My son recently mentioned that it’s something of a pity that costume parties in murder mysteries all have basically the same plot: two people are dressed similarly enough that they are confused. This does, of course, betray a lack of breadth in his experience of murder mysteries, but in his defense he’s only eleven years old.
To be fair, there are several basic plots to costume parties:
Two people have similar costumes that are confused for each other, at least in unusual lighting. (This can give the murderer an alibi or make the victim appear alive later than they were.)
One person dresses in the costume of another in order to frame them.
One person can, with a few alterations, make his costume look like another’s.
One person had the costume of another on underneath his own, much bulkier costume.
Curiously, I can’t recall ever seeing someone switch into another costume—that no one had come to the party in—to commit the murder, then don their original costume again. It probably exists, but this does seem pretty rare.
The main difficulty with costume parties in murder mysteries is that there is very little that one can do in a costume party that one can’t do elsewhere except for some confusion of costumes. The only other thing which comes to mind is the disguise of an unusual weapon in costume props. The difficulty there is that there are very few murders where the main difficulty is sneaking the weapon into and out of the scene of the crime, and hence being able to smuggle it in a costume is a solution to this problem, enabling the crime. I suppose one could work something up with a poisoned blow-gun, or something like that, but even there it’s not obvious why the murderer would want to keep the thing. There are too many small weapons concealed easily enough in ordinary clothing to make this really appealing.
Past that, a costume party is such a big thing that it would feel very strange for a writer to set a murder mystery in a costume party and for the murder to have nothing whatever to do with the costume party. I’m sure that’s been done because every setup in murder mysteries will also be used as a bluff, and also a double-bluff. Still, to be fair to my son, if everyone is dressed up in different costumes, it is a fair bet that someone will look like someone else, and the solution will involve figuring out who was really underneath the crucial costumes.
Murder in a Minor Key is a very special episode of Murder, She Wrote, because it’s the only episode in which we actually get to find out what murder she wrote. Unlike the typical episode it doesn’t even start with the title card. After an establishing shot of Jessica’s house, we begin with Jessica walking down the stairs.
But she’s not just walking down the stairs. She’s talking to the camera. She tells us that she had changed into something more comfortable as she has a long night of reading ahead of her because her publisher just sent her the galley proofs for her latest book, Murder in a Minor Key.
She adds that she doesn’t know why they bother sending her the galley proofs as she’s the world’s worst proof reader. I can’t help but wonder what sort of English teacher she made if that’s actually true. (Jessica had been an English teacher for decades before retiring.)
Jessica then walks over and sits in a comfy chair and says that it’s so good to sit down. She spent half the day on her feet at the power company, trying to get her last bill sorted out. Meanwhile, the audience is wondering why Jessica knows we’re here and why she is telling us about the minutiae of her day as if we’re old friends. Those of us who watched Mr. Rogers as a kid might have been wondering if she had recently installed any model trains. But wait, it gets weirder.
Jessica not only is wearing “slippers” with 2″+ heels and pink ostrich feathers, she calls our attention to them and explains that she is wearing them because they’re actually very comfortable, though she only wears them around the house when no one else can see them. For bonus points, her nephew Grady gave them to her.
Jessica laughs about this, then gets down to business. She starts telling us about her book. She’s very pleased with it—it’s a “nice little puzzle” about some young students at a southern California university.
This is certainly not what I expected Jessica to be writing about. What does she know about young students at a southern California university? Aside from book tours, teaching university courses in NYC about crime writing, visiting dozens of nieces and hundreds of wealthy and/or famous friends, she’s spent her entire adult life in Cabot Cove, Maine. I wouldn’t necessarily expect her to write about a fictional small town in Maine, but then I wouldn’t necessarily expect her to not write about that, if you get my meaning. At the very least I would expect her books to feature a consistent detective.
Jessica introduces us to three friends who will be the main characters. There’s Michael Prentice, who’s a “bright, budding music composer”. His best friends are Chad Singer, a law student from the deep south, and Jenny Coopersmith, a quirky young lady from New York. As a testament to Angela Lansbury’s stage background, she delivers the exposition in one take, which is no mean feat as it’s comprised of several different topics. Anyway, our main characters introduced, we finally get to the title screen. Oh, but before we do, fun fact: Shaun Cassidy, the actor who played Chad, previously played the character of Joe Hardy. That was eight years before this episode, on a Hardy Boys TV series. Shaun Cassidy only acted for another year, then a few years later started producing shows. Anyway, we finally get to the title.
