A long-running struggle in my house has been teaching children that if I ask them to relay a message to someone, they should not stand where they are when I’m talking to them and shout across the house. So far I’ve managed to progress to where they will walk several feet in the direction of where they think their sibling is and then yell.
I’ve recently discovered that if I ask them, “please walk over to where [your sibling] is and then tell them [message],” they actually do it.
In this video response I look at some of the things that BASSFZz has said about “having a purpose” and its relationship to men attracting women, and how this sort of advice needs to be understood like advice for interviewing for a job—how to not screw up if you’re already qualified for the job.
The two BASSFZz videos that most prompted this were:
In a climactic scene in the episode Ensigns of Command, Picard manages to out-maneuver the Sheliak who are intent on clearing out human settlers on a planet in Sheliak space (by accident; a settlement ship went way off-course 90 years ago and these are their descendants). They have given 3 days notice as required in a treaty, but it will take 3 weeks to clear out the settlers due to some technobabble. The Sheliak intend to wipe out the remaining humans after 3 days, but Picard finds a way to get the time he needs:
The episode, overall, is a good one. It primarily focuses on Data and the theme of Data trying to understand humanity and also to be human, though he cannot be human since he is an android. This scene, though, really encapsulates the difference between Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Captain Kirk had regulations used against him, though even this was rare. Kirk never defeated an enemy by reading a contract more closely.
I’m not really sure what to make of this. Next Generation had things going for it but somehow always managed to be, as my mother put it, bloodless. Data was, in many ways, more human than the rest of the crew. In 1984, I am told, there is the image of the future as a boot stamping on a human face—forever. Star Trek: The Next Generation softened this to a dress shoe placed firmly but no more than firmly on top of a human foot, except on Sundays and Saturdays from 9am-4pm and alternate Wednesdays from 7pm-9pm.
I’m not sure what made TNG the way it was. Presumably Gene Rodenberry should take much of the blame. I can’t help but think that TNG was also a product of its time, though, which makes me wonder what about the late 1980s and early 1990s produced this.
It’s been a while since I wrote about all-cause mortality for the USA, and I’ve been meaning to write an update. With the curious incidence of the omicron variant (if that’s what’s responsible), this has become more timely. So, first, here’s the most recent all-cause mortality data for the USA:
And let’s zoom into the last year and a half:
As you may notice, the average and upper-bound threshold lines are thicker than they used to be; this is to better represent the statistical uncertainty involved in them. Please note that the last two weeks are almost certainly under-reporting of deaths, because the USA is bad at reporting all-cause mortality until about 4 weeks later (a week only makes it onto the chart when the last day in the week is 10 days ago, but even so the first few lines on the right always under-count, though by how much varies). I’m not sure why we’re so bad at it, but we are, so that’s the grain of salt with which to take those last numbers.
Looking at these graphs, it seems like not much is going on in the last few months. Mortality is slightly raised from normal, but not by very much. It’s still the case that if you scales the y-axis not to the highest number of deaths per week but to the US population (329.5 million, as of 2020), the weekly all-cause mortality would barely be distinguishable from the x-axis, i.e. you wouldn’t be able to visually tell that anyone is dying at all.
As it says in the graph, the red line is the 7-day average for daily new cases, and the orange line is daily new hospital admissions for COVID-19. Let’s also look at the daily deaths the CDC attributes to COVID-19:
The orange line is the same daily new admissions for COVID-19 (and thus the same line). The red line is 7-day average of deaths attributed to COVID-19. As I’ve mentioned before, this is intrinsically a less reliable number since reasonable people and indeed reasonable medical guidelines can differ as to what the cause of a death is in the case of multiple interacting causes. To give an example, if someone has COPD and catches COVID-19 and dies, which killed him? He’d have eventually died of the COPD, but died earlier than if he hadn’t caught COVID-19. Both answers are reasonable, and the logic behind them is lost when these are aggregated into statistics. That’s why all-cause mortality is so important—everyone diagnoses death itself the same (the exceptions being statistically irrelevant).
All that said, the CDC’s statics on COVID-19-attributed deaths are still interesting to look at, over time, since the judgement as to the attribution of the cause of death is likely to be the same, over time. It’s not guaranteed, of course, but it is likely in the absence of large cultural shifts.
These various graphs are interesting, but the one I find the most interesting is the bottom one—COVID-19 attributed deaths vs. COVID-19 attributed hospital admissions.
Naively, you would expect the two graphs to look very similar but with a slight right-shifting of the death line since people tend to be admitted to the hospital then die some number of days later. Similarly, once the prevelance of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the population goes down, you’d expect the admissions to start going down and then the deaths will start going down a bit later as the people who were already admitted who are going to die, do so. And we in fact do see this relationship from roughly September of 2020 until about March of 2021. It’s wider than we’d expect to see—somewhere around a month—but it’s there. The line of deaths that we’re looking at is a 7-day average, and the hospital admission line is too smooth to not be some kind of average, so possibly the horizontal distance between them is partly just about how the statistics are collected rather than reflecting the real day-to-day numbers.
After March of 2021, the relationship we would expect to see breaks down. Around April of 2021 we see a spike in covid-related hospital admissions while there is a decline in covid-attributed deaths. In June through august of 2021 we see the relationship seem to come back, but the distance between the bars is now bigger, and the lines no longer have the same basic shape. Hospital admissions also spike much higher relative to the previous trough than do deaths (bear in mind they’re not on the same scale, so their heights can’t be directly compared, only their shapes can be compared). Then the falling in admissions actually lines up, for a while, with the fall in deaths, which it shouldn’t. After that, there is no apparent relationship between the two.
If you look back at the graph of daily cases, the hospital admissions actually coincides much better with it’s 7-day average daily-cases line. I don’t know of a great explanation for that; it’s just interesting to note that hospital admissions track positive COVID-19 tests far better than they track deaths. (Again, the y-axes are very different so you can’t compare the lines and hospital admissions are a drop in the bucket of positive COVID-19 tests so you can’t attribute the rise in positive COVID-19 tests to increased hospital admissions.)
As before, my main conclusions are that the USA’s all-cause mortality data is hopelessly laggy and that the other data available still doesn’t support any obvious conclusions. We’re very clearly not facing any kind of existential threat and anyone who tries to take emergency powers appropriate to an existential threat should be thrown out of office as soon as possible. Beyond that, I think that SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 continue to illustrate how little we know about the natural world.
A question that comes up in mystery stories is having characters who are above suspicion. In golden age mysteries it was extremely popular to make precisely these people the murderer. Sometimes it was even a game to try to make the murderer as far above suspicion as possible. I am coming to think that this is a mistake, though, or at least that it can be.
Casting my eye over my favorite mysteries, the most interesting characters are usually the ones who are above suspicion. These are the people who are affected by the mystery but are not part of it; they’re the most interesting because we can take them seriously. People who are under suspicion are part of the mystery and thus everything that they do, say, and (appear to) think is all suspect.
To be fair, this is at least partially remedied upon re-reading. Knowing who is and who is not false lets us take the true characters seriously. However, this is only a partial remedy because the other characters in the story cannot trust the suspected characters and thus cannot form meaningful relationships with them.
Now, it is necessary in a mystery story to have suspects, and the plural is important. I’m not trying to suggest that one should do without them. Worse, if one had no suspects then everyone would be a suspect. The key, I think, is the distinction between suspect and non-suspect. Some people must be seen to be under suspicion, and others must be clearly elevated above it in an authentic way. But how to do that, especially when the game in golden-age mysteries was to elevate the murderer above suspicion as much as possible?
