The Big Chill

Because of an odd set of coincidences, I’ve discovered that there exists a movie called The Big Chill. Released in 1983, it stars Kevin Kline, Jeff Goldblum, and Glenn Close. (I think that Tom Beringer might be equally famous but I just don’t know him.) In the words of Wikipedia, “the plot focuses on a group of baby boomers who attended the University of Michigan, reuniting after 15 years when their friend Alex commits suicide.”

The plot summary on Wikipedia is long but contains very little but angst, fornication, and adultery during several days while the old friends stay at the house of two of them for the funeral and a little after it. Without recapitulating the sordid details, this review by Richard Corliss in Time will suffice to get at why I find interesting the existence of this film that I never want to watch and you shouldn’t either:

These Americans are in their 30s today, but back then they were the Now Generation. Right Now: give me peace, give me justice, gimme good lovin’. For them, in the voluptuous bloom of youth, the ’60s was a banner you could carry aloft or wrap yourself inside. A verdant anarchy of politics, sex, drugs, and style carpeted the landscape. And each impulse was scored to the rollick of the new music: folk, rock, pop, R&B. The armies of the night marched to Washington, but they boogied to Liverpool and Motown. Now, in 1983, Harold & Sarah & Sam & Karen & Michael & Meg & Nick–classmates all from the University of Michigan at the end of our last interesting decade–have come to the funeral of a friend who has slashed his wrists. Alex was a charismatic prodigy of science and friendship and progressive hell raising who opted out of academe to try social work, then manual labor, then suicide. He is presented as a victim of terminal decompression from the orbital flight of his college years: a worst-case scenario his friends must ponder, probing themselves for symptoms of the disease.

I suppose what I find interesting is that the problem is immediately obvious but completely unacknowledged: these people have to purpose in life. Without a purpose one thing is as good as the next and suicide no worse an option than living. It takes exceedingly little thinking to recognize this and if it’s too hard on one’s own there’s always Nietzsche available for a few dollars at the local bookstore (back then, when there were local bookstores).

Yet, despite the problem they’re grappling with being exceedingly simple and the sort of thing any thirteen year old should be able to figure out in half an afternoon—the world is not enough—it’s presented as some sort of inexplicable mystery and they’re deep for confronting minor aspects of it.

Given that this movie seems to have been completely forgotten, I’m probably making too much of it. Still, in the early 1980s enough people watched it that it made $56M on an $8M budget. Not earth shattering but it tapped into something.

Also curious is that it reminds me a bit of The Breakfast Club (which came out in 1985). That movie was about teenagers. In some sense, I get the feeling that The Big Chill was, too. Hippies from the 1960s (a subset of baby boomers, it must be remembered) never really grew up. If you look at the people who used to be hippies, many of them still haven’t. (This is a whole topic unto itself, but I think it actually says far more about how “the greatest generation” raised the relevant baby boomers than it says about those baby boomers.)

PSA: Fixing Slow Low-Flow Toilets

We’d been having issues with our toilet for a while that it would not flush properly. The symptom which indicated the problem was that it would fill the bowl very slowly, at which point maybe it would flush, maybe it wouldn’t. It turns out that the problem was not that the drain was clogged but that the siphon jet had become clogged with mineral deposits. For this to make sense, we have to quickly describe how a toilet works (which is interesting, especially considering how old and barely-modified-since-then the design is).

To help with this, I’ve made a crude diagram of the important parts of a toilet (note: nothing is to scale):

The goal of a toilet is to use water to move everything in the bowl into the drain pipe that leads to the sewer system (in a modern toilet, with as little water as possible). Any sort of basic hose arrangement can do this, but for various reasons it is preferable to have standing water in the toilet bowl when not actively flushing. This introduces the problem of how do we pump the water out of the toilet bowl and into the drain pipe?

Obviously, a giant plunger that used enormous amounts of air pressure to force everything in would work, but it would be difficult and if one is not very careful, messy. There is another way to take advantage of air pressure to do this work for us, though: a siphon!

If you don’t remember, here’s a helpful illustration of a siphon from Wikipedia:

User:Tomia, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

If you can get the tube to be filled completely with water, the pressure of the air will force all of the water in the higher container to go up through the tube and back down again, transferring the water into the lower container. The key to this siphon action is that the water falling down the tube has the effect of pulling water up the tube, and so the water flow is proportional to the distance between the height of the intake and the height of the output, with the height of the tube in the middle having negligible effect. For anyone who’s tried to use a siphon in practice, the trick is how you get the tube completely filled with liquid.

If you look at a toilet, you’ll notice that the output drain has a siphon shape. The tube goes up, higher than the normal water level in the bowl, and then down again. It is, in fact, a siphon, whose purpose is to pull all of the liquid out of the bowl and drain it into the sewer system. The tube is porcelain rather than rubber, but that doesn’t make a difference to the siphon action.

So, how do we get the siphon started, i.e. how do we fill the tube with water? You’ll notice that the top of the bowl is above the top of the siphon, so one way would be to just pour so much water into the bowl so quickly that the siphon tube can’t help but fill up. This works, but the downside is that it needs a very large amount of water to do it. This isn’t so helpful in places that don’t get much rain, but it’s also annoying in that it just takes a long time to transfer that large a volume of water, especially if done by gravity, and also means it would take a long time between flushes to refill the tank.

Enter the siphon jet. It’s an output port of water from the tank which is directly opposite to the intake port of the siphon. It’s far below the tank, so water pressure is at its highest, and it’s built so as to accelerate the water coming out of it. The result is that it shoves water up the siphon tube much faster that filling the bowl would, causing the siphon to form which then pulls the liquid out of the toilet bowl and into the sewer.

This is better in approximately every way since the toilet flushes faster, uses less water, and refills more quickly. The only problem is that it makes the siphon jet a point of failure. If mineral deposits build up on the siphon jet it can significantly reduce the speed of the water coming out of it. If the water coming out of the siphon jet is slow, it can’t shove the water up the siphon tube and the siphon doesn’t get formed. If the siphon doesn’t get formed, the contents of the toilet bowl will remain in the bowl.

The good news is that cleaning mineral deposits isn’t super difficult. Basically what you need is some sort of acid to bread down the mineral deposits. Common household vinegar is a weak acid but will work if you use enough of it, for long enough. Getting out as much water as possible from the bowl (a good start is to use a plunger to force as much of it up the siphon as possible, then you can use a dixie cup and a buck to remove most of the rest, and small amounts of water don’t matter) then pouring in enough vinegar to cover the siphon jet will do a lot toward removing mineral deposits.

This is as far as I’ve gotten and there’s been a significant improvement in my toilet that is having this problem. The mineral deposits are rather bad, though, so I’m planning to buy some hydrochloric acid (frequently sold as “muriatic acid”) at the hardware store to try. It’s a much stronger acid and also is sold in more concentrated forms, so it should remove the decade of mineral buildup much faster. At the current rate of improvement, I’d probably need a few gallons of vinegar per week to completely clear away the deposits that have built up.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the rim of the toilet also puts some water into the bowl so that all of the sides of the toilet get wet. It is important to make sure that these outlet ports (there are a lot of them) are unobstructed, but their primary purpose is to move everything in the bowl down towards the area in the bottom with the siphon jet so they’re not as critical to whether the toilet flushes.

I hope that this is useful and possibly interesting. Good luck with your toilets.

Update: I was asked if older, non-low-flow toilets also have siphon jets. My understanding is that yes, they do, but they were bigger and didn’t accelerate the water as much so they weren’t as subject to working badly because of mineral deposit buildup. It’s still worth keeping them cleaned off of mineral deposits, it’s just less critical. This is related to how Efficiency and Robustness Are Enemies.

Murder She Wrote: Mourning Among the Wisterias

In the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote is the episode Mourning Among the Wisterias. It’s an interesting episode in part because it is, in its way, an extremely typical episode. There’s nothing very remarkable about it, which makes it a good choice to remark on to discuss the bulk of Murder, She Wrote episodes. You might even call it a prototypical episode.

Before we proceed to the episode itself, I want to mention what a Wisteria is, since I had to look it up. It’s a flowering vine in the legume family that likes to cling to buildings and can become quite large. Here’s a picture from the Wikipedia article on wisterias:

PENTAX Image

Wisterias are fast growing, as are many vines, since they don’t need to produce their own support structure, but even fast growing plants take time to climb up buildings. Moreover they can get quite heavy, so the buildings need to be strong buildings to support wisterias. As such, they suggest old, large buildings (they tend to strangle trees they grow on). I bring this up because the title feels like it should be a reference to some other title (like Snow White, Blood Red or Something Borrowed, Someone Blue was), but I can’t find anything it’s referring to.

The episode opens with a panning shot of a magnificent southern mansion, while rich and famous playwright Eugene McLenden reads his latest play.

He’s reading it to Jessica, who sits fanning herself in a huge chair.

This is somewhat anachronistic as a rich man in 1988 would have been able to afford air conditioning. I suspect it’s of a piece with the way that Jessica works on an old mechanical typewriter. Murder, She Wrote, is not about being up to date. In fact, being out of date is one of its themes. I don’t think that this is a coincidence with it being a murder mystery show; solving murders using one’s wits was, even at the time of Murder, She Wrote, something of an anachronism. This became especially true after the second season, when (in the real world) DNA identification began to be used to obtain criminal convictions. Even before that, using ones wits rather than the latest scientific methods has an anachronistic element to it. You can see this in the great success of historical detectives. My favorite example is Cadfael. (For those not fortunate enough to have read the Cadfael series, he’s a Benedictine monk in the twelfth century who solves murders.)

There is a certain irony to this development in murder mysteries, as the genre started in new, scientific methods of deduction often coupled with the latest in forensic science, such as chemical analysis and microscopes. (Microscopes were around since the 1600s but only became really good in the late 1800s.) Detective stories were quick to jump on fingerprints when they started to be used for criminal investigations. (First used to convict someone in 1902, fingerprints were established as a means of identification by a huge statistical analysis performed by Francis Galton in 1892 and a method for transferring latent fingerprints was developed by the french scientist Paul-Jean Coulier in 1901.)

