Recently I’ve been watching some episodes of Columbo which I got on DVD. The episodes always begin by showing us the murder and the murderer’s steps to conceal their crime, but on DVD that’s always chapter 1, with chapter 2 being when Columbo comes onto the case. As an experiment, I’ve watched a few by skipping straight to chapter 2, so I didn’t see the murder, and it plays out more like a traditional murder mystery. I was curious how well it works.
The answer, so far, is: kind-of.
Most murder mysteries have, as a mystery for the reader, who it was who committed the crime. Even if one skips the section of a Columbo where they show you who did it, Columbo focuses so heavily on the murderer that after the first few minutes there is no mistaking who did it. So in this way, skipping the solution at the beginning doesn’t help at all.
There is, however, a second mystery for the reader in murder mysteries, and that’s figuring out how the murderer did it. In traditional mysteries the two questions are often bound up with each other—where figuring out the how tells one the who—but as Columbo proves, they need not be. Even if you know who did it, it is interesting to try to figure out how they did it, and to watch Columbo try to figure out how they did it, and also how to prove it.
Ultimately, I don’t think that Columbo is great as a mystery. Structurally, I don’t think that they were even great as an inverted mystery. Columbo would often withhold evidence until later, often quite unnecessarily. In truth, Columbo depended almost entirely on rich dialog and the phenomenal acting abilities of Peter Falk.
In the middle of season four of Murder, She Wrote is the episode Harbinger of Death. It’s set in a research university, and specifically in the astronomy department, which is a setting I would expect Hollywood writers to not know much about. (Spoiler: they don’t.)
The episode begins looking inside of the observatory, where the main character of the mystery—if we can designate a main character beside Jessica—is typing away at a computer. His name is Dr. Leonard Palmer, and he’s looking for a new comet.
I really love the blinkenlights panels on the side. It’s hard to imagine what they’re supposed to represent (especially with no massive computer behind them), but they really brighten the place up. I suspect that this is an actual observatory which has been set-dressed to look more sciency, but you never do know. A lot of science equipment in universities is one-off stuff that lasts a surprisingly long time.
His assistant, Fay Hewitt, walks up in the semi-dark. She remarks that if he ever finds this comet, they’ll probably name it after him posthumously. “Here lies Leonard Palmer, asleep at last.”
He tells her not to worry about him, but she says that she can’t stop now—she’s been conditioned to do it. He asks if his wife, Carrie, called. She says no.
The scene shifts to the next day. We meet two more characters:
The guy with the mustache and the red tie is Russell Armstrong (fun fact: he’s played by Jeffrey Tambor, who played George Bluth Sr. in Arrested Development). The man with white hair and the grey necktie is Dr. Thor Lundquist. (Interestingly, it comes up that Dr. Lundquist has a popular television program where he presents astronomy to the public. That’s only characterization, though, it’s not relevant to the plot.)
Armstrong says that he’s delighted that Lundquist could come, and Lundquist says that he detects the smell of filthy lucre in the air. Armstrong asks if there’s any problem with that and Lundquist says that no, unlike Leonard Palmer “who scans the night skies trying to discover the undiscoverable”, he’s a pragmatist and if the government wants to fund his lifestyle, he’s more than happy to give them what they want. He assumes his involvement would cement the proposed defense contract, and Russell confirms that.
This is very succinct characterization, so to give credit where credit is due, it does tell us a lot about these characters very quickly. The only issue is that what it tells us about them is absurd.
Where to begin?
First, the defense department doesn’t give grants to entire university departments. They give grants to research labs, or teams of research labs (collaborating across universities). Universities don’t go all-in on one particular line of research with a bunch of professors all doing the same thing, so it makes no sense to hire all of them to work on one project.
Next, the Department of Defense doesn’t award defense contracts to a research university. Defense contracts are for people who build things, such as jets and guns and body armor. The DoD gives research grants to a research university. They give research grants and not defense contracts because they do research at research universities, they don’t build stuff.
Further, research grants are to teams and largely on the basis of what the research is. Having a particular scientist in a department isn’t going to cement a research grant, especially in the absence of his current research projects being what the grant is actually for and him being part of the grant proposal.
Which brings me to grant proposals. Academics need money, and contra “Leonard Palmer is too idealistic to take DoD money,” academics will all take whatever money they can get because the way it works is you figure out what research you want to do then when you write up the grant proposals to everyone who might give it to you, you then try to describe your research as integral to their goals. This can result in almost contradictory descriptions, but organizations that give grants do not compare notes. Since you’re just doing whatever research it was you wanted to (if it gets funded), there’s no reason to object to any particular funding source. This is related to this being a research grant, not a defense contract. A factory that makes things and receives a contract from the DoD may well be giving them something that will be used to kill people (though, unless they’re actual weapons, probably not, in practice). If you research the effect of fertilizer runoff on frogs mating, it can’t really matter to you whether the DoD pays for it or the NiH does or the national dairy counsel does. You’re going to publish your results for all of them to read anyway (not that any of them will actually read it).
Finally, THIS IS AN ASTRONOMY DEPARTMENT. How is the Department of Defense supposed to be interested in anything that they’re doing? There is no such thing as a battle telescope. You can’t even hit someone on the head with the things—they move too slowly. How on earth is an astronomer supposed to kill anyone? Are they going to try to bounce lasers off of asteroids in order to blind soviet truck drivers? It won’t work. Nothing an astronomer can do will work. Granted, the DoD is notoriously willing to fund long-shots and basic research that affects all sorts of things including research that might improve materials, computers, and even fuel efficiency in vehicles—the army runs a lot of trucks to move things about and they don’t enjoy having to move gasoline around to fuel those trucks. All that said, even they would balk at proposals to try to weaponize observations of deep space.
I’d say that this would be easily fixed by picking any other department, but the observing telescope is central to the plot, so I’m not sure that this really can be fixed. It would possibly work if the department head wanted to raise funds for the department by publishing a nude calendar of the staff and Dr. Palmer could object on moral grounds, but people don’t object on sexual moral grounds to anything in Murder, She Wrote, so I don’t think that would work either.
I think we must, as Sherlock Holmes once said on a different occasion, have an amnesty in this direction.
UPDATE: A friend pointed out that in 1988 an astronomy department could conceivably get a defense contract for monitoring satellites, since optical telescopes can be used for this purpose. My criticism is thus over-stated, in that the plot is more fixable than I had said. It is still unrealistic as written, because, as you will see soon, the writers had in mind making weapons, not conducting observations. (end update.)
The two men keep walking to Russell’s office, and on their way run into Fay. Russell introduces her as a computer whiz. She says that she spends most of her time helping Leonard to look for his comet. He interjects, “Leonard is a brilliant scientist, my dear—perhaps born a century or two too late. He’s chasing a myth. A mysterious comet, last seen perhaps by a starving colonist. And now scheduled to return when? Tonight? Before or after supper?”
This note of Leonard being a brilliant scientist who is pursuing a fool’s errand is weird. I’ll admit that this sort of official skepticism might be appropriate to someone looking for planet X after Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune in 1989 allowed the more accurate calculation of Neptune’s mass in 1992 and the anomaly in Uranus’ orbit that Planet X was meant to explains disappeared. It’s pretty weird to see this sort of skepticism about discovering a comet. There are thousands of known comets in the solar system and estimates of billions of undiscovered potential comets out in the Oort cloud. Discovering a new comet is not a fool’s errand and finding it would not be an earth-shaking discovery.
Anyway, shortly after the above, Leonard barges into Russell’s office complaining that it’s fine if Russell wants to try to get a government contract, “but don’t ask me to join a cocktail chit-chat with those warmongers from Washington.”
He then notices Lundquist and is appalled, asking what he’s doing here. Russell explains that Lundquist is being brought on as a consultant as there are several projects that need his assistance. Leonard replies, “Don’t you mean, a letterhead that needs his name?”
This is perhaps the least realistic thing depicted yet. People in academia stab each other in the back, never in the chest.
He leans over on Russell’s desk and says, desperately, “For Lord’s sake, Russell, we are a research institute, not a weapons factory.”
I’m glad that someone noticed.
“Our work is scientific. And peaceful.”
I wonder if he’s afraid that they’re going to melt his telescope down to make rifles. Also, what happened to it being fine if Russell wants to try to get a government contract, the only problem being Leonard needing to chit-chat with public-sector employees?
Russell replies, “Yes. Well, times change. We have to change with them.”
What are any of them talking about? Are they planning to beat their telescopes into canons? The reason you can beat a plowshare into a sword (or vice versa) is that both are strong metal meant to cut through things. If you tried to put gunpowder and a canon ball into a telescope, all you’d get is shrapnel as the telescope exploded and the canon ball would probably just fall off onto your foot. As I said, there is nothing astronomers do that can be weaponized.
UPDATE: as I mentioned in the update above, while astronomy cannot be weaponized, it is possible to use telescopes to monitor satellites. That is not what the writers had in mind, as can be evidenced by Leonard saying “we are a research institute, not a weapons factory.” That said, much of what Leonard says could be rationalized as inaccuracy due to a passionate hatred of the military, which some academics had, especially (I gather) ones with communist leanings. Leonard is portrayed as being extremely led by his emotions and with very little self-control in this episode, so that explanation would fit. (end update.)
Leonard leaves and we move on to the next scene, in which Jessica arrives. Leonard arrives at the hotel moments after Jessica’s taxi did. He apologizes for not meeting her at the train station, but didn’t expect her until weeks later. She’s there to celebrate their third wedding anniversary, but he got the date wrong. He thought his anniversary was on the seventeenth, but in fact it’s on the seventh (today is the sixth). He apologizes that he forgot his own wedding anniversary, and to make matters worse Carrie (his wife) is off helping her Aunt Edna, whose bursitis has been acting up again. Jessica is surprised at this, but makes no comment.
He helps her bring her stuff into the hotel.
She takes the opportunity while waiting for the bellhop to arrive to ask him if anything is wrong with his marriage. He says no, of course not. He doesn’t see Carrie as much as he should because he’s so preoccupied with his comet. Also, at his wedding, he sensed a certain hostility because of the difference in his age and Carrie’s from everyone but Jessica.
Her bags settled in the room, he takes Jessica up to the observatory so that he can show her some real science.
I’m beginning to get the impression that the observatory is shot in a museum somewhere. Let’s do that computer zoom-in-and-enhance thing they always do in the movies:
That sure looks like like the sort of turnstile they put into museums to see how many people saw the exhibit.
Also, over in the corner there’s a suspicious looking poster:
There’s only so much that my computer can do to enhance the image (what with my computer being real and all), but this sure looks like the kind of educational poster that a museum would put up in order to have something for guests to read while other people are in front of the interesting thing.
Jessica is surprised to see a computer, which Leonard explains controls the telescope. Jessica is a little scared by this, but computer-controlled telescopes were not new in 1988. Computer control is extremely valuable for making observations because the earth is constantly moving and so the telescope must be constantly adjusted to keep pointing at the same thing.
Fay walks in with computer printouts for Leonard and is surprised to discover Jessica, who she recognizes (presumably) by description. She introduces herself and says that they almost met three years ago, at the wedding, but she was sick and had to miss the whole thing. (If you can’t guess by now, she seems to have a great deal of affection for Leonard. A very great deal, if you get my meaning.)
Fay shows something to Leonard and says that they need to recompute it, and Leonard agrees, saying, “as soon as possible”. He then asks if there’s any word from Carrie, but there isn’t . Fay offers to call, but Leonard says no, she’s probably got her hands full with Aunt Edna. Jessica seems to find this implausible:
(I don’t think that they’ve made this explicit, yet, but Carrie is Jessica’s niece, and so she’s likely to be aware of the health of one of her many sisters.)
The scene shifts to the cocktail party were people from Washington are there to be schmoozed.
“I’m telling you, General, the Gamma 3 program can put us five years ahead of the Soviets. Dr. Lundquist has examined it thoroughly.”
“It’s a masterpiece of scientific engineering. The staff of the Institute is to be congratulated for farsightedness.”
I really love this dialog. It’s beautifully generic. I wonder if “the Gamma 3 program” really is about bouncing lasers off of asteroids in order to blind soviet truck drivers. I can’t imagine why else generals would be at a luncheon at a university considering whether to fund an astronomy department.
Jessica and Leonard show up and Russell steals Leonard to talk to a NASA lobbyist who is (somehow) a fan of Leonard’s work. Jessica goes to the open bar and gets herself water with a twist of lemon. Then we meet some more characters:
The woman is Madeline DeHaven, an unpleasant and self-important woman who is the director of defense spending review with the General Accounting Office. (The name of the General Accounting Office was changed in 2004 to the Government Accountability Office.) The man is Drake Eaton, her lovely (administrative) assistant. They meet Jessica over at the wet bar.
Drake is a curious character; he seems to very much enjoy being connected to high places and even more he enjoys bragging about it. After Madeline excuses herself, Drake tells Jessica, “The Gamma 3 contract connection, Mrs. Fletcher. Some people actually think Madeline has some control over the ultimate contract award. You know something? They’re right.”
He walks off and Fay walks up to Jessica. Jessica comments that Leonard looks very lonely and she wishes that Carrie could be there. Fay comments that though Jessica is Carrie’s Aunt, she wishes that Carrie could be there for Leonard more when he needs her, but she supposes that young people don’t think of things like that.
The scene shifts to Thor Lundquist and Drake Eaton talking. Lunquist asks about Drake’s relationship with Madeline DeHaven and he says that he makes her feel important and because of her he’s in line to head up any of three new departments monitoring defense spending.
This conversation is interrupted by a fight between Leonard and Russell. Leonard is angry that Russell wants to hold a party in the observatory and Leonard will have none of it. They yell at each other, then Leonard runs off. Jessica meets him and he says that he just made a dreadful fool of himself and is leaving but she should stay if she wants to. She asks what on earth for, and he replies, “Let’s go find ourselves a comet. Tonight’s the night!” Fay sees them go off and follows.
At the observatory Fay hands Leonard some computer printouts and he remarks that it will take some time to input into the computer. He then tells Fay that he made Russell very angry, perhaps angry enough to fire Leonard, and asks Fay if she can go pour some oil on the troubled waters—she’s so much better at that than he is. She replies, “that’s my job.” He thanks her, she says, “See you in the morning,” and he doesn’t even bother to respond, he’s too caught up in the computer. She waits a moment but then concluding she won’t get anything more from him, walks off.
Fay brought Leonard some coffee, which he promptly spills a little of as soon as Fay is gone and Jessica wipes it up, though she doesn’t wipe the cup. He sets it down on the computer printout. A few moments later we get a clue-cam shot of the coffee stain left on the computer printout:
If it’s shot with clue-cam, you know it’s important. Presumably whatever is on the page will be faked with a printout that doesn’t have a coffee stain on it, because exposing substitutions is the main function of coffee stains in Murder, She Wrote.
Jessica excuses herself as being as useful to Leonard as a parasol in a hurricane, then heads off to her hotel room, but with instructions that he should call her if he finds the comet.
At her hotel room, Jessica gets a call from Carrie.
Carrie apologizes for not being there to meet Jessica. Jessica asks how Edna is doing and Carrie says that her bursitis is acting up again. Jessica replies that she had visited Edna on the way over and yesterday she was going bowling.
Jessica then adds, “when I called her earlier [today] she tried to cover for you, but she isn’t a very good liar.”
Carrie says that she’s sorry, she just needs to get away for a while. Jessica says that she doesn’t want to pry, but is there anything that she can tell Leonard? She says, “tell him that I do love him.”
The scene shifts to the observatory, where a night guard coming on duty (or back from an evening stroll, or something) sees Leonard running down the stairs and out the door. The camera then pans over to the clock on the wall, which reads 12:35.
The next morning Russell comes into the observatory with Fay and Jessica. He’s saying that it’s outrageous that Leonard ran out of the observatory without signing out. Also, what’s the telescope doing cranked so far down? He goes up and looks at it, and this is what he sees:
At seventeen and a half minutes in it’s not overly late to find the body, but it could have been snappier.