Obviously recurring characters help a great deal in this. No one suspects Amos Tupper or Seth in Murder, She Wrote since we know that they’ll be back in future episodes and that Cabot Cove wouldn’t be the same without them. It is also typical that people who were called into the mystery after the crime was committed are above suspicion, hence the police and the detective usually are. This is not always so, though; occasionally people who show up later were there before, secretly. Newcomers are actually above suspicion when they have what makes anyone above suspicion: an alibi.
Of course, in mysteries, alibis are made to be broken. The more cast-iron the alibi, the greater the glory in breaking it.
Some alibis simply stand, though. Being seen continuously in front of unimpeachable witnesses from before the last time someone was seen alive until after they were found dead is, in fact, unbreakable. As long as it wasn’t murder by poison, booby-trap, or anything else that doesn’t require the murderer to be present.
And it doesn’t rule out accomplices.
So, other than a character being a recurring character, is there a way to make someone above suspicion so that the reader can take them seriously and the characters can form meaningful relationships with them?
I think that there is, at least sufficient for our purposes: the author can treat the character as above suspicion. That is, not only is the character established to have a good alibi, but the author proceeds on that basis. The character is given development and other characters form meaningful relationships with them. The possibility of their alibi being breakable, for the wrong time, or irrelevant because of an accomplice is simply never brought up. In effect, the author gives the detective confidence in the character and this allows the desirable consequences.
The example of this which comes to mind most readily is the character of Dean Letitia Martin in Gaudy Night. Harriet tells the dean that she simply refuses to consider her a suspect because the dean is too level-headed. Dean Martin objects that this isn’t really valid, but doesn’t otherwise object since she knows herself to be innocent. And the story proceeds with Dean Martin being an interesting character.
(What brings this to mind is that the character of Rhodri Ap Huw, in my favorite Cadfael story, Saint Peter’s Fair, was partially wasted because Ellis Peters held him out as a suspect.)
Being the father of a little girl I am more aware of Disney cartoons than I suspect most men my age without a daughter are. Due to this knowledge, I couldn’t help but notice that a common theme in Disney princess movies is how some woman or other tries very hard to be “perfect” but can’t be “perfect” and needs to find out how to be “loved” in spite of being “imperfect”.
I’m using the scare quotes because they keep using these words, but I don’t think they mean what they think they mean. (Princess Bride reference.)
As far as I can make out, the concept of “perfect” that they are using is, roughly, “completely convenient.” It tends to be phrased in terms of “doing what she’s supposed to” except this isn’t meant in a moral sense—it is never used to describe being a saint. Instead it seems to be something along the lines of, “never disappoints anyone.”
By contrast, as saint tends to disappoint a lot of people because the saint lives according to God’s will, not according to human wills. Of course, by the same token, the saint also doesn’t need human beings to love them. The saint can pray for people who are busy stoning the saint to death because the saint really disappointed them.
This is, incidentally, what made Frozen such a shockingly Christian movie. Elsa gives up trying to be a “good girl” and becomes the villain, then repents when she realizes that both were mistaken and the real answer is love—in the sense of agape, the generous love of God (to will the good of the other for their own sake). I’ve no idea how they accidentally did that, though. It is very much the exception to the standard Disney plot. The typical Disney movie tends to focus on some overbearing figure in a girl’s life with too many expectations of her, and after she rebels, the authority figure eventually relaxes and only presses on her expectations she can actually fulfill. Then they get along.
This is an improvement in a relationship, so it’s not wrong. It’s a little disappointing that its sights are set so low, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it is roughly the counterpart fantasy to the boy into whose lap adventure and heroism falls, and then he’s regarded as a hero and people now treat him with respect. In both cases the fantasy is about life (by which I mostly mean the people around one) magically getting more convenient.
It would be nice if they could use words correctly, though. “Perfect” does not mean “useful” or “convenient.” I get why the authority figure might misuse these terms—to cover their own imperfections—but it would be far better if the heroin would repudiate this mistake rather than ask the authority figure to not reject them despite them not being maximally convenient with the words “love me even though I’m imperfect”. But Disney is not a Christian company so I can’t really expect them to make Christian movies.
It was really cool that they somehow did, that one time, though.
In this video Ian of Forgotten Weapons describes the Welrod Mk IIA covert assassination pistol developed during World War 2 by British Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) to outfit special operations units as well as resistance units in German-occupied countries.
Its strange appearance is partially intentional, because without the magazine (which doubles as the grip) it looks somewhat like a bicycle pump and, more importantly, not like a gun. As Ian says in the video, if you’re stopped by German soldiers, you really don’t want them realizing that you have in your possession an assassination pistol.
Possibly the most interesting thing about it, from a mystery writer’s perspective, is that it actually achieves the sort of quietness that one sees in Hollywood depictions of silencers. (Normal sound suppressors, aka “silencers,” only reduce the unimaginably loud bang of the gun to an imaginably but very loud bang that, however, is not going to cause instant hearing damage.)
Ian says that about 14,000 were made. Further, they are still in occasional use by special forces, though special forces don’t particularly admit to it so this is slightly speculative. From the perspective of someone wanting to use a silenced gun in a murder mystery, these are sufficient numbers that one could reasonably find itself into the hands of an ordinary person.
Something else I find curious is that the manual for them says that their effective range is about 25 yards during the day and 7-8 yards at night. This is partially explained by the poor ergonomics and partially by having to use a slow bullet—a bullet traveling faster than the speed of sound will produce a supersonic boom when it hits the air and there’s nothing a silencer can do about that.
Now, nighttime shooting without special optics is always difficult, but I find it curious that in the daytime 25 yards is an easy shot with a bow and arrow, especially for a modern compound bow with carbon fiber arrows. A pistol is, of course, far easier to conceal than a bow and arrows are—to say nothing of being easier to carry—so I’m not trying to suggest that a bow and arrows would be better for the purpose than this gun. I merely find it interesting.
Every episode of Murder, She Wrote began, before the theme song and title credit, with some clips from the upcoming episode. A moment into these clips, Angela Lansbury would say, “Tonight, on Murder, She Wrote.” The clips invariably made the episode seem more exciting than it was, and frequently misdirected as to the villain and just as often made the episode seem like it was a very different episode.
I find it curious that this was a part of every episode. It was by no means standard on TV shows of the time. Morever, Murder, She Wrote episodes were packed very full so it’s not like they needed to pad the episode out.
I suspect that the main reason for the clipjob of the episode we’re about to watch is that Murder, She Wrote normally starts out a bit slow. It’s quite uncommon to have a body in the first sixty seconds and only about half of the episodes have a body by fifteen minutes in. This isn’t a problem for regular viewers, since we know what we’re getting into and in any event murder mysteries are meant to be considered, not action-packed. Murder, She Wrote was distributed via broadcast (and later cable) television, however, which had some peculiar quirks to it, relative to how people watch TV shows now.
In particular, if one changed the channel something else would be instantly on. This differs from modern streaming in that no choice is necessary prior to viewing something else; one simply would start seeing a different show and could evaluate without any decision-paralysis whether it was better. If one is watching a show on a streaming service, or via DVDs, or what-have-you, switching from the current show involves some amount of time spent evaluating options while not watching anything, and the new things may not be a replacement of the same length. This meant if you didn’t grab someone, they might easily decide to change the channel to see if something better was on.
This phenomenon was exacerbated by the way one got a decent fraction of one’s viewership: they were watching whatever was on in the timeslot before you. Of the ones who didn’t come in this way, some decent fraction had been watching something else and flipped channels to see what else was on. They might not even be intending to check out the channel on which your show is playing, so you have only a moment or two to grab them before they follow their original intention and flip away.