It did not, I should add, take long for this trend to be replaced by greater interest in more human-focused and therefore less cutting-edge detection. G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown started solving crimes by understanding criminals in 1910, Hercule Poirot began using his little grey cells and letting other people hunt for clues with magnifying glasses in 1920, and Lord Peter Wimsey may have started with a monocle that offered powerful magnification in 1923, but he wasn’t using it any more by 1926. Fifty eight years later, in 1984, Murder, She Wrote wasn’t about to have a retired school teacher running a high tech crime lab in her guest bedroom. To be fair, the police procedural would be that, except in an office, and they have been very popular ever since Dragnet. They’re just a different thing. Murder, She Wrote is on the extreme other end of the spectrum.

In this case, accentuating the universality of the detective, Eugene is an old friend of Jessica’s. This is a surprisingly common setup in Murder, She Wrote, perhaps even more common than Jessica visiting a niece. It is curious, then, that it doesn’t really make sense with Jessica’s backstory. Until she (recently) became famous as a mystery novelist, she was just a school teacher in a little town in Maine. How she has so many close friends scattered around the country, most of whom are accomplished and many of whom are rich or famous, is never explained, nor could it be. Doubly so in the era in question. Jessica’s age is never explicitly given, but since she’s a retired widow, it’s pretty reasonable to guess that she’s sixty when the series begins. School teachers can retire early, but not at forty five. (For what it’s worth, Angela Lansbury was 59 when the series began, and, unusual for Hollywood, she tends to play older, rather than play younger.) This would mean that Jessica Fletcher was born in the 1920s and was a young adult in the 1940s. How would a school teacher in Maine in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s be making friends with famous playwrights, business moguls, vineyard owners, and such-like, in order for them to be old friends in the 1980s?

It barely makes sense how Jessica can have one such old friend, let alone the dozens she turns out to have throughout the seasons of Murder, She Wrote. If we consider the setup more symbolically, though, I think that we’ll find that the writers overlooked this because it works so well for the general theme of the show. At its heart, Murder, She Wrote is about the ordinary being interesting. Jessica Fletcher is a retired school teacher from Maine because this is, to Hollywood writers, at least, the quintessence of normal. She’s barely ever actually in Maine, but in theory she’s grounded and rooted, with a solid past and a life that doesn’t change much. Most of us are surrounded by the familiar; visiting old friends means immersion in the familiar.

There being multiple episodes of Murder, She Wrote imposes a requirement for some minimum amount of novelty, since people can’t (ordinarily) die twice. Even if Jessica’s old neighbors were to die, she would soon become surrounded by new neighbors. A compromise, then, is for Jessica to visit old friends, since this spreads them around and she can still come back to her old neighbors when the visit is over. That’s part of what makes this such a prototypical episode of Murder, She Wrote.

To get back to this particular episode: while Eugene is reading his new play to Jessica, the camera moves over to the bedroom of two other principles characters:

The man is Todd Wendle, Eugene’s nephew. The woman is his wife, Crystal Wendle. They were recently married, as he tells her to come over to the bed to “comfort your new husband”. This makes it sound like they were just married a few weeks ago—she makes reference to how pleasantly cool it was on their honeymoon. For reasons that will come up later, though, they have to have been married for at least a few months and a year or two would work better.

Todd is Eugene’s nephew and sole heir. She asks him to go on vacation somewhere it’s less hot for a while and he replies that he’s only been at his current job a few months, plus they have no money for travelling. She suggests asking Eugene for some but he dislikes the idea and replies that there are other ways to get money besides begging.

We cut back to Eugene, who finishes reading the play. Jessica says that it’s beautiful, of course, but so sad. Eugene replies that it’s downright miserable and that happy endings are for movies. “It’s art, Jessica. It has to end badly.”

I really can’t tell whether they’re making fun of this sort of thing or not. The writers seem to take it seriously enough, which makes me wonder. There is a place for tragedy, of course, but I can’t say I like this theory of art. There’s something pagan about it. Except that’s not quite true, because pagan art ends badly for good characters. The sort of plays Eugene writes tend to end badly because all of the people in them are bad people. This has Christian fundamentals—that the cause of misery is vice, not fate—but it tends to be done without understanding. Worse, it tends to be about awful people who have somehow escaped the consequences of their evil up till now, when—rather than their past catching up to them—suddenly cause and effect starts working. My complaint of this style of art is, basically, that it is neither a Greek tragedy nor a Christian lament of vice; it’s a weird hybrid of the two that tends to be more a lament that vice doesn’t work. It has neither the pathos of bad things happening to good people, nor the hope of good people being happy in spite of bad things happening to them, nor the satisfaction of justice being visited upon bad people. The problem is not that it’s sad, but that it’s sad about the wrong things. Which is why, ironically, it makes men like Eugene rich. “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own”—men like Eugene are of the world, so the world loves them as its own. For a time.

Part of what makes me think that they’re not treating Eugene’s theory of art ironically is that I think he’s supposed to be a fictionalized Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neil. Both wrote miserable plays that were described in glowing terms, back in the day. Of A Streetcar Named Desire, Wikipedia says, “Williams’ most popular work, A Streetcar Named Desire is considered one of the finest and most critically acclaimed plays of the twentieth century.” Of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, by Eugene O’Neill, it says, “The play is widely considered to be his magnum opus and one of the finest American plays of the 20th century.”

A Streetcar Named Desire is well written but not a good play, in the sense that it has no actual value other than as a stimulant for unpleasant emotions. It is merely wallowing in the fact that the consequences of unrelenting vice are misery. I’ve never read or seen A Long Day’s Journey Into Night but the plot synopsis of it on Wikipedia, together with the fact that the people who praise it are the same people who praise A Streetcar named Desire, do not make me sanguine that it’s any better. Both men were lauded, however. They were major cultural figures, widely respected. It seems likely that the writers of Murder, She Wrote meant for Eugene to be an equally respected figure, and thus that his miserable plays must be heartbreaking works of crushing genius.

However that is, we’re next introduced to Dierdre:

I’ve watched the episode more than once and I still don’t really know who she is. She seems to be an actress who has starred in some of Eugene’s plays, though why she’s staying an Eugene’s house is never explained. He doesn’t seem to like her. She’s also of a very indeterminate age. The actress who played her, Lois Nettleton, was 60 years old at the time, though she seems to be playing a woman in her forties or fifties. She seems desperate to star in this play, at any rate, and gushes over Eugene about it. During this gushing, a very memorable exchange takes place:

Eugene: Why are you so sure it’s for you? You don’t even know what it’s about.
Dierdre: I’m sure it’s about another one of your sex-starved southern women. [looks at Jessica] But from what I’ve observed, women in the south are rarely starved for sex.
Jessica: Well, I wouldn’t know. I’m from Maine.

They walk inside, and Eugene is very sick. He’s coughs a lot, is out of bourbon, and asks his nephew and niece to get him more. They are at first reluctant since it’s not good for him, but he rudely insists. Jessica agrees with them and after his nephew leaves to get the bourbon points out that Eugene is being unduly harsh on his nephew. Eugene talks about how he’s given the boy everything and he’ll get everything, but damn it the boy has no spine.

We’re next introduced to several characters:

This is Ola Mae, the maid and cook. Or maybe just cook. Except I think I did see her cleaning something at one point.

The guy on the left is Jonathan Keeler, Eugene’s Lawyer, and the fellow on the right is Arnold Goldman, a big-shot producer. He’s played, incidentally, by Frank Gorshin—most famous for playing the Riddler on Batman. I didn’t realize it until I saw it on IMDB; he has none of that manic energy here. That’s not significant to the plot, but it was one of the charms of Murder, She Wrote that one got to see actors who had been famous, thirty years earlier, one more time.

Eugene comes out they talk business. Eugene and Jonathan want more money, while Arnold says that the numbers don’t make sense and they want more than they can get. It will cost at least a million dollars just to stage the play—it’s got fourteen speaking parts and seven sets. Arnold summarizes, “I want to produce this play but we have to come to some kind of understanding.” Eugene says, cryptically, “Gentlemen, before the weekend is over, I’m sure we’ll all come to a better… understanding. About a lot of things.”

After this Eugene visits Jessica in her room while she is unpacking. He asks her to marry him. She’s a bit perplexed by this and he explains it’s a business arrangement. He’s dying and wants a legal wife to survive him in order to ensure that the play is done right and Arnold “doesn’t turn it into a musical on roller skates.” Jessica asks why his nephew can’t do it and Eugene replies that he’s just a boy who doesn’t understand art. She asks why Jonathan can’t do it and he says that he’s discovered that his lifelong friend has been cheating him.

The next scene has Crystal telling Ola Mae that dinner was “scrumptious.”

Ola Mae complains that there doesn’t seem any point in cooking since Mr Eugene hardly ate more than a mouthful. Crystal attributes his lack of appetite to the heat and humidity, then goes off to fix a fruit cocktail. Ola Mae angrily tells her “don’t you make a mess in my kitchen”. I’m not sure the point of this bit of characterization. It makes Ola Mae an unlikable character, but does little else. Since she’s a servant and Murder, She Wrote plays by the rules, she’s not a plausible suspect for whatever murder is going to happen.

Ola Mae walks past Deirdre and Arnold. Deirdre is pitching an interpretation of the character that makes Deidre perfect for the part.

Arnold is receptive but thinks Eugene won’t be, and if Jonathan keeps jacking up the price of the play there won’t be any play to cast. Deidre tells him to worry about Eugene and she’ll take care of Jonathan. He asks her how far she’d go for a part like this and she suggests they go onto the veranda because it might be cooler there. As they walk onto the veranda the scene moves into a living room where Eugene, Todd, Jonathan, and Jessica are talking.

Jonathan tries to convince Eugene to demand enormous sums of money for his new play and even goes so far as to suggest that Arnold had cheated Eugene on previous plays. Eugene suggests asking Arnold about it, since Arnold is here, and Jonathan looks very worried. Eugene asks for a refill of his bourbon, which Jonathan volunteers to go get. Eugene then starts doubling over with pain and explains it as indigestion. He asks Jessica to go to the kitchen to see if Ola Mae has any bicarbonate of soda.