We cut to Russell and he says, “That’s my place, and there’s a body on the floor.”
Here is a wider shot of the house, from the beginning of the next scene where the police have arrived:
Detective Seargant Kettler is investigating the case. Russell owns the house but hasn’t been there in a few weeks. He’s letting a friend stay there.
The body turns out to be Drake Eaton.
A policeman comes up to Detective Kepler with Leonard’s scarf (which no one but Jessica recognizes) and says, “this must be the victim’s, it’s got blood on it.” Kepler replies, “alright, bag it.”
Jessica asks how Eaton was killed, and the Detective replies that he was shot right in the ticker (the heart, for anyone not familiar with this slang). She asks if there were powder burns and the Kettler says no, then asks who she is. She introduces herself, then Russell says, with some asperity, “Mrs. Fletcher is a guest of the Astro-Physics Institute. She is also a writer of some repute.”
Kettler takes that last part very well. “Oh, yeah? My wife’s a writer too.”
Jessica’s response is not, precisely, encouraging.
The question about powder burns, by the way, helps to indicate the range that the person was shot at. Technically, powder burns only apply to black powder, which may actually fling burning grains of powder out of the barrel which land on the skin and literally burn it. With modern “smokeless powder” (i.e. nitrocelluose, used commonly since the later mid 1800s) the combustion is cleaner, but there are still tiny bits of stuff that can be flung out at great speed and leave marks from impact velocity. Small things lose velocity very quickly in air, however, and while the exact distance varies with several variables, modern hand guns will typically only leave “powder burns” if the victim is one to two feet away when shot. The absence of powder burns tells us that Drake Eaton was at least a few feet away from the murderer when he was shot.
The conversation is interrupted by a phone call—Russell asks if he can answer it and Kettler gives him permission. It’s Fay. She called to ask, “who is it?” He tells her it’s Drake Eaton and she breathes a sigh of relief. She asks if she can do anything, and he says that Madeline DeHaven needs to be told. Fay volunteers to call her immediately.
This, presumably, tells us that Fay was worried it might have been Leonard, and also establishes that she knew the phone number at the house. (Technically she might have just looked it up in a phone book or in the company phone directory, but people don’t usually call each other on Murder, She Wrote in front of Jessica unless the phone number is unlisted. (For those below a certain age, there used to be books printed on cheap paper and distributed to everyone that listed people’s phone numbers. These books were called “phone books” and for a fee one could have one’s phone number not included in the book.))
After the call, Jessica walks in on the detective taking notes in a bedroom. The bed was mussed but not slept in. (Neat people who are careful to make their beds every morning are invaluable to detectives.)
As they walk out, Kettler asks Jessica what kind of books she writes and Jessica replies murder mysteries. “Oh yeah, a nice lady like you?” He asks if she makes any money from it, and Jessica replies, embarrassed, “Well, actually, yes.”
They’re interrupted by Carrie saying, “Oh, God, no!” Then run over and Jessica asks Carrie what she’s doing there. Kettler asks who she is. Russell replies, “This is Mrs. Palmer. The lady I’ve been lending this vacation house to.”
As a side note, why is his vacation house only thirty three miles away from the Institute? That’s not much of a vacation.
Kettler takes her to police headquarters for questioning and Jessica, naturally, comes with her.
Her story is that she had some problems to work out so she took a drive. She drove up into the hills and parked in a deserted place. She fell asleep, then woke up a few hours ago.
Kettler is skeptical because the story is absurd, but Jessica says that she spoke briefly with Carrie the evening before and what Carrie is saying is consistent with her state of mind at the time. This is stretching things, but to be fair Carrie was, at least, distraught.
Jessica takes Carrie home, though with a warning from Kettler not to go too far because he’s going to want to speak to her again. Home, in this case, is the hotel where Jessica is staying. As they’re walking into the hotel Jessica herself points out that the story she told was absurd, but Carrie asks Jessica to trust her. Before Jessica can point out that only a fool would trust her, Leonard interrupts—I guess he’s been waiting in the hotel lobby for Jessica?
Carrie rushes into his arms and says that she’s sorry and has been stupid. Leonard tells her that everything is going to be fine, but Jessica points out that everything is not going to be fine. She asks him about the plaid scarf he had been wearing last night when he was seen rushing from the observatory, but he pretends he doesn’t remember wearing it.
They’re interrupted by Madeline DeHaven and Thor Lundquist walking up. Jessica expresses her condolences. Madeline says, “Believe me, whoever shot him is going to feel even sorrier.”
I have to wonder how she knew that he had been shot. She said that she just heard about Drake’s murder from “a Miss Hewitt” (that would be Fay), but Fay wasn’t told about how Drake was killed. On the other hand, the timing is a bit off, here. Fay learned about the death hours ago—before Carrie was taken to police headquarters for questioning. Given that the observatory is 33 miles away from Russell’s vacation house and I assume that there isn’t a direct highway to it, it had to be hours since Fay said that she would telephone DeHaven right away. It could have taken time to find Madeline, of course, but there’s enough wiggle-room here that this might not be the gotcha it appears.
Lundquist tells Leonard, in a very hostile voice, that there are policemen crawling about his observatory. Again, this is not how academics act, and especially not in front of others. They hate conflict, which is why, when they say mean things, they do so where the subject can’t hear.
Over at the observatory, Leonard tells Sergeant Kettler that he worked in the observatory all night until morning. Jessica interrupts telling Kettler that Leonard is on the verge of finding a comet. Kettler replies, “I didn’t know one was missing.”
Leonard continues that in the morning he went to bed and took the phone off of the hook. Kettler points out that the security guard saw Leonard run out of the building at 12:35. Leonard says that the security guard is mistaken.
Kettler asks if Leonard owns a gun and he denies it. When Kettler points out that a .38 is registered in Dr. Palmer’s name, Leonard says that he forgot that he owns one and he hasn’t seen it for months—it’s probably in a closet.
When Kettler says that’s good, as the two men over at Leonard’s place with a search warrant will probably find it.
Jessica is shocked.
“A search warrant? Aren’t you rather racing to a conclusion, Sergeant Kettler?”
Jessica’s family biases sometimes make her a little unimaginative when it comes to how her family members must look to the police, but this is beyond absurd. With Leonard obviously lying about everything and an attractive young man murdered at the place where his wife was staying, it would take a remarkably credulous and dim-witted detective to come to any other conclusion.
Kettler points some of this out, and Fay objects saying that the telescope couldn’t have been pointing at the house during the night because it was locked in a computer-controlled track that she entered. Kettler asks how the telescope ended up pointing at the house with Leonard’s wife in it, and no one has an answer. Jessica suggests that someone might have done it later to frame Leonard. This is… of dubious plausibility.
Fay hands Kettler a prinout of the computer program that was running the night before, saying that it proves that the telescope was pointed nowhere near the house during the night.
This isn’t shot in clue-vision so I’m not sure whether we’re supposed to notice it, but there is no coffee stain on the printout. (There’s a closeup of it in a moment, but it’s so close-cropped the coffee stain might be elsewhere on the page and we wouldn’t know.) Kettler looks at it and, not being able to make heads or tails of it, looks to Jessica for guidance. She seems to suggest trusting Fay, which seems to be good enough for Kettler, as he doesn’t pursue the matter further.
The next scene is in Jessica’s hotel room, where Carrie professes her undying love to Leonard if he’ll still have her and he tells her that she doesn’t have to explain anything. Jessica interrupts to say that she’d really like it if they explained some things to her.
Such as, why are they both lying to the police?
Carrie opens by saying that she did see Drake Eaton the night before—she asked him to come. Then we cut to commercial—the screen fades to black and when it comes back, Leonard is getting a glass of water from across the room which he slowly carries over to Carrie and hands to her. It’s curious how important it was for commercials to end on a dramatic moment and start with something you can miss to give people a chance to come back from the bathroom or kitchen when someone shouts, “it’s back on!”
Carrie had been with Drake long before she met Leonard. She thought she had lost Leonard to his work—she was lonely and felt neglected. She borrowed the vacation house to think things through. A few weeks ago she had gotten a call out of the blue from Drake Eaton because he was coming to the conference. Last night she sent a note to his hotel asking him to come out to see her. He had always been a friend—someone she could talk to, and that’s what she wanted. Someone to talk to. At least that’s what she told herself.
When he arrived he was drunk and had more carnal plans than talking. He dragged her into the bedroom but she managed to escape and ran away. She did in fact spend the night in her car, though she didn’t sleep.
Leonard says that he understands and that they will never speak of this again. Jessica objects, but Leonard insists.
Something I can’t help but wonder is if Carrie felt neglected and alone, why did she need to pretend to be on a trip to have time to think? Her problem is that she has little else but time to think at home. Basically, if her problem is that Leonard was never at home, why did she need to go somewhere to get away from Leonard?
Anyway, in the next scene, Jessica goes to the police station and talks with Sergeant Kettler. There’s something weird about the scene, because she shows up to talk to him but then he acts like she’s there because he asked her to come. He explains that his wife has been writing up his cases, but she hasn’t been published yet so she has no name. Since Jessica has already successfully published, he offers to give her the writeups his wife did and she can submit them to her publisher and they can split the proceeds 50/50.
At first Jessica is at a loss for words, but then realizes that this could give her the access she craves to the police information on the Drake Eaton case, so she tells him yes. “Drake Eaton’s murder might make a very juicy potboiler. Of course, I’d have to have access to all of your data: autopsy, medical reports, interrogations, absolutely everything.”
She has no intention of seeing this through, of course, so I suppose that she figured that with everyone else lying, she might as well get a few good lies herself. Oddly, despite this being nothing like what Kettler had proposed, he delightedly agrees.
In the next scene Jessica waylays Madeline DeHaven who is still hanging around for some reason. She’s on her way to a meeting with Thor Lundquist though what there could be to talk about after all of their previous meetings is anyone’s guess. Anyway, Jessica clumsily accuses Madeline of the murder, since she’s the only one there who knew him. Madeline corrects her, saying that Eaton was also intimately involved with Jessica’s niece.
Jessica is surprised that she knows this, but attributes it to her being close with Eaton. She denies this and says that he was just an employee.
Jessica says that she’s surprised since they had adjoining rooms at the hotel and, “well, I couldn’t help but take a peek inside, and I did notice all of your toiletries right next to his and, well, I assumed…”
Madeline points out, reasonably, that they had adjoining rooms to facilitate their work schedule. She then says that she put a lot of heat on the detective and that he knows that it was Jessica’s niece’s jealous husband who killed Drake. He has everything but the murder weapon. “He even has the scarf with Leonard Palmer’s blood on it.”
This is one of those strange details that isn’t very natural to say, so it probably means that she’s the murderer. How would she know that it was Leonard’s blood? Kettler almost certainly doesn’t know that. (I can’t be certain, of course, but why mention this in such an awkward way if it’s not a clue?)
Ms. DeHaven walks off to her meeting and Fay approaches Jessica with the news that Leonard has been fired. (I guess he doesn’t have tenure?) Jessica barges into Russell’s office and demands to know what happened to “innocent until proven guilty?” He points out, reasonably enough, that if they wait until Leonard is proven guilty, it will be too late. Jessica drops that line and asks who knew that Carrie was staying in the guest house and he says no one, at least not from him. She asks if anyone could have found out by calling the house and he said no, he doesn’t like being disturbed when he’s there so it’s an unlisted number. (See, I was right!)
Jessica will, shortly, realize that Fay called Russell at his vacation house and so must know the number. It doesn’t really follow that she knew that Carrie was there, though, as Carrie would have to be an idiot to have picked up the phone while she’s hiding at the house. Murder, She Wrote doesn’t tend to have time for that sort of detail, though.
Sergeant Kettler calls the office and asks for Jessica. The scene then shifts to Russell’s guest house, where Kettler has assembled the suspects (Leonard and Carrie). He produces a .38 and asks if it belongs to Leonard. Leonard can’t be sure. Kettler says that it is registered to Leonard, and was found in a storm drain half a mile from the house.
He then produces the scarf and asks Leonard what his scarf was doing at the crime scene with Drake Eaton’s blood on it. Leonard replies that it’s not Drake Eaton’s blood, it’s his. Kettler deduces that Leonard and Carrie got into an argument before Leonard shot Eaton.
Carrie passionately cries that it’s not true. She had brought the gun to the house because she was afraid to be alone. She kept in the night stand drawer by the bed. When Drake tried to force himself on her, she broke free and grabbed the gun. He took it from her, and she fled the house.
When Kettler begins to arrest Carrie, Leonard protests. He shot Drake Eaton.
We go to commercial, and come back to Kettler and Jessica listening to Leonard’s confession on Kettler’s tape recorder.
A curious detail of the confession is that when Leonard arrived, he saw shadows and heard a woman’s voice, which he assumed was Carrie. They don’t listen to much more of the confession, and as Jessica is trying to talk Kettler out of thinking that anyone she loves could be guilty, it comes up in conversation that Kettler thinks that Carrie did it and Leonard is only trying to cover for her.
In the next scene Jessica and Carrie are in Jessica’s room talking over the case. Jessica asks how Leonard knew to point the telescope at Russell’s vacation home, and Carrie said that he didn’t. According to Leonard, the telescope just moved there on its own while he was trying to take observations. Carrie says that there was no reason for it to have done that, but Jessica gets an idea. Perhaps there was a reason for it to do that after all.
Of course that reason is going to be the person who programmed the telescope.
Jessica comes in and asks if she’s found the comet, and Fay says no, not yet. Jessica says, “You know, it’s ironic. In medieval days, people were terrified of comets. They thought of them as omens of evil, harbingers of death. I’ve never been much for portents, but the last couple of days… it must have been very difficult for you, Fay.”
The shift in tone is interesting; Jessica lulling her into a false sense of security then springing it on her. I don’t know how well this really works. In my very limited experience people with guilty secrets tend to be fast thinkers because they live in fear of their secret coming out.
That said, Fay doesn’t really make any slip, here, so I guess it doesn’t matter. Jessica accuses Fay of being in love with Leonard. She then points out that the computer program printout that Fay showed to Sergeant Kettler was fake, since it’s clean and the one that was entered that night had a large coffee stain on it.
Fay breaks down and says, desperately, “My God, I never dreamed Leonard would kill him.”
Jessica says that she only wanted Leonard to see that Carrie wasn’t worthy, and Fay replies that Carrie couldn’t love Leonard the way that she did. She shared his life more than Carrie ever could.
Jessica says that she should have put it together sooner; she phoned Russell at the vacation house but the number is unlisted. Fay said that she overheard Carrie telling Drake Eaton that she was going to spend a few days at the vacation house.
That last part makes no sense. It’s neither an explanation for how Fay had the phone number nor is there any plausible way for Fay to have overheard Carrie telling Drake that she was going to spend a few days at the vacation house. Carrie told Drake where to find her via a note sent to his hotel. Prior to that, he phoned her out of the blue at her actual house weeks before.
I don’t know that this is really salvageable. About the only way that having the phone number could have done Fay any good in discovering Carrie would be if she called and Carrie answered. She’d have had no reason to call Russell’s vacation home while Carrie was there—since Russell was known to not be there—and Carrie would have had no reason to answer the phone.
Even just from a what-we-saw plot construction standpoint, without Russell’s vacation home phone being how she found out about Carrie—and an explanation for how Fay had the number would not have been easy, given that they can’t go with her having spent time with Russell since she’s utterly devoted to Leonard, unless they were going so far as her having slept with Russell to protect Leonard’s job—there was no reason for her call to the vacation home to have been significant.
I suppose that we’re just going to need an amnesty in this direction, too.