The trio goes to a night club that has a singer who also plays the piano. Even in the 1980s, this feels a little odd. Perhaps it was more common in southern California, though. Anyway, the singer says that she’s got an advance copy of a song from a broadway musical. She starts to play and Michael recognizes the music as his. He goes to the piano player and looks at the sheet music, then hands it to her and sits down and plays several measures. He asks how he’s doing and she says that he hasn’t missed a note.
Michael storms off and confronts Professor Tyler Stoneham, who is a music teacher. Stoneham is conducting a quartet, and icily says that he and Michael will discuss the sheet music in his office, in half an hour, but in the meantime will he cease being rude and let Stoneham finish his rehearsel. Michael accepts this for some reason, and the next scene is in Stoneham’s office.
Stoneham denies any wrongdoing and tells Michael that if he goes to the Chancellor nothing will come of it. Irate college students who feel that they’ve been wronged are a dime a dozen, and besides it’s Michael’s word against Stoneham’s. This admission of guilt made, Michael issues some threats as Professor Papasian (played by Rene Auberjonois) walks in in order to witness the threats and Michael holding a tuning fork in a threatening way.
The next scene is at Professor Stoneham’s house, at breakfast with his wife.
Her hands tremble while she pours herself tea and he asks her “What the devil is wrong with you, Christine?” She replies, “are you being solicitous, Tyler, or merely polite?”
Eating breakfast at opposite ends of a long dinner table is effective symbolism for the state of their marriage. She accuses him of infidelity when he’s been away on business trips and she can’t reach him, and he laughs at her fears. He seems genuinely amused that she was worried he was dallying with other women when he was actually engaged in non-sexual criminal enterprises.
That said, the very next scene is of a woman being called on the phone by her friend to draw her attention to a picture in the newspaper.
The picture is of professor Stoneham, and she clearly recognizes it as the man she worked with. So, it turns out that the composer she had worked with—and, it is implied, slept with—who called himself Alden Gilbert turned out to be Professor Stoneham. (Alden Gilbert is also the name on the sheet music which had Michael’s music in the earlier scene with the piano.)
This brings up the question: why did Stoneham find the idea of him cheating on his wife so funny? He actually was. Was that supposed to be a bluff? But I thought that the joke was that she was worried that he was cheating on her when in fact he was engaged in criminal fraud, so what amused him was that for a moment he thought she was on to him and then it turned out that she was way off. If that wasn’t it, it was a very missed opportunity.
The scene now shifts to the campus, at night, where there’s a protest going on creating a lot of noise, making it a great night for murder as no one would be likely to hear a gunshot so the murderer can easily get away.
That makes it a bit strange that the victim is actually killed with a tuning fork. I mean, that’s strange even on its own. A tuning fork is not exactly easy to kill a man with. It’s blunt, so the speed and force required to make it pierce skin would be enormous. And then, well, it’s blunt, so how is it supposed to kill? It’s not very likely to sever blood vessels, and I really don’t believe that a human being is going to be able to hit someone else with a tuning fork with enough momentum to kill by trauma. Then again, given where it was, perhaps it cracked the sternum and a sharp piece of bone severed an artery.
Be that as it may, death by tuning fork isn’t the sort of thing one needs loud noise to cover. Perhaps it was just to cover the killer’s voice. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
During the protest Michael goes into the music office building to raid professor Stoneham’s filing cabinets to get his music back. However, Stoneham is still there so Michael hides out in a music room that has an open window to the protest outside and also a dashboard that shows when the phones in the nearby offices are getting used. Actually, it’s a shared phone, presumably so one can receive a call in the music room during a class, park it, then pick it up in one’s office. Either way, it’s convenient that one of the primary suspects was able to keep close surveillance on the victim’s phone usage.
Stoneham makes a number of phone calls and is also visited by a drunk professor Papasian who is angry over not getting credit in their new music dictionary. Stoneham promises him the headship of the music department, whenever he decides to leave, if he still feels like it, then.
Clearly, no one is going to miss Stoneham after he’s gone. Which will be quite soon. The next sequence of events isn’t quite clear, but eventually Michael hears Stoneham’s door close, waits a little bit, then goes and burgles the professor’s office using the narrowest flashlight I’ve ever seen.