On walking into the kitchen, Jessica discovers a scene between Jonathan and Crystal.

Crystal loudly says “let me go!” as the door opens, and drops a glass, which shatters on the floor. Jessica apologizes, saying that she didn’t realize that anyone was in the kitchen, and Jonathan replies that Crystal broke a glass because she was a little careless. Crystal angrily replies that Jonathan has apparently misunderstood something, but he smiles and replies, “On the contrary, my dear, my understanding of things has been greatly improved.”

Jessica gets the bicarbonate for Eugene then offers to help Crystal clean up the glass, but she quickly declines, then says that she wants to be alone for a moment.

The next scene is Eugene getting undressed for the night while Crystal says, in a concerned voice, that he hardly ate a bite at dinner (he’s in the early stages of undressing, removing the outermost layers of his suit, and still decent). Jonathan walks in and says that he’s got something he wants to talk to Eugene about, privately, but Eugene waves both of them away saying that whatever they have to say will keep until morning. Crystal and Jonathan glare at each other and, if looks could kill, we might already have two corpses on our hands.

Later that night Jessica is reclining on a couch reading what I presume is the manuscript for the play when she hears two gunshots in rapid succession. Everyone in the household goes running, looking for everyone else. Eugene isn’t in his room, but when they call for him he shouts back “in here” from Jonathan’s room. When they get in, they see Eugene standing over the body holding a gun pointed at it:

This being Murder, She Wrote, that means that he’s the one person we know didn’t do it (other than Jessica, of course). Here’s the body from Jessica’s perspective:

Next, Homicide Captain Walker Thorn arrives to conduct the investigation.

That is, indeed, René Auberjonois. Ola Mae recognizes him and he knows her by name. Jessica asks if she can help—show him the body. He declines, saying that he can find it. It turns out that Thorn Creek (the estate) used to belong to his family. Jonathan Keeler (the corpse) had called in some notes which somehow or other forced the Thorn family to sell the place and Thorn figures that Jonathan made a handsome profit when he sold the place to Eugene.

Thorn interrogates everyone present. When the shots were fired Arnold was asleep, Todd and Crystal were together, he in bed she in the bathroom, and that’s as far as we get. Eugene heard shots fired and grabbed a gun from the gun cabinet in his bedroom and went to investigate. Captain Thorn shows him a gun and asks if it was the gun he was holding. It was found in Eugene’s gun cabinet, recently fired.

Arnold and Crystal say that it was the gun. Eugene takes a closer look and says that he had the Colt. What Captain Thorn is holding is the Smith & Wesson. (All .38 revolvers look similar, he helpfully offers.)

In the next scene, which is around breakfast time the next day, Jessica and Eugene are talking over the case when Grace arrives.

She is apparently some sort of paramour of Eugene, though he doesn’t seem to like her very much and she doesn’t much seem to like him either. She was also the one who put Eugene wise to Jonathan robbing from him—he had been doing the same to her investments.

Grace seems to also dislike Jessica—though that, at least, seems to be simple jealousy. She’s rude to Jessica and asks Jessica to tell Ola Mae to bring up her bags to Eugene’s room. Eugene asks Jessica, if she would be so kind, to tell Ola Mae to put Grace’s bags in the Magnolia room. I’m not sure what the purpose of all this unpleasantness is; it seems unlikely that Grace could be a suspect. It also makes no sense how she and Eugene are together—in whatever sense they are together. Perhaps we’ll find out. (Spoiler: we don’t.)

However that goes, this sends Jessica with Eugene’s uneaten breakfast down to the kitchen, where she runs into Deirdre.

As Deirdre is offering Jessica coffee, she spots some ants. As she crushes them with a paper towel, she exclaims that she can’t understand why Ola Mae doesn’t do something about them. Crystal walks in to the kitchen as Deirdre leaves it. Crystal says she feels she owes Jessica an explanation for what happened the previous night. She says that it was important to her that Todd advance in his career, which, since he worked at Jonathan’s law firm, meant advancing in the firm. Jonathan misunderstood that and tried to take advantage of her in exchange for helping Todd. She asks Jessica not to say anything about this and Jessica promises to say nothing. “Sometimes what husbands don’t know is very good for them.”

Crystal beams, saying she knew Jessica would understand. Jessica then adds, “and if Todd didn’t know, then no one could think that he’d have any reason to resent Jonathan, could he?” This turns Crystal’s smile upside down, into a frown.

In the next scene Todd and Arnold are negotiating and Todd says that he can agree to Arnold’s figures. He’s not, he explains, as greedy as Jonathan. Arnold asks if he can persuade Eugene to agree and Todd expresses doubt that with Eugene’s failing health that he’ll want to spend energy on business details. “I think we’ll enjoy doing business together,” he smarms, as he walks out of the room.

The next scene is of Captain Thorn giving Eugene some papers and telling him that the ballistics tests definitely establish Eugene’s gun as the murder weapon. He’ll have to come down to headquarters for fingerprinting and questioning. Eugene refuses to comply without Thorn having a warrant for his arrest. Thorn says that he could easily get one and Eugene suggests that he does so but threatens to have his lawyer sue Thorn’s butt off for false arrest if he does. I’m not sure what the point of this bravado is, as one cannot sue for false arrest if the arrest is made pursuant to a warrant issued by a judge—unless the person arrested is not the person named in the warrant. It doesn’t matter, though, as Eugene then keels over in pain and collapses on the ground.

I suspect that in the original broadcast the episode went to commercial break here. In the very next scene Eugene is in bed, being attended to by a doctor. He claims that there’s no need to go to a hospital as there’s nothing wrong with him but a little indigestion. When the doctor presses him, he point-blank refuses to go to the hospital. The doctor takes some blood samples and leaves.

The next scene is of Deidre and Arnold talking over the play and deciding what drastic changes to make in order to reduce the cast, reduce the number of sets, and make the play more commercial. (This is exactly what Eugene is afraid will happen after he’s gone.)

The next scene is Jessica and Thorn talking over the case in one of the many rooms in the house. I’m not sure what to call it. Perhaps it’s a library. Jessica speculates that Eugene can’t be the only person that Jonathan was stealing from and Thorn agrees. He had been stealing from Grace, too—she had a meeting with him about it only the day before. Jessica is surprised, as Grace had told Eugene that she only got to Savanna today. She wasn’t at the house last night, though, Thorn points out.

Jessica admits it and moves on. When she first heard the shots she got the impression that they came from outside. With the heat, every window in the house would have been open. Except, Thorn points out, the window in Jonathan’s room. Thorn thinks she’s suggesting that someone might have fired the shots from the outside and then closed the window. “You know, for a Yankee, you don’t miss much, Ma’am.”

Except that it was clearly established (see earlier photos) that Jonathan was shot on his side facing the door, not on the side facing the window. That seems like a pretty big thing to miss. Perhaps what Jessica actually had in mind was the killer shooting Jonathan when the window was open, then left by the window, closing it after them. Even this seems a little far fetched as the room was on the second floor (the floor above the ground floor, for those who count floors differently than Americans). Even this seems implausible. And why draw attention to the window by closing it on the way out? Thorn seems impressed, though. He then excuses himself as having work to do.

Ola Mae walks into asking if it was Captain Thorn who was just there. She wanted to get a receipt for the comforter from the room which he had taken. Jessica didn’t see a comforter in that room but Ola Mae said it’s been there for the last twenty five years. It was goose down, hand-made by Captain Thorn’s mama. Jessica says that Captain Thorn didn’t mention anything about the comforter to her and Ola Mae tartly replies, “well maybe he didn’t think it was any of your business.”

A missing comforter, this late in an episode (there are less than fifteen minutes left), is clearly a clue. I suspect that Ola Mae’s rudeness is meant to distract from the clue. It doesn’t seem to serve any other function. There’s no purpose to needlessly antagonizing people, especially for servants.

In the next scene Crystal comes into a room Jonathan is in. He’s sitting at a desk looking over some legal papers. It looks like it might be a bedroom, except that I don’t think that it’s their bedroom as the bed is in the wrong place. Anyway, she informs him that she just heard from Grace that Eugene had terminated their engagement as he’s made other plans. Todd tells her that Eugene is a dying man and doesn’t plan to marry anyone. Crystal seems devastated; the doctor said it was just indigestion. Todd explains that Uncle Eugene doesn’t tell the doctor anything. She asks what he’s studying so intently and Todd says that it’s a copy of Uncle Eugene’s will. Except for a few odds and ends, everything goes to Todd.

In the next scene, Arnold is talking to Eugene, who says that Arnold has to do the play and to work the money out with Todd. But, Deirdre is not only too old for the part of Marguerite, she’s also wrong for it. Even though she snuck him a bottle of bourbon. He he proceeds to pour himself some of.

In a Murder, She Wrote, one’s ears should perk up any time one hears about someone sneaking a sick person something they’re not supposed to have. There’s some further discussion about the play, but that’s just here because needles need to have some hay around them in a murder mystery. Eugene makes Arnold promise not to change a single line, and Arnold promises he won’t change even a single word (we get the impression, entirely insincerely). He also promises to break the news to Deidre that she won’t get the part. I suspect this is also quite insincere, though here it’s hard to be sure because I could easily see him double-cross her.

In the next scene Jessica goes into the kitchen where Ola Mae is pouring ant poison into a glass. Since getting this clue involves recognizing what Ola Mae is holding and since television in the late 1980s was mostly broadcast and thus subject to interference which produced static, making small words hard to read, this calls for clue-o-vision:

Even on a mediocre television with static from interference you can figure out that this isn’t good for the health of whoever might drink it, be they mice or men (or ants, the intended victims).

We then get very dramatic music as the camera zooms in on Ola Mae holding the glass of poison and looking very guilty:

There are twelve minutes to go, however, so we can be pretty sure, despite the ominous music, that this is entirely innocent. There’s a cut to commercial here, so I suspect this is just an artifact of television writers needing to try to go to commercial break on a cliffhanger in order to get people to not change the channel during the commercials.