Anyway, Fay says that she figured if Leonard could see what Carrie was up to, everything would be better. Jessica then says that Fay went up to the vacation house to make sure everything went according to plan, but Fay says no. Jessica is confused, since Leonard heard a woman’s voice. Fay, however, was home in bed, as far away from Drake Eaton, Carrie, and Leonard as she could get. Fay then says, “It’s ridiculous, Mrs. Fletcher. How could anyone in their right mind assume that Leonard Palmer, of all people, would shoot someone?”
This jogs Jessica’s memory . “What?” “I said…” “Nevermind, I heard what you said.” and then clue-face:
This means that it’s last call to place your bets on who the murderer is.
Unfortunately, there’s no commercial break, here, so if you didn’t figure it out by now you don’t have much time to think about it, at least back in the days when you’d have been watching this on broadcast television. There wasn’t much of a way around this, though, since you can’t really place a commercial break that close to the end, when there would be more commercials right after.
Murder, She Wrote episodes were usually just under 48 minutes (including “tonight on Murder, She Wrote” and the introduction). Since the time slot was an hour long, that left just 12 minutes for commercials. The actual length of the commercial breaks varied but they were rarely less than two minutes nor longer than four. That gives us three to six commercial breaks, but the typical structure was four—three during the show and one after, giving approximately three minutes of commercials per break. They would be placed approximately at the quarter hour marks, though not that you could set a watch by. In this episode, for example, the first commercial break is at 17:45. The second is much closer to the mark. It’s at 27:02, which, if you remember that there would have been a 3 minute commercial break that happened, would put us almost exactly at the half hour mark. (In practice the first might only be a 2 minute commercial break to make room for a 4 minute break at the halfway point, which would then have us line up very well with the commercials at the end of any half hour shows that were running.) The third break is at 37:04, which if you add in 6 minutes of commercial time puts it at the 43 minute mark. If this spot is 3 minutes long, that means we have only three minutes of commercials left and there have to be commercials at the end of the episode.
All of this could (in theory) be rejiggered, of course; one could shave a minute off of a previous block or two in order to add in a fourth commercial spot at the 52 minute mark (or so), but this would have made Murder, She Wrote atypical amongst TV shows at the time which probably went against the grain of how TV shows operated. Television was, primarily, a means of delivering commercials. The shows were secondary to that.
Back to the episode, this time guessing the culprit is simpler because we know that it was a woman who killed Drake and there’s only one woman other than Carrie and Fay, and also only one woman who assumed that Drake was shot…
Jessica begins innocuously enough. She thought that Madeline would be interested to learn how Leonard came to be at the vacation house. Madeline assumes that he was spying on his wife but Jessica corrects her that it was Fay who programmed the computer to move the telescope. Madeline has an interesting line, here: “Did she? I wonder why. Oh, I see. Hell hath no fury, hmmm?” I like this insight into human nature, especially because it’s related to why she killed Drake. Self-awareness is nice in characters.
Jessica then asks if she followed Drake to the vacation house or if she saw the note. Madeline then asks, “Say, Mrs. Fletcher, what happened to that nice little lady from Maine act of yours?”
This reminds me of I, Claudius when Livia (who poisoned more than a few relatives in the imperial family) was dying and invited Claudius (her grandson) to dinner and he dropped his half-wit act.
Livia: Castor is ill and Thrasyllus says he won’t recover. He also says that Tiberius will choose Caligula to succeed him. Claudius: Why? Livia: Vanity. Tiberius wants to be loved – at least after his death if not before. And the best way to ensure that… Claudius: Is to have someone w-worse to follow him. Yes, naturally. Well, he’s certainly no fool. Livia: He’s the biggest fool in my family. I always thought that that was you… but I think now I was wrong. Claudius: Grandmother, after all these years, you didn’t invite me to dinner just to tell me this. Livia: The wine has made you bold, hasn’t it. Claudius: You said you kept in with Caligula because he was to be the next Emperor. Livia: Lost your stutter too, I see.
I, Claudius was first broadcast by the BBC in 1976, so this could even be directly inspired by it. If not, it’s certainly the same sort of thing. Not done as well, of course, but that’s a difference of degree and not of kind. A villain seeing clearly, too late, is always a great moment.
Jessica goes on to point out that Madeline had to have been there. She said that the scarf with Leonard Palmer’s blood on it had been found but even the police didn’t know that until a few hours ago. Marking Dehaven out as one of the rare murderers who can actually think on her feet, she replies, “A slip of the tongue, Mrs. Fletcher, and I’ll deny I said it.”
Granted, more careful phrasing would have been better in case Jessica wasn’t alone, but she’s entirely right that if it came down to Jessica’s word against Madeline’s, Jessica is hardly impartial. She’s trying to get her niece’s husband exonerated.
Jessica leaves this—I think because she knows Madeline is right—and tells the story as it happened. Along the way she surmises that Leonard was knocked unconscious in the fight with Drake, and this is why, when he came to, he thought that Carrie had killed Drake.
Madeline replies that it’s all theory and Jessica can’t prove any of it. Jessica counters with Madeline’s remark that whoever shot Drake is going to be sorry. That was made in front of witnesses.
The only problem with that is that three out of four of the witnesses are Jessica, Leonard, and Carrie—and their testimony is worthless. This only leaves Thor Lundquist. The smart bet is on him being willing to remember Madeline as saying, “whoever killed Drake” in the expectation that the institute will get the “Gamma 3” contract as thanks. Plus, he hates Leonard.
Unfortunately for her, she doesn’t take that gamble and instead puts all her chips on saying that Fay had told her. Jessica points out that Fay didn’t know at the time, and with Sergeant Kettler walks out of the shadows, Madeline knows that she’s had it.
Unadvisedly, she decides to confess in front of Sergeant Kettler, who is exempt from the rules of hearsay. “That nickel-and-dime hustler was climbing over me to make a name for himself, and all the while he was telling me…” She pauses and summarizes, “Nobody uses Madeline DeHaven the way he did.”
On one level, I get it. On another level, it doesn’t feel right. She, presumably, got to where she was by climbing her way over others to make a name for herself. Moreover, he was considerably younger than she was. (Going by the age of the actors, he was 16 years her junior.) She seems far too cynical to have taken his advances at face value.
“Finding that gun in the bedroom was like an omen. A portent, Mrs. Fletcher.”
This is a nice callback to when Jessica said that comets used to be omens.
“I didn’t even hear it go off.”
Jessica shakes her head in disapproval, because she’s only sympathetic to fornicators and adulterers, not to murderers. I know I harp a lot on how Jessica is a big town character, not a small town character, but simple disgust at murders is unrealistic to murder mystery writers.
This is something I think that Columbo did far better (and he was just a policeman, not a writer). Columbo was often quite sympathetic to the murderer, without shirking his duty. I think that one of my favorites was the episode in which the murderer (played by Robert Culp) used subliminal images in a movie to make his victim go into the hallway for a drink of water so he could shoot him unobserved and while he was supposedly on stage giving a presentation, though behind a curtain and using a tape recorder. Columbo couldn’t find the murder weapon and so used subliminal images to make Culp go make sure that the murder weapon wasn’t found, revealing its location because Columbo was waiting for him. When Culp realizes that Columbo used his own subliminal image technique, he said, noting the irony of his subliminal image technique being proved useful, “You know one thing, Lieutenant, you never would have solved it without using my techniques.” Columbo replies, “That’s right, Doc. If there was a reward I’d support your claim to it.” One gets the sense that Columbo meant it. He really would have supported such a claim.
I suppose, though, in a sense, that this is another big-city character trait. Big city folks, being immoral in their principles in order to get along in big cities, need to assuage their consciences by looking down on anyone they can find to look down on.
The scene fades into Jessica and Sergeant Kettler walking and talking at the institute the next day.
“You know, I gotta hand it to you, Mrs. Fletcher. You are pretty slick.” “Well, you’re not so bad yourself, Sergeant.”
She actually says this enthusiastically, which is unusual for Jessica. She doesn’t usually respect police officers who charge her relatives with murder, no matter how reasonable they were in doing so.
Anyway, he brings up the writing deal and says that he can’t go through with it because there’s a Hollywood producer who is extremely interested in exclusive rights. Jessica tells him to go ahead and not to give her another thought. Kettler is grateful and Jessica leaves him to go see Carrie and Leonard.
Leonard and Carrie say that they’ve had so little time together, they’d like Jessica to reconsider and stay for a few more days. She replies, “Not a chance. Please, get me to the station before Sergeant Kettler changes his mind.”
I know that this is supposed to be cute, but I have difficulty taking it that way. On the one hand, Detective Kettler’s proposal was a bit absurd. On the other hand, Jessica straight-up lied to Kettler and took advantage of his inexperience and naivete in order to get access to his investigation. Of the two, Kettler is the more aggrieved.
Overall, I would say that this is a mid-tier episode with a few above-average moments. The comet, and to a lesser degree, the observatory, form a nice backdrop for the story. The university might also have been a nice backdrop, had the story been set in a university. The setting is really more a family estate that the oldest brother is considering selling to the army to build a military base on. Or something; I’m not sure if even that would match the story as it existed. Perhaps closer would be a family factory that manufactures telescopes and has an observatory on the top, and the older brother is looking to get a contract to manufacture advanced optics for sniper rifles? That would actually work fairly well.
UPDATE: It would also work to modify the defense contract to be for monitoring satellites with Leonard being a commie-leaning ex-hippie who instinctively hates the military without any trace of rational thought, and thus cannot separate out purely defensive things they do from waging offensive war. I think that the telescope factory that wants a contract to make sniper scopes would work better, but Leonard was at no point in this episode reasonable, so it would probably be a smaller modification to go with the satellite monitoring. (end update.)
The sub-plot, or rather, the plot, with the ex-lover coming into town while the neglected wife is holed up in a friend’s house is also a bit… of plot lace. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with an old lover coming back into someone’s life causing trouble. That is quite plausible. There’s also nothing wrong with odd coincidences bringing the old lover back into someone’s life. Those happen too, and are fine as long as they don’t help the detective. There isn’t even anything wrong with the old lover hoping to rekindle the old flame. That makes the old lover immoral, but it is within the realm of what real human beings do.
Things start to unravel with how the contact happens, though. Drake calling Carrie out of the blue with the information that he’s coming to her town implies that he knows where she is and what her phone number is. How would he have this knowledge? 1988 is before the internet was available outside of universities and sixteen years before Facebook existed. Keeping track of people tended to require their cooperation—or the cooperation of friends and family, or a lot of hard work. Drake was working in Washington and was, presumably, not amongst her contact network. How would he have known where she was? There are solutions to this problem, though not really great ones. An ex-boyfriend calling to find out the location of a newly married woman isn’t likely to be given it by her family. Some mutual friend without great judgment might be the explanation for how he had her location and phone number, of course. (Her location, if fairly specific, might suffice, as there was an information service one could call to ask for phone numbers in other locations, in the 1980s.)
The bigger problem comes in with Carrie fleeing her house because she feels like she’s losing her husband to his work. This just isn’t a natural action. A person flees their own home to take refuge in solitude because they can’t handle being with the other people who are in their home. This can be because of safety, or because of constant fights, or merely because of constant irritation or some other significant stressor. The one thing that won’t make them flee into solitude is feeling oppressed by solitude.
She then sends Drake a note at his hotel to come visit her. Assuming that she didn’t mail this note, it’s going to be an awkward note to send, since in 1988 that would be done by calling the hotel and dictating the note to one of the desk clerks. This would not be a trivial note to dictate, by the way, since it would have to include directions on how to get to the vacation house. Drake is not from the area and the vacation house is 33 miles away. If the note didn’t include directions but only an address, Drake would have had to have borrowed a map from somewhere—the hotel might have had one but my recollection is that was not guaranteed—and have spent considerable time reading it over to find the street then figure out how to get there. All while drunk.
Even had Carrie’s note included directions, we next have Drake being able to follow them in a completely unfamiliar place, in the dark, while drunk. We know he was drunk and not merely tipsy since he showed up drunk enough that his opening move was to try to rape her when she wanted to talk before they got to adultery. That’s pretty darn drunk.
We then have Madeline DeHaven following him. It’s never made clear whether she saw the note from Carrie or whether she merely followed Drake, though the former is more plausible because following someone for 33 miles on lonely roads—even a very drunk someone—is hard to do without them noticing. Especially at night, when your headlights will be very bright in their rear view mirror. So she found the note and drove up after him. I suppose it’s not a big deal that he left the note around for her to find because he was drunk. Or she could have found it before he did. OK, except for the question of what did she drive? It isn’t likely that both Madeline and Drake rented separate cars. Madeline certainly doesn’t seem like the sort of person to drive if she doesn’t have to, nor the sort of person to rent a separate car for her underlings if not forced to. Especially an underling who she was romantically entangled with and whose company she enjoyed. So how did she get up there? I doubt she hopped into a cab and said, “follow that car!”
Actually, speaking of cars, the driveway at the vacation house had to have been crowded. When Madeline got there, there was Carrie’s car, Drake’s car, and then Madeline’s car. It’s very convenient that they didn’t block Carrie’s car in and Carrie was able to get away. But why didn’t she notice the extra car? Then Leonard got there and saw two cars that he didn’t recognize and went in anyway.
I suppose it could be argued that Madeline might have hidden her car nearby, but concealment wasn’t her purpose. She walked in and confronted Drake and only got the idea to murder him after Drake hustled Madeline away when Leonard showed up. Which, come to think of it, is another oddity. Why hustle Madeline away and then answer the door? It wasn’t his door, and he shouldn’t have been there any more than Madeline should have. In fact, of the two of them, Madeline would have been the more innocent one to answer the door. Perhaps it was some instinct to avoid scandal for Madeline? But why answer the door at all?
Then there’s the issue of how Leonard saw Carrie. Recall what was visible through the telescope:
Where was Carrie in that room that Leonard would have recognized her? Leonard doesn’t seem like the sort to be observant enough to recognize someone from the waste down. Was she sitting on the floor?
There is, admittedly, the very edge of the couch she could have been sitting on, but without an arm on the couch, that would be uncomfortable. Also, why did he come running out of the observatory? With the vacation home being 33 miles away from the observatory, he couldn’t have seen Carrie with Drake. There wasn’t an emergency, at least not of the kind to make a person abandon their telescope without locking up and signing out for the night. If he saw Carrie in the telescope, he’d have seen that she was alone (at the time).
None of this really makes sense, though it’s not outright self-contradictory.
Pulling back a bit, we have a curious cast of characters. Leonard Palmer and Carrie don’t really make sense, especially since the actors have no chemistry together. At no point does either seem to have the least bit of affection for the other. How on earth did they meet? Why on earth are they together? Also, Leonard seems far more likely to forget his work in order to please his wife than to neglect his wife because of his work. Which brings us to Fay. She’s jealous of Carrie but spends far more time with Leonard than Carrie does. Granted, she doesn’t get to lay down beside Leonard at night, but he spends all night at the observatory anyway. The triangle just seems backwards. It would have made far more sense for Carrie to be pulling Leonard away from his work and for Fay to have killed her in order to free Leonard up to search for the comet.
Madeline DeHaven and Drake are also odd characters. She is a world-weary, self-important bureaucrat who climbed to a position of power, but is completely taken in by the young, ambitious man she should have seen through in half a second. She also treats him with no affection. He doesn’t really treat her with affection, either, making it especially strange that she is taken in by him.
Russell Armstrong is also an odd character. He is antagonistic to Leonard but on such terms with Leonard’s wife that when she felt like she needed to get away from her husband for a few days to think things over—despite having her own house to herself to think in—she told him and he offered her his vacation house to stay in. Having trouble with a spouse is a profoundly personal thing, especially when reconciliation still seems possible. This means that she is on extremely close terms with Russell. Especially so since she could easily have stayed in a motel. She had money, and whatever decision she came to, it would be easy enough to explain to Leonard. That said, there was no need to hide her going away. It would be easy enough to come up with a real trip to go on in order to be away, whether to the beach, or to go camping, or to go sight seeing. People don’t unpredictably develop a sudden need to get away from someone they feel is neglecting them, so the time to plan would not be a problem. Given all of this, it is remarkable that Carrie ended up confiding in Russell enough for him to lend his vacation house to her in order to flee from Leonard not being home often enough.
