Murder, She Wrote: Obituary for a Dead Anchor

In the middle of season three of Murder, She Wrote is another episode about newsmen. This time it’s TV news rather than newspaper news, but other than that, it’s much the same.

Unusually for Murder, She Wrote the title card has a person in it. This is the titular anchorman, no less. His name is Kevin Keats and he’s a hard hitting reporter and also a self-important jerk.

He is conducting what is ostensibly an interview about art with Ronald Ross, who has one of the finest private collections of abstract expressionism in the country. This lasts for a few seconds, then Keats starts accusing him of being a drug dealer. Ross says that he’s very disappointed, because he loves to show off his art collection. He walks off, and his enforcer, Gerald Foster, a big bald man, signals that the interview is over by blocking the camera.

The TV that’s being watched in this shot belongs to Mr. Ross, btw, who is watching it with his enforcer. As a side note, I love the close, personal friendship that crime bosses almost invariably have with their enforcers. It’s so helpful for the casting departments of TV shows and movies that crime bosses never have intermediates so as to have plausible deniability if their enforcers are caught in one of the many criminal assaults they commit. Also nice to know that enforcers aren’t, generally, unpleasant psychopaths who enjoy hurting people but rather cultured and sophisticated gentle souls who by preference would discuss art and are merely willing to do the dirty jobs that someone has to do, out of a deep sense of loyalty to their best friend and employer.

The show cuts to Kevin Keats talking about how he’s got new and explosive information to reveal next week. Mr Ross throws a towel at the television and shouts at it, “You’re a dead man!”

I wonder if, in the whole history of Murder, She Wrote, the murderer has ever shouted a death threat at the victim? Certainly, I can remember no instance of it. Granted, we’re only three seasons in at this point so it’s harder for the audience to be sure that Mr. Ross’s threat entirely exonerates him of the murder soon to take place, but even at this point in the series it’s a good bet.

The end of the show is interesting, btw.

When they’re done they sign off in a curious way. Keats says, “Goodnight, Nick.” Nick replies, “Goodnight. And goodnight, Paula.” She looks up at the audience and says, “Goodnight, America.”

It reminds me a bit of how 60 Minutes ends, though it’s been decades since I saw the show and I can’t easily find any clips to verify that they sign off like this. My recollection is that it did have a bit of a Waltons feel (“Good night, John Boy”), but I’ve no idea if that’s accurate. Either way, I suppose that this is at heart a callback to Edward R. Murrow’s “Good night and good luck.”

I often confuse Edward R. Murrow with Walter Cronkite, who was, back in his day, “the most trusted man in America.” In hindsight, that was largely a testament to how gullible Americans were in the post-war period. From what I’ve gathered from family stories, Murrow was regarded in a similar way, though Murrow acquired a halo of sanctity around him, granted by marxists in the media, because of his supposed role in the takedown of Joe McCarthy (how much of an influence Murrow had is a subject of debate, but popular history will always be simplified history). Be that as it may, the real news had, in this time, acquired a tone of faux-familiarity that was very ingratiating. I suspect that this pretense of being part of the family watching—together with other things, such as the relatively few television channels, the imprimatur implicitly granted by the US government in its fairness doctrine, and many other reasons—was part of why so many people now in their sixties and older regard the news with a completely unreasonable level of trust.

The faux news show in this episode, coming, as it did, in 1986, is in an interesting time. Older people still regarded the news with obsequious gullibility, but children (I was not yet ten) did not, and even in this show one can see a certain amount of cynical realism about the news starting to creep in even to the way it’s presented here in Murder, She Wrote. News was, by this time, a business. Nick, the old man of the three, represents the old time, respected news. Confidential audience research suggests that audiences don’t like him nearly as much as his two younger, better-looking co-stars.

(As a side note, the sub-plot of the network wanting to replace him with a younger, more attractive reporter is a bit silly. It was at the time, and even still is, common practice to have at least one older, respectable-looking character on a show to reflect respectability onto the younger, prettier ones. It would be far more realistic to move him to a small part where he’s often visible but not doing anything of substance.)

The show, Scrutiny, presents itself as beyond reproach, but we do catch a glimpse of what goes on behind closed doors, and the sausage making is not attractive. But I’m getting ahead of the episode. Before we see the inner workings of the show, Paula Roman pitches a feature on Cabot Cove to Jessica Fletcher.

Apparently Scrutiny has down-to-earth, gentle segments, and Paula does those. That feels quite dissonant with the segments that Kevin Keats does, but perhaps Nick does some sort of middle-ground which acts as the glue for these two very different kind of segments. Anyway, Paula insists that unlike Kevin’s mean-spirited exposés, her segment will be like a television post card.

Jessica isn’t sure, but Paula’s assurances that the interview will be a gentle, lovers’ caress of Cabot Cove makes Jessica say that she’ll bring it up with the town council and see what they think (spoiler alert: they love the idea).

Then we get a plot twist!

In a meeting with the producer, the anchors, and the guy whose job it is to liaise with the “network” (his title is “vice president in charge of the news”), after they abuse the network guy for thinking about the people who pay for everyone’s fun and he leaves, it turns out that they’re killing part 2 of Kevin’s show about the drug dealing art collector and instead he’s going to be doing Paula’s Cabot Cove segment. She’s been reassigned to do a story on a boy who joined a girl’s basketball team.

Oh, and it comes out that the “network” is very concerned about the shows’ ratings. Nick is an American institution and Kevin and Paula are young and attractive, but the show is not doing so well anyway. This will be a major plot point, later, but it does feel a bit dissonant. Within TV-land, what is the show supposed to do to get higher ratings?

In reality they need to move more niche and pretend that the world is constantly about to end and only watching their show will save it. Even that is a short-term solution as TV news is constantly slipping in ratings to the point where many brand-name news shows have lower viewership than some of the bigger YouTube channels, but that would make for a very different episode. And TV news’ falling ratings doesn’t seem to result in personnel changes anyway.

But what are they supposed to do in TV land? Usually there is some unsavory alternative presented, such as bringing on women in bikinis or covering more sensational events even though they aren’t as Important. This show already covers sensational things that aren’t important. I suppose they could have Paula wear a bikini, but nothing like this is mentioned. It’s just left in the air that things aren’t great despite Scrutiny being a smash hit that enough people watch that Kevin Keats’ face is almost as well known as that of Ronald McDonald (this is mentioned later in the episode).

This being left completely unresolved, we move to Cabot Cove, where the residents are getting ready for their closeup. Interestingly, this episode, despite being in Cabot Cove, does not feature Seth Hazlet. Filling in for him while he’s visiting his sister is Wylie.