The longer one watches this on-demand, and thus intentionally, the stranger this seems. I stopped watching linear TV about twenty years ago. In college I would catch Mystery Science Theater 3000 on the shared TV in the dorm lounge, but when I moved into my own apartment for grad school not paying for cable TV was a very easy savings and I was not tempted to get an antenna for broadcast TV, either. And I’ve never been tempted to get TV service since then, either, despite the internet company all but throwing it in for free with my internet service.
(Incidentally, I’ll never forget the look of horror on my oldest son’s face when I explained to him how broadcast TV worked, where if you missed it when it broadcast you simply didn’t get to see it until re-run season.)
I have no idea if “Tonight, on Murder, She Wrote” served its intended purpose. If you had any experience of the show you know that at best it was irrelevant to the episode and most of the time it was misleading; thus it was just annoying. On the plus side, though I only realized it later in life, you didn’t need to bother avoiding it because it never contained any spoilers. It’s curious to see it now, watching the episodes on DVD. It’s an odd connection to when I was a child and watched it over broadcast (we didn’t have cable back then), in spite of it being a bad memory.
It’s curious how one can become nostalgic for things one didn’t like; perhaps it is in some way connected to the improved powers of enjoyment one gains as one ages, providing one doesn’t waste the time.
An interesting theme that gets brought up on rare occasion in murder mysteries is gemstones said to be cursed. Often this takes the form of a murderer trying to cover his murder with the legend of the curse. Something I think more interesting, that does not get explored nearly so often, is the idea that the curse is fulfilled even when it a man fulfills the curse accidentally.
Let us say that there is some great sapphire, the size of a man’s fist, which was dug up from the ground in India in some ground supposed to be sacred to someone or other, and a curse attaches to whoever defiles the sacred ground by keeping the sapphire for himself. Let us say that it was dug up by three men, and shortly afterwards one, in a fit of greed, murders the other two in order to keep the sapphire for himself. On his way back to England, a fellow passenger discovers the sapphire and murders the last of the gang and steals the stone. Back in England the thief is himself murdered while trying to fence the stone. Unfortunately for the fence who killed the thief, the unscrupulous nobleman to whom he showed the sapphire became obsessed with it despite his inability to pay for it. The nobleman hired some thugs to kill the fence and steal his jewels, then killed them after they delivered the stolen property to him.
Here the sapphire remained until the nobleman died of old age, as he would not show it to anyone out of jealousy, but when he came to die and his nephew inherited the dilapidating estate, the sapphire was found as were the old man’s writings about his beloved stone, including the history of it and the curse that follows it. In these writings the old man attributes his miserable, lonely life to the curse of the stone, but cannot bring himself to get rid of it. This gets widely known and the nephew’s heir murders him to inherit the sapphire, but tries to pin the murder on the curse, perhaps by attempting to disguise the murder as a fake suicide.
When the case is closed and the sidekick says to the detective, “so the curse wasn’t real after all?” the detective can reply, “I wonder, my friend. Does the sapphire need its own hands to enforce its curse? Is its curse less a curse because it uses men’s hands to do its evil?”
It’s a good question. To some degree we’re straying into the territory of Jonathan Pageau and Jordan Peterson, describing the curse as a pattern that follows because of how men react to the gemstone and ascribing agency to it is true at least insofar as people reliably react to it in a particular way.
This did more-or-less come up in a Poirot short story, btw. It was one of the Labours of Hercules, specifically, the Apples of Hesperides. In it there was a chalice which was stolen from an art collector and he hired Poirot to get it back. Deaths had followed it; it had originally been used to poison people with a secret compartment that can hide the poison and release it into the drink, and later people would kill to have the chalice. At the end of the story, when Poirot returns the cup, he begs the art dealer to give it back to the cloister where it had found its way, as there people only used it as a chalice and it was in this way purified by their innocence and deaths would no longer follow it.
This is an interesting theme to explore in detective fiction. I wish it were explored more often.
In the latter half of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote is the episode Curse of the Daanav. This episode is set in the mansion of Seth Hazlitt’s estranged brother, Robert. As settings go, mansions are one of the best.
The episode actually begins in India, though, some unspecified amount of time before the episode begins. It begins, specifically, with two guys in a cave using an oil lamp.
The non-Indian guy looks like he’s wearing a suspiciously modern style of clothing, but the oil lamp makes this likely to be quite some time ago. Flashlights with tungsten filament bulbs were invented in 1904 and had sold millions by 1922 in the United States. They are here to steal a ruby from a golden cobra.
A golden cobra statue, I mean.
The non-Indian guy tries to lift the statue, but it’s too heavy, so instead he uses a knfie to pry the gem loose. The camera goes wonky, the Indian guy screams and collapses, and then the non-Indian guy grabs at his throat and collapses. Then the Indian guy wakes up in a bed, screaming.
So perhaps it was all a dream? Or perhaps he was just remembering something that happened. Given that he seems to be in the present day, I assume it’s just a dream because the guy hasn’t aged at all from when he was in the cave with the oil lamp.
We then cut to Seth’s brother, Richard, giving the ruby to his young wife, Alice.
He says that it’s not half as beautiful as the woman wearing, but that it will turn a few eyes at the party tonight. Alice is distressed by this. She says that his friends will take one look at it and think that she married him for his money. Also, it puts the gift she gave him to shame. He laughs this off, but she protests that being swept off her feet and honeymooning all over Europe, and the jewels and the parties are nice and all, but they’re also overwhelming.
He tells her that she’ll get used to it.
They’re interrupted by Richard’s daughter from his first marriage, Carolyn:
She comes in with the cattiness turned up to 11. About the necklace, she remarks, “It doesn’t surprise me at all. But then he’s always been very generous. Haven’t you, Daddy?”
He replies, “To a fault, in some cases.”
She then says, “Aww, come now, Daddy. What’s the point of having money if you don’t spend it? Besides, all I want is a measily thou. You can call it an advance on my inheritance.”
Richard sighs and, as he picks up his checkbook, says, “Carolyn, honey. These advances are becoming an all-out major assault.”
He tells her that money is not unlimited and he works hard for it. He then says that she has to learn that she can’t buy everything she wants.
She asks, “Why not? You have.”
She grabs the check from him and leaves. He remarks, “that’s a chip off the old block.”
That last part is interesting, because it acknowledges that her patterns of behavior had to come from somewhere, and that’s probably mostly her parents. You usually don’t see that in murder mysteries; spoiled children are typically treated as if they sprang fully formed from their parents and went wholly wrong entirely on their own.
Which is not to say that people do not have free will and do not make their own choices. They do. Bad people can make themselves that way despite being raised well, just as saints can overcome having been raised badly. These are not the norm, though. It’s far more common that if people don’t have principles, it’s because they were raised without them. And this makes the rich old man with the awful children not nearly so much an object of pity as he’s typically made out to be. There is something sad about a man reaping what he has sewn, but that is tempered by the fact that it’s only justice.
We then meet the spoiled brat’s brother, Mark:
She’s walking down the stairs quickly and he asks her what the rush is—is she afraid that some trendy new fashion will start without her?
I get that Murder, She Wrote needs to be time-efficient in its characterizations, but this level of casual antagonism is dysfunctional. I suppose it’s meant to help make him a suspect—Carolyn suggests that if their father and her young wife have a son together, Alice will ensure that her own issue takes over the bank when their father dies, not Mark.
This is basically just taking aristocratic primogeniture from golden-age detective mysteries and pretending that it applies to American businessmen. Even there, Mark would have to be a nephew with Richard having no male issue, so far. As the oldest son, his position under primogeniture would be assured.