Thor Lundquist is another odd character. A TV scientist whose involvement with the university would somehow cement a defense contract, he’s often around the action but doesn’t really do anything (other than insult Leonard). I can’t help but think that he was originally meant to be a suspect and the writers couldn’t figure out a way to use him as that. Admittedly, it would have been hard to make him a suspect without changing other things in the episode, but as it stands I can’t figure out what purpose he served in the episode.
Sergeant Kettler is, perhaps, the one character who really belongs in the episode. Of course, he’s kind of a given, since there has to be a police detective involved if there’s been a murder. As Murder, She Wrote detectives go, he’s in the top 50%. He’s not the sharpest light bulb in the picnic basket, but he is competent. His conclusions about the relatives of Jessica—both of whom lied like a pair of rugs—were reasonable. He was wrong mostly because of plot holes, or if not precisely holes, at least a bunch of threadbare spots in the plot.
So far, I’ve been mostly negative about this episode. It does have some upsides. The observatory at night was a nice location and most of the settings were pleasant to look at. The question of why a telescope would be pointing at a house with a corpse in it is definitely an interesting question to base a mystery around. Unfortunately, the episode doesn’t have a good answer. I mean this apart from everything I’ve said about it above; if one ignores every iffy part of the plot, the telescope pointing at the corpse is a coincidence. I suppose it could be argued that Madeline DeHaven only found the gun because Leonard showed up and Drake hustled her off to the upstairs bedroom, which would establish a causal connection, but it’s still an entirely coincidental causal connection, and further it’s entirely possible that Madeline would have found the gun even without Leonard. That being said, on any reading it was purely by chance that Drake was shot where he was and further that his corpse fell in the very narrow view of where the telescope was looking.
Still, even if the answer was the extremely disappointing, “by accident,” the question, “why was the telescope pointed at a corpse in a vacation house?” was an interesting question. Perhaps it forms a challenge to write a tightly plotted story with that premise.
The one thing I can really give the plot, that it actually did reasonably well, is the whole comet-as-harbinger thing. Except for there not being a comet, which, admittedly, was a bit of an oversight, the comet as a symbol of fate is a great theme to explore in a murder mystery. This is especially true for the murderer; it is interesting to look at a person believing himself to not have free will being what allows him to use his free will to do murder. The same thing leading people to wonder, “are there really gods, and are we cursed by them?” is also a very interesting temptation to subject characters to. It can also be interesting to have the characters consider that looking at a very small part of God’s plan which seems intelligible can make it tempting to think one understands the whole plan, and thus to consider portents and omens as being intelligible signs of what the plan is. Murder, She Wrote, being secular, couldn’t do it well, but they could brush on it, and even that was fun.
The best reason for a revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy certain horrible things will happen to him. He will be practical; he will be progressive; he will cultivate efficiency; he will trust in evolution; he will do the work that lies nearest; he will devote himself to deeds, not words. Thus struck down by blow after blow of blind stupidity and random fate, he will stagger on to a miserable death with no comfort but a series of catchwords; such as those which I have catalogued above. Those things are simply substitutes for thoughts. In some cases they are the tags and tail-ends of somebody else’s thinking. That means that a man who refuses to have his own philosophy will not even have the advantages of a brute beast, and be left to his own instincts. He will only have the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy; which the beasts do not have to inherit; hence their happiness.
I’ve noticed a surprising number of people who seem to want to pretend that we are in the 19th century so that they can apply 19th century philosophy, unmodified. The real problem with that is not the 19th century philosophy part, per se (though there was a notably large amount of bad philosophy in the 19th century), but the unmodified part. This is directly related to what Chesterton said above, that a person who will not do philosophy for himself will end up with the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy.
A lot of people who have never done any philosophy for themselves think that doing philosophy for oneself entails being original. This is the opposite of the truth. To truly study philosophy has, as its only legitimate goal, to be entirely unoriginal. At least in content. A philosopher may be forced by circumstances to be original in expression, though the true philosopher will usually try to avoid that whenever he can.
If a man is a philosopher, that is, if he is a lover of wisdom (philos = love, sophia = wisdom), his entire goal is to come to understand what is; that is, he conforms his mind to what pre-exists him. God understands what he creates, so the wisdom of God is creative; man loves what he did not create, so the wisdom of man is purely receptive.
Philos, though, is not any old kind of love—it is the love of friends. This has something of a dual meaning when it comes to philosophy: a man seeks to be a friend of Wisdom, but also to be the friend of other men who love wisdom. As such, the true philosopher will read other philosophers to see what his friends can tell him about what they both love. This is not harmed by the minor detail of their friend having died after writing, not even by them having died twenty four hundred years ago. But as with all true friends, their goal is not a meeting of the ears, but a meeting of the minds. That is, they want to understand the whole truth in what their friends have written, not merely to pick up a few bits and pieces of it.
Every man, by using language, communicates by using the things around him, because they are the things to which the symbols called words point. When we read things written by people long dead, to understand the contents we must know to what the words pointed when they were used, so that we can see the relationships between the things the words pointed at. When the world changes, the words no longer point to the same things, so we cannot read the words today the same way they were written. More importantly, though, things themselves change. A horse is replaced by a horseless carriage. Telegrams are replaced by telephones. Sometimes the relationships persist, sometimes they do not. This is inconvenient. It takes work to be able to separate the relationships between things from the things themselves, that is, to separate the idea contained within the expression from the expression. And here we come to the title of this post, because human beings are lazy.
It is work to read someone carefully and to separate the ideas from the expressions. It is far less work to pretend that the world has not changed, and so there is no separation required. Since we live in a profoundly lazy time, we see a great deal of people trying to pretend this very thing. It is much easier to pretend that people are still forced by grinding poverty (caused, everyone now forgets, by the collapse of the price of food grown on farms) to take the few jobs available in factories which routinely kill and main the workers, who are quickly replaced because of the legions of unemployed fleeing unprofitable farms. If one does that, then one can take a whole host of 19th century writers and apply their writings unmodified. (This does extend into the early 1900s, btw.)
Why don’t people do this with, say, medieval philosophers, or ancient Greek philosophers, or Chinese philosophers? I think that there are two main answers:
The further back in time one goes, the harder it is to pretend that nothing has changed.
The further back in time one goes, the less familiar is the expression of the philosophy.
I don’t mean to suggest that people have actually read Das Kapital, or even that they routinely quote Karl Marx. Far more common is for the process to be iterative, where people much closer in time to Marx rephrase his ideas, often updating the terminology but not otherwise changing the expression, and these again get rephrased a few decades later, and so on, so that what people get is a modern phrasing of the antiquated expression. Along the way, they may easily get updated to things which no longer had the original relationships. People who are starved for ideas because they don’t do much thinking may be very tempted to not care, because starving people are not picky.
This explains rather a great deal of modern discourse.
In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there’s a scene where the knights of the round table have a vision of God in the heavens and he commands them to find the holy grail. About 50% of MPatHG is quite funny, while the other half is very stupid. This scene is meant to be in the former, but it in the latter. It’s very stupid in a kind of interesting way, though, because it is stupid in a way that is profoundly typical of its time.
MPatHG was released in 1975 and made by men (the pythons) who were in their mid 30s at the time. (They ranged from 32 to 36 years old.) Having grown up primarily in the immediate aftermath of World War 2, they were at the height of the rejection of the old institutions which had failed Europe so spectacularly in two world wars separated by a scant 31 years. When Jack Weinberg famously said, in 1964, that his group didn’t trust anyone over the age of 30—he didn’t really mean it, he was just trying to annoy a reporter, but he accidentally captured a zeitgeist, which is what really matters, not his intended meaning—that put the cutoff at being born in 1934, while the oldest python (John Cleese) was born in 1939. What’s important to remember is that this spirit was not about age per se, but about generation; the new generation didn’t trust the previous generations. The pythons were in the trusted generation, and did not trust anything before them.
The scene of God giving the knights their quest begins with the knights showing respect at the heavenly vision, by kneeling and averting their eyes, and the pythons have God being annoyed at this. This is stupid beyond description, of course, which can get distracting, but its stupidy perfectly captures that spirit, pervasive in the 1960s and 1970s that everything traditional is bad. To the pythons it was funny to have even God himself annoyed at things merely because they were old, since God was part of what was old, but also an authority figure for what was old.
There was a second aspect to this humor which was also bound up in its time period. Part of the rejection of the old was the rejection not merely of the particular ceremonies of the old, but of all ceremonies. Not merely of the particular signs of respect that were old, but of all signs of respect. The pythons depict God as tired of signs of respect and wanting to just get to the point, just as the zeitgeist of the culture was to get rid of everything “superfluous” and get to the point.
This gets to the curious idea of “relevance” which mattered so much at the time, perhaps most notoriously in the priests who put on street clothes and picked up acoustic guitars in an effort to be “relevant”. History has not been kind to them, and I doubt that it should be, but this may at least make the action somewhat intelligible. The spirit of the time was to strip away everything rich, everything meaningful, everything symbolic—and to get as close to a bare animal immediacy as rational language would permit. It is that strange state of mind that permitted intelligent, educated men like the pythons to have the God who told Moses that he would shield Moses when he passed by because Moses could not see God’s face and live, complain when people averted their eyes.
The Youth Movement of the 1960s was made up of very timid people, which is why they were so allergic to symbols and rituals. They could only deal with things that mean nothing more than themselves, and even then often only with the help of drugs. Of course, they told themselves that they had the courage to deal with things as they were instead of hiding behind symbols—which is why they often seemed like idiots.
But they weren’t idiots, they were merely (frequently) neglected. Those born during the war and those born in its aftermath (the boomers) were born to exhausted parents who had lost faith in everything and were too scared to really raise their children. That’s why the main thing they really passed on to their children was their fear. (Let me reiterate, I’m only really talking about that fraction of these generations that became the Youth Movement.)
It has been said that great movies transcend their time and speak the human condition, while bad movies are mired in their times; thus it is bad movies that are most useful for historical research. Monty Python and the Holy Grail shows that it need not be entire movies; bad moments in good movies do just as well. (That said, I don’t think that you can really call MPatHG a good movie; it’s barely even a movie. It’s really an hour and a half long loosely connected series of (mostly) medieval-themed sketches which range anywhere from brilliant to terrible, though even the terrible sketches occasionally have a brilliant line in them.)
When it comes to things like defending the faith, the aphorism that one catches more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a barrel of vinegar is very much on people’s minds, especially in America. Puritans were so dour and miserable that they drove people away from Christianity, etc. So, given that, why be such a downer and talk about the problems of atheism, such as meaning, irrationality, etc? Won’t that just turn people off?
One brief word before I dive into it: it should go without saying that one should not be purely negative, that one should spend most of one’s time on the positives. This post is about why talk about the negatives at all?
One very practical thing to get out of the way before we get to the real reason is that “nice” Christianity has already been played out. That sort of positivity is really an attempt to manipulate people and probably does more harm than good. Patience is a virtue, but imprudent patience is not. Nothing but patience just looks like weakness.
OK, that stuff out of the way, the big reason to talk about the problems with atheism is that a lot of people make what might be described as an inverse Pascal’s wager. Call it the Cheese Pizza Wager. If everyone agrees on cheese pizza but people do not agree on toppings, even if the toppings may be better, just go with plain cheese because it’s safer.
Given how many people will do that, it’s important to point out that we’re not in a pizza situation; the options aren’t cheese pizza vs. barbecue chicken pizza, it’s barbecue chicken pizza vs. poison pizza.
Atheism is not like Christianity but with sleeping in on Sundays. Atheism has real and serious problems such as reason not working, life having no meaning, morality being completely arbitrary, concepts such as a human being not being philosophically tenable on any level (the you-can’t-dip-your-toe-in-the-same-river-twice problem), to say nothing of the more practical issues it has with the breakdown of culture and the tendency to produce totalitarian dictatorships as people’s need for God is replaced by the state. And there’s plenty more. (Atheists will, of course, repudiate all of these things, which isn’t a problem for them since they don’t hold rationality to work and therefore don’t object in the slightest to contradicting themselves left and right while the incoherently scream that they’re being completely rational and calm.)
It’s good for people to realize that there is no consensus and that they can’t safely leave off the difficult task of understanding the world that they live in.
In this video I look at the claim that atheism (or materialism, or naturalism) is simpler than theism is therefore to be preferred—and how it isn’t simpler, and how simpler things are not always to be preferred anyway.
If you are not familiar with Daniel Dennett, one of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism, he is a good friend of Richard Dawkins and an atheist “philosopher”. (I use the scare quotes advisedly.) As an atheist he is, almost as a matter of course, a determinist. However, he’s also a proponent of “compatibalism,” the “idea” that free will and determinism are compatible. (The trick is to redefine “free will” to mean, not something freely chosen, but something deterministically done without outside force being applied at the time.) There is a wonderful video that Dennett made in which he chides neuroscientsts who tell people that they don’t have free will for being irresponsible in doing so, because if people don’t believe that they are responsible for their actions they make less morally responsible choices:
You read that correctly. A determinist is telling other determinists that if they tell people who have no free will that they don’t have free will, the people without free will will then make morally worse choices because they now know the truth that they’re not making any choices and are thus not culpable for the choices that they’re not making.
He even cites a scientific study showing that people more frequently choose to cheat if they’ve recently read an article telling them that neuroscience proves that people don’t have free will and thus are not culpable for their actions.
Of course, Dennett is a determinist, so therefore doesn’t believe that the neuroscientists can choose to be more responsible and lie to people that they have free will in order to get them to make better choices in their lives. But determinism means never having to say you’re sorry (unless you have to): Dennett himself believes that he has no free will and so he had no choice but to make this video. So it’s all OK. He’s not actually an idiot.
He’s just a puppet being made to look like an idiot by the forces pulling his strings.
Recently in looking something up I came across a gentleman by the name of Bill Peschel who publishes some annotated versions of golden age mysteries. The two which caught my eye are The Mysterious Affair At Styles and Whose Body?
I don’t have the time to read them at present, but I’ve put them on my wishlist.
Some of the questions he promises to answer about The Mysterious Affair At Styles are:
Why Would People Drink Strychnine For Their Health? What Does ‘English Beef and Brawn’ Mean? What Are Land Smocks? Spill Vases? Patience Cards?
Not having read these I can’t testify as to their quality, of course, but they certainly seem interesting.
There is a tension which authors face in writing their stories. On the one hand, they wish to make their stories original—why bother to write the story at all if someone else already wrote it just with different names? On the other hand, stories with familiar elements greatly help readers to understand the stories. This can be fairly extreme—when an individual work defines a new genre, quite a few elements of the original may be necessary in order to seem to the reader to be in that genre and they can feel lost, or worse, disinterested, if it strays to far from those elements. Something that may help authors to feel better about this is that derivative origins of a character can easily be lost over with the readers being accepting of this and possibly even forgetting that the beginnings of the characters were clichéd when the many other copies of the work disappear under the sands of time. This will get to an interesting question that I will save for the end. First, I want to give a few examples from my own genre, mystery.
Hercule Poirot had a remarkably derivative beginning as a detective but is now one of the most celebrated fictional detectives of all time and thought of only for his original qualities. For a more highbrow example, Lord Peter Wimsey is a fiercely beloved character so original and lifelike he feels real to a great many of his readers. And yet, to quote Ms. Sayers herself:
When in a light-hearted manner I set out, fifteen years ago, to write the first “Lord Peter” book, it was with the avowed intention of producing something “less like a conventional detective story and more like a novel.” Re-reading Whose body? at this distance of time I observe, with regret, that it is conventional to the last degree, and no more like a novel than I to Hercules.