Seriously, that tiny circle of light wouldn’t be big enough to illuminate the whole area one plans to put one’s foot, to say nothing of where one is going. Perhaps owing to his flashlight, Michael goes into Stoneham’s office with laser-like focus to the filing cabinets and doesn’t notice Stoneham’s corpse near his chair. He’s interrupted by a security guard who, on account of turning on the lights, does notice the corpse.
I just want to note again that I really doubt that tuning fork could have been a deadly weapon, to say nothing of it having killed Stoneham so quickly that he was unable to cry out, go for help, etc. What was he even supposed to have died of? Clearly it wasn’t blood loss. The wound looks too low to have punctured either the lungs or the heart.
Let’s take another look at that tuning fork, when Michael was holding it in a threatening manner.
Let’s do that thing where the computer enlarges and enhances.
Hm. It usually works better in the movies. Still, we can pretty clearly see that the ends of this are not sharp. They might be rounded or like most tuning forks end abruptly because a change in width would cause a change in resonant frequency. Either way, it would take enormous power to drive those 6″ tongs 4″ deep into a human body through a sweater and a broadcloth shirt, no less.
I suspect that I’m just going to have to let this one go.
We now cut to Jessica pouring herself a cup of tea and talking to us about the story.
This bouncing back and forth between the story and Jessica talking to the audience is really weird. Don’t get me wrong, Angela Lansbury pulls it off. But it’s still really weird. And it was completely unnecessary, too. She could easily have had a friend come over who wanted to hear about her latest book.
Jessica says that when the security guard came in and found Michael then saw Stoneham’s body, he put two and two together and came up with five. Granted, Jessica does deal with a lot of people who leap to bad conclusions, but under the circumstances I don’t think that we can blame the security guard for holding Michael until the police arrived.
The next scene is back to the story, with Chad talking to Michael in prison. Chad asks for all of the details and Michael asks why. Is Chad going to represent him? Chad says no, but it’s like his uncle always said, “Finding a fox in the hen house don’t mean a thing. Unless the fox is picking feathers out of his teeth.” What does this have to do with Michael and why Chad wants to know all the details? Your guess is as good as mine.
Chad then talks with Jenny and they agree to investigate the crime together. Jenny makes the observation that it seems like Professor Papasian must have killed Stoneham, since Michael didn’t and Papasian was the last one to talk to Stoneham before Michael went in (that they know about at the time). The counter-evidence to this is that Papasian claims that Stoneham was alive when he left and he passed a polygraph test with flying colors, while Michael’s polygraph test was inconclusive. They agree to investigate together, Chad on campus and Jenny on broadway. This part of the story is quite solid.
Chad next goes to read back-issues of the campus newspaper, which seems to be a pretty major affair.
Chad’s friend at the paper has his own desk, and it’s only one of several. The room itself is quite large, what you see in the image above is only one corner of it. It’s only a slightly scaled-down version of the sort of set Murder, She Wrote would use for a full-blown newspaper. Chad asks to read through their files to dig up old information, and the mustache guy makes giving him an exclusive interview about Michael a condition. Why the school newspaper has secret files that only some students have access to, we are never told. In fact, I’m unclear on why the mustache guy is a character at all. (He showed up in an earlier scene about the protest and it possibly being because of an editorial he wrote in the school newspaper, but I didn’t find it worth mentioning at the time.) The idea that the school newspaper has such a huge effect strikes me as a bit silly. Granted, I went to college about 10 years after this episode was written and in a small school rather than a large state school, but I can’t even remember clearly if we had a school newspaper. I do remember we had a student-run radio station that more people DJ’d for than listened to and a student-run local TV show that I never heard of anyone watching. I assume that we had a school newspaper. Looking it up, it turns out that we did. I can’t remember ever seeing anyone read it and I have a lot of trouble believing that anyone could stir up trouble with an editorial in it. (Also, looking it up, it seems like the school newspaper came out about once a month, not daily, as the newspaper in this story seems to.) Why it is that TV shows in the 1980s (and 1990s) took newspapers of all kinds to be enormously important affairs, I’m really not sure. Wishful thinking, perhaps?
Be that as it may, Chad gives his interview than does his research and goes off to question people. He starts with the vice-chancellor, who he gathered from back-issues of the school newspaper used to be something of an item with Christine (the now-widow of professor Stoneham). The school newspaper was apparently so complete it even had a gossip column, I guess. Chad said something about seeing them in photographs together, but this strains credulity. Anyway, the vice-chancellor admits that he and Christine were friends, but nothing more, and he remained on excellent terms with Christine and Stoneham after their marriage.