In the actual circumstance, this is absurd. Richard Bradford, the actor who plays Richard Hazlitt, was born in 1934 and was thus 54 years old in 1988 when this episode aired. I suspect he was playing older, though, since his children are clearly in their thirties and Richard Hazlitt was unlikely to have fathered them in his early twenties. But heck, let’s suppose the character was supposed to be the same as as the actor—and it’s weird for a thirty year old to talk of a fifty year old as being “old”—this means that in twenty years he’ll be 74. Even if he survived this long, he’ll probably retire, and the oldest his son with his new wife could be is nineteen years old. Are we really to expect a bank to be run by a nineteen year old with no experience in preference to a fifty year old who’s worked in the bank for the last thirty years? Primogeniture will pass a title and estate to a child. American corporations don’t work that way.
This is one weakness that Murder, She Wrote sometimes runs into when it tries to pay tribute to golden age mysteries—some of them simply don’t work in modern America. (See The Lady in the Lake.)
In the next scene Seth and Jessica are in a car with glorious rear-projection of Washington DC behind them.
I can’t help but wonder what it was like shooting rear-projection scenes. Did they feel as silly as they looked, or was it just a part of the business? My mother likes to say that people were more innocent and accepting back then, but I have dim childhood memories of my father making fun of rear projection even back then.
They were in Washington D.C. to confer with their congressman, and that done, Jessica is trying to talk Seth into accepting an invitation to a polo match from his estranged brother (Richard). With effort, she talks him into it, but he makes it conditional on Jessica coming with him, which she reluctantly agrees to.
The scene shifts to the polo match. Richard and Alice are watching, while Mark is playing. The game ends moments after red team (Mark is on blue team) scores a winning point. Richard upbraids Mark for bad playing.
I find it interesting that Richard is not a sympathetic character. Earlier, it was a bit more ambiguous, where he was pulling in the reigns on a spoiled child; it’s possible to not notice who it must have been who spoiled the child. Here, he’s just being pointlessly critical and cruel. I wonder if this is to help make Seth more sympathetic for being estranged from his brother for so many years.
Mark asks his father why he doesn’t get off his (Mark’s) back, and Richard asks Mark why the hell he doesn’t learn to play the game. He then says, “and there’s someone who could teach you,” and calls out to Vikram Singh, and congratulates him on a good match.
It’s the same guy as in the dream!
Jessica and Seth come up and Jessica observes that they seem to have missed the entire match. “So much for that driver’s short-cuts.” This is a cute way to get them there at the right time, story-wise. It’s not a big deal, but saves a bit of time.
We then meet Alice’s father as the two of them walk up to Jessica and Seth.
Seth guesses that she’s Caroline, but she clarifies that she’s Richard’s wife. She introduces her father, whose name is Burt Davis
Richard then notices Seth, and the two of them stare at each other warily.
It then comes up that Richard was not the one who invited Seth, it was Alice who took the liberty. She then tells Seth and Jessica to come stay at the house, and Richard can’t say no to her so it is arranged. She has a forceful personality, but also means well, which is unusual in a murder mystery.
The scene shifts to the party that evening, where we see Burt eating and drinking off of the plates that servants (or catering staff) are carrying. I think this may be meant to establish his character as low class and unused to the events, or else just someone who really enjoys eating and drinking. He wanders into Seth, and then Jessica walks up with Vikram Singh, and it turns out that they’re standing next to Caroline and Mark.
The children complain, as is their habit. Jessica tells them that she was just saying to Singh that she was sorry they missed the polo match. Mark says that she didn’t miss anything but Vikram begs to differ; prior to his fall Mark scored three goals, which Singh considers most impressive.
Richard and Alice join the group, and Vikram Singh notices the ruby she’s wearing (the one from the dream which Richard gave to Alice at the beginning of the episode). Singh identifies it as “The Eye of the Daanav” and tells them about its curse. The ruby, he explains, is the all-seeing eye of a powerful demon called “The Daanav”. It’s a golden-headed cobra which controls all that is dark and evil in this world.
I’m kind of curious what religion this legend is from, because it doesn’t really match up with Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam, the three major religions you’ll find in India. (I wonder if this is like the episode where there was a Sheik with thirty six wives.) Anyway, the Daanav was angered by the theft of its all-seeing eye (more than a century ago), and laid a curse on it that would rob the breath of life itself from one whose heart is less than pure, killing them most horribly.
Richard thinks that this is merely a scare tactic, though, as Singh has already, on behalf of his government, offered Richard twice what he paid for the jewel. Richard, however, is adamant that he won’t sell it. Why, is not stated. It’s hard to see how he could have a strong attachment to it, but as we will see the plot requires him to not be willing to give it up. Perhaps this is why he was shown to be such a selfish, inconsiderate bastard earlier.
At this awkward juncture Alice excuses herself as having a ton of people to meet, then remembers that she hasn’t given Richard his gift yet and tells him to wait in the study while she goes to get it. It turns out that she left it in her car in the garage. When she gets there an engine is running. She leaves the door slightly ajar and goes to investigate, but the car’s doors are locked. Then the door she left ajar is slowly and quietly closed. She bangs against the door, calling for help, as she coughs from the carbon monoxide. She eventually falls to the ground, unconscious and we fade to commercial.
When we come back from commercial, Burt and Mark are walking to the garage because Burt had thought he’d lost his pipe then remembered he’d left it in the car in the afternoon. Mark tries the door to the garage and remarks that it’s locked, which is unusual. He thinks he’s left his keys “upstairs” (this is a detached garage so “back in the house” would have been more accurate, but Mark appears to be drunk). Burt holds up the key to the garage and asks, “what’s this?” Mark replies, “Oh, what do you know?” They then hear the sound of the car engine and rush in to investigate and find Alice.
They rush her back into the house, Mark carrying her, and Seth takes charge while he instructs Richard to call the paramedics. This done, Richard comes to tell Seth that the paramedics are on their way and he tells her that it’s OK, Alice is coming around. Burt then insists on calling the police as he thinks that someone tried to kill Alice. Richard thinks this is ridiculous, but the next scene shows a police car so someone called the police.
Jessica meets Lt. Ames in the garage, looking at the scene of the crime.
Lt. Ames tells Jessica that this is probably a failed suicide attempt. Jessica finds this ridiculous because who commits suicide by turning on a car and closing the garage door so the garage will fill up with fumes and then going off to a party only to leave in the middle to kill themselves, since it must have taken longer than the fifteen minutes that Alice was gone for the garage to have filled up with fumes (It’s an enormous, many-car garage).
Larry looks at her with new interest, closes the door, and asks who she is. She lets it slip that she had been in Washington to meet with Congressman Hale. Ames recognizes the name; Hale is the head of the House Committee on Secret Intelligence. He concludes that Jessica is some sort of secret agent who cannot reveal her identity. He then gives Jessica all of the evidence he has.
The entirety of his evidence amounts to Alice’s key having been in the ignition of the car with the doors locked. Alice admits that it’s her key, but protests that she always kept it on a hook in the garage and anyone could have taken it. Under questioning, she said that she pushed the button that should have opened the garage a few times and it didn’t work, then she tried to go out the side door but found it locked.
Ames notes that when he tried the electric garage door opener, it worked fine. Seth interrupts and suggests that she might have been confused. Inhaling that much carbon dioxide was bound to cause a certain amount of confusion.
Alice then interjects that the paramedics said it could have caused far worse than that, had Seth not been there. Seth acknowledges this with an smug nod.