Gaudy Night, Titles to Fame
In order to explain how they began so conventional and in Poirot’s case outright derivative, I need to go over a (very) brief history of the detective genre. This won’t take long as it only existed for about thirty years by the time these detectives came on the scene.
The origin of the modern murder mystery is Edgar Allen Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. Published in 1841, it is told by an unnamed narrator who is a friend of C. Auguste Dupin. Dupin is a brilliant and logical thinker who solves the murders for which the story is named. Poe wrote two other “tales of ratiocination”, but neither is remembered in anything like the same way for various reasons that aren’t pertinent to the moment.
There are a few things published over the next forty six years that people occasionally try to argue are murder mysteries, but the next unambiguous murder mystery is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, which introduced to the world Sherlock Holmes. It was the Sherlock Holmes short stories, however, first published in 1891, that became wildly popular and created the mystery genre.
Even Holmes was not an altogether original conception, as we can see elements of Dupin. Holmes, like Dupin, is a brilliant and logical thinker who goes so much father than others because of his orderly thinking and his methods of the science of deduction. Watson, like Dupin’s unnamed narrator, learns of Sherlock’s brilliance and science of deduction and moreover the adventures that he narrates after becoming his roommate because neither has much money. There are differences of detail, to be sure, but there is an unmistakable inspiration. Heck, there is even a Holmes short story (The Resident Patient) of Holmes imitating a trick of Dupin’s of predicting what someone was thinking about based on what his last conversation was some minutes ago—and Holmes explicitly said that he did so in order to prove that Dupin might have done so as well.
Conan Doyle did not write Holmes for long, however. In 1893 he killed Holmes off. Feeling some financial pressure, he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901 and its financial success prompted Conan Doyle to bring Holmes back, which he did in the short story The Adventure of the Empty House in 1903. He wrote twelve more stories through 1904, then nothing again until 1908.
This dearth of an extraordinarily popular character created a vacuum that pulled a great many people into the mystery genre. Most of these short stories are lost to the sands of time, or at least require more than a little digging to find them. It was not too long before these stories would start to broaden the genre out, but I suspect with new Holmes stories occasionally coming out until 1927, the pull of the Holmes premise was strong. Moreover, examples in the genre that I’ve researched from the early 1900s and 1910s have tended to stick close to the Homles-Dupin formula.
Certainly we can see it in Hercule Poirot. His story is narrated by Captain Arthur Hastings, who was invalided out of the army in The Great War and now lived on his pension. (You may recall that Doctor Watson was invalided out of the army after Afghanistan and lived on his pension.) Hastings had met Poirot in Belgium before Poirot was forced by the war to flee to England, but after being reunited by the events in the first Poirot story, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the two became roommates and Hastings, like Watson, helped Poirot to solve crimes as a private consulting detective. Indeed, Poirot even told Hastings, as Holmes told Watson, that his instincts for deduction were almost perfectly wrong; the great detective found them invaluable for knowing where not to look.
The case of Hastings is curious, as Agatha Christie married him off and sent him to live in Argentina in her second Poirot novel but she then spent the next ten years frequently bringing him back for story after story, and he was in almost all of the short stories.
For all that he started out as an obvious Watson character, Hastings would bloom into his own man. More importantly, Poirot very quickly became his own detective. His talk of his little grey cells, his fastidious manner, his selectively broken English, his French immodesty, his self awareness, his Catholic faith, and his habit of gathering everyone together and telling the story first as it is known and then as it really happened created a genuinely interesting character. One reads Poirot for Poirot, not because one cannot get enough Sherlock Holmes, but because one wants Poirot.
Heck, even his name was not original in its day. According to Wikipedia, “Poirot’s name was derived from two other fictional detectives of the time: Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Hercule Popeau and Frank Howel Evans’ Monsieur Poiret, a retired Belgian police officer living in London.” Yet as the best fleshed out character with the most interesting mysteries, Hercule Poirot is remembered and the others are not.
Lord Peter Wimsey was not quite so obviously a direct rip-off of Sherlock Holmes. His books were not narrated by his Watson, who was a police detective and who did not live with Wimsey. Wimsey, being rich, needed no roommates, and did his detecting for fun. Wimsey was himself invalided out of the Great War, by the way, while Charles Parker—his Watson, at first—was never, that we knew, in it. Wimsey had, however, his tricks of the trade just as Holmes did. He had a magnifying monocle that could be used much as Holmes’ famous magnifying glass. He picked the hairs out of a hat to identify just as Holmes concentrated on such trivia that turned out to be important. (In 1923, when Whose Body? was published, R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke was extremely popular and made even more out of even smaller clues, so this may as much be copying him as Holmes.) Even Wimsey’s comic manner feels like it almost certainly owes something to P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertram Wooster, as Lord Peter’s valet, Bunter, almost certainly owes something to Wooster’s valet, Jeeves. Jeeves & Wooster never investigated a crime, that I’ve heard of, so I suppose we can accuse Ms. Sayers of having stolen from two genres. Indeed, one might almost hear the Hollywood pitch meeting phrasing, “What if Bertie Wooster was actually brilliant and used being a fop as a cover to let him solve crimes?”
And yet Lord Peter becomes one of the most memorable characters of all of detective fiction, and consequently of all time. He continued, it must be admitted, a somewhat two dimensional character until Ms. Sayers got tired of him and tried to marry him off to an honorable retirement—she had learned from Sherlock Holmes’ ignominious climb up the Reichenbach Falls not to actually kill one’s detective off. The problem was that she made the girl he was to marry a real character, and she wouldn’t marry him in the sorry two-dimensional state that he was in. (This was in Strong Poison.) Sayers then decided that she had to make him a real character.
If the story was to go on, Peter had got to become a complete human being, with a past and a future, with a consistent family and social history, with a complicated psychology and even the rudiments of a religious outlook. And all this would have to be squared somehow or other with such 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
The result was magnificent, though. Lord Peter and Harriet Vane (the aforementioned girl who wouldn’t marry him) investigated a murder together in Have His Carcase, and it is one of the best murder mysteries ever written. Lord Peter becomes a really interesting character who is quite unique within detective fiction. He really comes into his own in Gaudy Night, widely considered Sayers’ best novel, becoming an extraordinarily rich character with a character arc that rings very true to human nature. Harriet also blossoms in Gaudy Night, and the whole thing is a truly excellent study of human nature. (The excerpts I quoted, by the way, are from her essay in the collection Titles To Fame.)
So, what is the author to make of all of this? Especially when faced with the question of how to get people to read a story when people really like what is familiar? If I had the answer I’d be a rich man, or at least a richer man than I am. I can say, though, that it certainly seems that it is not, in the end, who did it first that really matters. It’s who did it best. This is perhaps the true meaning of the saying, “mediocrity borrows, genius steals.” When the genius borrows, he makes the thing his own, and it is his version that is remembered, even if he was twenty years late to the party.
Bishop Barron recently put out a video on the suffocating quality of subjectivism:
He’s entirely correct that one of the problems with subjectivism is that without objective value, people cannot talk to each other, they can only ignore each other or try to subjugate each other by force. It is only by appeal to transcendent truths to which human beings are morally bound to conform themselves is it possible to try to persuade someone (because persuasion is by pointing to the transcendent truths, upon the perception of which the other will voluntarily conform himself because it is the right thing to do).
In practice, though, Subjectivists never mean it. Once they have convinced someone else of subjectivism and thereby gotten the person to stop trying to persuade anyone, the very next move is always to try to smuggle objectivism in again, but only as available to the original Subjectivist.
The normal technique for trying to smuggle objectivism back is through innovations in language. You may not call art good or bad, because that is implying objective evaluation of it. But you can call it subversive or conventional, which are objective, despite just meaning good or bad. You cannot say that a person wearing immodest clothing in public is bad. That’s horribly patriarchical and body-shaming of you. You are free, however, to call it problematic.
The technique is always the same, because it has to be. First there is a move to shut down all criticism that a person doesn’t like by universally disallowing criticism. Once that is achieved, criticism becomes re-allowed using different language, which initially only lends itself to criticizing whatever the putative Subjectivist wants to criticize.
The Subjectivist’s victory tends to be short-lived, though. Semantic drift inevitably sets in. Whatever new word the Subjectivist has introduced in order to have a monopoly on the right to criticize quickly becomes adapted to all criticism and the Subjectivist is back to seeing criticized the things he was trying to protect. If he still has the energy for it—after a certain age, criticism tends to sting less—this begins another cycle of subjectivism.
The first six minutes or so are the best part, and by far the most relevant part.
A large part of what’s funny about the constant “I anticipated you and went further back in time” is that it is merely taking the time travel premise seriously. If you can time travel, the past is up for grabs, and to quote George Orwell: who controls the past, controls the future. Thus the fundamental problem in a time travel story is that, if it doesn’t conveniently forget about time travel, nothing that anyone does matters because it can always be undone.
Of course, they do all conveniently forget about time travel, in practice. Or else they come up with some excuse for why they can only time travel once. Either way, the only way time travel stories are in any way enjoyable is to only play at them being time travel stories but to carefully keep them from being time travel stories. Because a time travel story isn’t a story, since a story has a sequence and time travel has no sequence. (You can pretend to have a story from the perspective of the time traveller, but that doesn’t help because he intersects himself, at least in his effects, and so his chronology becomes out of order.)
Time travel stories end up being like superhero stories where the character isn’t just super-strong but the cars are reinforced to be pick-upable with a human hand (in reality that much force would just rip a bit of the car off), but they’re not reinforced enough that he does need to grab them to keep them from hitting a building or they’d be destroyed. They’re day-dreams about specific moments that are enjoyable to toy with precisely because they could never happen. It’s the fact that they’re impossible which makes them fun. “Imagine if I could run at 100,000 miles per hour but the air magically gets out of my way except when I’m trying to breath it and then it’s exactly like regular air, and when I open a door the air gets out of its way too and I’m pulling on the whole thing not just the handle so the handle doesn’t just rip off but when I let go the door doesn’t go smashing through the wall and…”
It’s all a form of the fantasy, “what if reality was whatever I wanted it to be?”
Or, in other words, “what if I was God?”
That can’t really be a good story.
Note: superheroes are great when they are mythic; the super-strong hero being merely symbolic of strength as a means to consider the responsibilities of being strong as well as the pleasure of achievement and service, etc. When they are symbols, the fact that they aren’t even slightly realistic doesn’t matter because one isn’t supposed to enter into them that way.
There is a movie called The Tomorrow War, which has the premise that in the year 2050 (or thereabouts) humanity is almost wiped out by an alien invasion. So they go to the only place they can to recruit more soldiers… the past!
But why not go to the future to get soldiers? They’ll probably have even more awesome technology to bring back with them, too, and the possibilities for genetic engineered super-soldiers are almost limitless.
It might be objected that the problem with going to the future to find the soldiers to save humanity is that until you save humanity, there are no people in the future to bring back. But there are people in the future because you’ve saved humanity, so you can go get them. But you can’t do that until you’ve already saved humanity! a friend of mine cried when I brought this up (or at least typed; he was too far away to hear how loudly). Ah, but this isn’t a problem in time travel, because there is a future for you to go to in order to bring back soldiers to save humanity because by the time they would have died off you’ve already brought soldiers from the future back to save them. Problem solved.
“OK, once this loop got going it can keep going, but what about the first time?” an eagle-eyed defender of the movie might ask. I’ve been assured by atheists that this is simply an invalid objection, though. Things can keep going forever without having to start. There just never was a time when the soldiers from the future didn’t go even further into their future to recruit soldiers to bring back into the past, and it keeps working because it already worked, without ever having to have gotten started. No matter how far into the past of the time-loop you go, it’s explained by the previous loop. Obviously, this is a highly satisfying explanation for a movie because atheists are quite satisfied with it for the universe.
Not to mention, if the people from 2050 can come to 2021 and convince everyone of the severity of the situation such that a world-wide draft gets instituted in 2021, why on earth is the answer to go forward to 2050 and fight in small groups alongside a tiny remnant of humanity against a mostly dominant alien force? Why not send everyone to 2049 alongside the still numerous humanity to try to overwhelm the invaders? Or why go forward in time at all? It would be far more effective to instead stay in 2021 and focus on building up humanity’s numbers and weapons stockpiles and such-like using the technology brought from the future to speed up development. It would make far more sense for the remnant of humanity from 2050 to come back to 2021 to help us prepare then fight alongside us than for us to go and fight alongside them. Or, rather, to warn us in 2021 then go back to 2045 to fight alongside us then.
All time travel stories intrinsically have plot holes in them, but I find it interesting—suggestive, even—that they so often make the worst decisions they can, given their premises. It’s almost like the sort of people who would tell time travel stories don’t really care about plot holes.
In the middle of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote was the episode Doom With a View. An episode set in New York City, it also features Jessica’s nephew, Grady. There is always something special about episodes with Grady since he is the reason that Jessica is a literary titaness who travels the country solving murders—he is the one who showed her first manuscript to a publisher when Jessica was just a retired school teacher and was unwilling to show her manuscript to anyone.
Jessica arrives at Grady’s apartment as he is being temporarily evicted because of cockroaches (they moved in from the apartment above when that was sprayed). Instead, they’ll be staying at the Montaigne plaza hotel, an extraordinarily expensive hotel owned by Cornelia Montaigne. They’re going there because his old college buddy, Garrett, married Cornelia and is going to comp him the hotel room. Jessica is surprised because Cornelia Montaigne is Jessica’s age, at least, though she doesn’t phrase it that way. How a retired school teacher from Maine has any idea who Cornelia Montaigne is, I don’t know. Even if she is supposed to be a fictionalized version of Paris Hilton’s mom, this was before reality television and people outside of the hotel industry had any idea who owned the things. (That said, perhaps Cornelia was featured in a woman’s magazine, which Jessica read while having her hair done a the beauty parlor. I almost forgot about that possibility since I never read women’s magazines or went to beauty parlors.)
In the next scene we meet Garrett and Cornelia:
They are not the two lovebirds with but one soul that Grady described them to Jessica as, though. We catch them in the middle of an argument. She spent the entire night vacating the 32nd floor and he went and put the countess into one of the rooms! If he weren’t her husband, she’d have his job for it! Oh, when will he learn to check with her first?
Cornelia’s right hand man, Mark Havlin, interrupts to say that he moved the Countess to the blue room on the thirty ninth floor an hour ago.
Cornelia asks why he didn’t tell her and he replies, “Oh, If I let you know all the wonderful things I do around here, you’d have to give me a raise.”
Garret sees Grady and excuses himself. He greets Grady and Jessica affectionately. In the course of conversation with reminiscences he invites them to dinner at 7:00 sharp. His mother will be there, and he could also invite Sandra Clemens. Grady gets wobble-kneed at the mention of her. She was at homecoming, third cheerleader from the left. Jessica doesn’t remember and attributes this to being distracted by watching the game.
They walk over to Cornelia and she greets them even more affectionately than Garrett did, commenting that Grady has lost weight and that she’s absolutely delighted to meet Mrs. Fletcher. Interestingly, she doesn’t pretend to have read Jessica’s books. “I must confess, I don’t have time to read your books, or anyone else’s, I’m afraid, but I am delighted you’re staying with us.”
She excuses herself because she’s expecting a call from the Secret Service to make arrangements for the following week.
Jessica and Grady go up to their room. On the way, they run into Sandy.
(I love those 80s shoulder pads.) Jessica identifies her as the third cheerleader on the left at homecoming, and Sandy comments that Jessica has a remarkable memory. Jessica denies this; she explains it as Grady having a picture on his coffee table. I’m honestly not sure if she’s trying to embarrass him or be his wing-woman. Jessica goes on to their room, leaving Grady and Sandra alone.
Grady can barely talk, despite Sandy’s smiling encouragement. Sandy invites herself to dinner, tells him to pick her up at her room, 4553, at 7, and excuses herself since Grady clearly won’t be able to say anything for a while.