Wylie is only in two Murder, She Wrote episodes. The other is Dead Man’s Gold. (The actor, Robert Hogan, showed up in two other episodes, one as Lt. Bergkamp and one as FBI Agent Guilfoyle.) He’s a fun character. He’s got Seth’s crusty cynicism, except with more charm. He notes that the town is going crazy with the coming of the TV show. Then we get the gag of the TV news crew overwhelming Jessica’s house with TV equipment (mostly lights).

I really wonder how realistic this is. It’s made by a TV show who knows how to film outdoors, so I expect they could use very realistic equipment if they chose to. On the other hand, I doubt they would have chosen to. For one thing, not a single one of those lights is like the other and real lighting has a tendency to be symmetric about the subject it’s trying to illuminate. For another, I suspect that the crew who set up would have found it funny to make the lighting as unrealistic as possible. Also, these aren’t the days of technicolor with its huge light requirements because they’re exposing three films, one with a red filter in front of it, one with a green filter, and one with a blue filter. How many lights do they really need outdoors on a sunny day, for a TV show?

Jessica demands that they get the lights out of her flower gardens (you’d think, if they were setting up, they’d have wanted to get her flower gardens as background), and Kevin Keats introduces herself.

We then cut to Amos Tupper, in an ugly brown suit which he apparently bought just for the occasion, driving along the coast road. (I’ve got a screenshot of the ugly brown suit later on.) He pulls over when he sees a helicopter descending towards a stretch limo. The helicopter lands…

…and out of it steps the drug trafficing art collector’s enforcer, carrying a suitcase. He runs to the stretch limo.

As soon as he’s in, the stretch limmo tears onto the road, wheels screeching.

All of this sure attracts Amos’ attention, but it serves absolutely no discernible purpose. There is no reason for the enforcer to be in such a rush, or at least no reason that we are ever told about. There’s no obvious reason for the guy to have taken a helicopter when there’s an airport near Cabot Cove that everyone else uses. There’s no reason for him to have a stretch limo waiting in a field for him. There’s no reason for him to run from the helicopter to the stretch limo. There’s no reason for the stretch limo to tear onto the road so fast its wheels squeak. Literally the next thing we know that the enforcer does is to show up the next morning at the docks. There is absolutely no plausible reason for all of this haste. Moreover, if the enforcer is here to murder Kevin Keats, he would need to wear one of those one-man-band outfits with all of the instruments tied to him in order to draw more attention to himself. It’s almost a small thing, in comparison, that there is no way (we know of) for the enforcer to know that Kevin Keats is in Cabot Cove. It was in no way the obvious place to look for him, and with them worrying about death threats against Keats, it’s a bit odd that they’d publicly mention where they’re filming taped segments.

However improbable, though, this dramatic appearance moves the plot along. Amos shows up in the middle of Kevin Keats interviewing Jessica and tells her all about the big ugly bald guy, which makes Keats request the Sheriff (in private) to quietly hire a boat for him.

I don’t want to entirely skip over that interview, though. We come to it as Keats is asking Jessica, “It makes you wonder, J.B. Fletcher, how you came to buried in a tiny town in the back of Maine where the people are, if you’ll forgive me, hardly your intellectual equals.”

Her intellectual equals? She’s not a philosopher, or even someone who is reputed to write Great American Novels about people without principles or religious beliefs being depressed that life is meaningless and full of suffering. (Those aren’t, in fact, intellectually great, but I would at least see why a pretentious TV news anchor would treat them as if they were works of agonizing brilliance.) She’s a mystery writer! She writes whodunnits where a law student from the deep south catches a murderer because his friend who is accused of the murder claims he didn’t see a light flashing on an extension when he was hiding in the music closet. Mystery stories are actually quite deep, at least when done well, but it’s implausible in the extreme Kevin Keats would regard them that way. The detective being a Christ figure who descends into a world broken by the misuse of reason in order to, by the right use of reason, restore right order to it, is not something it is slightly plausible Kevin Keats would appreciate.

Besides, if she was living in an apartment in New York City she’d be likely to have a corporate lawyer on one side of her, a banker on the other, and the personal assistant to an executive across the hall. Why on earth would these be her “intellectual equals”? People in big cities like a variety of ethnic foods, unusual shops, fornication, committing crimes, and stepping over homeless people to get to all of these things. They would be far more urbane than Jessica’s Cabot Cove neighbors, but why on earth would he think that they’re intellectually superior? If you’ve ever encountered city dwellers, plenty of them can go several weeks at a time without having a single thought in their heads that a dog would not. Liking varied entertainment is not at all the same thing as being intelligent. If anything, it’s a symptom of intellectual weakness to require constant variety in order to sustain interest.

None of which Jessica says because she’s written by people who live in a big city (Los Angeles). Instead she tells Keats that if he’s going to insult her friends and neighbors, he’s going to have to do the segment without her. He apologizes and they do it over again. He asks roughly the same question but without the insults, and she talks about how this is where her roots are, and how she’s lived for decades in that old, drafty house with Frank…

I really wish she gave an answer that had something to do with loyalty and how each place is good in its own way, and she’s good at appreciating the goodness of this particular place. Of course, the problem here, too, is that she’s being written by Hollywood writers, which means people who gave up their roots to move to Los Angeles in order to pursue their dreams of fame and fortune. That is, they are nearly the worst people in the world to answer this question, and not nearly imaginative enough to think of how someone unlike them would answer it for real. All they can do is give the pat answer, “I’ve had lots of experiences here.” I doubt that it’s ever occurred to Hollywood writers that there actually are people you couldn’t pay to move to Los Angeles.

Anyway, Amos Tupper interrupts this interview which Jessica has to know is going to be cut up and mangled, but goes along with anyway, because he’s got extremely important news that just can’t wait. There’s a not very funny bit where he pointedly ignores Keats and tells Jessica about the guy he just saw get out of a helicopter and into a limo.

Amos doesn’t even notice when Keats tells the TV crew to cut the film. Eventually he asks who this fellow is. It’s mildly amusing, but I don’t think it was worth sacrificing Amos’s manners for. It’s also nearly the only time I can think of where Amos was in a hurry for anything. Anyway, he eventually finds out that it’s Kevin Keats, and is embarrassed, though not very embarrassed. He shakes Keats’ hand and says that he looks a lot taller on TV.

The scene is very odd because Amos bought a new suit to show off for the TV cameras and yet doesn’t care about them and even partially looks down his nose at them. I don’t know what to make of it; I guess they just had to stitch the next plot element to the current scene and wanted to get through it as quickly as possible (when writing). It does, at least, do that; we’re now on to the next part of the plot.

Oh, almost. We have a few things to get out of the way, first. It’s now night time and Kevin Keats’ estranged wife calls him at his hotel to vaguely threaten him.

That phone call over, it’s time for Dough, the producer, to walk in and have a fight with Kevin in front of the hotel manager.