Jessica comes over and picks up the bottle. “Arsenic Base,” she reads. “The best thing I’ve found for those ants,” Ola Mae replies. “Works on aphids, too, and goes a lot further than those spray cans.” In answer to Jessica’s query, she usually keeps it here in the drawer.

In the next scene, Jessica asks Dr. Church (Eugene’s doctor) to run a special test for arsenic poisoning. They don’t waste any time getting the results of this; Captain Thorn and Jessica break the news to Eugene in the very next scene:

That is quite a fancy “you’re being poisoned” dress Jessica is wearing.

Jessica explains that the beauty of arsenic poisoning is that small doses, administered over a long time, take on the characteristics of a dozen other illnesses. The victim goes into a decline and then when the lethal dose is finally administered the attending doctor will write it off as natural causes from whatever he diagnosed the decline as.

What does all this have to do with Jonathan’s death, though, Jessica wonders? Captain Thorn asks Eugene if he caught Jonathan poisoning him and that’s why he killed him. Eugene just grumbles. Jessica asks Captain Thorn if he or his men removed a down comforter from the room Jonathan was killed in. Neither he nor his men removed it and Thorn doesn’t even recall there having been a comforter in the room.

Eugene asks why anyone would take a comforter when it’s been so hot? Jessica suggests it was because the comforter had powder burns on it and bullet holes in it—it was used to muffle the sound of killing Jonathan and then later, at a safe remove, two more shots were fired to give a false time of death while the killer had an alibi. It’s an intriguing possibility, Thorn admits, but it would be very difficult to prove.

Unless, Jessica says, something happens to force the killer’s hand.

In the next scene, Eugene announces his engagement to Jessica.

Reactions vary. Todd is surprised. Grace just looks angry. Deidre gushes for Jessica. Crystal says, “My goodness, another wedding at Thorn Creek. How exciting.”

That’s a picture of two people who realize that their inheritance is in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, if looks could kill, Grace might have produced a second corpse:

That’s the last we see of Grace. She was barely a character in this episode, to the point that I wonder why she was a character at all.

Eugene says that they’re going to be married ASAP then go on an extended honeymoon abroad since Thorn hasn’t filed any charges yet. Reactions to this are generally negative, even from people with a minimal stake in it like Deidre and Arnold. Eugene then tells Todd that he wants to discuss some legal matters in the morning. “Do you think you could find a copy of my old will?”

They’re laying it on rather thick, here. Obviously subtlety isn’t the goal but at some point there should be a worry that the murderer will catch on that it’s just a ploy.

Jessica then asks all of the women present to be her bride’s maids. Technically Crystal can’t since she’s a married woman, not a maiden. I know that there can be a “matron of honor” in place of the “maid of honor”; I’m not sure if it’s possible to have “bride’s matrons” otherwise. These are technical points, I know, but I would really expect Jessica to know this and get it right. I suppose it can be chalked up to her playing the character of a woman rushing headlong into a marriage without thinking but that’s a strained character as it is. Not that any of the suspects actually know Jessica, except by reputation, I suppose. Still. A more carefully laid trap would be all to the good.

It doesn’t matter, though, because the murderer does take the bait. In the very next scene Eugene is lying in bed and the door furtively opens.

The total count of suspects is, curiously, not very big. If we list everyone in the episode, even if we can rule them out, it’s only (in approximate order of appearance):

  • Deidre
  • Crystal
  • Todd
  • Ola Mae
  • Arnold
  • Captain Thorn
  • Grace

We can rule out Ola Mae because she’s the cook and also because she was incriminated with a closeup shot as ominous music played. We can rule out Captain Thorn because he didn’t have access to Eugene until Jonathan was killed. We can rule out Arnold for the same reason—he was off in New York producing plays. Grace was barely a character in the story but it is implied that she’s generally had access to Eugene, and arsenical poisoning isn’t the sort of thing you need to keep constantly topped off, so we can’t entirely rule her out. The problem there is that she has nothing to gain from Eugene’s death. It could, I suppose, be revenge for his never marrying her but she didn’t seem to want to marry him anyway.

That only leaves Crystal and Todd. That’s not a long list of suspects. They have roughly an equal motivation, though between them Crystal seemed the more dissatisfied with her life. On the other hand, Todd seemed the more conniving of the two.

Then the shadowy figure moves into the light and gently wakes Eugene up, telling him that he was groaning and asking if he was having a bad dream, a glass of bourbon in hand to make sure he has no more bad dreams.

If your money was on Crystal, congratulations.

Eugene takes the glass and tells her that he’s not going to drink it, he’s going to give it to Captain Thorn for analysis. Crystal tries to run out, but the way is blocked.

I’ve got to say, René Auberjonois cuts a very impressive figure, here. It’s almost hard to believe that he was the timid music professor, Howard Papasian, in Murder She Wrote: Murder in a Minor Key. The one thing I wonder about is how he knew that Crystal had crept into Eugene’s room and so it was safe to come out into the hallway. Usually the police detective is waiting in the next room or somewhere else that the killer couldn’t have seen him. Here, he had to creep down the hallway without being heard after Crystal had done the same thing. It’s a great shot, though.

Somehow this turns into Jessica and Eugene talking about what happened while Captain Thorn escorts Crystal down the stairs. Eugene asks Jessica how she knew it was Crystal and Jessica says that she didn’t, not for sure, but she was sure that the murder of Jonathan was tied up with the poisoning, and it occurred to her that he might have been killed because he knew who was poisoning Eugene. Then she couldn’t help but remember the incident earlier that night, where a glass was smashed and Jonathan was holding Crystal by the wrist. He must have caught her putting ant poison into the bourbon.

The only problem with this supposition is that if he did catch her, he had to have waited until after she put the ant poison away in order to grab her by the wrist and force her to drop the glass. Jessica walked into the kitchen right as the glass was dropped, so if the bottle of ant poison was anywhere to be seen—which it would have had to for Jonathan to see her putting the ant poison in—Jessica would have seen it too. So would the viewer, since they panned across the kitchen.

No ant poison visible that I can see and Jessica is right next to the drawer it is stored in.

I’m not sure that this is really a solvable problem. It’s pretty far fetched that Jonathan would have watched Crystal add the and poison to the glass of bourbon and put the ant poison away again, then grabbed her wrist and forced her to drop the glass.

There’s also the problem that during a dinner party with house guests present is a really stupid time to administer another dose of ant poison. Also strange, for someone who had been executing a cunning long-term strategy, was using the bottle of ant poison for each dose. Far more sensible would have been to take some into a smaller bottle, perhaps a cleaned-out cosmetic bottle, that she could have then administered the doses from. Better yet would be a bottle of vitamin drops she had previously emptied. Doubly so if it was a double of a bottle of vitamin drops that was kept in a known location, so that if anyone saw her sneaking a drop in she could claim she was just trying to get him a few vitamins and if anyone later went to test the vitamin drops they’d go for the ones in the known location which had only normal, healthy, vitamin liquid in it.

Crystal objects that she couldn’t have shot Jonathan because she was in bed with her husband when Jonathan was shot. Jessica corrects her that her husband said that she was in the bathroom. She goes on to reconstruct the crime. Crystal closed the window in Jonathan’s room then wrapped the gun in the down comforter to muffle the shots.

Jessica’s reconstructions of the crime get the same hazy blur around the edges that flashbacks do.

I am very dubious that this would actually work, btw. Guns are unbelievably loud and in my experience a comforter doesn’t muffle even a cell phone. That said, I’m not certain that this would not work with a gun. The back-pressure the comforter would create might affect the way the gun discharges and most loadings of a .38 fire sub-sonic bullets so the bullet itself won’t create a sonic boom. That said, I’m still dubious and Crystal really should have been dubious about it, too. This is an awful big risk for her to have taken. She’d certainly have been caught immediately if anyone had heard the gun. Granted, she was desperate, but stabbing Jonathan would have been less of a risk. She wouldn’t have been able to produce an alibi, but then it was her husband who was providing the alibi so it wasn’t worth anything anyway.

All of this is, of course, pure speculation. There’s no proof of it. Fortunately for Jessica, the reconstruction being spot-on is sufficient to get Crystal to confess. She says that Jonathan had made unseemly advances on more than one occasion and she didn’t mind killing him at all. She turns to Eugene and tells him that it took all the courage she could muster to try to murder him.

He asks her why and she replies that it was for the money, of course. He objects that he had always treated her and her husband very generously. “Oh yes, you lorded your generosity over my husband. He has choked on your kindness, Uncle Eugene. Oh, you made him son and heir, then kept him dangling on a paltry little allowance and I don’t think we should have to wait forever for what is rightfully ours. We have a position in society to maintain.”

This explanation is, perhaps, the least convincing part of the episode. The first problem is that I’m not sure how to reconcile it with Todd calling himself “her new husband” in the beginning of the episode. This is somewhat born up by her remarks about “another wedding at Thorn Creek.” Yet if she was newly married, she could hardly be chafing under the strain of not being wealthy, nor seen her husband withering under the load of having only a small allowance on top of his salary as a lawyer.

Furthermore, her reason for wanting the money was one of the few things inheriting money wouldn’t accomplish. The heir to a fortune has, approximately, the same social status as if he had the fortune. He doesn’t have the power—the ability to do what we wants—but people will invite him to parties, let him into clubs, etc. Even more to the point, Crystal and Todd would have a higher position in society while they’re connected to a popular and respected playwright. Once Eugene is dead they will lose the cachet of being close relatives with easy access to him. If Crystal is concerned about their social standing the last thing in the world she would want would be Eugene’s death. Having his money would bring in small social standing in comparison to having the power to introduce people to him.

Her trying to murder Eugene would make far more sense if she longed to travel, or to buy fancy clothes, or buy enough horses to drive in a horse-drawn carriage everywhere she went, or to do any of the things that money can actually accomplish. We’re given the explanation we’re given, though. The younger generation wants the fruit of the older generation’s labor. It doesn’t make much sense for the characters as written but it does make sense for a prototypical episode of Murder, She Wrote. (I’ll expand on this below.)