In the lobby Garret sees her and walks up to her, asking if she saw Grady. She replies that she did, and met his Aunt, and in a very changed voice from when she talked with Grady says, “You know Garry, this is dumb. This is really dumb.” Garret replies, “Look. Anything to keep Cornelia off my back. If she catches on, the party’s over… for both of us.”
Until this moment I had expected Cornelia to be the murder victim, but it strikes me as now just as likely for Sandra to be the victim.
There’s also a curious aspect to this story that we’re being let in on evidence that Jessica doesn’t have. I’m not sure what to make of that. I’ve argued that play-fair rules of evidence in mysteries are good for mystery construction, and I stand by that. I don’t think that it follows, however, that it’s good to give the reader clues that the detective doesn’t have. It’s frequently a form of misdirection, but where it isn’t, I think it serves the dubious purpose of making leaps of logic on the part of the detective more believable. We are naturally less interested in the specifics of how a person came to a conclusion we already know to be true, so authoritatively telling us the conclusion before the detective gets to it means that the writer doesn’t need to construct the plot to justify the detective’s deductions.
That evening, Grady shows up at Sandra’s room to pick her up for dinner. Right after she lets him in, she receives a phone call, which she takes while Grady looks for somewhere to put the flowers he brought her.
I love the opulence of the hotel. Set decoration did a really good job making this seem like a truly high-end hotel. This is not directly related to the plot, but it’s part of what makes the episode enjoyable. It’s fun to look at pretty things and spend an hour vicariously living in the lap of luxury. This is something to keep in mind when evaluating plots; a little weakness in a plot that makes for a more enjoyable setting can be a worthwhile tradeoff.
Sandra tells the person that she’s speaking to that something won’t do, and neither will a second option presented to her. “Look, I can’t really get into it right now. Can I call you back?” She puts the phone down, fetches a pen and an envelope from her purse, then writes down the number. That completed she looks over at Grady and notes that he put the flowers into vermouth (she had just made them martinis).
We then go to dinner, where Garret, his mother, and Jessica are sitting at the table waiting for Grady and Sandra.
Garrett’s mother is a very overbearing woman. (As a side note, it’s interesting to see how well Charlotte Rae played this character because she is best known for the kindly maternal figure Edna Garret in the TV show The Facts of Life, which she left the year before.) Not merely overbearing, she’s manipulative and somewhat mean-spirited, though she has an excellent sense of how to avoid stepping over the line of plausible deniability.
She asks Grady for a kiss and kisses him on the cheek, then loudly tells him, “I hope you enjoyed that, young fella, because that’s about as good as it’s gonna get for you, tonight.”
Jessica asks for the menu and looks it over, saying that the wine list is excellent. She then insists that tonight, the wine will be on her.
Nettie says, sotto voce, “Forget the wine list, Jessie. You’re missing the big picture. Look at her. Look at her.” (the camera obligingly does.)
“Her eyes haven’t left this table since Grady arrived with Miss Sis-boom-bah. She knows we’re talking about her, too.” (Here, she waves at Cornelia.) “Mark my words, Jessie. There’s gonna be fireworks tonight. And I love it.”
The last few words are said intensely, almost in a growl. It’s a powerful performance which demonstrates one of the real advantages that television has: actors. The words are not insignificant, but Charlotte Rae gives them a great deal more significance. In the context of this performance, Nettie is a force to be reckoned with.
The scene shifts to after dinner where Cornelia accuses Garrett of cheating on her with Sandra. Garrett tries to convince her that she is merely Grady’s friend, but she’ll have none of it.
The scene shifts to Jessica and Grady’s room, where Jessica is laying on a couch reading a manuscript.
She is having trouble staying awake for it, though. “If I read one more paragraph tonight, this manuscript is going to start looking like one big typo. I’m gonna go to bed.”
Grady asks if she wants to play gin rummy, and she says, “not tonight.” She encourages him to go out to enjoy himself. It’s pouring rain, but he has two good friends right here in the hotel. Grady asks if she’s sure she doesn’t mind, and she replies that not only doesn’t she mind, she insists that he does. He excitedly leaves.
The moment he’s out the door, it turns out that Jessica was lying to her nephew. She sighs in relief, then picks up the manuscript and goes back to reading.
Grady goes over to Sandra’s room, but the door is open. He goes in, calling her name, but the lights are off and no one responds. He goes into her bedroom to investigate.
Murder, She Wrote sometimes goes in for artsy shots, but it’s hard to not notice that the silver tray with the flower and chocolates there in the foreground had to have been put there by someone, and that’s going to establish a time after which the murder had to have happened. (It may seem like I’m spoiling that the murder happened, but in the episode they’re playing murder discovery music so we know by this point Grady is going to find a body.)
He has to walk a little further into the cavernous bedroom, but then he finds it:
At not even fifteen minutes into the episode, this is pleasantly early for the body to be found. Grady checks for a pulse, then when he doesn’t find one gets up and goes to the telephone to call the police. There he sees Garrett in a mirror.
Garrett looks for a moment then runs away.
In the next scene the police are there, as is Mr. Rice, the head of hotel security:
Rice complains that Grady should have notified him first. They don’t like to bother the guests with accidents. Jessica is astonished that he said accident. Shirley, he can’t be serious. He is serious, though, and don’t call him Shirley. (They don’t actually make the Airplane reference, but Jessica does say, “You can’t be serious, Mr. Rice,” and he assures her that he’s very serious.)
Garrett walks by and catches Grady’s eye. He excuses himself and goes into the hallway to talk to Garrett. Grady demands to know why Garrett was in Sandy’s room, and he explains he came to see how it went between them. When he got there he saw Grady bending over the body and figured that he should go get help.
Then Inspector Matheney arrives.
Rice apologizes for Matheney having to be dragged out for this, and Matheney says that it looks routine, and with luck he can get back to the ballet in time for the Rose Adagio. The Rose Adagio (I had to look this up) is a scene in the ballet Sleeping Beauty. It’s a scene in Act 1—of 3, there is also a prologue—so Inspector Matheney seems to expect to spend very little time here indeed.
The inspector asks where “Mrs. Harper” is and Rice replies that they’re trying to locate her. The Inspector looks around and concludes that he’s not needed, and begins to head off to the ballet. Jessica stops him on his way out and remarks that Mr. Rice has described this as an accident. Matheney replies that he’s sure that Rice has. “Mr. Rice has an instinct for… public relations.” Jessica replies, “but perhaps not for homicide? May I show you something?”
Matheney willingly comes with her.
Jessica then asks what she tripped over? The spacious room doesn’t have much in the way of tripping hazards nearby. Matheney points out that she might have had a fainting spell.
Jessica admits that it’s possible, but then points out the pillow on the foot of the bed.
The pillow is crumpled and stained with lipstick and makeup. Perhaps, says Mr. Rice, she had to lie down because of a fainting spell. But if she laid down, asks Jessica, why is the rest of the bed unrumpled, and freshly turned down.
A small note about what turn-down service is: this is where the bed is stripped of things that are unconducive to sleeping, such as the decorative heavy comforter, and the sheets are pulled back a bit to make it easy for the person to climb into bed. We never get a full view of the bed, but I think that the writers, or at least the set decorators, confused turn-down service with making the bed in the morning. (The silver tray with the flower and chocolates would be a normal part of turn-down service in a fancy hotel, though, so they got that part right.)
Jessica then suggests that if they can’t find Mrs. Harper, whoever she is, that he speak with Mark Havlin, the hotel manager. Inspector Matheney says that he will wait for Cornelia for a few more minutes, which suggests to me that they changed Cornelia’s last name in the script at some point and didn’t change it in all of the places. Actually, having looked it up, Harper is Garrett’s last name, so Mrs. Harper is, presumably, referring to Cornelia by her married name, and this is merely confusing because no one has done that yet.
He then adds that if there was foul play, he’d like to speak to Grady, which disconcerts Jessica greatly. “My dear Lady,” says Inspector Matheney, “He was alone with the corpse. He was intimately involved her. How intimately, I don’t know… yet.”
Jessica sighs in frustration. For a mystery writer and a great detective, she tends to be very bad at seeing things from other people’s perspectives, at least where her relatives are concerned.
In the next scene Jessica gets Mark Havlin out of bed. She apologizes for it, but explains that his phone was off the hook. Why waking him up by calling him on the phone would have been superior, she doesn’t explain. He merely says that the situation is dreadful and Jessica says that it won’t get any better with Mr. Rice representing the hotel. Havlin agrees. He puts the phone back on the hook and explains that he had been up for twenty four hours before he managed to snatch three hours sleep.
He then says that the Sheik arrives at midnight with all 36 of his wives, which means 37 bathrooms and all on the same floor. As he says this, he puts down his old, wilted carnation and picks up a new carnation from the silver tray that’s part of turn-down service.
Since they switch to clue-cam, we know that this has to be related to the murder, somehow. Presumably it establishes something about a time, since turn-down service happens at a particular time and clearly happened in his room. (Incidentally, the clock shows that it’s 10:30, Havlin’s arm didn’t obscure it for the entire shot.) The obvious conclusion is that he was not sleeping when he said that he was. That doesn’t guarantee that he is the murderer—it could be a red herring of a liason with a woman or conducting a drug deal or receiving a late night shipment of stolen lobsters or something like that, but they don’t zoom in on things like this without it being quite significant.
The thing about a Sheik having thirty six wives is pretty strange, by the way. “Sheik” is an Arabic term that refers either to scholars or to kings and other rulers within the Islamic world (it literally means “elder”). The problem, here, is that Islam forbids a man from having more than four wives. Having thirty six wives would be a very public thing, too, not like having a private stash of alcohol brought out for guests. A Sheik wouldn’t get to half of thirty six wives before running into quite a lot of trouble and rapidly ceasing to be whichever kind of Sheik he is.
If you want a character with thirty six wives in 1987, you’d have to make him an extraordinarily wealthy African king, and even that would be stretching things. (Back in grad school, a fellow grad student was from Cameroon and his father had, if memory serves, about a dozen wives, and he was the chief of a moderately large tribe.)
Anyway, back to the episode, Havlin remarks, “and now this accident. Death. Whatever. Night shift came on at 8:00. At least all the beds have been turned down.” (Which means that his room would have gotten turn-down service half an hour after he’d gone to sleep, if he was being precise when he said that he snatched three hours of sleep.) He then leads her out.
We next see Jessica talking with Grady in their room. Grady is depressed because Matheney suspects him. Grady laughs at the inspector thinking that he and Sandra were intimately involved. The most exciting thing that happened was when he put the flowers in the martinis. He then relates, in detail, the phone call and Sandra writing the number down on an envelope. Jessica’s ears perk up at this. She insists that Grady tells the Inspector about it because the phone number might be important, but Grady replies that he did and the Inspector said that no envelope was found. He wonders if the killer might have taken it because his phone number was on it.
Jessica asks what Sandra did for a living, and Grady said that she was a computer operator. Jessica wonders how she could have afforded to stay at the Montaigne, and Grady suggests that Garret probably picked up her bill.
Jessica goes to Mark Havlin and talks to her about Sandra. She wants to do something to help, but flowers seem insufficient. Perhaps if there’s any trouble about her hotel bill?
Havlin tells her that she can put away her fishing rod; he is as perplexed as she is about how Sandra could afford to stay at the Montaigne. She paid by credit card, and there’s never been a problem with it. The tantalizing question is: who’s been paying the credit card bill?
Jessica next goes to see Nettie, who is staying at the hotel. As she comes up to Nettie’s room, the door is open because room service is leaving.
Nettie is having a loud conversation with Garrett on the telephone, which Jessica can’t help but listen to. Nettie even has her back turned to the door.
“Wait a minute. Wait a minute. What’s so complicated, Gary? However it happened, it’s a stroke of luck. Now you really can divorce Cornelia.”
She then turns and sees Jessica in the doorway and hastily ends her phone call then invites Jessica in. They sit down and Nettie offers Jessica hotel chocolates, which she says she has to steal like everyone else. She even gives Jessica a box.
Jessica then says that this is a condolence call, as she’s sure that Nettie was devasted by Sandra’s death. Nettie disclaims this, saying that she and Gary hardly knew the girl, or at least never really saw her since the kids went to Purdue. Jessica is surprised, since Sandra stayed at the Montaigne regularly. Nettie replies that she didn’t know that and Gary must have forgot to mention it. She shifts the subject to how sorry she feels for Grady. “A fool could see how he felt about Sandra. And then to find himself mixed up in her death.”
Jessica says that Grady found the body, that’s all. “Oh, but of course. Did I sound like I implied otherwise? How terrible of me. Oh, no no no no. I’m sure he’s going to get off. I don’t think they have a lick of real proof that he was involved in any way. Mmm. Oh, try one of those dark ones on the end. Brazil nuts and brandy.”
Jessica looks at the chocolate, then looks away and declines.
Jessica then folds her hands and doesn’t know what to do. Nettie is not a likeable character, but she is very good at what she does, and that’s impressive to watch. Few people can really see Jessica off when Jessica is sniffing for clues, but Nettie does it masterfully.
Speaking of masterful, this is actually an excellent job of setting Nettie up as a suspect. She is demonstrated to be cunning, cold, and self-possessed. The part where she blurted out the clue about Garrett now being able to divorce Cornelia was a bit absurd—she didn’t leave the door open, that was room service, but I can’t believe that she was really stupid enough to have this conversation in front of a hotel employee. People sometimes treat hotel staff like movable furniture, but schemers tend to be even less trusting than they are inclined to take menial staff for granted. Every person a true schemer meets is either someone to be manipulated or a threat. This clumsy and out-of-character way for Jessica to get the clue aside, Nettie seems very capable of murder where it would suit her ends. There’s a further skill of execution, here, in the way that Nettie uses the chocolates as a prop. Back when we were looking in clue-vision at the silver tray in Mark Havlin’s room, there were two things we saw on the tray. One was the carnation which Mark exchanged. The other were two hotel chocolates.
There is not, at this point, an obvious connection with Nettie’s chocolates, and there may in fact be no connection between them. Nettie may not be the murderer, in which case there probably wouldn’t be a connection. However, there is a possible connection here which helps to make her a truly plausible suspect.
In the next scene, Garret and Grady have lunch among some very yellow tables, chairs, and umbrellas, presumably on the patio of the hotel. Garrett is scared because there is an incriminating bracelet which he gave Sandra years ago and she still has. In fact, it’s in the pocket of her bathrobe. Garret needs Grady to go into Sandra’s room and retrieve it for him. Grady is reluctant, but Garrett reminds Grady of who dragged him out of that beer joint when three goons from Ohio State were going to turn Grady into a pretzel. He then gives Grady the master key. Grady, overly loyal and not the brightest, does it. Also, not being the brightest, he does it badly:
Grady cuts open the letter on the door which is acting as a seal using the master key, tearing it very obviously. He made no attempt to peel it off so he could replace it, and didn’t even try to cut it subtly. Which probably doesn’t actually matter that much because when he sneaks into the room, he leaves the door wide open.
He goes into the bathroom, and there hanging on the door is a bathrobe.
Well, some sort of robe. That sheer silky thing doesn’t exactly look very absorbent. I really want to know how Garrett knew where the bracelet was. There’s no obvious way for him to have, and the implication that he had been hiding out in the living room when Grady came in really doesn’t fly; we saw the room in previous shots and there’s no obvious place to hide, nor is there an obvious reason for Garrett to have hidden even if he was the murderer.
Grady reads the inscription: “To Sandra. Forever, G.”
That’s conveniently vague.
Speaking of convenience to the plot, House Detective Rice catches him:
It turns out that ripping the “keep out” notice and leaving the door wide open were as bad an idea as they seemed.
We cut (presumably after a commercial) to Jessica walking through the grand lobby of the Montaigne.