“This assignment was a change of pace. A fresh approach. Don’t take it personally.”
“Oh, but I do. Scrutiny is a hit for one reason, and you’re looking at him. They toss out producers like so many empty beer cans but I keep rolling along. So you get off my back, before I do something you’ll regret.”

Scrutiny is a hit but the network is worried about the ratings. OK, whatever. This publicly-witnessed threat session over with, we can finally get to the important part: in the morning Kevin gets on the boat the Sheriff Tupper rented for him. Sheriff Tupper then turns around and sees the bald enforcer standing by the dock, watching Kevin. He shouts to him to hold it, whereupon the enforcer runs away and Tupper sighs in disappointment since running after the man is clearly out of the question.

Kevin Keats’ boat makes it about 100 yards away from the dock and then we get the murder.

It was kind of whoever planted the bomb to put it on a timer after the ignition started so that it wasn’t right next to the dock when it exploded. Sure, he destroyed an innocent man’s boat, but at least he didn’t cause unnecessary damage to the dock, which having the bomb go off as soon as the ignition was started would probably have done.

Anyway, we go to commercial and when we came back the big bald enforcer calls the art collector from a phone in the limo and tells him that the situation has resolved itself. The art collector replies that he’s late—he’s watching Paula Roman live, from the scene of the explosion.

I find this perplexing since it entirely rules the enforcer out as a suspect. We’re seeing him in a private conversation where he would have no motive to lie. So what is the point of these characters? If they’re not suspects, why spend time on them? I suppose they could be trying to suggest that the art collector actually carried out the hit without telling his enforcer and was using the enforcer as a blind, but neither appears again in the episode.

We go to Paula Roman, live on the dock only an hour or so later. After she signs off, she talks to Jessica. She claims that she took the first flight over. Jessica looks dubious, but says nothing. They leave together.

They get to the hotel, where Paula doesn’t recognize the busy-body hotel manager, and he directs them to the private dining room where the “TV folks” have set up a temporary field office.

Nick is there, running things in the absence of anyone else. Paula asks where Doug is and Nick says that nobody knows. He checked into his hotel late last night, left early this morning, and nobody has seen him since. He’s probably off climbing a mountain somewhere. This being a potentially identifying personal detail in a Murder, She Wrote, you can bet that it will be significant before the end of the episode.

Paula and Jessica have coffee, and Paula asks about the look Jessica gave her when she said she flew in on the first flight this morning. Jessica tells her that she was on the air a half hour before the first flight from NYC landed in Portland. Paula then admits to having flown in the night before with Doug, the producer. Jessica knows that Paula spent the night with Kevin because she didn’t recognize the hotel manager, which meant that she didn’t go to her own room. We also learn that Richard Abbott, the vice president in charge of news, is also missing (back in NYC).

Some comic relief later, Jessica calls the hotel manager on the phone and asks about the phone call from Keats’ wife. She wasn’t calling from California, it turns out, she “left a local number”. It’s the phone number of a nearby motel. How she left a number when the hotel manager never talked to her other than to say “hello” is unclear. This is before the days of caller ID and the phone had no caller ID screen on it anyway. It’s useful information, though, because it enables Jessica to go interrogate Kevin Keats’ wife, which she does.

It turns out that she came to Cabot Cove in order to try to reconcile with her husband, but he saw Keats with Paula and realized that there was no chance of it when she saw the look of love in his eyes when he looked at Paula. This makes the timing a bit suspect, since Paula arrived with Doug the producer but Mrs. Keats called her husband both after she saw Paula with Kevin but also before Doug walked in the front door.

Plot holes aside, Jessica is busy rudely observing that now that Kevin is dead Mrs. Keats will get all of his assets when the bartender says that there’s a call for a Jessica Fletcher. It turns out it’s Wylie.

He asks Jessica to ask Mrs. Keats how many toes her husband has. Jessica asks, and before she can relay the answer, Wylie tells Jessica, “Unless she said eight, the fellow I’ve got lying here on my table is not the late Kevin Keats.”

Amos, Jessica, and Wylie meet to discuss this new development. Amos, as usual, takes the changing of facts personally. He saw Kevin Keats get on the boat, and doggone it, it’s not fair that it isn’t Kevin Keats who’s dead. Poor Amos. Life as a small-town sheriff is supposed to be simple.

Incidentally, it’s definitely the case that whoever it is on the table didn’t lose the toes in the explosion, they were surgically amputated some time ago. Also, Wylie checked with Seth (who, you will recall, is on vacation) and no one in Cabot Cove is missing those toes. Jessica then brings up another mystery, in addition to whose is the body: where is Kevin Keats? (Apparently it doesn’t occur to anyone that there could have been two people on the boat and Keats was in fact killed but his body not found because they stopped looking after finding the first body.)

Curiously, the next thing we see is where Kevin Keats is.

To be fair, it takes a minute to actually show us Kevin; he’s watching the news where somebody or other is interviewing Cabot Cove’s mayor, but eventually we pan over to him on the motel’s bed.

I love Kevin’s outfit. It’s the pointless leather patch on the flannel shirt that really makes it, for me. That said, the bag of potato chips and the drink in a red plastic cup really pulls the shot together. That’s about it, though. All of the action takes place in the newswoman asking the mayor questions and him not having answers. Then Kevin picks up the phone and dials someone as we fade out.

I’m very unclear on why this scene exists; all it serves to do is to remove the mystery about what happened to Kevin Keats only a few seconds after the mystery was raised. In that way it’s reminiscent of the scene in which the bald enforcer calls his art collector boss and tells him that he didn’t have to kill Keats after all. Is this meant to be a help to the audience? Does Murder, She Wrote have a maximum amount of mystery it’s supposed to maintain in order to not be too confusing to the viewer? I don’t know if that’s the case but it’s an interesting thought. This is television, probably at its height in terms of numbers of viewers of an episode—at that time when an enormous number of people were watching but there were not, yet, hundreds of TV channels competing for viewers. According to Wikipedia, at its height Murder, She Wrote had about forty million viewers, and even in its eleventh season it had about fifteen million viewers per episode. Perhaps in order to be most comfortable to a general audience they wanted to keep the number of things the audience had to keep track of to a minimum.

The next scene has the vice president of TV news, Richard Abbot, walking into the make-shift office in the hotel in Cabot Cove. He and Nick argue, though it’s difficult to characterize what the argument is about. Nick is mad that Richard was missing, and Richard is angry that… I don’t know. He seems annoyed that Nick is annoyed, as much as anything else. Jessica walks in and interrupts them to say that Kevin Keats is very much alive—a thing she doesn’t actually know, btw, unless she knew it by reading the script. It certainly has not been proven yet.