He then interviews professor Papasian. They start out in the room that Michael had hidden in the night before, which turns out to be an instrument storage room. A call comes in which Papasian answers and it turns out to be for professor Stoneham, from someone who doesn’t know he’s dead. Papasian then explains that Stoneham’s phone also rings in the instrument storage closet because professor Stoneham use to spend a lot of time there, noodling around on the piano.
I find this explanation a bit thin, for two reasons. The first is that this is a terrible room to noodle about on a piano in. The acoustics will be terrible and there will probably be sympathetic noise from many of the loose instruments. Second, when trying to compose music one presumably does not want to get interrupted by every phone call that comes in. However, it’s necessary to set up how the killer is caught, so I guess we have to let Jessica have this one. Professors of music do get tons of important phone calls that they have to take, after all.
Chad and Papasian talk a bit. Papasian said that it was a great pity that Michael killed Stoneham, as Michael was a great guy. In the ensuing conversation Chad mentions the fight that Papasian had with Stoneham, and Papasian says that it was a disagreement, not a fight. To borrow a line from the MST3K episode of The Dead Talk Back: and another brutal interrogation scene… peters out.
We next see Jenny talking to someone named Rhoda.
I really love the shoulder pads on her sweater. I know that there was a time in the late 1980s where shoulder pads were high fashion for women, but Jenny looks like she just got back from football practice and didn’t have time to take off her armor before she had to throw on a sweater and make some phone calls. Either that or she does a truly impressive number of lateral raises and no other exercises.
Jenny’s idea of fashion aside, she dug up some info through the grapevine of her network of girlfriends (she comes from NY, you will recall). It turns out that there is a broadway play called Blue Lights and the producer is a man named Max Hellinger. She even got a phone number for Hellinger, though he is out of town for a while. There was no number of Alden Gilbert, he always called Hellinger, not the other way around. All correspondence went to a P.O. Box in Westwood, NY. Chad concludes that Stoneham was living a double life.
Next he goes to visit Mrs. Stoneham at her mansion.
OK, mansion might be an exaggeration, but the home is clearly large and impressive. This might possibly be intended to suggest that Stoneham had more than a professor’s income, but I have a hard time believing that he could really make all that much money selling his brilliant students’ compositions to broadway producers. Christine—Mrs. Stoneham—invites him in. She reminisces that Stoneham and Michael used to work together all the time in their music room. That was in the past, though. Lately he had been travelling to San Diego very frequently for… school business.
Anyway, time to question the suspect. He asks her if she talked to her husband that night, and she said that she called him and he said he was waiting for Professor Papasian to drop off the galley proofs of his new book. He asks what time she called and she works out that she called at about 9:45 because it was during a commercial break in a comedy show she was watching that started at 9:30. They talked a bit more, she did some crying about having lost her husband, then he bid her adieu, though not before commenting on how Mr. Stoneham must have been from a wealthy family because it’s one heck of a house.
Curiously, right after Chad leaves the vice-chancellor walks down the grand staircase and remarks that it was a strange visit.
I really can’t tell if the shirt collar and vest being unbuttoned are meant to indicate that he was in the process of taking off his clothes, or in the middle of recently putting them back on again. That said, it was about three seconds between when Chad rang the door bell and when Christine opened the door, so she had to be almost next to it when he rang the bell. The vice chancellor could have taken longer to get dressed than she took, but even so it was a bit odd for them to have been on completely separate floors no matter what the reason. I’m inclined to say that the two are meant to have recently slept together and the writers were a bit sloppy with the details.
Before we go to the next scene, Christine mentions that she got the impression that Chad thought that she might have been involved in her husband’s death.
Next we go back to Jessica, doing something with a pet bird I don’t think we’ve ever seen before or will see again.
Birds are terrible pets for people who travel a lot and by season three (which this episode is from) Jessica was travelling a lot, including teaching courses in a NYC university. As an interesting tie-in, the bird is yellow, and during the episode in which Angela Lansbury played both Jessica and Jessica’s English cousin, the English cousin sang the song, “Hello, Little Yellow Bird.”
Jessica notes that the vice-chancellor had claimed to only be friends with Christine, but then why was he hiding out in another room? If you ask her, it was hanky panky of the highest order. But she’s the writer! It’s up to her whether it was hanky panky or not. Literally. She can choose to make it either one. This isn’t a reminiscence she’s telling, it’s her own invention. She’s the creator. And if this was hanky panky, why is she telling us this only moments after hinting about it? Is she relaying what the narrator of her book says, or is she adding commentary on her own story as she goes? And what sort of mystery writer is she, giving away plot points partway through telling someone about the story???