The episode ends with Eugene and Jessica talking. He expresses disappointment that she has refused to marry him but grants that it did work to bring out the killer. He also says that he has some bridges to mend with Todd. Seeing as how it was Todd’s wife who had been poisoning him, it really should be Todd who is trying to mend the bridges. They end when Jessica asks what the typing she heard from his room in the morning was and he says that he’s working on a new play. When asked what it’s about, he replies, “Same old thing. My nearest and dearest friends. Whatever would I do without them?” He raises his glass, and Jessica, laughing, returns the gesture.

This was by no means the best episode of Murder, She Wrote but a prototypical episode couldn’t be, almost by definition. In this episode elements of the murder and the investigation don’t really make sense with the characters and situations as they’re presented, but they fit the theme of the show very well. I should clarify that Murder, She Wrote did not have a single theme. No complex work, and especially not one written by many different authors, can. Still, if we had to give one theme for Murder, She Wrote it would be living nostalgia.

Murder, She Wrote is about, more than anything else, the past still having value. You can see this most prominently in its older cast but you can see it in anachronisms like mechanical typewriters and southern mansions without air conditioning. You can also see it in plots borrowed from golden-age mysteries.

Does it make sense that Crystal was trying to poison Eugene in order to inherit his money in order to maintain her social position? No. Not at all. An heir trying to poison a rich relative in order to inherit their money is a classic mystery plot but in the original it tends to be in order to pay off debts. Frequently the debts were incurred from investments which went bad but sometimes they were just business debts or gambling debts. Such debts, if they came to maturity without the debtor being able to pay, would in fact ruin someone’s social standing. These are specifics, though, and themes are not concerned with specifics. In broad strokes, the plot of a poor heir doing away with a rich ancestor in order to inherit is a classic. As such, it’s good enough for Murder, She Wrote, because old things are still good.

Even the murder weapon being arsenic in small doses to cause symptoms of gastritis is a golden age plot device. In the early 1900s and especially in England, arsenic was commonly found in weed killer, insect poisons, and even over-the-counter medications. That is, it was readily accessible. In the late 1980s, arsenic was nowhere near as readily available as it was back then. Further, not being used in medications anymore dosing information would not be so easy to come by. This is a real problem for someone who was intending to administer sub-lethal doses over time—knowing how much to give isn’t common knowledge and when the stuff is not normally given to people, it’s not easy to come up with, either. This isn’t such a problem for someone trying to administer an acutely lethal dose—they can take a guess then use ten times as much, to be safe. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but it does make it even stranger for Crystal to choose this method. That said, it would have worked (if it wasn’t for Jessica), showing—again—that old things are still valuable.

We can also see this theme even in the choice of murder victim. Eugene is a respected playwright. He’s also, as I said before, supposed to be someone like Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neil. Tennessee Williams’ most popular play was published in 1947. Eugene O’Neil’s was published postumously in 1956 (O’Neil died in 1953). Since he’s often lumped in with them, Arthur Miller’s most famous works, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, were published in 1949 and 1953. The idea of Eugene’s new play being earth-shattering material, and of Eugene being a celebrated figure, were anachronistic. I don’t want to overstate this, but plays being such a big deal was, itself, a throwback. Plays became increasingly niche things as movies and, ironically, television came to dominate performed entertainment. (I’m probably in danger of overstating this as it’s not like Broadway has gone away, but when I was a kid in the 1980s, I would not have been nearly as impressed to hear that someone was a broadway playwright as I would have been to hear that they were a TV writer.)

Murder, She Wrote episodes varied considerably over the twelve seasons that they ran, and Jessica did eventually get with the times and traded her typewriter in for a computer. For all that, though, I think that there’s a great deal to be learned about Murder, She Wrote from studying Mourning Among the Wisterias. It’s anachronistic, not that well put together, predictable, interesting, has fun characters, great acting, and is a lot of fun. There are a lot of exceptions, but that’s what Murder, She Wrote mostly was.

An Update To Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future

In my previous post about Captain Power And the Soldiers of the Future I had questioned the value of the space ship light gun toy that was sold as a tie-in to the series. A reader who enjoyed the show as a kid mentioned that the space ship toy came with an animated VHS tape so you could use it whenever you wanted, not just when the show was airing. Also, the ships could shoot at each other so you could play a form of laser tag with them. This does make them a better value than they initially sound, though I don’t think it significantly changes the outcome of the value calculation parents were likely to make and, in fact, did make (in the aggregate).

Captain Power And the Soldiers of the Future

In one of those curious tangents one comes across when looking up something, I discovered the existence of the 1987 TV show Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. It was a grimdark dystopian live action science fiction show (with then-cutting-edge-now-horribly-dated CGI) with adult themes funded by Mattel in order to sell a line of tie-in toys to children.

(I found it when reading about the costume design for the Borg from Star Trek. There seems to have been some re-use of costume elements from the costume for the villain, Lord Dread, possibly by people who had worked on both.)

YouTube has the first episode:

The show only lasted one season. Apparently, while initial sales of the toys were strong, sales declined quickly. There were action figures, of course, but also a hand-held space ship that you could point at the TV and “shoot” at characters on the screen to score points (much like the Nintendo “light gun” that one could use to play duck hunt). The TV could also shoot back and you had to dodge—if your ship was “hit” too much, your pilot would be ejected, indicating you lost. It sounds like a cool toy, for its day, but it cost $40 in 1987, which an inflation calculator says is about equivalent to $92 in the year of our Lord 2021. That’s a lot of money for a toy that you mostly use when watching a particular TV show (see update below for other ways to use the toy). To put it into perspective, for $99 (1987 dollars) you could get a Nintendo Entertainment System bundled with Super Mario Bros. Two and a half times the money, it’s true, but a much better investment. Since both are probably birthday or Christmas presents, rather than something the kid buys with his allowance or lemonade stand money, I suspect parents were far more likely to go for the nintendo, or to buy the light gun and duck hunt if they already had one.

It’s also not surprising that the show was not very popular. About the only thing that it had in common with kids shows was that it had a fair amount of shooting and explosions. You can’t take a show aimed at adults and make it for children by adding explosions, though, anymore than you can turn a movie like The Predator into a chick flick by giving one of the marines a girlfriend and adding thirty seconds where they talk about their feelings before they’re killed.

It also doesn’t work to make an action show for adults, give it a kids show title, and show it on Saturday mornings between cartoons which actually are for kids. Even if it’s a decent action show for adults.

There really does seem like there was any way that this show could have worked. Even if they somehow managed to create a hit it wouldn’t make any sense for the toy company that was funding it. Adults just don’t buy toys to shoot their television with, especially not in 1987. In some ways I think that all of the creatives involved with the show really just wanted to work on Babylon 5, which many of them, including head writer J. Michael Straczynski, did at the earliest opportunity. (Babylon 5 first aired in 1994.)

I don’t know that this show was influential in any way other than probably contributing to the Borg costumes (Q Who aired in 1989 and it seems that some of the same costume people worked on both, also, just look at the costume for Lord Dread).

UPDATE: A reader who enjoyed the show as a kid mentioned that the space ship toy came with an animated VHS tape so you could use it whenever you wanted, not just when the show was airing. Also, the ships could shoot at each other so you could play a form of laser tag with them. This does make them a better value than they initially sound, though I don’t think it significantly changes the outcome of the value calculation parents were likely to make and, in fact, did make (in the aggregate).

USA All-Cause Mortality Data Through January 2021

It’s been a while since I talked about all-cause mortality data for the USA so I wanted to look at the most recent numbers. Just as a refresher, all-cause mortality data is so important because it’s unambiguous. Doctors may diagnose a particular death as due to one cause or another for a variety of reasons, but they all diagnose a dead person as having died. For example, did someone with COPD and COVID-19 die of the COPD or the COVID-19? Both answers are legitimate, and either might be preferred for a variety of reasons. No matter what the doctor who signs the death certificate puts down as the cause of death, though, he puts down the fact of death just the same. A trend for diagnosing death in a particular way might look like an underlying trend in the disease when it’s really just a trend in bookkeeping. Or a trend in diagnosis might make a new disease seem like it’s not killing people when it is. Looking at the absolute number of people who are dying, regardless of cause, can help us tell the difference. That’s why it’s so good to look at all-cause mortality. It doesn’t tell us much, but at least it can’t lie. So, without further ado, let’s look at the most recent data. (As before, you can get the data and see the latest data after this post becomes outdated here.)

Always ignore the data for the most recent week, and based on recent trends the second most recent week is likely to change a lot, too. It takes oddly long for mortality data to come into the CDC (up to two months to get all of it), so they have to do some guesstimating on more recent weeks. In the last few months they’ve tended to under-estimate rather than over-estimate it (I believe around six months ago they were over-estimating it a bit and over-corrected from that). Accordingly even a few weeks back may increase some. (Later on in this post I have a comparison to what this looked like a month ago so you can see for yourself.)

The orange line is the threshold for “excess mortality”, i.e. if the all-cause deaths/week is above that, this is more than we would expect from normal variation, based on previous years, and there might be something up. They also helpfully put a red plus sign above each week where the mortality exceeds the excess mortality threshold. Here is a zoomed-in shot to the last year or so:

Unfortunately this format, though good for having a sense of what’s going on with overall mortality, doesn’t make it easy to compare excess mortality across weeks since there is normal seasonal fluctuation in deaths. To help with this, I downloaded the data as a CSV file from their website and created a graph of excess mortality that’s much easier to compare (note that this is the full data, i.e. going back to January 2017):

This third wave is turning out to be the biggest yet, at least in terms of area under the curve. That said, since the definition of excess mortality is only a guess, though a guess made by applying statistics to historical data, I don’t think that we can put much stock in small differences. That is, the first wave having a very slightly higher peek in excess mortality probably doesn’t mean much. On the other hand, its peak was during the time when mortality is normally going down (heading into spring) while the peak in excess mortality in the third wave was close to the worst time (winter). Probably the best thing to do is to not worry about small differences and consider them equivalent in peak, but with the peak being sustained longer in this third wave.

