
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?”
shook his head in amusement. “I confess total ignorance of him, sir.”
wearing a sour expression. His seat companion, Professor Salvatore Selgen,
heard him mutter, “I thought so.”
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.”
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. ”
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.”
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.
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!”
turning to the woman. “You’re Chastity Biddle, aren’t you? Professor Raico’s
guest? And your husband is here, too, I see – ”
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
blood poured from his chest and neck, soaking the woman’s clothes. The Dean
finally collapsed at the woman’s feet.
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.
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.
But he knew without having to feel the
man’s pulse that he was dead.