This is a thing that the writers try to develop during the episode—Seth’s medical prowess. The only real problem is that so far as I can see, he didn’t do anything at all. The only thing we know he did was listen to some part of her with a stethoscope and say that it was going to be OK because she was coming round. He didn’t even do as much as Dr. Watson often did (give the patient brandy). Nor do I see what he could have done, given that he didn’t have an oxygen canister on hand to administer oxygen with—the main treatment of carbon monoxide poisoning. There isn’t really a way to administer higher levels of oxygen without an O2 tank (that I’m ware of), and some searching that I did didn’t turn up anything besides administering O2 that will help (in the short term).
A bit of debate happens in which Richard suggests that the carbon monoxide confused Alice and she locked the door herself, while Jessica points out that carbon monoxide confusion still doesn’t explain who started the car. Richard declares that it was an accident, and Lt. Ames accepts that and leaves.
On his way out Lt. Ames tells Jessica, sotto voce, that if she needs his help on this she has it, on the record or not.
Alice goes back to her room and Jessica comes with her and helps her undo her hairdo. As she does so, Alice tells Jessica that she’s confident that she didn’t lock the door herself. Jessica asks who knew where the gift was and Alice says that Caroline was the one who suggested the garage. Burt, who was getting Alice an aspirin, reminds her that Mark knew as well, since he drove up just as Burt and Alice were hiding the present.
After this Jessica and Richard are talking and Richard said that it had to be an accident and it was just luck that Alice wasn’t killed. Jessica replies, “Luck, and your brother.” Richard admits that Seth was impressive and he didn’t realize that Seth had it in him to be so cool under pressure.
Again, I don’t get what Seth is supposed to have done. He didn’t have oxygen or any medicines with him. Is he supposed to have elevated her head in a way that made her breath twice as well, or something? There is an experimental technique where administering a small amount of carbon dioxide can speed the person’s breathing and help them to expel the carbon monoxide faster. He didn’t have any canisters of carbon dioxide on hand either, though.
Structurally speaking, it makes a lot of sense that the writers want Seth to have shown off his medical prowess and to have saved his estranged brother’s beloved wife, but I don’t see any legitimate way to have that here. Had there been an older person on oxygen whose tank could have been borrowed for a few minutes at a critical moment, this could have made sense. As it was, though, how impressive is it supposed to be that he laid her down on a couch and then listened to her lungs? I think that the lack of doing anything really hurt the emotional effect, because all of this talk about Seth saving Alice has the effect, not of drawing one’s attention to the brothers, but of making the viewer wonder what the heck Seth was supposed to have done.
This might not be an issue in a romantic comedy, but this is a mystery show. The viewers are self-selected for being interested in poisons, medical details, and exactly what happened. This is the worst genre to hand-wave away crucial details.
They then run into Vikram Singh, who is still in the house for some reason. He expresses his personal condolences. Richard thanks Singh then excuses himself. Singh interrupts him leaving, though, and says, “Mr. Hazlitt, but for the grace of a god we cannot hope to understand, your wife could very well be dead. Now will you trust that the curse of the ruby is true?”
Richard responds to this about as well as can be expected, but he catches himself at “Listen, you son of a-” and then moderates his language because a lady (Jessica) is present. He informs Singh that the ruby is not for sale, now or ever.
Again, why he has such an attachment to the ruby is never explained or even hinted at. It’s a bit hard to imagine why; so far as we know it’s just a pretty stone he bought as a present for his wife on a lark.
He adds that if he finds out that Singh was responsible for Alice’s almost dying, he will kill him. Singh finally departs.
Richard puts the ruby away in the safe in his study and runs into Seth, who was sitting in a chair in the study. Richard invites him to share a drink and Seth accepts. They begin reminiscing, then talk over what drove them apart—a woman named Molly. It seems that Seth was romantically involved with her, or at least interested in her, but she and Richard eloped. When they got back Seth had already left for Portland, and Richard couldn’t find the words. Then his business took off, and the kids came, and then Molly got sick and died very quickly.
Richard apologize, but Seth says that he should be the one to apologize, since his blindness was what drove Richard and Molly to have to run away. Then Seth did his own running away, and even after he married Ruth he couldn’t bring himself to make the first move toward reconciliation. “And now, Ruth’s gone too. And here we sit. Two of the biggest fools that ever drew breath.” (They then formally reconcile.)
It’s a very well done scene. I think it lacks a little punch because as a TV show it’s hard to take seriously since Seth is an ongoing character and Richard didn’t exist in anyone’s imagination before this episode and won’t exist in anyone’s imagination after it, either, not even in impact on Seth’s character. If this were a one-off story such that both characters existed equally, I’d say it was a superb scene. Both actors are really excellent, though that’s a thing specific to television and not really generalizable to writing mysteries in print form. I think that there’s a lesson, here, though: scenes of large emotional impact should generally be between equal characters.
Actually, a second lesson is that if you’re writing anything episodic or otherwise can’t live with the consequences, make sure to have the big stuff happen to non-major characters who will not be around in the future. We can then give them, in our imaginations, the consequences of their actions and the character changes of their significant improvements. Giving it to characters you will have to take it away from is simply wasting the character development.
General lessons aside, there is another problem, which is that it’s not entirely in character for Seth. He’s a cranky curmudgeon who never thinks deep thoughts. Also, what he said was too eloquent for him. I wouldn’t normally complain about improvements, but this gets back to the part about knowing that it won’t last.
Shortly after they reconcile.
A few hours later we see Alice in a nightgown coming down the stairs and looking for Richard. She seems to believe that he’s in the study. She knocks increasingly loudly and calls to him, but the door is locked. This brings Jessica and Caroline to the top of the stairs.
Jessica asks if something is wrong and Alice says that she thinks Richard must be hurt. This general commotion brings the rest of the house out of bed. Seth says that he left Richard in the study not half an hour ago. Unfortunately there is no key; the latch is an old-fashioned hinge-latch that can only be opened from the inside.
They break the door down and find Richard on the floor, dead.
Caroline then says, “Oh my God. The ruby. It’s gone.” And we get a closeup of Richard.
I think that this is supposed to illustrate that the ruby is gone. Since the ruby was never on any part of Richard that we can see, I’m not sure how it does that. So far as anyone knew, he had put it in the safe. (In fact, he hadn’t, since he was interrupted in that by Seth, but no one else could have known this, and we’ve no reason to suppose he didn’t put the ruby back after his conversation with Seth was over.) The scene then fades to black; I suspect that this would be to the mid-point commercial break. We come back to someone from the police pulling a sheet over the corpse.
Jessica talks to Seth and he tells her about the reconciliation, then goes to get fresh air. Lt. Ames is talking to the rest of the family, asking about secret passages, but Mark assures him that the only way in or out was through the door or windows, all of which were locked.
So, we have a locked room mystery.
I really should be more excited about them than I am but my experience with locked room mysteries is that they’re always disappointing. I’m beginning to think that they have to be. The problem is that a murderer can only get out of a locked room by some trick, and tricks are not very satisfying. Latches can be lowered after a door is closed, for example. In The Mirror Cracked From Side to Side, for example, the latch on the door would close if it was propped up and the door banged shut. A lot of play has been made about the breaking down of the door removing the evidence of how it was locked, too. So, for example, the deadbolt can be broken open and only the catch used to lock the door, and when the innocent people break the door open they will see both the deadbolt and catch broken and so assume that they broke both. (Another approach which I associate more with pre-1930s mysteries, though examples can be found afterwards, are the use of devices to kill the victim such that they were actually killed in a locked room, and the device is disguised or removed later.)
The other issue here is that locked rooms only matter in a mystery when there is the suspicion of suicide that the locked room strengthens. Oddly, we’re never told what the cause of death was, but there is no suspicion of suicide ever brought up.