The third wave looks like it has peaked but unfortunately the data isn’t really reliable enough to tell, yet. Here is the graph from my previous post, which only contained data through January 1st:

That had looked like it was peaking, too, and it turned out that even several weeks back on that graph were still incomplete. Again, for reference, here’s the graph I made from the CSV data at the time:

This may make it even clearer how far back the data can be revised. One thing that’s very clear is that, as a country, we need more timely mortality reporting. Having to wait two moths to get accurate data makes the data hard to use for any practical purpose. I do get that there will always need to be some revisions—someone who dies at home and is only discovered days or weeks later, for example—but it’s hard to believe that this is such a large fraction of deaths. It seems far more likely that antiquated reporting standards are to blame. That said, I don’t know that for sure; I think it is worth spending resources to find out why the data takes so long to be reliable.

So, given that the data is subject to revision, if diminishing revision, for up to two months, what can we make of this data? Not a whole heck of a lot, frankly. Just to refresh our memories, here’s the latest graph one more time:

It is inarguable that something is going on; it is equally inarguable that this is not the second coming of the black death (which killed off around a third of Europe). It is clear that we’ve had three waves of significant excess mortality, which do correspond pretty well to the three waves of COVID-19 infections we’ve detected as well as the three waves of deaths attributed to COVID-19. It is, of course, not possible just from these numbers to say what is up, however. It could be that COVID-19 is killing people. It could be that lockdowns meant to stem the flow of COVID-19 are killing people. It could be that there are homicidal maniacs running about killing extra people in three waves. This is the limitation of all-cause mortality. That said, if you compare the numbers of COVID-19 attributed deaths and excess mortality, they actually do tend to line up reasonably well. I don’t have the time to generate the side-by-side graph of that which would make it clear just how closely they do or don’t track, this is just me having done some quick approximations, so take it with at least one grain of salt, more being better.

Assuming that the numbers in December 2020 are not revised higher, I do find it interesting that the excess mortality was not significantly higher, on a weekly basis, than it was during the peak of when COVID-19 first hit the US. COVID-19’s first entry was only into some locations. Though it spread quickly, it was doing this spreading during the time when the weather was getting mild and people tended to be outdoors, which seems to correlate with when COVID-19 infections (and deaths) are at their lowest. During the third wave, COVID-19 was already well spread out through the country, such that when winter set in and infections began to spike, it didn’t need to spread in order to bloom everywhere.

Though infection numbers are not directly comparable across time because testing is so much more widespread and available as time progresses, testing was pretty available by the middle of the summer, so you can see COVID-19’s prepositioning for the third wave in the infection numbers:

In spite of these advantages that COVID-19 had in the winter of 2020 over the spring of 2020 we don’t see a similarly massive increase in all-cause mortality. There are various possible explanations for this but the data doesn’t really support any of them better than the others, so far as I can tell. It may be that the virus spread far more widely among the population during the first wave than we had any idea of. It may be that the most vulnerable people already died from COVID-19 in the first two waves, or it may be that treatment got better, or it may be that the virus became less deadly, or it may be that we got better about isolating the most vulnerable people. It may be a combination of all of these things, each contributing something to the outcome. Undoubtedly there are other possibilities I didn’t name, too.

I don’t have any grand conclusions to this post; I don’t make these posts about the all-cause mortality data to argue for any particular point. My goal is to highlight the little bit of highly reliable data we have, because I think we’re all better off if we’re at least familiar with it.

Heroes and Success

In a recent blog post Mary says:

Our hero is returning in triumph from his quest and going from success to success —

No.

He’s going success to nerve-wracking attempt to success.

This is fundamentally correct, of course—it’s not very interesting to read about someone who is merely doing chores. When sweeping the floor (in the ordinary course of things) every stroke is an unchallenged triumph of debris-moving. Even someone who could not sweep, such as a man with no arms, would probably not find the blow-by-blow of someone sweeping spilled cheerios off of the floor attention-grabbing.

The one major exception to this, which G.K. Chesterton has noted, are very young children.

…a child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom
a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.

(Orthodoxy, Chapter 4: The Ethics of Efland)

The one thing I take issue with in Mary’s formulation is the “nerve-wracking” part. This is a common feature of entertainment, but it is not a necessary feature of entertainment. I know this from experience. Since having young children, I don’t like nerve-wracking challenges anymore. I want calm challenges. My children wrack my nerves from when they wake up until they are asleep. My nerves can’t really take more wracking. (I do suspect that this will change when my youngest child is old enough.)

To some degree this is a matter of sensitivity, just as one must shout in the ear of a person who is hard of hearing and speak very softly to someone who is hung over. To some degree, though, I think that the amount of entertainment which can be gotten out of low-stakes challenges calmly dealt with is underrated.

Or perhaps, now that I say that, it’s not. My favorite genre, mystery, frequently is a calm investigation without huge stakes on the line. It is full of challenges, of course; they just tickle the brain without torturing the nerves.

It’s not a big point, of course. I just want to highlight, perhaps from self-interest, that the size of the challenge is not at all the same thing as how dire the consequences of failure are, nor how close to those consequences one comes prior to solving the problems.

The Rise and Fall of Short Stories

In my post The Poirot Short Stories Are Interesting I said:

To some degree this is just a historical curiosity. I think that the market for short stories is never coming back. It’s moved into television and the streaming that is replacing television. It’s interesting to look at short stories, though, since they were so influential in the early development of the mystery genre.

I should clarify that there is still a market for short stories; it’s merely a small one in comparison to the market for novels. I should probably add that the market for novels is not huge, in comparison to the market for other forms of entertainment, but I don’t think that it ever really was all that large. On the plus side, that also means that it is less likely to shrink considerably as times change. (It is always the biggest things which are the most volatile, in this world.)

To understand the history of short stories is largely to understand the history of technology relating to the distribution of images. I’m only going to give the barest sketch of the relevant part of history, in part because I haven’t done any deep research into the subject yet and do not know enough to give more than this sketch. But even this bare sketch will show how dependent on certain aspects of overall technology the short story was, and therefore why it is a market that isn’t coming back.

Prior to the invention of the printing press, writing had to be copied out by hand, which was a laborious and therefore expensive process. As a result, it was popular to do this writing on very high quality (read: durable) materials, such as velum. Paper came into Europe during the late middle ages, but its advantage for being able to be made cheaply wasn’t very important so long as it was still expensive to copy things. (Technically there were hand presses that predated the printing press, but they were only about ten times as efficient as the printing press, so we can neglect them here.) With the advent of the printing press, it suddenly became much cheaper to make books, at which point there became a real purpose to trying to make other aspects of bookmaking cheaper. To reduce the cost of something from (to make up numbers) $500 to $495 is not very significant, but to reduce its cost from $20 to $15 is. This is why you tend to get two main price points on goods: very cheap, and very expensive. In the former, one economizes on everything, in the latter, one uses the best of everything. There isn’t much point in paying top dollar for something that will be ruined by one cheap ingredient. (Due to psychology there is often a third price point in the middle because people don’t want to feel like they’re cheaping out nor being wasteful, but that’s a discussion for a different day.)

Once printing was becoming cheap, two things happened: people started working on making it even cheaper, and new markets opened up because it was now economically viable to make things to sell to people who won’t pay more than a relatively small amount for them. Thus, in a commercial sense, were born newspapers. I’m concentrating on English-speaking history here, so for practical purposes we’re talking about the 1700s.

Advances in being able to make things cheaply create markets, which in turn take time to develop thus increasing demand and putting more money into satisfying these markets. Roughly by the early 1800s we’re seeing the market for newspapers growing tremendously, and as a result there becomes a need for material to fill these newspapers. News at this time still travels slowly and newspapers (and worse yet, TV news) haven’t yet utterly destroyed people’s sense of proportion, so the newspapers often sell on the strength of various kinds of arts that they include, such as poetry, in some cases sermons, and works of narrative fiction. Of course, you can’t print very much of a story on a newspaper that might only be one large sheet of paper, so the stories have to be short. I believe it’s not also long before it’s discovered that if you break the story up over several issues, customers are more likely to buy all of the issues necessary to read the story.

We’re now in, roughly, the mid 1800s. Newspapers are popular, but still fairly small. They are primarily of interest for their works of art and sports scores, but their ability to convey fiction is limited by their size. Other ways to get fiction for entertainment include novels, going to a play, and having a friend or family member tell you a story while you sit next to a fireplace. (The fireplace is not, strictly speaking, necessary.) You can also listen to local gossip, though there is the danger there that occasionally bits of it might be true. Novels are quite expensive, still, since after buying the novel you have to pay someone to bind it for you. Plays are not cheap, and unless you’re fairly rich and in London, there is not much of a variety in plays available at any given time, at least in comparison with one’s ability to watch them and remember their plots.

With a widespread demand for entertainment and cheap printing to supply it, but with the size of a newspaper restricting what can go in it, the magazine is born. Larger than a newspaper and weekly or monthly, it costs more but provides more. The format allows the printing of multiple short stories in full. At the same time advertising is coming to provide much of the profit for publication. With tremendous demand there was a lot of money in them, and with magazines competing for popular stories, they paid very well. This is part of why so many novels from the late 1800s and early 1900s were first published as serializations in magazines and only later as novels—the author might make more money from the serialization than from the novel. This is also why anyone who wrote novels about a detective tended to also write short stories about them—the real money was in the short stories.

Competition from radio would only really get started in the 1890s and though very popular was, for various reasons such as transmission power, transmission distance, limited bandwidth, etc., limited in its ability to replace magazines. Once we hit the 1920s, competition from movies would get started in earnest. This was a bigger competition than radio, but it was not a very direct competition. Movies took much longer than reading a short story, you had to go to a movie theater, you couldn’t interrupt them if something came up; in short movies would not, on their own, have killed off short stories, and didn’t.

Where we start to see the decline of the short story is really with the advent of television. Television is watched in the home, is paid for entirely by advertising and so doesn’t even have the small cost of a magazine. It would take a decade or two for television to really get going but by the 1980s with dozens of channels available there was likely to be something interesting to watch. A television show takes half an hour or an hour, but they are easy to pick up if you’ve missed a bit. Since they’re free (paid for by advertising) one might as well try to see if there’s anything good to watch, when one is in the mood for entertainment. It works well when one is tired, too, since the work of imagination is largely done for you. Television can even be watched during certain kinds of chores. (Hence the “soap opera”.)