Nick asks whose body was pulled out of the water. Jessica hypothesizes that it’s actually Doug Helman, the producer, because earlier Nick joked that Doug was probably off climbing a mountain, which she free-associated to frostbite, and then noted that the body was missing two toes on its left foot. No one actually knows whether Doug was in fact missing any toes on his left foot, but this is taken as sufficient evidence to conclude it definitely was Doug. (And see, I told you that it being a random personal detail, it would definitely come up again!)

Paula walks in when Richard is asking where she is and she says, “so it was Doug.” Nick tries to get her to work on the rewrites that they have to do but she only wants to talk to Jessica. Nick grabs her by the elbow and tries to pull her to the typewriter, saying “Listen, Helman didn’t even want you up here, the only reason you came is because Kevin insisted, now come on, now let’s get to work.” This being a Murder, She Wrote episode, a random bit of detail about someone other than the person speaking must be a clue. They do a halfway decent job of disguising it by putting it in a heated moment, but it doesn’t really fit very well. The biggest thing is that it stands out for not really being in character, in the sense that there were far more persuasive things that Nick could have said which would also have been far more natural for him to say. If this wasn’t a murder mystery, he’d have given some speech about journalists having to put aside their feelings for the sake of the public, or some such. That instead of that natural thing he went for irrelevant detail is a huge red flag.

There’s also the problem of this not really being in character. Nick’s motivation to drag Paula in is very slight. Granted, he seems to be angling for the producer job by filling in for Doug in this pinch, but Paula isn’t a writer and isn’t even an investigative journalist. Her beat is doing TV postcards of small towns. It’s pretty far fetched that he even wants Paula at a typewriter. It would be different if he needed her pretty face to go in front of the camera, but that’s not what he wanted. Paula refuses, and she and Jessica leave.

As they’re walking, Jessica tells Paula that Kevin called her. Paula asks how Jessica knew, and instead of referencing Paula’s inflection when she said “so it was Doug Helman who was killed on the boat” which would have been decent evidence for it, she instead said that Paula trusts Jessica, and who would Kevin trust? His mistress isn’t entirely implausible, but you’d think he’d have a few friends, too. Paula’s reaction was much better evidence, but oh well. Jessica talks Paula into talking Kevin into coming forward to the Sheriff because staying in hiding could be too easily misconstrued. You’d think that Jessica would know Amos by now. We’re not at the end of the episode, so no matter what Kevin did, Amos would misconstrue it. It’s what he does.

It turns out that the fight Doug had with Kevin over reassigning Doug to Cabot Cove was a put-on. They’d planned it together. The goal was to fake the drug dealing art collector into thinking that the series was dropped (how the art collector was supposed to know this is anyone’s guess) when in reality he was in Cabot Cove because there was a witness in New Hampshire who would only talk to Kevin. The boat thing was “cover”; he wanted people to think that he was on a boat in the harbor when he was really driving to New Hampshire to see the confidential witness.

Augie Wilkin had the only boat in town for rent, and the Sheriff couldn’t get in touch with him until about eight O’clock that night. Once he told Kevin about it, Kevin called Doug and told him to get up to Cabot Cove on the double. Doug must have gotten in very late if he didn’t know he was going to be taking a plane to Cabot Cove until after 8pm. Still, this was before 9/11 and was probably doable.

The fight between Doug Helman and Kevin Keats in front of the hotel manager was staged. “Just another part of the act.” Why there was this is act is… very unclear to me. I’m not sure what could be gained by convincing the hotel manager that Kevin Keats and his producer were fighting. If they were on the best of terms, it wouldn’t make the dropping of the drug dealing art collector story any less plausible. It also wouldn’t make him supposedly running away by boat any less believable, either, which was all he really wanted to disguise. It feels like the sort of thing that’s normally in a story that features people worried about there being a mole in the organization, and so they had to deceive everyone because they didn’t know who it was. Except, there was no mole. There was no reason to not tell Paula and Nick about the plan to disguise Kevin’s going to a secret informant. Also, given that they were keeping up this pretense of a fight, why on earth did Kevin insist that Doug bring Paula up to Cabot Cove with him? He couldn’t keep his pants on for one whole night? From all of the other precautions they took, Paula could only get in the way of the plan. Besides that, no one was covering the boy on a girl’s basketball team in Nebraska. From Kevin and Doug’s perspective, someone should have been covering that, no? They expected there to be a show that would air the next week.

This story is pretty much nothing but loose ends, which makes me somewhat sympathetic to Amos for arresting Kevin. He reasons that whoever planted the bomb had to know about the boat, and since only Kevin and Doug knew about the boat, that means it had to be one of them. It being Doug seems unlikely, so by process of elimination, it had to be Kevin. For once, Jessica has no objections.

Paula visits Kevin in jail and they talk. It comes out that Nick and Richard haven’t sent a lawyer to get him out on bail because they figure it will be better for ratings, at least when the special which is the former Kevin Keats eulogy is broadcast. The Sheriff has even kindly given his permission to let Kevin tape his segment in the jail cell! Amos is nothing if not thoughtful. Why Kevin can’t hire his own lawyer is never said.

Next we see Jessica go interview Mrs. Keats one last time.

I’m not sure if the writers are trying to keep her alive as a suspect or are just using her to give the next clue. She does give a clue, anyway—she thinks that Kevin was about to be fired because the network had just done confidential audience research. The writers really can’t decide whether Scrutiny is more famous than apple pie or going under. Why on earth he told his estranged wife about this, I’ve no idea. She described it as “in a fit of paranoia,” though trying to make her think that she couldn’t get much out of him in divorce would have been more plausible.

Jessica goes and takes this up with Richard Abbott (the vice president in charge of news). He’s cagey, but she gets out of him he didn’t want to discuss the confidential network research in front of the anchors because it concerned one of them. Also, when Doug Helman was killed he (Richard) was in NY having breakfast with the president of another network. “You see, in television land, when the canoe springs a leak, one doesn’t bail water, one just looks for a new canoe.”

And now we go to Jessica’s house, where she’s playing chess with Wylie.

In a Murder, She Wrote episode a scene unrelated to hunting clues, this late in the episode, means that all of the clues we’re going to get have been given. It’s time to guess who the murderer is.

Wylie puts Jessica in check, with mate in one. Usually she beats Seth, so Wylie was able to beat her because she’s distracted—she can’t stop thinking about Kevin Keats’ story. Wylie says that there had to be an easier way to slip out of down, and Jessica says that she didn’t remember telling Wylie about Keats’ plan. “You didn’t. I overheard you talking to Sheriff Tupper on the phone.” And now Jessica realizes who the murder is. She just has to go the jail to be certain.

In jail, Jessica goes over the phone call with Kevin, and indeed Doug had gone over the time table in detail to make sure that he got everything right. Keats was sure that Doug would never have talked about it with a third party present, but Jessica asks, “What if he didn’t know, or care, that there was a third party present?” She means what if it was a third party that he didn’t care about, but it was badly phrased coming right after Kevin saying that he was certain that Dough would never have discussed their plan in front of a third party. Anyway, the scene closes and we open on our murderer, who Jessica visits, alone.