Oh well. Having done taking care of the bird she walks back to her favorite sitting chair, plops down, and gets us back into the story.
Professor Papasian has just been promoted by “the board,” whoever they are, to professor Stoneham’s job, whatever it is. His celebrations are cut a bit short by Max Shellinger rifling through Professor Stoneham’s filing cabinets. He’s looking for two songs that Stoneham composed under the name Alden Gilbert. Upon learning that Papasian is now the head of the department, he makes him a proposition.
Why Shellinger is dressed like Sherlock Holmes (minus the deerstalker cap) is unclear, and it seems to put Papasian somewhat on edge. When he hears that Shellinger will give him “five big ones” if Papasian can find the other two songs that Stoneham owes him, his ears perk up, though. He agrees to help.
Next Chad goes back to the apartment he shares with Jenny, where she’s playing and singing one of Alden Gilbert’s songs. She gets to musing who wrote the lyrics, because it sure wasn’t Stoneham, and it definitely couldn’t have been Michael either. Chad deduces that there must have been a lyricist. The next day Jenny is going to use a contact she has in the business office to check all of Stoneham’s outgoing calls with a 619 area code to see if they can find the lyricist (since Stoneham had spent a lot of time in San Diego). There’s an odd moment where Jenny is reluctant to do more investigation and demands that Chad bribe her with sex in order to get the information he wants. Jessica’s small town mores are, shall we say, a bit questionable.
Next we get a scene where professor Papasian is burgling the Stoneham house, but clumsily, so Christine hears him. She takes a gun and goes to investigate. He runs out through a large window in the music room and she shoots at him.
The next day Chad pesters Professor Papasian, whose right arm is clearly almost useless. He then offers to shake his hand, which Papasian reluctantly agrees to, then he winces in tremendous pain at the handshake. Frankly, it was rather unkind of Chad, as Professor Papasian was obviously injured, going to great lengths to use his left hand instead of his right hand.
Chad then tells Papasian about the events of the previous evening, and Papasian admits that it was him. I guess he figures that the injury is sufficient evidence, and he hopes to keep Chad quiet. It’s a plausible enough reason to talk, though talking is risky. Anyway, he says that he was looking for the songs because of an offer from Max Hellinger.
Chad meets Hellinger coming from police headquarters where he wasn’t able to see Michael. Chad and Hellinger go to a bar, where they talk. Hellinger admits that he knew Stoneham must have been taking someone else’s music because up till now he had been giving Hellinger mediocre-at-best songs, then suddenly this. He had arrived in town the evening that Stoneham was killed, but all he did was phone him at about 9:30 to make a breakfast date, but Stoneham didn’t show up then Hellinger found out why.
It was a pretty reasonable fact-finding interview. He got Hellinger to talk by semi-accusing Hellinger of the murder (after showing that he knew Hellinger had arrived that evening and was not in NY as he had claimed). It’s an odd trope that a detective can get a person to tell everything he knows by accusing the person of the crime. It seems to me far more plausible that a person would take offense and moreover decide that if they say nothing, they cannot be caught in either mistakes or lies. That said, it is a common trope so it mostly won’t be noticed if employed.
Also, if Stoneham had mostly composed shlock until he started stealing from Michael Prentice last year, how did he manage to afford his gorgeous house? There’s no indication that they had moved into it just a few months ago. And if writing shlock for broadway really paid that well, why bother stealing Michael’s work?
Be that plot hole as it may, Chad returns home, where Jenny has the lyricist (Reagan Miller) sitting on the couch with her.
It turns out that Reagan is a big fan of shoulder pads too.
Anyway, she doesn’t have much to tell that we don’t already know. She wrote the lyrics but Stoneham took credit for them. She came to the campus to confront him but couldn’t find his office, then the police showed up. She then excuses herself because she needs to go home to tape an real estate commercial that she wrote a jingle for. This prompts Chad to go into a deep trance. Jenny tells Reagan to ignore him, he gets like this sometimes, then goes over, snaps her fingers in front of his face, and asks if she gets a prize. He replies, “Darling, you’re not going to believe this, but I think I just figured out which fox got in the hen house.”
We then get interrupted by Jessica again.