Pausing for a moment to talk about the cause of death, since it’s very strange that we’re not told: in the establishing shot there was no knife sticking out of the corpse and in the shot above we can see no ligature marks on the neck. There are also no pools of blood, so we can rule out stabbing and strangulation, but beyond this we’re given no information about how he came to be an ex-Richard. We’re not even given the proximate cause of death, such as heart failure, stroke, asphyxiation, etc. My guess is that he was struck from behind on the head with a blunt instrument. The half-hour window since Seth left him until when he was found dead leaves very little time for poisoning and the body wasn’t contorted, the lips not blue, etc. There is also the possibility of being shot since the dark clothes might not show a small bloodstain and if he was shot in the chest and fell backwards, and if the bullet didn’t exit the body (as they frequently don’t), there would not be obvious blood. Still, my money is on a blow to the head from behind.
Assuming, of course, the writers ever figured out a cause of death. I actually suspect that they didn’t.
The one thing we do know is that Lt. Ames treats this as a murder investigation from the beginning and everyone seems to agree with that. So this brings up the question of the locked room: what purpose did it serve? If everyone agrees that Richard was murdered, figuring out how the murderer locked the room after leaving is just a detail. The room being locked from inside only helps the murderer if there is some plausible alternative to “well, you must have done it somehow, as clearly somebody did it somehow”.
Anyway, at this point Caroline brings up the curse of the ruby . This brings Vikram Singh to Lt. Ames’ attention. It’s interesting, btw, how the writers dance around him being Indian. When Ames asks who Singh is, Jessica replies, “He’s the cultural attaché at his country’s embassy in Washington.” Also curious is that Ames tells one of the police extras to check on Singh and see if he was connected to the muslim protests a few weeks ago. Jessica tells Ames that Singh said he had attended a Divali festival last year, which would make him Hindu, not Muslim. Also possible is that he’s in some wierd made-up-for-TV Indian religion and happened to go to a Divali. (Divali is a festival of lights that is celebrated by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs; it thus seems to be largely a secular festival to which people attach various religious meanings as they care to.) This impresses Ames, anyway.
It’s getting late so Jessica suggests that Ames wrap up and he does so. He then asks her which federal service she’s with, but Jessica again protests she’s just a mystery writer from Cabot Cove, Maine. Ames takes this to mean that she’ll reveal her real identity when he needs to know and not before then, which he is content with.
This running joke serves the larger purpose of securing police cooperation for Jessica, and is an enjoyable way to do it. Every Murder, She Wrote episode needs to handle the question of how Jessica relates to the police; the episodes run the gambit from complete hostility to fawning admiration. This one is more on the fawning admiration side, but does so with a touch of dignity. Just a touch, but at least he’s clever about his mistake.
The next morning Ames runs into Jessica examining the outside of the room. After some further protestations that she isn’t a government agent, to which Ames enthusiastically (though insincerely) agrees, he asks what she has for him and she replies, “unfortunately, nothing.” The windows were not tampered with and except for their own footprints there are no marks in the flower beds outside the windows. Jessica concludes that the murderer wants them to believe in the curse.
They walk on and the camera pans up to Caroline, who had been watching them from a second floor window.
I believe that this is supposed to make us think Caroline is a suspect. She was the one who drew everyone’s attention to the ruby being missing. She was the one who told Lt. Ames about the curse. Of course, in a Murder, She Wrote, a suspicious close-up like this rules her out as a suspect.
The next scene of Mark, Mark is on the phone with, presumably, the family lawyer and angrily demands a copy of his father’s will today. Ames walks in on the tail end of this and finds it suspicious. There is some interesting word-play, though. “In a pretty big rush to see the will, aren’t you, considering your father is lardy cold?” He replies, “Lieutenant, my father was never anything but cold.”
In the ensuing conversation Seth protests and Mark points out that Seth is in no position to say what Richard was like. The long estrangement makes Ames suspicious until Jessica tells him that Seth can be trusted, which Ames takes to mean that Seth is also a government agent.
Jessica and Ames then go to investigate the study. Jessica figured out how the locked room was accomplished—a lit cigarette that propped up the latch while the door was closed.
As I said, it’s always some sort of trick. Oddly, no one raises the question of what the purpose of this trick was. Ames asks who would go to all this trouble for a ruby, and the scene cuts to interrogating Vikram Singh in the lounge. When Jessica says that Seth was killed by a man, not a curse, Singh leaves. As he goes he puts on black leather gloves, but then pauses as he puts the second one on, then takes it off again, looking quizzically at the glove.
Jessica, eagle-eyed as ever, spots his perplexity about what’s inside his glove. She calls him on it and it turns out to be the Eye of the Daanav.
Back at police headquarters, Jessica doubts that Singh is guilty. For one thing, he couldn’t have known that Alice was going to get Richard’s present from the garage, making it very hard for him to have tried to kill her that way. Also, he’s far too intelligent to have brought the ruby he stole the night before back to the victim’s house to hide it in his own glove without knowing it and then all but show it to Jessica and Lt. Ames. OK, Jessica only says, “Well, frankly, I doubt that an intelligent man like Mr. Singh would have deliberately hidden the ruby in the glove and then put it on in front of us.” She forgets to mention that this is the next day and Mr. Singh did not sleep at the house—it’s never explained why he was questioned there—and so he would have had to bring the ruby back to the house after stealing it the night before in order for it to be at the house.
I think that the writers wanted to write an isolated English country house murder with its closed set of suspects, but forgot that they didn’t actually do that. There’s kind of a lot of stuff that they forgot to do, when you get down to it.
Caroline is summoned to Lt. Ames’ office and questioned about her spending habits. She denies murdering her father for money—he had refused to pay her debts to a collection agency a few weeks ago. She suggests that if they want a financial motive, they should look to Alice, who will receive millions because of an outrageous insurance policy which she forced Richard to take out during their honeymoon.
In the denouement, Lt. Ames, Jessica, Seth, Alice, and Burt are in the accusing parler. They accuse Alice of murdering her husband (and faking the attempt on her own life), but it turns out to be a ruse to force Burt to confess. Well, not so much to confess as to make a slip. Lt. Ames suggests that Alice used one of her cigarettes in the latch and Burt points out that she smokes English cigarettes, not Turkish. Of course, he could only have known that it was a Turkish cigarette used to prop up the latch if he was the murderer.
Burt asks if Jessica is accusing him of trying to kill his own daughter and she says no, it was not meant to be fatal and only meant to raise the specter of the curse.
There’s a problem, here. People—and especially Burt—only learn about the curse moments before Alice goes to the garage to get her present to Richard. As Jessica established, the car had to have been running for a while before this. If Singh couldn’t have known that Alice was going to go to the garage to get her present to Richard, Burt couldn’t have known about the curse in order to make it look like Alice was nearly a victim to it. I think that this is just a plot hole.
Jessica tells Burt she had wondered at how lucky it was that Burt “just happened” to go to the garage and find Alice. When he protests that he had forgotten his pipe in the garage, Jessica reminds him that he had his pipe at the party and put it in his pocket in order to shake hands. There’s also a bit earlier where Burt had told Alice that the ruby was found in Singh’s glove, when Burt couldn’t have known that if he didn’t plant it there himself.
Any one of these is sufficient (in a Murder, She Wrote) to prove Burt is the murderer on its own, so all three together clinches it. Alice is astonished and asks her father why he locked her in the garage—he nearly killed her. He tells her that he had it planned down to the second. He had the key in his pocket and if Mark hadn’t found his key, Burt would have blown it there and then and opened the door and got her out.
He then explains why he killed Richard—he saw the kind of man Richard was: cold, possessive, king of the bloody world. And now he owned Alice, and would show her off to make people think more of him. What kind of a life could she have with a man like that?