That’s right, it was Nick Brody. He’s working late on a rewrite. Jessica tells him about the confidential audience survey, whose result was that the audience preferred the younger Kevin and Paula to him. Why this means that he needs to be fired is not explained, but that’s OK. Jessica informs him that he was there when Kevin called Doug and worked out their plans, a fact proved by his knowledge that Paula was only in town because Kevin insisted—which they had only ever discussed on the phone.

This is the only actual piece of evidence which Jessica has. It’s a bit like an Encyclopedia Brown case where there is literally one clue, and if you pick up on it you can solve the case and if you don’t, you can’t. It’s an interesting balancing act, but I think it probably gets back to the issue of having such a large, general audience. Too many clues and a large fraction of the audience will think that the mystery is too easy. (Fewer than one clue and the mystery will be too hard, and not just for some people.)

Anyway, it’s enough, and he admits it. Jessica asks how he got to Cabot Cove and he replies that he drove all night. It’s only 350 miles. (Averaging 60 miles an hour, that would take just under six hours. If he left at 9pm he’d have gotten in at the earliest at 3am—he should be tired!)

It’s curious how they deal with the question of how Nick got the bomb. “Oh, about the bomb? Well, you don’t get to be a 63 year old reporter without learning something.” I doubt that there were any reporters of any age in 1986 who could put together a bomb with the explosive power of a few pounds of TNT on a moment’s notice, late at night. Or worse, in the middle of the night in Cabot Cove.

Jessica asks him why he did it—Doug was just following the network’s orders. Nick’s reply was interesting, so I’m going to quote it in full. He said:

Without Helman, I had a better than even chance of staying with the show. I had more experience than any of them. To hell with the audience research. So I wasn’t young, vicious, or even pretty. But I was the one who could talk sense to them. I’m a news man. I’m not a performer. I tried to tell Doug that. And whatever he started out believing, in the end he bought the idea that the wrapping paper—the wrapping paper!—was more important the package.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to finish this rewrite while we’re waiting for the Sheriff. Just dial 9 for an outside line.

One of the unusual things about Murder, She Wrote is that its star was not young. Born in 1925, Angela Lansbury was 59 when the show started and 61 when this episode aired. The primary recurring characters in Cabot Cove were not spring chickens either. The guest stars were frequently actors who had been famous twenty or thirty years before, and now were getting small parts as older people. What’s true of the actors is true of the viewers, as well. The audience of Murder, She Wrote famously skewed much older than for most of prime time television. My mother remembers the commercials frequently being for things like denture creams while I remember them as being for life insurance that you can’t be turned down for no matter how old and sick you are. The final episode of Murder, She Wrote was even titled Death By Demographics.

(To be fair to the networks, they didn’t care. It was advertisers who paid top dollar for younger viewers and much less for older viewers, quite possibly because younger viewers bought more things and also were more malleable; if you could turn an eighteen year old just starting to buy his own toothpaste onto your brand of toothpaste you might have a loyal customer for decades.)

The theme of Nick’s monologue is that, despite being old, he’s still, in reality, valuable. More than that, he’s actually the most valuable. This is a theme that resonates with an older audience, but especially with an older audience in the 1980s. People born in the 1920s and 1930s saw truly enormous amounts of change in the world by the 1980s, not just technologically but even socially. The worship of youth was (partially) socially dominant in the 1970s, with people proclaiming that one should never trust anyone over 30. With the advent of the birth control pill and labor-saving devices like washing machines, traditional restraints and traditional divisions of labor seemed to many pointless and anachronistic. The future was in plastics, as the uncle in The Graduate foretold. The future was in computers, as many people told Jessica when suggesting she replace her old typewriter with a word processor. What place was there for people who vividly remembered horse-drawn milk delivery and wartime rationing?

Nick’s impassioned speech proclaims that there is a place for them, that the world hasn’t actually changed that much. I think this is why Jessica doesn’t say anything. You can see in her face that she agrees with him, but he crossed the line in blowing Doug up. She slowly walks over to call the Sheriff, and he goes back to typing, then pauses a moment in thought.

I’m not sure what he’s supposed to be thinking about. At first it looks like he’s pausing to regret getting caught, but then his look of consternation is replaced by a very slight smile. The music is sad, though.

(Incidentally, the story was by Bob Shayne who was born in 1941 and the teleplay was written by Robert van Scoyk who was born in 1928.)

There’s also the curious theme of this lionization of news. He’s not this new breed of reporter, who is all glitz, he’s a News Man! As if the news was some deeply respectable thing, back in his day. Back in the days of Edward R Murrow (hah!). It is interesting to consider the timing, though. People born in the 1920s and especially the 1930s were young when radio and later TV news journalism were new. Growing up they might have felt that they were so much better informed because of the increased immediacy of these things. One didn’t have to wait for a newspaper, an authoritative voice would boom them over the radio or television might even show you pictures of the things as they happened! There were not many channels and they were more regulated than the newspapers were; it seems plausible that some reasonable fraction of people growing up then might have thought of themselves as better informed than their predecessors, and better informed than younger people today who watch news that’s all about sensationalism and glitz.

Incidentally, this is a separate issue from Baby Boomers who trust the news. They were young adults during the era when TV news was turning glitzy. Someone born in 1946 (approximately the oldest baby boomer possible) would have been forty years old in 1986. Chad Everett, who played Kevin Keats, was born in 1937. In 1986, when this episode was filmed, he was 51 years old. Granted, TV actors usually play younger than they are, but not usually more than about a decade down. In other words, the youthful TV anchor was supposed to be the same age as the oldest baby boomer watching and was, in reality, a decade older than them. (Mark Stevens, who played Nick Brody, was born in 1916. He was 70 playing 63. Kathleen Lloyd, who played Paula Roman, was born in 1948, making her 38 at the time of filming—young enough to be Mark Stevens’ daughter, but no spring chicken.)

Looking back from the vantage point of the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2020, the view of news as something that was once reliable but is now turning commercial and unreliable is quaint to the point of being laughable. The multiplicity of viewpoints expressed when cable television was just getting off of the ground is nothing in comparison to what news is like these days, with each news source trying to cater to its very specific niche, which largely means that the reporters are just being somewhat honest about their biases. Moreover, as a remove from the events sheds light on the biases of the newsmen of old, the rosy view which people had when there were only three major networks seems more like gullibility. Still, we’re all prone to such myopia; to not seeing what is not easily within our horizon.