“Well how about you?” she asks. “Have you figured out who killed the good doctor? You can’t be hurting for suspects. Heaven knows, there were plenty of people with motive and opportunity. But if you’ve been paying attention there’s one particular clue that should pinpoint the guilty party.”
This is quite a change in tone from her commentary on how the vice chancellor hiding in another room in the Stoneham house probably meant that hanky panky of the highest order was going on. If we were supposed to be guessing who did it, why was Jessica commenting on the story, earlier, as if she was trying to figure it out too?
It’s also curious that this makes very explicit the murder-mystery-as-game. That’s not everyone’s idea of what a murder mystery should be, and it’s only somewhat an aspect of Murder, She Wrote. It is, I maintain, why Jessica typically solves murders by inspiration, often from some innocuous phrase that someone says—that’s to give people time to solve the mystery themselves after all of the clues necessary to do it are in. If Jessica solved it immediately, there’d be no time (or at least very little time) for people to guess. Worse, it would drive home what the clinching clue was. By delaying Jessica coming to the conclusion, it both avoids highlighting the clinching clue and also gives the audience time to guess or even to discuss with the other people watching who each person thinks did it. Here, that time is provided by Jessica asking who did it. It’s weird—which may be why they never did it again—but it does kind of work.
Then we fade back to the campus, where Chad has organized a recreation of the events of the night. Each person who was involved is supposed to do and say what they did the night of the murder. They even bring Reagan, who didn’t say or do anything so she’s supposed to not do that… again. The recreation of the events is pretty long (four minutes of screen time) and frankly it drags. The climax comes when Christine uses the payphone to place the call to her husband she placed that night, and Michael Prentice comes out of the instrument storage closet to say that the phone call going through at that moment didn’t happen the night of the murder.
Everyone looks at Christine and Chad says, “that’s right, Ma’am. It never rang. The call you said you made to your husband during the commercial break never happened… a fact I believe will be validated by your next month’s phone bill. It’s a toll call.”
For those too young to remember this, it used to be the case that people only got free telephone calls (made over landline phones) to regions within a mile or two, and calls more than a short distance away were “toll” calls, i.e. calls for which one paid by the minute, though not very much. (More expensive still were long-distance calls, such as calls between states.) Since toll calls were charged by the minute, phone bills would have an itemized list of what numbers were called, when, and for how long.
Christine does not respond until Chad says, “The only thing I don’t know is: was [the vice-chancellor] in on it with you?” Christine angrily replies, “No. No he wasn’t… Tyler was my problem.”
The police detective who was there in custody of Michael then walks toward her to (presumably) arrest her and we fade back to Jessica, who is still in her kitchen.
“Poor Christine,” she says. “It was only a little slip, but those are the ones that get you. She’s come to the office to surprise her husband, they fought, and long-suffering Christine finally went over the edge.”
And this slender woman in her fifties who looks incapable of lifting a full bag of groceries then plunged a tuning fork four inches into her husband’s chest, instantly killing him. Somehow.
I know I’m a bit obsessed with this, but seriously. I’m a reasonably large guy—I’m 6 feet tall, my best deadlift is 385 pounds (for 5 reps) and my best bench press is 300 pounds—and if you handed me that tuning fork to kill someone with and for some crazy reason I actually needed to kill them, I’d go for the eyes then throw the tuning fork away, get behind the person, and strange them with my bare hands. In all honesty I think that a large music textbook would have been a more plausible murder weapon. Even a small music textbook used to give someone a paper cut on the jugular vein would have been more plausible, though admittedly that’s in the same ballpark as the tuning fork.
OK, that aside, Jessica’s explanation of what happened seems very hard to reconcile to what Christine said about how Tyler was her problem. That really makes it sound like she killed him in order to get rid of him in order to enable her affair with the vice-chancellor. Further, how are we supposed to reconcile her affair with the vice-chancellor with the fight she had with Stoneham over his frequent business trips and shutting him out. A woman with a lover would welcome her husband going on frequent business trips where he was completely out of contact. She might or might not feel jealous about there being another woman, but if she’s at the point of murdering her husband in order to get rid of him—and Stoneham really seemed like the sort of person who wouldn’t even notice if his wife divorced him—another woman would probably be welcome news because it would make it easier to get rid of him.
Christine as the killer just makes no sense, no matter how you cut it. If she wanted to go with her lover, she would have just divorced him. If she was content having a lover on the side, she wouldn’t show up to his office to surprise him, nor, having done so, would she have fought with him and killed him in a fit of rage.