It takes Jessica several seconds to cross it, which is part of what makes me think that there was a commercial break here. When one scene directly followed another, it was important to keep things moving, lest people change the channel. After a commercial break, by contrast, it was important to give people a few seconds to realize that the commercials were finally over—often people would be in other rooms with one person left behind to watch and call out, “it’s back on!”
As she walks on, Cornelia Montaigne calls her name and rushes out to talk to her. She just heard about Grady and she can’t believe it! Jessica can, however, since Grady has a frequently misplaced sense of loyalty. Cornelia is shocked that Jessica thinks that Grady committed the murder, and Jessica sets her straight. Grady was found with a passkey, that had to come from Cornelia’s husband. Moreover, the bracelet probably was a gift from her husband, not from Grady, and Grady was merely retrieving it. Moreover, it won’t be hard to prove.
Cornelia admits it, and says that the bracelet only confirmed her suspicions. She had the hotel manager—Mark Havlin—looking into Sandra for weeks, but he hadn’t come up with anything. She hated herself for being jealous, but had been sure that there was something. Jessica expresses her condolences but excuses herself as she has to get Grady out of jail. Cornelia decides to be helpful. “If it’s Matheney you want, I wouldn’t waste my time going to police headquarters.”
She’s right. Matheney is… somewhere. “…but even if the exhibit is a trifle deficient—certainly not the best of Van Gogh—at least it is Van Gogh. Although there’s always the possibility of forgery, given the recent developments in…”
Then he spies Jessica and excuses himself. I suppose that this is some sort of opening of an art exhibition. I can’t imagine who the people he’s talking to are. They all are listening to him with a rapt air, but this implies that they value his opinion. A police inspector on the NYPD is not going to command the attention of high society people in New York City merely by virtue of his rank. This suggests he not only enjoys high culture, but has something valuable to say on it. That has the makings of an interesting sort of detective, which makes it a pity that we barely see much of him in this episode.
Anyway, he makes his way over to Jessica, who demands to know what Grady has been charged with. Instead of answering her, Matheney merely replies that when a prime suspect in a murder investigation breaks into a crime scene to remove a piece of evidence, it’s hardly surprising that he’s been incarcerated.
Jessica then tells him that (she suspects) Grady was doing a favor for Garret, who was the person who gave Sandra the bracelet and whose initial was on it. He replies that Garret Harper would hardly have bought a mistress such an inexpensive trinket. Jessica replies, “If you spent more time on this case and less time at art exhibits, you would know that Gary Harper didn’t always have money.”
She also accuses him of not following up leads such as the envelope with the phone number that Grady told him about. How she would know whether or not he’s following up that lead, she doesn’t say. I’m not even sure what following up that lead would even look like. Is Inspector Matheney supposed to be scouring every garbage can in New York City to find an envelope that, had the murderer removed it, he surely would have destroyed, or kept as a souvenir, or done anything with it besides leaving it somewhere that the police could find it?
He tells her that she certainly as a writer’s imagination. I’m not sure that a highly active imagination is really required to look into a phone call that the victim received within hours of being murdered. Jessica thanks him, and he said that he didn’t mean it as a compliment. Jessica replies that she knows what he meant and she didn’t come to pick a quarrel, she’s only interested in getting the ridiculous charges against her nephew dismissed. Matheney’s reaction is expressive, but of what, I’m not really sure.
Oddly, though, this works. The next scene is of Jessica and Grady walking into their room. That said, I don’t think that the charges against Grady were all that ridiculous. He was caught red-handed breaking into a crime scene to tamper with evidence in a murder investigation. That seems more like an open-and-shut case, than ridiculous.
Anyway, back at the hotel room, Jessica asks for the truth. Grady says that he was just helping a friend. Garrett said that his wife would be jealous, and he owed him that much, considering everything he’s done for Grady. Jessica asks what Garrett has actually done for Grady besides giving him a free room in his wife’s hotel. Oddly, Grady doesn’t tell Jessica about Garrett rescuing him from the Ohio State goons in the beer joint. Instead, he says, “That’s not fair. He was very supportive when we found Sandra’s body.”
This is an odd thing to blurt out because it’s simply not true. Garrett wasn’t supportive in the least. In fact, he ran away the moment Grady noticed him, and the next time he saw Grady he begged Grady not to tell the police. There is no way whatever to characterize that as “supportive.” I think that the writers just needed Grady to tell Jessica about Garrett being there and this was the best that they could come up with.
Jessica tries to convince Grady to go to the police and tell them, but he’ll have none of it. Jessica has Garrett all wrong. Jessica tells Grady to take a good, hard look at the case—there’s a real possibility that Garret is the killer.
This seems very unlikely. It would entail him having gone into Sandra’s room leaving the door open, killed her, then hid out in the living room for a while in case Grady should happen to come by, then when Grady actually did come by instead of sneaking out of Sandra’s suite he went up to the door to the bedroom and looked straight at Grady in order to catch his eye, then left. The murderers in Murder, She Wrote are not always geniuses, but this strains credulity.
Grady takes this hard, though, and goes for a walk. Jessica then receives a phone call from Inspector Matheney—he’s got something he thinks Jessica would find interesting. She goes over to police headquarters immediately.
He hands Jessica Sandra Clemens’ bank book—back in the day, bank transactions were often recorded in bank books (by the bank) to make it easy for the person to review their finances, and people might keep these books, though rarely on their person unless they intended to go to the bank. Jessica looks it over while Matheney summarizes.
Twenty to twenty five thousand dollars each, over a dozen of them. Where does a computer operator get that kind of money, Matheney asks? Jessica says that while it could be a lot of things, the one that jumps to mind is blackmail.
Matheney replies, “Yes, I know. But who? And why?” I like Matheney. The actor who plays him does a good job, and moreover he’s actually intelligent, which is rare for a Murder, She Wrote detective.
Jessica asks how long it would take to get a list of all of the dates that Sandra stayed at the Montaigne, and Matheney replies he ordered it yesterday and it arrived this morning. As I said, I like that Matheney is competent, and it’s also interesting that he’s taking his job more seriously than Jessica thought when she was indignant that her nephew was arrested for the crime he provably committed. They look over it together.
“Just as I thought. The deposits and the checkin dates match exactly.”
Matheney points out that while that tells them that she came to New York to get her payoffs, it still doesn’t tell them who the victim was. Jessica points out that the visits and the deposits started shortly after Garrett married Cornelia. Matheney responds that even if Garrett was the victim, with Sandra dead we can hardly expect him to tell them what he was being blackmailed for. Jessica muses that perhaps they don’t need the victim to tell them.
Jessica goes to see Nettie.
She asks Nettie about the conversation which Nettie had with Garrett, where she said that now Garrett could divorce Cornelia. If there was a time when they couldn’t get divorced, perhaps it’s because they were never legally married. Nettie demurs, but Jessica points out that the marriage which took place wouldn’t be valid if Garrett were already married to someone else.
When she claims that it would be easy to prove, Nettie breaks down and admits it. “Do you know how much anguish, and cash, that secret has cost over the past years?… Gary was foolish. So foolish. And that little tramp carried the marriage license in her purse and waved it under Gary’s nose until the day she died.”
The scene then shifts to a jazz club, where Grady and Jessica are waiting for Garrett.
This is a weird place to meet Garrett. It is true that a crowded place can be a good place to meet somebody, but that’s somebody you don’t want to be seen meeting. There’s absolutely no reason for Garrett to not just come to their hotel room.
This scene also has odd television timing. It begins with Grady exclaiming “So Garrett and Sandy were married?!?” but shortly afterwards Jessica doubts that Garrett will show up because he’s already an hour late. Why would Jessica have waited an hour to tell Grady about the marriage?
Anyway, Jessica doubts that Garrett will level with them now. The only reason that Nettie blurted out what she did was that she thought that the death of the first wife made the marriage to Cornelia valid. Even Grady is surprised at such a mistake, but no one’s perfect, not even Nettie. That said, Jessica then says, “That’s why she was pushing for Gary to go for a settlement now, before Cornelia found out that her own marriage was invalid.” That is the opposite of what Nettie believed, though. If Nettie believed that the marriage was now valid, she would have no reason to believe that there was a rush to obtain a settlement.
This is a weird mistake because it’s fixable; Nettie could have thought that with the marriage having become retroactively valid, there was no longer a need to wait to try to obtain a settlement.
Grady then makes a non-sequitur of a response: “You mean, Gary was paying Sandy blackmail money?” There is absolutely nothing in what Jessica said that means or even implies this. Again, this would be easily fixable; Grady could have said, “So what was Sandy doing there? Trying to win Gary back? But then why was she pretending to be interested in me?” And with a knowing look from Jessica, Grady could have then come to that conclusion. Or Jessica could have made the conclusion for Grady.
Grady then points out that this doesn’t mean that Garrett murdered Sandra because Nettie had (approximately) as much of a motive for murdering Sandra as Garrett did. Unlike much of the earlier conversation, this both makes sense and is appropriate to what came before it.
Grady then apologizes for earlier, when he was rude and wouldn’t listen to Jessica about going to the police. Jessica kindly replies, “Look, Grady, the day that you and I can’t have a good old-fashioned argument, I’m gonna start wondering where I went wrong.” This is a nice bit of characterization and, for a change, is actually appropriate to a retired school teacher from a little town in Maine. Unlike in big cities, where moving on is always easy, in small towns the ability to reconcile is an important skill.
The next scene is on the roof of the hotel, where Garret finds Cornelia, who had gone there to be alone.
They argue. She seems to already know that Garrett had been married to Sandra and had been paying him blackmail, though it’s not obvious how she would have learned that. The argument goes on for a while, but Garrett is slick and woos Cornelia back. (He makes an interesting gambit of asking her to give up the money and power and go live with him in a little cabin in upstate NY.)
This is one of the longer scenes in the episode, but it’s not very germain to the mystery and I don’t like either character much, so it seems to me an unfortunate use of time.
In the next scene Garrett offers House Detective Rice $5,000 to “remember” something which will fix the blame for Sandra’s murder on Grady.
Rice accepts, though only if Garrett throws in a raise, too.
Unfortunately for Garrett, Grady was right around the corner and heard everything.
Grady gives Garrett back his master key, which I suppose the police allowed him to keep for some reason despite it being evidence of the crimes that Grady was caught committing. Garrett tries to pass what he did with Rice off as testing Rice to see how far he’d go.
Grady replies, “You know something, Gary? You’re good. Ten, maybe eleven years, and I never saw it. I guess maybe I’m not too bright. But the funny thing is, there was a time when I probably would’ve taken the rap for you. But like I said, I guess maybe I’m not too bright.”
This is interesting characterization. Eleven years is a bit long to be led on like this, but on the other hand for years of it they hadn’t seen each other, so it’s probably not too unrealistic. Guys like Garrett—smooth liars who can explain everything—really do exist, and Garrett is a good representation of them. His downfall is that he gets sloppy. There was no real need to pay Rice to frame Grady, and it was foolish to do it in a hallway rather than someplace private. But the thing is, liars like Garrett tend to get sloppy. Success goes to their head, to some degree, but it’s as much that the reason that they lie their way out of everything is because they’re lazy and don’t want to do things for real. They don’t want to spend time and energy actually apologizing to people. They don’t want to put in the work of patching up relationships. This same laziness makes them take chances, and sometimes, to use a gambling metaphor, they roll snake eyes.
Grady is also very realistic as the loyal sort of person who wants to believe Garrett and thus is easy prey. They really want everything to be OK, they want the liar to actually be honest, so they make excuse after excuse and bend over backward. They will keep doing it as long as they can because they really want everything to work out—and they want the work they did making allowances for earlier lies to have had some value. They may be gullible and hopeful, but they also have a memory, and eventually the idea that all of the lies were true becomes unmaintainable, and the relationship snaps.
In the next scene, Grady is moping while watching the TV and Jessica tells him come with her to dinner. They’ve got a reservation in forty five minutes, and the exercise will do them good. Jessica tells Grady that he’s not allowed to bring his long face, however, and he tells her that she’s his favorite person in the world. As they’re leaving they run into the maid who came to do turn-down service.
Because this was too subtle, Jessica stares at the silver tray and we look at it in clue-vision:
Jessica then tells Grady that they have a stop to make, first. This is the notice to the viewer that if you’re placing bets on who the murderer is, this is the last call to get them in.
The clue-vision show of the silver turn down service platter prettymuch guarantees that the silver turn-down service platter that we got a clue-vision shot of in Mark Havlin’s room was the key to solving the mystery, though it doesn’t guarantee how. It makes it likely that Mark wasn’t in his room when he claimed to be, though why he wasn’t is not as certain. That said, the only other serious suspect at this point is Nettie, since she had a real motive. Cornelia would too, actually, if she knew about the marriage and the blackmail, but as far as we can tell in the episode, she didn’t.
So really it comes down to Nettie and Mark. She’s the better suspect, but he’s the one in whose room the first clue-vision focused on a silver, so it turns out to be him.
Jessica confronts him with a made-up story about Cornelia having gotten into her head that Mark and Garrett contrived together to bring Sandra Clemens into the hotel. She claims that Garrett implicated Havlin, and that it was Havlin that was principally responsible for rekindling their college romance. Havlin asks if Garrett also told them that he and Sandra had been married for the past several years. Jessica laughs and corrects him that Sandra was Garrett’s mistress, not his wife. He goes to his safe and pulls out the marriage certificate to prove it, then hands it to her. He claims that it came in the mail this morning from the Fort Wayne hall of records.
Unfortunately for him, that’s the envelope that Sandra had written down the phone number on. (Oddly, as you can see, the envelope is not even addressed, so claiming that the certificate had come in the mail that day was especially silly.)
Jessica calls him on it, but he denies it. She mentions how Nettie told her that Sandra kept the marriage certificate on her person at all times to wave under Garrett’s nose. She then calls to Grady, who had been hiding out in the next room. He walks in and identifies the envelope. “That’s the envelope, Aunt Jess, I’m sure of it.”
Being able to positively identify a blank envelope with a phone number on it is… not impossible, but Grady never—that we saw—got a good look at it. Given how he never took his eyes off of Sandra, and he was about fifteen feet away from her when she wrote the number down, it’s not even very plausible. On the other hand, it would not be hard to check with the Fort Wayne hall of records to see if they ever sent Mark Havlin a copy of the marriage certificate, so I guess this can just be chalked up to being a shortcut.
We then come to the motive, since there wasn’t an obvious one: Mark Havlin wanted to blackmail Garrett himself. He demurs, but Jessica points out the problem of the turn-down dish, and how if Havlin had gotten three hours of sleep ending at 10:30 he had to have gotten to bed at 7:30 and turn-down service is at 8:00 and it would be easy to check with them if he was asleep in his bed when they came in. That said, if he got to bed at 8:05 instead of 7:30, that’s not much of a discrepancy.
That clinches it, though. Havlin decides to confess. Every time he asked Cornelia for a raise, she turned him down. So this was his ticket. It wasn’t hard to figure out where Sandra was getting the money from. He went to her room to propose splitting the blackmail money with her, but she laughed in his face. They argued, and he hit her hard, which knocked her down and she accidentally hit her head on the dresser. While she was barely conscious, he smothered her with the pillow so he could have it all. “If she hadn’t picked up that phone call, it would have been perfect.”
I mean, sort of. It would have been awkward when he went to blackmail Garrett. Still, he might plausibly have gotten away with it.
The next day, Grady and Jessica are checking out. Grady says that he’ll feel much better when they’re out of the hotel. He asks if Jessica ever found out what the phone number that Sandra wrote down was. Jessica did, it was Sandra’s periodontist’s office. They were calling to reschedule an appointment with her. (According to perio.org, “A periodontist is a dentist who specializes in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of periodontal disease, and in the placement of dental implants.” The periodontium is the support structures of the teeth, including the bones that hold them, the ligaments that hold them, and the gums which cover them.)