People only have so much capacity for entertainment; if they’ve already consumed hours of it on the television, the relative advantage of a magazine begins to fade. Worse for the magazine, and thus the short story, television tells the same kinds of stories. Short, fun stories that are stimulating then forgotten are what television specializes in. Basically television shows are short stories that are acted out, and thus easier to consume than written short stories.

This is not true of novels, though. Novels are far more complex and substantial. They’re meant to last, in the sense of to stick with one. Moreover, this is what those of us who read novels want from a novel. We don’t read a novel to pass a few moments in a way we’ll forget. We read novels to encounter new worlds, to spend time with interesting people, and to engage our imaginations. You can see that this is so because of how much people who love a book always say that the book was much better.

The one exception to this that I can think of proves the rule: the A&E-BBC co-production of Pride & Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle was almost as good as the novel. It was, however, a six hour miniseries.

In the end, short stories being so popular that novel writers needed to write short stories—or at the very least, serialize their novels—was largely a product of a particular stage in the development of entertainment and technology. As technology and the state of entertainment moved on, other forms of entertainment moved into the niche that had been occupied by short stories.

Video did not entirely kill the radio star and television has not entirely killed off short stories. They are still written, on occasion. There are a few magazines left, and perhaps more common are collections of short stories. There are a few genres in which short stories are a more natural fit, too—the foremost one that comes to mind is horror. It is rare for a genre to completely die off—there are even places where one can get rids in horse-drawn carriages. The thing which is gone, I think forever, is the primacy of the short story.

Lord Peter Wimsey and the Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker

The Unprincipled Affair of the Practical Joker, first published as Beyond the Reach of the Law in Volume 61 of Pearson’s magazine, in February of 1926 (according to this discussion of the bridge talk in it), is a curious Lord Peter Wimsey story in which there isn’t any mystery.

The story begins with a Mrs. Ruyslaender, who happens to see Lord Peter’s name in the hotel book of a hotel she is spending the night at. She knocks on his door and asks for help. It turns out that her husband had given her a diamond necklace and it was stolen by a distant relative of her husband, a Mr. Paul Melville. He also stole a portrait with names and a very indiscreet inscription. The portrait plus incriminating inscription was of a man she had had cheated on her husband with a few years ago. He’s now married to someone else. If the police were to get involved, both the necklace and the portrait would be found, her husband would find out about the affair, he would divorce her, and what’s worse from her perspective is that her ex-lover would be ruined. Though she hates him and would like him to be ruined, she couldn’t bear to be the means of his ruination.

For some reason Lord Peter agrees to help her get the diamond necklace and the portrait back discreetly, so as to avoid scandal. This is such an unsympathetic case that I wonder whether the Victorian (and post-victorian) horror of blackmail isn’t partially an invention of detective stories in order to justify plots. In this case a woman who cheated on her husband holds on to a terribly incriminating piece of evidence after coming to hate the man with whom she adulterated her marriage. She then actually put it into the clutches of a man she didn’t trust because she kept the piece of evidence in a hidden drawer in her jewelry box. A jewelry box which was actually her husband’s and so the knowledge of the secret compartment was in her husband’s family. I rather wonder that Lord Peter didn’t tell her to make up whatever story she could and deal with the consequences.

I suppose what makes no sense to me in the Victorian and post-Victorian stories of blackmail is that the people in them are horrified at the blackmail but think nothing whatever of the adultery (or perhaps more often, fornication). Blackmail is bad, but it only works in a society which disapproves of the action the person is being blackmailed for. If that’s the case, we should see some of that disapproval. Things are unbalanced without it.

Anyway, Lord Peter then cultivates the acquaintance of Melville and frames him, in front of witnesses, for cheating at cards. In particular, Lord Peter uses his card sharping skills we didn’t know he had in order to give Melville a run of extraordinary luck, then uses his sleight-of-hand skills we didn’t know he had in order to plant an ace up Melville’s sleeve and make it fall out in front of those witnesses.

He then blackmails Melville into returning the diamond and the portrait, then leaving the club. He then goes to the witnesses (who are friends of his) and asks them what they think of blackmail, and they both remark in one fashion or another that it’s the worst crime in the world because the law can’t touch it. Sir Impey Biggs, in particular, mentions that he has always refused to represent a blackmailer and has never consented to prosecute someone who murdered a blackmailer. Lord Peter then demonstrates his card sharping ability as well as his sleight-of-hand ability to his friends, and asks them not to mention anything about the events of the evening because there are some crimes the law cannot reach.

I don’t know what to make of this story. It’s neither a mystery nor an adventure; to some degree it’s just giving Lord Peter a super-power in a one-off fashion. (At least, I cannot recall another time when Lord Peter was a card sharp.) Indeed, the number of skills Lord Peter keeps in practice in is rather astounding, if one takes all of these stories as meant to be simultaneously true.

I’m not sure how much they are meant this way, actually. When Dorothy L. Sayers was dealing with trying to turn Lord Peter into a fleshed out character in the aftermath of Harriet Vane refusing to marry a charicature, Ms. Sayers mentioned having as raw materials the “random attributes as I had bestowed upon him over a series of years in accordance with the requirements of various detective plots” (Gaudy Night, Titles to Fame).

I don’t want to accuse Ms. Sayers of careless workmanship, at least any more than she accuses herself of it, but at the same time I think it fair to say that this was an early Lord Peter story, coming only three years after the introduction of Lord Peter in Whose Body? It seems that, during this early period, she didn’t take the detective story as seriously, or at least she didn’t take the short stories as seriously. To be fair she set out to write Whose Body? as more of a novel and less of a conventional detective story, but even she said that in retrospect it was “conventional to the last degree”. She attributes this to a person not being able to write a novel unless they have something to say about life, and she had nothing to say because at that point in her life she knew nothing. I actually suspect, having written two detective novels and working on a third, that it may be as much that the technical aspect of writing a detective story can become very consuming. Though fundamentally unrealistic in that crimes are rarely cleverly committed or afterwards disguised by complicated circumstances, detective stories are, after that conceit, highly realistic stories. It’s not easy to make the whole thing work out naturally and with internal consistency. Worse, from the author’s perspective, is that the detectives have some very determined ideas of how to proceed (characters can only ever be partially controlled by their author) and this has a tendency to put the plot on rails. The author can bend these rails, but it takes a great deal of effort to do it in such a way that the train doesn’t derail. This is the origin of a great many stupid lies told by people who are not guilty but complicate matters; if the author needs the detective to go talk to someone, some poor character has to be the one to point him in that direction.

This, incidentally, is where we can see part of the genius of Gaudy Night. By having the campus poltergeist only striking occasionally, Harriet is given opportunities to go do things in the quiet interludes. The initial absence of evidence together with its occasional dripping out gives space for the author to push Harriet into meeting people without some poor sap having to lie about whose handkerchief they saw at the crime scene.

How Ms. Sayers would have regarded short stories during this early period of Lord Peter I do not know. This was the time period in which short stories were where the real money was in fiction, for most authors at least, and so she would have had ample motivation to just make the stories work in order to meet deadlines. It was only after her failure to marry Lord Peter to Harriet that she started working on fleshing him out as a character, so I suspect that she didn’t much regard him in this way yet. Putting this together, I suspect that this story was meant to be an interesting moment that would pass and then be forgotten about, as most of the material of a monthly magazine would be. Granted, detective short stories had a habit of being published as a collection in book form once enough of them had been written, still, I suspect that at least part of the reason it’s hard to know what to make of this story is that the authoress never intended us to make anything of it. It contains the interesting idea, “what if one blackmailed a blackmailer?” and featured Lord Peter as much because name recognition of a character is probably better for sales than name recognition of an author is.

Determinism as a Fairy Tale for Philosophers

I was recently speaking with a friend of mine who’s a Franciscan friar and retired philosophy professor. During a discussion of Spinoza he mentioned that he tends to take determinism in philosophers not literally but as a metaphor for the limits of philosophical argumentation. This is a very interesting idea.

The basic problem with determinism (other than it being false) is that, if taken seriously, it would result in complete paralysis, or at least complete philosophical paralysis. If determinism is true, there is no purpose in telling anybody anything because there is nothing he can do with it. His thoughts are all predetermined. There isn’t even a point in telling him that there is no point, because even that cannot change what he will do—even to help him to make peace with being a slave. Of course, the same applies to the philosopher himself, so he can always say that he’s engaging in pointlessly telling people they are not free because he is predetermined to do so. Determinism means never having to say you’re sorry. Unless you have to.

Even so, determinist philosophers do not, as a rule, tend to acknowledge that everything that they write is pointless. Why is that? The utter pointlessness of telling a man that he has no more choice than does a rock is obvious. So obvious that we instinctively know it about rocks. Never yet has a man preached to the rocks that they cannot do other than what their nature and circumstances foreordain them to do. Not even to rocks which someone has carved ears into. Why, then, if one’s philosophy dictates that men are no more free than rocks will the philosopher preach this bad news to men?

(If it be objected that they do not preach to rocks because rocks cannot hear, I answer that this is irrelevant. There is no practical difference between something that cannot hear and something that, though it can hear, can do nothing with the words spoken to it. A man who speaks only Russian can still hear English, but we do not waste our time preaching to him in English. To object that he cannot understand changes nothing; we do not preach things a man cannot do even to men who understand. No one walks around in their native language telling men that it would be exhilarating to jump to the moon or very convenient if they were to grow thirty feet tall. It is the usefulness of the words which governs whether they leave our lips, not the intelligibility of them.)

So why on earth do determinist philosophers preach determinism? The answer, suggests my friend, and I suspect he’s right, is that they don’t mean it. What they actually mean is a metaphor for how little philosophical argumentation sways people, even the philosopher himself. As Saint Paul complained, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Determinism is, thus, a metaphor for the fallen state of humanity. And, in practice, it does seem to be a popular idea more with men who have difficulty restraining their passions. I can’t think of any extremely virtuous men who were determinists.