Leaving that aside, her “little slip” was also astonishingly unnecessary. Why on earth did she make up a story about calling him during a commercial break in a TV show when she didn’t and the phone records wouldn’t back her up. It would be one thing if she had set up some device to place a phone call at that time in order to establish an alibi (and actually picked the phone up herself, in the office, in order to complete the call to give herself the alibi), but she did the exact reverse. She invented a falsifiable story that served no purpose. OK, not precisely no purpose—it did provide an alibi that would have been difficult for the law student with no authority talking to her to have disproved. But he also could not have even superficially confirmed it, either, and she didn’t need to give him an alibi. Saying that she was home watching TV would have worked just as well.
The other problem with the demonstration was that—if we take Michael’s word for how many calls there were—all it proved was that of the several people who claimed to call him, one of them didn’t. They were not precise enough about the time of their calls to say it had to happen during the few minutes Michael was in the closet. He got there while a call was already going.
The timing of this murder is also really weird. On the night of the murder, Michael leaves off listening to Papasian and Stoneham shouting at each other to go to the window to look at the protest outside, and is attracted back when he hears Stoneham’s door closing. Given that he was an aopen window with a lot of noise, it needed to be slammed shut for him to have heard it, which would be a weird thing for Christine to do as she’s leaving the office after just having murdered her husband. Anyway, these two events are less than 60 seconds apart. That’s not much time for Papasian to storm out, Christine to come in, them to fight, Christine to stab him with the tuning fork in a fit of rage, wipe her fingerprints off of it, and run away. Doubly so when you consider that she either had to walk down the hallway past the music storage room or Papasian did, in order for them to not meet on the stairs Papasian took to go to Stoneham’s office. As a side note, she also had to fly home in order to be there when the police found her husband’s body only minutes later then came to notify her.
When you put this all together, this seems like very sloppy plotting by Jessica, doubly so with there being no evidence of any kind that points to Christine except for a lie she told for minimal reason. Worse, she either would already have been interviewed by the police or would be soon, and she surely would not have told them such a disprovable lie as having made a phone call she didn’t make. So she either told them an obviously disprovable lie or gave them a different story than she gave Chad. Either way stretches belief.
Leaving all that aside, this is still a really strange story to be her latest book. I really would have expected to meet her world-famous detective. That said, established authors will occasionally create a new detective. Agatha Christie gained her fame with Hercule Poirot, but she also created Miss Marple and also Tommy and Tuppence. Still, it’s kind of odd that this is merely her “latest book” when it’s got an all-new detective. She should be nervous about this change of direction. Instead, she mentions that she’s been noodling around with an idea for a sequel where, on the way to Mississippi to meet Chad’s parents, they run into a defrocked priest and a professional wrestler. She interrupts herself and says, “maybe we just better wait for the sequel”.
“Thanks for dropping by, and goodnight.”
The whole episode is weird. It’s tempting to think that Angela Lansbury had some time commitments and so they didn’t have time to film a real episode with her, and that would explain some things. On the other hand, they had plenty of those episodes, featuring all sorts of other detectives (my favorite were the ones with the ex-jewel-thief who worked for an insurance company; IIRC his name was Dennis). Maybe this was an unsuccessful first attempt? Frankly, it is a bit odd that they never got into what Jessica’s famous stories were, besides this really weird episode.
Anyway, I think that the lessons are clear: if you’re going to write murder mysteries about a murder mystery writer, invest some time in giving the detective some good stories of his own. And either way, if you’re going to stage a recreation of the night of the murder, don’t make it drag on with everyone complaining about it, with the denouement hinging on the word of the police’s prime suspect. Also, have the victim killed with a weapon that could plausibly kill a person without them having superhuman strength. Seriously, a tuning fork???
Update: I forgot about the missing song sheets that Stoneham owed Hellinger. There was absolutely no resolution on those. Who has them? Why were they missing? So far as I can see, absolutely no one had a motive to hide the missing song sheets. And the thing is, this isn’t a minor point. The missing song sheets drove much of the plot. Michael was looking for them in Stoneham’s office and was still there when the police came in because he didn’t find them. Max Hellinger flew to California in order to get them. He met professor Papasian because he was rifling through files in the school office looking for them. Papasian was shot while burgling the Stoneham residence in order to find them, which led to him telling Chad about Hellinger. Hellinger talked with Chad in the bar and gave him information because he wanted the song sheets. And then… nothing. The missing song sheets are completely forgotten about. (Papasian says that he suspects that Stoneham had put them in a safe deposit box, but we’re given zero evidence that this happened, there’s no obvious reason for it to have happened, and either way we get no resolution on it.)