Then we get to the real reason: But without Richard, she’d inherit. Oh, they could have been so happy, Burt and Alice. Going first class, never needing a by-your-leave from anybody. It would have been grand.
When this fails to get the reaction he was hoping for, he asks Alice, “You do see, don’t you? I was thinking of you.”
Since he very obviously wasn’t and she may be innocent but she’s not an idiot, she doesn’t say anything and tearfully hugs him. The scene ends and that’s all we get of her character.
The final scene is of Lt. Ames helping Jessica and Seth with their bags. He tells Jessica that it was a privilege to work with someone of her security clearance. She tries one last time to convince him that she’s not a secret agent by showing him her social security card, library card, and voter’s registration card. (Why she’s carrying the social security card and voter’s registration card in her wallet, she does not say.) He looks at them but then Seth calls to Jessica, “You’d better hurry if you want to meet with that agent before he goes to Moscow.”
This is a callback to a line from the scene in the car where Jessica is trying to talk Seth into accepting his brother’s invitation and he’s trying not to: “You’ve got to see that real estate agent about your vacant lot before he runs off to that family reunion of his up in Moscow, Idaho.” Without that context, which of course he doesn’t know, Ames takes it to have its more plain meaning. He looks at her cards again and remarks, “Best phony ID I’ve ever seen.”
Jessica only stares in disbelief, and we go to closing credits.
Overall, it was a very enjoyable episode. It was clearly inspired by the classic English manor house murder, which is always very fun. The theme of the reunion of brothers was well done and well acted, even if Seth was the wrong choice for the part. Alice, the young wife, was also a real asset to the episode. Her innocence and universal good will was really touching.
This was not an episode that stands up to scrutiny, though. You can see the amount that the writers paid attention to detail in things like the cause of death never being mentioned. For that matter, how was the murder supposed to have happened? Did Burt wait up until Seth left the study to creep in and kill Richard? Did he sneak in without Richard noticing him, or did he talk with Richard and wait for him to be standing there with his back turned?
However he did that—and neither options seems very practical—why steal the ruby if the idea was to try to blame the curse? If the ruby could steal itself, presumably it would have done so a long time ago and be back in the golden cobra’s head. If, on the other hand, the idea was to frame Vikram Singh, why wait for a time when Singh almost certainly couldn’t have been in the house? And what was the purpose of the locked room except to use a Turkish cigarette to frame Singh? But why bother using it to lock the door? It would have done as well to leave it in an ash tray.
Less of a fundamental problem, but still showing how little detail mattered, is the way that Burt started the car for the plot to pretend to have the curse try to kill Alice before he learned about the curse. To be fair, this would not have been easy to fix, since the episode started on the day of the party and Murder, She Wrote is generally so packed that the episodes are on a tight deadline. Even so, it’s still a mistake.
I’m also not sure what to make of Richard having been a lousy man and a terrible father to his Children. They did touch on the interesting theme of Alice’s goodness, with the aid of her beauty, reforming him. I wish that they could have done more with it but having the victim alive until the halfway mark is already pushing it in a murder mystery.
Which brings me to the abrupt ending.
One flaw in Murder, She Wrote is that the amount that they cram into less than 47 minutes doesn’t permit them to give characters a real farewell. They tend to just disappear. We never see Mark again after his telephone conversation with his lawyer. We never see Vikram Singh again after he’s arrested for having the ruby in his glove. We last see Caroline in the police station where she tells the police about Alice’s large inheritance. These aren’t well developed characters, though, so it’s not much of a loss to see them go without any closure. It’s far more of a pity that we don’t learn about what Alice will do. If this weren’t an episodic TV show where nothing that happens in it will affect future episodes, she might even lean on Seth for support which he would provide in his recently reconciled dead brother’s stead. Your father murdering your husband and your step children (who are older than you) hating you is a position in which you will want a friend, wealth or no. Alice would be a very interesting character to meet again, though unfortunately that won’t happen. They could at least have cut the opening sequence with the dollar-store Indiana Jones stealing the ruby in exchange for an extra minute in which to give Alice some closure.
The relationship between Jessica and Lt. Ames was also an interesting part of this episode. As I said, Murder, She Wrote has to establish some kind of relationship between Jessica and the police, and if they’re friendly, some sort of reason for them to be friendly. The more usual reason for them to be friendly is that they’ve been impressed by Jessica’s books. Mistaking Jessica for a high ranking secret agent accomplished this in a more fun manner. It’s also nice that while Ames wasn’t brilliant, he wasn’t an idiot, either. He merely had a mistaken premise that he stuck to. It also played, to some degree, on the fact that as the main character in the show Jessica was, in fact, as special as Ames assumed, just in a different way. It’s interesting as an example of how far one can go with taking a bit of comedy seriously without damaging the seriousness. It would have hurt had Jessica required Ames’ belief in order to succeed, but he was initially friendly anyway, so it remains plausible that Jessica could have secured his cooperation without the mistake, and this permits us to enjoy it.
Overall I would rate this in the top half of Murder, She Wrote episodes. It has many flaws but I think that they’re all forgivable in light of its good qualities.
F.r Ronald Knox (of Detective Decalogue fame) wrote a number of detective stories. His first, The Viaduct Murder, might best be described as a serious satire on detective fiction. It was interesting, in a way, but not, frankly, satisfying. To some degree it was really more of a very long-winded attack on the Historical-Critical method than a detective story. After that he wrote a far more conventional detective story, The Three Taps.
Even there, while it was a more conventional story, it featured an unconventional detective, Miles Bredon. The first unusual thing was that the detective worked for an insurance company. Humorously, it was called The Indescribable Insurance Company (i.e. “The Indescribable,” for short). Here’s some of the initial description of him:
…[T]he Indescribable retained its own private detective. This fact was not advertised; nor was he ever referred to in the official communications of the Company except as ‘our representative’. He carried neither a lens nor a forceps—not even a revolver; he took no injections; he had no stupid confidential friend, but a private detective he was for all that. An amateur detective I will not call him, for the Company paid him, as you would expect, quite handsomely; but he had nothing whatever to do with Scotland Yard, where the umbrellas go to.
It’s also quite fascinating how F.r Knox described Miles Bredon being married (some paragraphs down, after talking about how he was lazy but very capable when his interest was roused):
He was well thought of, in fact, by everyone except himself. For himself, he bitterly regretted the necessity that had made him become a spy—he would use no other word for it, and constantly alarmed his friends by announcing his intention of going into the publishing trade, or doing something relatively honest. The influence which saved him on these occasions was that of—how shall I say it?—his wife. I know—I know it is quite wrong to have your detective married until the last chapter. But it is not my fault. It is the fault of two mocking eyes and two very capable hands that were employed in driving brass-hats to and fro in London at the end of the war. Bredon surrendered to these, and made a hasty but singularly fortunate marriage. Angela Bredon was under no illusions about the splendid figure in khaki that stood beside her at the altar. Wiser than her generation, she realized that marriages were not ‘for the duration’; that she would have to spend the rest of her life with a large, untidy, absent-minded man who would frequently forget that she was in the room. She saw that he needed above all things a nurse and a chauffeur, and she knew that she could supply both these deficiencies admirably. She took him as a husband, with all a husband’s failings, and the Indescribable itself could not have guaranteed her more surely against the future.
It’s interesting that the detective is married, and especially interesting that Fr. Knox actually addresses this in a way that breaks the fourth wall. “I know—I know it is quite wrong to have your detective married until the last chapter. But it is not my fault.”
Fr. Knox wrote The Three Taps in 1927 (or, more accurately, it was published then). This was fairly late in the golden age of detective fiction, though as I’ve noted this was a thing almost from the beginning. In A Study In Scarlet, Holmes comments on C. Auguste Dupin, as well as Monsieur Lecoq. (Lecoq was a fictional french detective published in France in the 1860s, though available in English translation.)