That said, this probably is more about how little philosophical argumentation sways the masses than about the philosopher himself. When the philosopher sees things clearly which seem to him momentous and the ordinary man shrugs his shoulders if he takes note at all—this requires some sort of explanation. There are better explanations than determinism but determinism does have a sort of superficial appeal. “Men do not care about the thoughts of the gods because they are mere beasts” is an explanation that does, to some degree, explain. That’s an important quality in an explanation—one that is missing in far more explanations than it should be.

Speaking of explanations which explain, I think that this idea makes sense of determinism, and especially why it is that its proponents never seem to take the idea seriously. They do take it seriously, just as a fairy tale to comfort them for why no one listens to them.

(I should note that I think this works synergistically with what has seemed to me to be the primary motivator of determinism: it simplifies the world. If one has to take into account many origins of causation, the world will not fit inside of one’s head. Determinism is appealing, then, because it eliminates a great deal of complexity. Even where the determinist is not an atheist, I think it functions as a sort of vicarious solipsism.)

Captain Hastings in Dumb Witness

Dumb Witness (originally titled Poirot Loses a Client), published in 1937, is the seventh and penultimate appearance of Captain Hastings in a Poirot novel. (The last would be the final Poirot novel, Curtain, which was written in the early 1940s and put in a bank vault until 1975, when Agatha Christie knew she would write no more novels.) The portrayal of Captain Hastings, in Dumb Witness, represents something of a strange development of the character.

The Wikipedia article on Dumb Witness has a quote from an E.R. Punshon, in a review of the novel, who said that Poirot, “shows all of his usual acumen; Captain Hastings – happily once more at Poirot’s side – more than all his usual stupidity…” This seems an adequate description. His stupidity is only slightly more pronounced than it was in the previous novel with him, The A.B.C. Murders. In fact, I wrote about this aspect of the portrayal of Hastings in it. In both, Hastings seems to have had a turn for the worse, compared to his earlier portrayals. I find myself wondering all the more why he did.

One thing I will say for Hastings in Dumb Witness over The A.B.C. Murders is that he does not, at least, lose his head over pretty women. This may be that Christie only put one beautiful woman in Dumb Witness and she was engaged, but happily Captain Hastings at least behaved like a married man. he seems to have become even dumber, though.

Hastings’ stupidity in Dumb Witness seems to be channeled primarily into one action—complete certainty that Emily Arundel died of natural causes. Why he is so certain is given no explanation whatever. He at first bases this certainty on the casual word of a real estate agent—and one who only got his news from local gossip, at that. Each person who had no better knowledge of Miss Arundel’s death thinking it was natural causes would have strengthened this conviction if it didn’t start out as complete certainty, but it certainly didn’t weaken it. This feels like it is here to serve some practical purpose, but I can’t imagine what that practical purpose is.

Hastings started off as a Watson, that is, as a character of ordinary intelligence who narrated the stories, was impressed by the detective, and asked questions which gave the detective an opportunity to explain clues to the reader. As a mild variation, the Watson can have an intelligence very slightly below the average reader, as commanded in the decalogue of Fr. Ronald Knox.

Hastings seems, here, to be a complete idiot. He is, until about three quarters of the way through the book, unable to consider the possibility that Emily Arundel might have been murdered. He holds as absolutely certain, for no reason whatever, that a rich old woman, upon whose life one attempt had been made, must have died of completely natural causes. This might have served some literary function if it prompted Poirot to explain why there is doubt, but it long-since lost that purpose after the first such explanation. Especially since Hastings’ doubts were often in the narrator’s commentary, it took on the character of a simple monomania.

I suppose that this might have been meant to produce a contrast when Poirot turned out to be right, except that we already knew that. There is not going to be a Poirot novel in which Poirot turned out to be wasting his time and there was nothing whatever to discover. This is as implausible as a Poirot novel in which Poirot doesn’t appear, or shave his mustache, or dies on the first page. So why spend so much time and effort suggesting such a thing?

Even stranger, this seems to be at odds with the character’s function as a Watson. Watson admires Holmes. He all but worships Holmes. He doesn’t bemusedly play chauffeur all the while thinking his friend is senile and wasting his time. This is all the more the case given that this is a late case of Poirot’s and Hastings should, by now, have an ample store of experience to draw on that Poirot’s instincts are usually right. What’s the point of bringing a character back if he isn’t the same character from the previous stories—or acts like he wasn’t in them. What’s the purpose of a close friend of Poirot’s who grows to trust Poirot less and less as time wears on?

I think that there must be an answer because Agatha Christie was an intelligent, thoughtful woman. I don’t think that writing Hastings this way was a good choice but it seems very likely that it was at least an intelligible idea. Of course, given that this was his last appearance before the final Poirot novel, I suspect that Mrs. Christie also came to think that it wasn’t a good choice. But what on earth was the goal with him that didn’t work out? She did, after all, pack him off to Argentina in Murder on the Links. Bringing him back was a choice.

I’m in some danger of repeating myself, but I find the whole thing very perplexing. Approximately every character but Hastings has a reasonably consistent psychology to them. Hastings, alone, seems more a collection of a pointless literary devices than a character. Even Poirot seems to tire of him. Since Hastings refuses to think, Poirot doesn’t explain anything to him. His function even as a literary device seems to be lost.

Perhaps Hastings was merely meant as comic relief? There is some possibility here, except that for the most part he isn’t funny.

Perhaps I’m merely biased because Hugh Frasier’s portrayal of him in the David Suchet Poirot is so compelling. It just seems like such a pity. Captain Hastings had the potential to be so interesting but he simply wasn’t used. Perhaps Mrs. Christie thought that he was beloved by the fans and so brought him back for their sake, but reluctantly, and that’s why she didn’t make any use of him. If so, it’s a great pity. It is an explanation which explains, at least.

I hope it’s not true, though.

I’ve Made a Map!

Working on my third Brother Thomas mystery, I learned how to use the vector graphics program inkscape and have made a map of the resort camp where the novel takes place! I’m not sure it’s finished, but it’s close:

I think I’m going to add a legend to it. Some of the detail work is hard to see, so I might have to include a zoomed in section to spare people having to use a magnifying glass. Still, I think it’s come out pretty well.

(I might also add some trees to indicate where there is forest, but that’s most places, so it might make it too crowded.)

Best Spells for Industrial Purposes

Over at her blog, Mary Catelli asks:

If you were thrown into a D&D universe, and wanted to play the Connecticut Yankee and improve things, what spells would be the best ones to substitute for industrial processes?

The first few that come to mind are Rock to Mud and Polymorph Other. The first would be incredibly useful for making level roadways to transport goods (critical to industry) and the second would be helpful for turning mice into elephants. Beasts of burden are a great substitute for hydraulics in a lot of cases. Dig would also be of some use. The various fire spells would probably have some utility, too.

All that said, in at least classic D&D there really aren’t spells that have the equivalent power of a hundred tons of coal or a thousand barrels of oil. If the fantasy world in question doesn’t have unimaginable reserves of easily harnessed power lurking beneath the ground, you’re not really going to get the industrial revolution off the ground, magic or no magic.

Probably the best approach in such a scenario would be to teach the people about electricity and use magic to get as many hydro-electric dams built as possible, with everything that needs electricity being located near one of these dams. You could also get small generators anywhere you’ve got enough fall of water to power a water wheel like one would use for grinding flour.

That sort of hybrid setup might be interesting for a fantasy world, where electricity and industry is plentiful in a few rare places, and scarce everywhere else. There’s a good chance, btw, based on what makes for good hydro-electric dams on earth, that the good farmland and the good hydro-electric are not located in the same places, which would be beneficial to the fantasy setting in terms of making for good stories.

Murderers Call In Poirot a Lot…

As I’ve been reading the Poirot short stories and novels, it’s struck me that it’s not just once or twice that it was the murderer who called Poirot into the case. I don’t want to go into a list, since merely to name them would consist of spoilers, but off the top of my head I can think of at least four novels and a short story in which the murderer called Poirot into the case and two more short stories about robbery rather than murder in which the thief called Poirot in. I’m confident that this is not an exhaustive list. I’m really not sure what to make of this.

If it happened merely once, it would be an interesting twist. Happening so often, it feels like something else. What, I’m not entirely sure. A few possibilities recommend themselves.

One possibility is that by frequently having the person who called Poirot in be the criminal it keeps the reader more on his toes. I’m not sure this really works, though; there’s a certain foolishness in calling in the world’s greatest detective to investigate your crime. It becomes more foolish still after reading about his cases in the newspaper (or in Captain Hastings’ records of them) and seeing how often he’s willing to accuse the person who hired him. If I murdered someone in the 1930s and I was determined to call a detective in to investigate the case, I would far rather call in Giraud than Poirot.

Another possibility is that this was merely a solution to the problem that all mystery writers face of how on earth you get your detective in on the case. It is, of course, possible to go the Jessica Fletcher route and simply have the astonishing coincidence that the detective just happens to be around murders ten to twenty times per year. Those who want a little more realism need to be more creative. The problem with calling a detective in before the crime is committed is that, in general, there is only one person who knows that the crime will be committed—the criminal. The major alternative I can think of is a person who suspects that attempts have been made before against his life calling in the detective. This works, but requires either a remarkably incompetent murderer or slow poisoning. The murderer calling in Poirot does open the field a bit.

The tradeoff is that it is mostly not in the murderer’s interest to call the world’s greatest detective in, which makes it very hard to make this plausible. Of all the times that it happened with Poirot, I’m inclined to say that the A.B.C. Murders was probably the most plausible. The murderer had a legitimate (from his perspective) reason for it to be Poirot and not someone less well known. The murderer also produced a very clever series of murders, complete with a scapegoat who believed that he did it, so it was plausible that Poirot might have been fooled, or else that he would have been overruled by the police.

As for the other times, the criminal calling in Poirot seems far less excusable. It was mostly pretty gratuitous. Granted, Poirot tries to be underestimated by criminals, but it seems odd for so many criminals to take such an unnecessary risk. Especially because it’s usually with very little gained by bringing him in.

Which leads me to suspect that it really is done merely as a way of bringing Poirot into the story. I’m hesitant to believe that’s the case, though, since Agatha Christie is such a master of plotting. Overall, I’m not sure what to make of it. All I’m sure of is that it’s strange.