One other interesting thing about this episode is how much Jessica does not believe in sexual morals at all, or if she does, she keeps them entirely to herself despite being willing to criticize people for all sorts of lesser moral failings or things that aren’t even moral failings but she just dislikes (such as violence in movies and other entertainment). Paula Roman is sleeping with a married man. Even worse, she is getting in the way of that married man reconciling with his wife, which his wife was trying to do. Jessica fawns over Paula like a dear child when Paula is, in fact, very much an adult and actively engaged in adulterating a man’s marriage. Jessica doesn’t even bat an eye. She’s supposed to be a small-town retired English teacher but she’s really a big-city cosmopolitan socialite.

So, all that said, what’s good about this episode?

It has interesting characters. Not all of them, but at least the trio of reporters from Scrutiny are. The character of Richard Abbott, though under-developed, is also interesting for his extreme calm and forthright cynicism about his business. Wylie is great as the doctor. Tom Bosley as Amos is always fun for his manner.

OK, but this is the stuff which comes from good casting, rather than good writing. What about the story?

It is difficult to praise the story because, in part, it’s really a bunch of unrelated stories happening near each other and with some minor relationships to each other. At that level of abstraction, it’s merely the description of a mystery story with red herrings, but these don’t really feel like red herrings because of the way that they are almost serial in their presentation.

The sub-plot of the drug dealing art collector is at the start of the show and gets things in motion, but then is dropped as soon as the murder happens. The sub-plot of a small town preening itself for the cameras and not getting what it hoped is also dropped before the murder happens. We then get a sub-plot of a small town overrun with TV news crews because a famous TV man was (supposedly) murdered in it, but this never really goes anywhere. We have the sub-plot of the vindictive estranged wife who had wanted to patch things up with her husband, but that never really goes anywhere. (I don’t think that she’s ever a realistic suspect.) We get the sub-plot of the two anchors who are romantically involved with each other, adulterating the one’s marriage, but this only really serves to get Kevin Keats out of hiding, and then goes nowhere. The sub-plot of trying to get over to a confidential witness results in a cockamamie scheme whose time table is highly questionable, and in any event it’s linked to the story about the drug dealing art collector, and that plotline being dropped, this one goes nowhere too.

The upshot is that the episode is interesting while it happens, but since all of the sub-plots go nowhere, it’s disappointing once it’s over. Even the theme that was raised of the big city versus the small town ends up nowhere. Jessica is really part of the big city, so the small-town end of this theme has to be held up entirely by Wylie, which he stops doing as soon as there’s a body for him to examine.

About the one thing I can say for the story—rather than the characters, acting, sets, etc—is that it does have an interesting premise of outsiders bringing their troubles someplace else in order to settle them by being unknown in the place they’ve gone to. That is a structure that can be quite interesting. It’s the premise of my favorite Cadfael story, Saint Peter’s Fair. It’s the premise of my third and upcoming Brother Thomas novel, tentatively titled He Didn’t Drown in the Lake. It’s an interesting premise. It’s disappointing when an interesting premise isn’t used to its full, but it’s still something just to have the interesting premise.

Actually, there is a second thing I can say for the story. It does have a nice twist partway through. The corpse being identified as someone other than Kevin Keats was interesting, both simply as a twist and also as a way of changing who the suspects were. Or, rather, raising the question of who the intended victim was, and whether this changes who the suspects were. (It didn’t really change who the suspects were because the suspect who might remain—the enforcer—was already ruled out by the time of this reveal.)

That’s probably about the best that I can say for this story. Like so much of television, it had a lot of promise that it didn’t fulfill, but it was fun while it seemed possible that the promise would be fulfilled. Also like so much of television, it gains quite a lot from having interesting people and interesting sets. Television is a very visual medium, and this (legitimate) visual interest can make up for a lot of weakness in writing.

I’ve finally got all of my published videos scheduled!

At the time of writing, I’ve been having a post about one published video, per day, excluding Sundays, for about two weeks now. I’ve finally fished scheduling posts about all of my (at the time of writing) extant published videos, which carries me until December 30th. Phew. I can’t believe how far behind I’d fallen. The time is really flying!

This makes me extra glad that I’ve given up making the audio-only versions, as I would still have just left them had I been requiring those extra steps of myself. It’s a lesson in the importance of streamlining when there’s a lot of work to be done.

Edward R. Murrow’s Most Famous Speech

One of the truths of our age is that marxists always lie. I do not know if Edward R. Murrow was a marxist, but he was at least important to marxists and in consequence the history I learned of him, growing up the 1980s, seems in no small part to be lies.

Edward R. Murrow was, as I learned it, instrumental in destroying the witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who ran the House Unamerican Activities Committee and persecuted people without evidence. This culminated in a famous address by Murrow, criticizing McCarthy, on his show See It Now:

There are some problems with this version of history, though. One disclaimer I need to get out of the way: from all reports, Senator Joseph McCarthy was a bad man; he was an unprincipled drunkard who was unkind and was prone to confusing accusation with proof. But one of the things that he was not was in charge of the House Unamerican Activities Committee. You can tell this because McCarthy was a senator, and senators don’t run committees in the House of Representatives. What McCarthy actually was, was the chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, which included the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The HUAC, which McCarthy had absolutely nothing to do with, looked into communist infiltration in Hollywood and other parts of American society; the Senate Committee on Government Operations only looked into people within the government itself.

Further, a crucial element of something being a witch hunt is that there not actually be any of what they’re looking for, just as during the Salem Witch Trials Salem was not, in fact, plagued by witches tormenting people by spectrally appearing to them. By contrast, there were in fact active communist agents both within society at large and within the US government. McCarthy hunted for them badly, but the people he hunted for were, in fact, real.

Then we come to the actual speech. It begins with Murrow saying, “Earlier, the Senator asked, ‘Upon what meat does this our Caesar feed?'” It’s a line from the Shakespeare play Julius Caesar, and Murrow goes on to say, “Had he looked three lines earlier in Shakespeare’s Caesar, which is not altogether inappropriate, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'” He then closes with quoting that same line:

The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Good night, and good luck.

When I looked into it, I cannot actually find out that Senator McCarthy actually quoted that line from the play Julius Caesar. However, I did find more than one source which attributes the quote to George Shuster, president of Hunter College of NYC, about McCarthy. From the first one I cited:

Shuster was the first college president to openly condemn McCarthy and his tactics. He stated that he had not fired Friedman in 1949 [when she was identified by the FBI as a communist] because civil service rules did not allow it, but he had fired her later when she refused to testify before a state committee, contrary to law.  He went farther than that. He said “Senator McCarthy reminds me of the college senior writing a test paper – he can’t distinguish between evidence and surmisal, fact and fiction.” He went on to suggest that Academic institutions should investigate McCarthy and his methods.  “No doubt” he said “the time has come to ask on ‘what meat this our Caesar has fed’ and to review his activities with the utmost objectivity, calm and chilly resolution, so that an authoritative report can be made to the people.”