This is a very curious explanation. On the one hand, it’s interesting that Mark Havlin’s undoing was something trivial. That is a theme one finds in murder mysteries, where a brilliant murder was undone by one of those trivial details that no one can control. You see that in the first Lord Peter Wimsey story, Whose Body?, where the murderer is undone by the victim having chanced to meet someone in the street who he knew while on his way to the secret appointment at which the murderer killed him. (It took most of the book to figure out the significance of that chance meeting.) It is almost something out of Greek tragedy, where hubris is always punished; the murderer is playing at being God and his inability to control details proves that he isn’t.
The only major problem here is why would a periodontist’s office be calling to reschedule an appointing at 7:00 pm?
Garrett and Cornelia come up to give them the good news that they’ve had a long, hard talk and worked things out and are going to give it another try.
Jessica takes the news in stride. She remarks, choosing her words carefully, “Well, I can’t imagine two people more ideally suited to each other.”
Garrett then says to Grady, “Now that Havlin has confessed, how would you like to be my best man?”
Grady responds that he’d really like to but he’s going to be busy that day. When Garrett points out that he hasn’t told Grady the day, Grady merely smiles and replies, “I know.”
The desk clerk gives Grady the bill. Garrett tells her that he’s taking care of it, but Grady refuses and takes out his wallet. He is then stunned that it comes to $2,5000 (that would be approximately $5,900 in 2021 dollars). The desk clerk then tells Grady that there’s been a mistake… they forgot to add the restaurant charge.
And we go to credits.
Overall, I’d say that Doom With a View is in the top twenty percent of episodes. It’s got a lot going for it, including an efficient setup, an early appearance of the corpse, more than one plausible suspect, a beautiful setting, and a creative problem that drove the mystery. (As much as killing a rich person for his money never gets old, it’s nice to have plots which aren’t that, too.) That last part is especially difficult in a modern context where easy divorce and loose morality means that there’s very little left to blackmail anyone for. Doubly so in a big city where most people wouldn’t even mind if an acquaintance had committed a string of murders—if anything, it would give them something to talk about at cocktail parties. (Obviously the police would care, but there’s a big difference between sufficient evidence to blackmail somebody to avoid exposure to his friends, and sufficient evidence to blackmail somebody to avoid criminal conviction.)
I know that in my own mysteries I have all too easy a time forgetting to include the pleasures of a setting that the reader might have a fun time vacationing in, so I always like to notice this when it’s a feature of a Murder, She Wrote episode. A super-fancy hotel is this in spades. The cavernous rooms are actually fun, rather than head-scratching, as they often are when they’re business offices.
I also really like the timing of this episode. A typical Murder, She Wrote episode often has the murder happening twenty or even twenty five minutes into the episode. The setup is nice and efficient, with the full introduction of characters taking place as much after the murder as before. That tends to be a much better construction, as much of the point of a murder mystery is that the investigation of the murder creates a liminal space in which people can say and do things that would not normally be permitted on either side of that threshold.
I also really like the driving force for the episode. As I said, blackmail is not nearly so easy to pull off in modern times, since the evidence threshold to obtain legal consequences is quite high and the loose morals and complete lack of principles of modern people mean that social blackmail just isn’t as effective as it used to be. This is doubly true with anything sexual. To pull off a plausible blackmail story with regard to a marriage is, therefore, quite impressive. I also like the construction of the blackmail victim not being innocent. That’s not unheard of, in blackmail stories, but an awful lot of them consist of “I wrote a letter to a former lover which was indiscreet and suggested more than actually happened”. (That said, when the fair lady tells the great detective that the letter was merely written with poor word choice owing to youth, it’s not obvious how much we’re supposed to believe this versus it being revisionist history which the great detective politely does not inquire into.) In this case, Garrett is pulling off a scam, and he’s being blackmailed about that scam. There is also the interesting psychological insight that a woman who would marry Garrett is not going to be an honest woman. There’s even a good chance that she could have stopped the wedding to Cornelia but instead let it happen so that she could take advantage of it.
In that light, I even like the choice of murderer. Blackmail is a dangerous profession, but that’s usually because the victim may take revenge. In this case, it’s dangerous because someone else might want to take over the blackmail. I also like that at first Mark Havlin only wanted to be cut in on the money. It’s not that often talked about, but blackmailers are, themselves, open to blackmail. Not merely for revealing the crime they’ve committed by blackmailing, but possibly even more forcefully, by threatening to cut off their cash flow. (If the secret gets revealed, there is no further reason for the victim to pay the blackmailer.)
That being said, I think that Nettie would also have been a good choice for the murderer. Cunning, manipulative, and ruthless, she would have been great for the part. I suppose because of that she might have been a touch obvious, but at the same time it could have been worked out well. The scene of Sandra’s death would have had to have been better disguised, probably framing someone well, and Nettie would have been harder to catch. Probably the way to have caught her would be in a defect of framing someone else. Even with the path the writers took, though, Nettie was a great red herring to distract from Mark Havlin.
All of that said, this episode was not perfect. One of the key clues was blurted out by Nettie in a gratuitous and, frankly, out-of-character way. Havlin using evidence he stole from Sandra, rather than holding his tongue or actually requesting a copy of the marriage certificate from the Fort Wayne hall of records, was a bit sloppy. Also, the timing on his claim to have snuck in three hours of sleep when at most he could have gotten about two and a half hours of sleep is… almost Enclopdia Brownic in its fixability by the bad guy. “Did I say three hours? I meant two. I haven’t got much sleep lately and arithmetic is not my strong suit when I’m tired” would have entirely fixed that slip. (Encyclopedia Brown stories often catch the culprit by a slip which the culprit could easily explain away.)
I also thought it disappointing that Inspector Matheney disappeared from the episode after showing Jessica the victim’s bank book and travel records. He was an interesting character and, for a pleasant change among policemen in Murder, She Wrote, competent. For all that Jessica complained about him, she complained that he wasn’t doing things that he either was doing, or couldn’t have done. And while he wasn’t quite Dennis Stanton, his suave, cultured manner was fun. His initial entrance where he basically said, “a healthy young woman slipping on the carpet and hitting her head on the corner of the desk seems entirely routine, nothing to look at here” was a bit silly, but his manner was as much that the forensic team would do a sufficient investigation of the crime scene and his investigation would need to be along different lines.
Overall, it’s a really fun episode that was well constructed and its flaws were mostly of the easily fixed variety, which are the most forgivable sort of flaws.
In response to a question to go into the specifics of how theistic evolution works, I do that. It’s still a bit of an overview of the subject, but that’s because going into true detail would take quite a lot longer than the hour and fourteen minutes this video ended up being. Still, I hope that this helps to get people started, at least.
Back in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2011, Theodore Beale, under his pen name Vox Day, posted his selectively famous socio-sexual hierarchy (famous in some corners of the internet). It was, in those places, hailed as a revolution over the far more reductive alpha-beta hierarchy of males that had dominated those sorts of conversations before. I got into a conversation about it recently and want to relay a few things that came up in that conversation, but I suspect I need to go over a little background, first.
Why do such things exist? Well, we live in a culture where a great many young people aren’t raised past some basics like being trained to eat with tableware or washing their hands after going to the bathroom, so people don’t have any sort of operating model of the opposite sex—or even of their own. Yet they still have basic human desires, such as finding a mate and having a family and fitting into the society in which they live. How are they to go about these things? All that’s on offer (outside of traditional homes) are non-answers such as, “you can be anything that you want to be,” “you are special just the way you are,” and “just be you.” (For the record, I don’t think that these things are as much based in trying to raise children’s self-esteem as much as they are in the fear of telling things to children because children believe what they’re told, which means that you need to be very confident in what you say to them; people who don’t believe in anything have nothing, therefore, to say to children. But silence is awkward.)
So for a young man, if he concludes that finding a young woman to pair up with is part of the path to happiness, how is he to go about making this happen? Even if he happened to come across traditional answers, they tend to only work with women who have been raised traditionally, and women who were raised traditionally won’t be interested in men who weren’t because of the deficiencies in character caused by the deficiencies in their upbringing. (Note: young men can learn and improve themselves and make up for the deficiencies in their upbringing, just as young women can. It’s just not the statistical norm for these victims of Modernity.)
So what are these poor souls to do, given that they literally haven’t heard of the good options? How is someone who was raised to believe that genitalia are for fornication and pregnancy is a type of cancer supposed to navigate male-female interactions, especially when they were also raised to believe that there are absolutely no differences between males and females except purely accidental ones that shouldn’t be talked about lest anyone mistake them for essential differences?
As a side note that is relevant, it’s helpful in understanding a lot of the frustration that one sees that given the modern assumptions about how fornication is a meaningless act which is only about pleasure—as binding as shaking someone’s hand or riding a roller coaster next to them—the phenomenon where women say ‘no’ to offers of sex from most men makes absolutely no sense. There’s no way, under these assumptions, for refusing sex to be anything but selfishness. If it is rude to refuse somebody at a dance, why should it not be rude to refuse a quick trip to the lavatory? Yet women, for some reason, are not considered rude for saying ‘no.’ The real answer, of course, is that people cannot become as completely debased as their theories, so they cling to some shreds of reality, but this cognitive dissonance must be painful, and that pain explains a lot.
So, from the secular male perspective, women are basically defective, since they constantly don’t do what—according to the generally accepted theory—they should be doing. (Generally accepted except among traditionalist Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and other religious wackos.) One can cry out to the empty heavens about how unjust the world is, of course, but there is no one to hear these wails, so it does no good. The alternative is to figure out how to work around the defects of this broken world, which is most of what one has to do anyway. Hence is born the Pick Up Artist.
Pick Up Artistry is best understood in theory as an attempt by broken males to deal with the few bits that aren’t broken in broken females. In practice, it consists of a sort of practical psychology for figuring out how to manipulate women into wanting to fornicate with the man in front of them. Unless the man has STDs and intends to fornicate without using a condom, there is precisely no reason for her to not want to do this, which is the key to understanding why PUAs do not understand themselves to be predatory. PUAs are not, however, the really interesting group, here.
There are people who are not quite so far gone—that is, not quite so secular—who still think that there could be something more than the sum of its parts in a man and a woman sticking with each other for a prolonged period of time. They typically were raised in the same way as the pick up artists, but just didn’t believe it quite as much. In consequence, they have no idea how to make their goals happen. Looking around for some ideas, PUAs are nearly the only people who aren’t religious wackos who are willing to make definite claims about the nature of reality, rather than give nice-sounding non-answers like “do what brings you joy.” (Parenting tip: if your life lessons could be the slogans of credit card companies, rethink your life and do it quickly before your child grows up and it’s too late.)
It’s true that the PUAs are secular wackos, but that’s much better than being religious wackos, so maybe they have some insights, and that’s better than nothing.
The problem is that the PUA model of reality is more than a little… anemic. PUA models vary with each person writing a book or blog post (much as gnosticism varied with each gnostic teacher), but there are some broad strokes that are very common: according to the PUA model women have one trait, physical beauty, and it can be rated on a scale of 1-10. (Some permit the use of rational numbers (fractions), turning this into a continuum, while others reject that individuals are so unique.) Men also have one relevant quality, attractiveness, which is not quite the same as beauty, but its distribution is simpler: men are either attractive or unattractive. The former is called alpha, the latter called beta. (This is in somewhat explicit reference to the well-known characterization of feeding patterns among unrelated wolves who are strangers to each other but forced to occupy the same place, such as a pen in a zoo.)
Women want to fornicate with alphas and not with betas. This is presumably for the superior genetics for their offspring which alphas offer. (Secular people always make up evolutionary just-so stories when they need to explain anything about human nature.) Since the invention of contraceptives, sex is no longer about reproduction, so this is only relevant insofar as it gives insight into how to be attractive to women: the key is to identify the external traits by which a woman identifies alphas, and then to mimic those. (Again, it’s important to realize that since the woman isn’t going to have any offspring, this is a maladaptive trait and so fooling it is more akin to how glasses fool an eye with an astygmatism into presenting an accurate image to the retina. Women come in only two varieties: hoes and unhappy women, just as men come in only two varieties: players and unhappy men. The goal of the PUA is not to make a woman do what she doesn’t want to, but to make her want to do what the PUA wants to do. Pick Up Artistry is 100% about obtaining consent.)
As I said, this world view, even in the dim vision of a mostly secular person, is more than a little bit anemic. It obviously leaves a lot of even the secular world out of account. Still, when it’s the only thing on offer, beggars can’t be choosers.
Into this near-void comes Vox Day’s socio-sexual hierarchy. Instead of dividing males into just two groups, he divides them into six. Right away, we can see that this is at least three times better. His groupings still use Greek letters (though not in alphabetical order): alphas, betas, deltas, gammas, omegas, and sigmas. (Technically there is a seventh classification, lambas, but that’s for men who have no interest in women, so it’s irrelevant to his audience.)
In Vox Day’s description, alphas are the most attractive, but betas are men who are also attractive, but not enough to be alphas. They tend to hang around alphas. Alphas get 10s while betas get 7s, 8s and 9s. Deltas are ordinary men and make up the bulk of males, and can only get 6s and below, but frequently do get them if they’re not fixated on getting 7s and above. Gammas are socially inept men of typically moderately above average intelligence who aren’t able to be as attractive as ordinary men despite thinking that they’re above them. They don’t tend to get women because they are too much in their own head to be attractive. Omegas are ugly, socially awkward men who either can’t get any kind of woman or maybe luck into an ugly woman who will deal with them. Sigmas are exceedingly unusual—men who are uninterested in society but who end up with 10s anyway. (I suspect that this is mostly just Vox Day himself, who was a semi-nerd who got wealthy at a young age and who has a wife of noted beauty; he may possibly be over-generalizing from his own experience, rather than taking this counter-example as a defect in his approach.)
This is vastly more satisfying to a secular man who wants to figure out how to get a girlfriend than is the PUA model, since it’s got more recognizable parts. It’s not as easy to think of exceptions (in the very limited experience of a secular man) and these exceptions will be closer to one of the categories, if for no other reason than that there are more categories.
As a side note: there is probably an optimal model sizes for superficial plausibility, where any smaller and it seems too reductionist and any bigger and it’s too hard to keep track of. If so, I suspect that Vox’s socio-sexual model is near to that ideal size.
The problem with this model, of course, is that it still leaves out most of life. It carries over from the PUA model the idea that a woman can be rated on a scale of 1-10, though it expands the male side to a scale of 1-5 from a scale of 1-2. Even if we stick to numerical scales which oversimplify things for the sake of simplicity, though, there are still far more traits to a human being that are important in a wife, or even in a girlfriend, and these traits tend to be uncorrelated with physical beauty (I mean that they can be coincident or not, I don’t mean that they are negatively correlated). There are traits that matter in choosing a mate such as honesty, loyalty, courage, prudence, wisdom, temperance, piety, etc. The idea that an alpha male should choose a woman who is a 10 for physical beauty without any regard for her other traits is absurd on its face, even if secular people will leave off piety. Further, since these traits are uncorrelated, and if we assume that the alpha can attract the best mate, he might well have a mate who is only a 6 for physical beauty but a 9 for honesty, a 10 for temperance, an 8 for courage, a 9 for prudence, etc. But this will depend, to no small degree, on his own wisdom, prudence, and temperance.
There is a further issue that if you read the original, he describes each group with an estimated number of lifetime sexual partners. Alphas have 4 times the average number of sexual partners or more. Betas have 2-3 times the average number of sexual partners. Etc. But the only way for a man to have more than one lifetime sexual partner is via tragedy—either the tragedy of his first wife dying or the tragedy of sin.
The entire thing is predicated on going about life all wrong. It’s a bit like a guide to golf that measured success by the number of spectators that the golfer hit with a golf ball. It could give tips on how to lull the spectators into a false sense of security or how to aim out of the corner of one’s eye. Someone who followed it might really hit quite a few more spectators than someone who didn’t. Such a guide would be internally consistent, but it would be missing the entire point of the game.