I really don’t know what to make off all this; none of Fr. Knox’s stories were really great, and his detective is not an exception. Miles Bredon is clever and does the deduction which the plot requires. He figures out the story in a flash of brilliance after playing a complicated game of solitaire (“patience”). But he feels almost as if his author was careful not to make him great. There seems to have been a convention in the golden age that detectives must have as many drawbacks as they have traits to their credit; in consequence they were often ugly, rude, or clumsy. The only real exception I can think of is Fr. Brown, who was a really great character and whose only balancing handicaps were being short, a roman catholic priest, and bad at remembering where his umbrella was.
Fr. Knox seems to have thought that if his detective was brilliant and capable of keeping a wife he couldn’t also be interesting or it would be too much.
I can only say that I once made a similar mistake in a novel I never published (or, strictly speaking, finished). Afraid of having the character called an author self-insert I made him completely unlike me. This meant, among other things, that he had no interests that I found even remotely interesting. The consequence, once I put it like this, is not surprising: I found him extraordinarily boring. This is not a good way for the author to relate to the main character of the book.
Perhaps a detective who is brilliant and capable of keeping a wife and also an interesting person is too much for this world, but for all that he’d be much more interesting to read about.
It may be that Fr. Knox didn’t really want to write detective fiction. That his first novel was a satire on detective fiction with only one joke in it does suggest this. However, unlike G.K. Chesterton—who did not write conventional detective stories either—Fr. Knox did not go off in his own direction. In writing Fr. Brown Chesterton had a positive vision for what he wanted to write, and wrote that. He did put it within the detective genre of his time, if only barely, but he pursued his own ends. Fr. Knox seems to be pursuing neither his own ends nor anyone else’s, and only sticks to convention, if in general he tries to stick to the edge of it rather than the center.
Fr. Knox was a man of no small accomplishments, and given that he took the trouble of writing up his detective decalogue and of being a member of the Detection Club, I can’t help but wonder why he went this way.
An overlooked cause of the Great Depression is the move from agriculture to industry as a source of employment. In the USA, something like 25% of the population transitioned from being farmers to being factory workers in a decade or so, and the great depression was, in part, the working out of the readjustment of the economy to so large a fraction of the population changing occupations.
Something that was just pointed out in a TIK video (BankWars Episode 1) was that during World War 1 governments created a massive quantity of weapons and in order to do so paid large wages for factory workers (in arms industries) while hurting the price of farm goods. This was a significant stimulus to people moving off of farms and into factories during this time. I’m not sure—I need to do more research—that this happened as much in the USA as in Europe, but this is an intriguing piece of the puzzle to fit in.
I had mainly attributed this move to falling prices for farm goods due to an increase in efficiency due to mechanization (things like large, powerful diesel powered tractors, for example). I’ve no doubt that this is a significant part of the move, as further mechanization of farming has resulted in even more people moving out of the farming sector while more food is being produced in the US than ever. (It’s been more than a few years since I last looked it up, but I believe that only about 5% of the population of the US works in agriculture.)
However, this transition being massively speeded up by government interference would certainly help to explain it happening so quickly as to cause a great depression (which had, at its peak, something like 25% unemployment). The timing is a little iffy for this; the great depression began in the late 1920s while the great depression ended in 1918. I really need to do more research to see if this actually fits in. (Another place I need to look is how things were going in Europe because the Great Depression was a worldwide phenomenon with interlocking problems caused by international trade collapsing.)
Most calls from strange numbers don’t leave messages, and of those that do, few begin by saying anything other than my car’s extended warranty is about to expire. Today was an exception.
Hi Christopher, good afternoon, this is [name] calling from Reader’s Magnet. Chris, your book has the potential to become the next best-seller. Because of that [long pause while she finds her place in the script] we plan pick you and your book to be featured in the special edition of Publisher’s Weeklies [unintelligible] Anniversaries featured authors, this coming April 19 issue. We are in lookout for books with great stories to tell. As Publisher’s Weeklies special edition highlights on uplifting and edgy stories. And your book has also been selected to be displayed in the Tucson Festival of Books and Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. These are also especial events as these two book fairs are the first to reopen since pandemic started which means the fairgoers to these events will likely be doubled. So do not waste this chance to be part of this momentous affairs as this comes limited to a few chosen. To join and for more details, call me at 619-514-[redacted] extension 3119. You can reach me before 7pm Eastern Time Mondays through Fridays. Bye for now and stay safe always.
I presume that they’re trying to sell me author services, though it could be a credit card scam. The woman’s first language was clearly not English and in the age of voice-over-IP she could easily have been in a country that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the US despite having a US phone number. (I assume the 4 digit extension is to seem more legitimate.) That said, since predatory author services are perfectly legal while credit card fraud is not, I’m more inclined to guess the former.
I think it’s a nice touch that she doesn’t even mention which of my books is poised to become the next best-seller.
Something interesting I learned from several videos by TIK History on the Soviet Union before, during, and after WW2: Marxism in the Soviet Union was largely factory workers vs. farmers. This got me thinking about Marxism more generally, and the implications of class conflict being central to Marxist theory.
On a surface-level reading, Marxism is about pitting workers against owners. This is evil since all people should love each other, of course, but more relevant here (because it’s not so obvious) is that the owner-worker distinction fails to capture a large fraction of humanity. A great many people are neither the owners of someplace other people work, nor workers in a business owned by someone else. There are, of course, children, which Marxism utterly fails to deal with (except by, in effect, putting them into childcare/indoctrination factories). There are people (mostly women) whose primary work is raising their children and doing other domestic work. And there are people who own their own means of production.
In this latter group are—during the time of much of the soviet union—farmers. Family-owned farms are still common even today, despite the predominance of large factory farms, but they were extremely common in the Soviet Union for various reasons relating to the state of technology. It is true that there was a major push to collectivize the farms, but this only got so far, especially since the collective farms so often failed miserably. Part of the problem is that farms are intrinsically large and so people simply have to be spaced out enough that they exercise their own judgement. Farms also are not factories—you need knowledge (both general and local) and to exercise judgement to farm successfully.
The upshot is that farmers simply aren’t like factory workers. They have different interests. And factory workers desperately need what farmers produce—food. Factory workers—or those concerned with them—are also necessarily removed from farmers, since the factories tend to be located in or near cities. It is easy for factory workers to view farmers simply as a nuisance. The more food costs, the less money factory workers have for other things. And farmers are remote and their concerns unreal to city dwellers with extremely different concerns. Moreover, under any even slightly socialist system factory workers cannot earn more money by working harder or longer. Their income is fixed; only their expenses vary. In consequence, they only benefit (so far as they can see) the more farmers are squeezed.
And factory workers fit the Marxist model far better than farmers do. Farmers will always have independence and some degree of ownership, at least if you don’t want everyone to starve to death. Farmers can very naturally own their own means of production, but also be the laborers. Non-collectivized farms simply break the Marxist model since they are owner-workers. The perennial temptation, then, will be for Marxists to hold that these owner-workers are evil in virtue of being owners and thus are exploiting the workers who buy the food the farmers produce.
Since something like 60% of the people in the Soviet Union worked in agriculture, especially in the first half of its existence, this meant that a minority of the population was oppressing a majority of the population in the name of preventing that majority from oppressing it.
Curiously, if you look at Marxists today, they tend to want to do the exact same thing—to oppress the majority in the name of protecting themselves from oppression, while saying that they’re on the side of everyone.
I suppose a tiger doesn’t change his stripes after all.