Now, it is possible that Shuster is himself using a quote that McCarthy used; turning someone’s quote against him is a thing. That said, I couldn’t find any reference, other than Murrow’s, to McCarthy having cited the line from Julius Caesar. I didn’t put a great deal of time into this search, so I can’t put strong faith into my failure to find anything as evidence that it is not there to be found. That said, if McCarthy had actually said it, I would expect it to turn up pretty easily. By contrast, throwing “george shuster meat caesar fed” into google one gets plenty of results.

Leaving this dubious citation aside, we turn to the wisdom of approvingly quoting Cassius in the way Murrow did. Cassius is the villain of Julius Caesar. The quote comes from Act 1, Scene II:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ’em,
Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.
Now, in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,
That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed!
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!
When went there by an age, since the great flood,
But it was famed with more than with one man?
When could they say till now, that talk’d of Rome,
That her wide walls encompass’d but one man?
Now is it Rome indeed and room enough,
When there is in it but one only man.
O, you and I have heard our fathers say,
There was a Brutus once that would have brook’d
The eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king.

Cassius is trying to talk Brutus into joining their conspiracy to murder Caesar. The line that Murrow cited, “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves” means, in context, that they are not as famous as Caesar not because they lack the talent or worthiness, but because they lack the ambition. That is, it is entirely about envy. Cassius, in this line, is telling Brutus that they are just as deserving of fame and glory as Caesar.

At the end of the day, I assume that Murrow had no familiarity with the play and no idea what Cassius meant; I doubt he cared enough to look it up. This sort of casual disregard (which is better than outright quoting a villain approvingly, which is the other alternative) is rather concerning in someone whose trade was supposed to be telling the truth.

Then again, according to Wikipedia, his career suffered later in his life because he objected to audiences being given views other than his own:

Murrow’s reporting brought him into repeated conflicts with CBS, especially its chairman William Paley, which Friendly summarized in his book Due to Circumstances Beyond our ControlSee It Now ended entirely in the summer of 1958 after a clash in Paley’s office. Murrow had complained to Paley he could not continue doing the show if the network repeatedly provided (without consulting Murrow) equal time to subjects who felt wronged by the program.

It also mentions a decline in Murrow’s standing because of the rise of other journalists, such as Walter Cronkite:

Another contributing element to Murrow’s career decline was the rise of a new crop of television journalists. Walter Cronkite’s arrival at CBS in 1950 marked the beginning of a major rivalry which continued until Murrow resigned from the network in 1961. Murrow held a grudge dating back to 1944, when Cronkite turned down his offer to head the CBS Moscow bureau…

Throughout the 1950s the two got into heated arguments stoked in part by their professional rivalry. At a dinner party hosted by Bill Downs at his home in Bethesda, Cronkite and Murrow argued over the role of sponsors, which Cronkite accepted as necessary and said “paid the rent.” Murrow, who had long despised sponsors despite also relying on them, responded angrily.

Hating sponsors despite relying on them is not the mark of an honest man. Still less is it the mark of an honest man to attack someone for being honest about what both men are doing.

As I look into famous journalists, I increasingly find what it is really no great surprise to find—that they were not great men, they have been posthumously given a glow of sanctity by people who found it useful to do when trying to rewrite history.

One reason it’s especially important to be careful of movies “based on a true story”.

An Interesting Phishing Scheme

I recently received this phishing email, with the subject “Thinking about the giving pledge…”:

Good Day to you,

This email may come to you as a shock but you should pay attention to my words.

My Name is Mackenzie Bezos, Below is a Link of me and what i do.

https://www.forbes.com/profile/mackenzie-scott/

I have no doubt that tremendous value comes when people act quickly on the impulse to give. No drive has more positive ripple effects than the desire to be of service. There are lots of resources each of us can pull from our safes to share with others — time, attention, knowledge, patience, creativity, talent, effort, humor, compassion. And sure enough, something greater rises up every time we give: the easy breathing of a friend we sit with when we had other plans, the relief on our child’s face when we share the story of our own mistake, laughter at the well-timed joke we tell to someone who is crying, the excitement of the kids in the school we send books to, the safety of the families who sleep in the shelters we fund. These immediate results are only the beginning. Their value keeps multiplying and spreading in ways we may never know.

I have a disproportionate amount of money to share. My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful. It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.

I recently gave $1.7 Billion to colleges around the United States, read below.

https://www.theverge.com/2020/7/28/21345440/mackenzie-scott-jeff-bezos-amazon-wealth-donation-philanthropy

My approach to philanthropy has changed and it will continue to evolve as i see fit, Just as the United States Government sent $1200 to americans who may have been affected by the ongoing humanitarian crisis, I decided to do something similar but in a bigger way.

I decided to contact a few people at random after i spoke to a consulting firm and give cash directly to the lucky individuals chosen, If you are reading this email, You are one of the people chosen to benefit from this philanthropy project.

This email is the email of my personal attorney (Baker McKenzie) who will handle the disbursement of the cash donation, So provide your full names and address. My attorney will provide you with further instructions on how you will be paid.

With Love.

Mackenzie Bezos

It was sent to “YOU <noreply@vixlatio.com>”, which is nothing like my email address, but what’s a small thing like that between complete strangers?

What interests me is the psychology of the scam. Mackenzie Scott (formerly Bezos) became an extremely wealthy woman when Jeff Bezos divorced her a year ago. She actually was a wealthy woman when she was Jeff Bezos’ wife, too, but her decisions, being part of a marriage would not have been so free. Moreover, there was reason to keep the Amazon stock in which consisted most of their wealth, rather than selling it, so at the time there was not so much to give away. (Stocks are a complicated subject, but the short version is that they are normally worthless until sold except for the control that they give.)

The basis of the scam is that she has decided to give away some of her money at random. I think this relies on the idea that it is psychologically plausible that it is easier to give away what was, basically, just found. That’s not actually an accurate description of Mackenzie’s wealth from her point of view—since she worked and struggled with Jeff all throughout the time of building Amazon, and moreover had some reasonable amount of control over the money as his wife—but it does fit with what somebody who had never heard of her until she was divorced from Bezos would think. Never having heard of her, it’s like she sprang into existence and the divorce settlement was then handed to her. This plays well into the supposed capriciousness of randomly disbursing money to people as one among several ways that she’s trying to give. (She also did, in fact, sign a “giving pledge” which made the news, providing another anchor for this scam.)

It’s by no means the best scam I’ve ever seen, but compared to the Nigerian oil princes of the early 2000s, it’s pretty impressive. I wonder what that makes of the notion that the Nigerian oil scams were intentionally unbelievable in order to pre-filter-out the people with enough sense that they’d cotton on to what was going on before they had been ripped off.

Oh, as a side note, I find it funny that the scam says that “This email is the email of my personal attorney (Baker McKenzie)…” The email purports to come from “Mackenzie Scott Grant <noreply@vixlatio.com>“. That’s a very odd email address for her personal attorney to have!

Always Make Character Sheets in a Series!

As I was sitting down to start writing in earnest on the third chronicle of Brother Thomas—having worked out the characters, what really happened, etc. to my satisfaction—I looked for the file where I wrote down biographical facts about my main characters. I couldn’t find it. Worse, I have come to conclude that I can’t find it because I never wrote it.

I am not, it should be noted, talking about lengthy backstory in which I wrote out novella-length descriptions of each character’s experiences in kindergarten, grade school, middle school, high school, etc. I’m just talking about the basic facts: height, weight, hair color, birthday, date of joining the order (if appropriate) etc. Having not written these things down when I mentioned them in the previous two books, I now have to comb through the books to see what I in fact did mention. It’s not entirely wasted effort since it’s a good idea to read the books to get the tone of characters fresh in my mind, but at the same time it’s a lot of work that I really wish I didn’t need to do right now.

So, a hard-won lesson, which I pass on to any readers who are just getting started on a series of books: make sure to keep a file open for facts about your characters who will show up in future books. It will save you a ton of effort down the road.

Atheists Are Discouraged, Water is Wet

In this video I look at a trend of Atheist YouTubers talking about how they’re discouraged because views (and money) are dropping off on YouTube. (Note: this video was originally published in July of 2019, so that’s when the trend was. That said, at the time I’m writing this BionicDance’s last video was a “state of the channel” in which, I’m told, she said that she’s moving on to doing web comics, or some such. So I don’t think that the Atheists have become encouraged in the interim.)

As a bonus, at the end of a video there is a parody song which was a collaboration with Rob of Deflating Atheism (who did the playing and singing), The Battle Hymn of the Atheist Republic. It’s a lot of fun.

Mysteries And The Miserable Rich

If a murder mystery involves a rich family, there is an excellent chance that only one of them will get along with other human beings and at least three fourths of them will have manners so bad you’re surprised that they are not frequently punched in the face. I suspect that there are three reasons for this.

The first, and most mundane, reason is that it’s a trope. Merely because it has often been done before, it will be done again. Many writers, especially in television, are lazy and unimaginative. There’s not much to say about this reason, but I do need to acknowledge it.

The second reason has to do with the needs of a mystery story—there must be suspects. When a rich family gets along like cats and dogs it produces a lot of suspects. It’s true that this shows everyone as having a motive—whoever dies, everyone else hated him—but it also shows that no one in the family has the sort of self-control which makes you think that they would refrain from murder because of their principles, if they had any.

The third reason is the most sinister. Most writers are neither rich nor know for their extraordinary resistance to envy. Even if not personally envious, they are not proof against trying to flatter the envy of their readers. It would be, more specifically, sour grapes, but sour grapes are generally an expression of envy. I suspect that this is no small part of why this is a trope.

Now, speaking generally, there is nothing wrong with including spoiled children in a story, nor in including family members who do not get along. I do gravely doubt that the children of the rich are often casually rude; when you don’t have many problems, upsetting other people looms much larger in one’s field of view. In my experience, casual rudeness tends to correlate to being raised by absent or single parents, in poverty, where other people’s feelings seem quite small in comparison to more pressing issues. One really needs to have a lot going wrong in order to be unconcerned about unnecessarily offending others. (Which is not to say that rich people can’t generally pay for their problems to go away, only that upsetting a person is an immediate problem that one feels immediately because man is a social creature. Treating someone badly when out of sight and using money to paper over the problem—that is very easy to believe of someone raised rich. Treating them in a way that makes them upset with one in the moment? That is far less believable.)

However that goes, this does not tend to make for a really good mystery, however, because the characters are not interesting. Characters are interesting because of their virtues; vices can only help when they serve to highlight virtues. Merely being a failure of a human being is boring, and when there are no characters who are not failures—there’s nothing interesting to read about.

Recorded Conversations in Mysteries

In murder mysteries one of the classic plots is playing a recorded conversation in order to pretend that the victim was alive later than he was. Typically used to allow the murderer to establish an alibi for the supposed time of death, the curious thing about this trick is that as technology makes it easier for the murderer to do, it also makes it harder for the murder mystery writer to use.

Given how many murder mysteries were written shortly after the initial Sherlock Holmes short stories in the early 1890s and are now largely lost to history, making any statements about firsts in a murder mystery is always fraught with peril. That said, the first time that a recorded conversation was used to pretend that a victim was alive later than he was, that I’m aware of, is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackryod. First published in 1926, it used, perforce, a dictaphone which at the time would cut grooves in wax on a cardboard cylinder. The sound quality actually achievable on such a machine would not be great, which makes its believability to listeners somewhat questionable. On the other hand, it was played behind a closed door. The door would muffle the sound, making it harder to tell a recording from a real voice. And then there’s the psychological aspect, which gets to the heart of the modern problem—at the time, people’s voices being recorded was so rare that no one would expect it, so they wouldn’t think to look for the differences. We are used to dealing with imperfect sound and concentrating on the words; without paying careful attention we are likely to ignore the problems we don’t recognize in a recording since we’re not used to hearing them as the characteristic signature of a recording.

These days, high fidelity recording devices are extremely cheap, to the point where they are a standard component of many devices including the cell phones that everyone carries around in his pocket. Decently loud and accurate playback devices are so common that they can be found in novelty birthday cards meant to be thrown away after use. If a killer wanted to use a recording of a victim to create the impression of a later time of death it would be cheap and easy, and the playback would be of such high quality that it would take a trained ear to have a chance of telling whether it was a recording.

Ironically, that’s the problem. Playing the victim’s voice would be so easy that if a reader is presented with someone having merely heard the victim’s voice without actually seeing him, he immediately suspects that it was a recording. Admittedly, the same is true of the low-tech gambit of dressing in the recognizable clothing of the victim and only being seen from a distance, without talking, too. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before we get pre-recorded video calls to establish a fake time of death, and some day (when the prices come down, perhaps) a “deep fake” where powerful video software uses images and mapping techniques to synthesize new video of a subject.

The real trick is to make it seem natural to have something in the way of a witness seeing the victim with his own eyes, up close. The moment there is something in the way, the reader’s suspicions will be (justly) aroused. That’s the trick, but it’s a very difficult one. So difficult, in fact, that I’m not sure how to pull it off.

The Game of Telephone & The Gospels

I sometimes would see people invoke the game of telephone (where kids sit in a circle and whisper things in each other’s ears, and then the last person says it out loud and everyone laughs at how much it changed) to try to show how unreliable human testimony is, and therefore how unreliable the gospels are. This is, to put it honestly, stupid, and I explain several different reasons why it’s stupid.