Speaking of things being completely forgotten, Professor Papasian having been shot in the arm and unable to use his right arm or hand was completely forgotten about during the re-creation. He waves his hand around and at one point carelessly stuffs it into his pocket. Earlier that day he couldn’t move it enough to start to take his coat off. Perhaps he took some extra strength aspirin which he kept in his desk drawer at work.
Late in Season 3 of Murder, She Wrote we get an episode set in a Denver TV sation called The Bottom Line is Murder.
As is fairly common with titles, it’s something of a pun on the episode itself—the TV show in the enter of the episode is called The Bottom Line.
It is a hard-hitting investigative journalism show which focuses on faulty consumer products. The show feels like a reference to something, but as it originally aired in February the year of our Lord 1987, I don’t know what it was referencing. I wasn’t even 10 at the time the episode originally came out, and even if I remembered much from that time I wouldn’t have watched the sort of TV shows this was referencing.
I was tempted to say it this was a generalized Dateline: NBC, as I have a vague memory of them having done the sort exposé journalism that The Bottom Line does, but Dateline: NBC first aired in 1992. Even if the writers could be that prescient, they would not have referenced something their audience wouldn’t know for another five years, so that possibility is right out.
It does seem like it was quite prescient, though. I looked up Dateline: NBC on Wikipedia and there was a section about a show that Dateline did about a GMC pickup truck purportedly exploding on impact because of poor design. The only problem was that their demonstration was completely fabricated. They planted remote control incendiary devices on the truck that they crashed and those were what caused the explosion that Dateline showed the public. An investigation actually found the burned husk of the vehicle in a junkyard and did analysis on it, finding that the fuel tank had remained intact. As a minor detail, they drove the truck into the barrier at about forty miles per hour but lied and said that it was at thirty miles per hour. It turns out that sanctimonious people are not always honest.
Actually, the entire format has a problem designed into it. A show which is focused on finding outrageous things can only find as many outrageous things as the world produces; if this is fewer per year than the number of episodes the show has, it must either cancel episodes or fabricate outrages. Worse, if someone looks at thirty outrages a year (one per week), they will become numb and require a higher dose to achieve the same level of outrage. Since the world can be relied upon to not produce ever-growing levels of outrageous material every week, either honesty or the show will have to give. (It should be noted that this also forms a selective pressure for bad judgement, which is more effective than outright dishonesty.)
Anyway, the show opens with a graphic demonstration of a bulletproof vest that doesn’t stop bullets.
The only problem is that the vest does stop the bullet, which causes the host doing the demonstration, Kenneth Chambers, to go into a meltdown. In fairness to him, though, he claims that they tried it ten times before filming and the bullet went through every time when the cameras were off. He then yells at everyone for everything, establishing that he’s a self-centered egomaniac without manners or human kindness. In other words, we establish who is 98% likely to get murdered in this episode.
We’re then introduced to a few more characters:
The guy on the left is Steve. He’s the producer of the show. The woman has a name I’ll remember at some point but she’s played by Adrienne Barbeau, which is far more memorable. (If you confuse her with Sigourney Weaver, you’re not alone.) This is Ms. Barbeau’s second (and final) appearance in Murder, She Wrote. She’s a tough-as-nails career woman who doesn’t like anyone and isn’t afraid to let them know. A few moments later we get introduced to another character, Ryan, but even though his introduction establishes that he was probably dallying with a female staffer in a closet, he’s so minor I’m going to use the shot which only shows the back of his head. We almost never see his face again, anyway:
Adrienne chews Ryan out and sends him to Mr. Chambers. Ryan is some sort of assistant and Mr. Chambers clearly needs assistance. Then we finally find out what Jessica has to do with this bunch of people:
The woman driving the car is Dr. Jayne Honig. It’s likely that Jayne isn’t one of Jessica’s many neice’s as there’s a reference made to Jayne’s wedding seven years ago and how she rescued Jessica from a dance marathon with Jayne’s Uncle Buck. Jessica also asks “how is your dear husband” which suggests that of the two it’s Jayne she knows better.
This question brings up an awkward moment, apparently the couple are having trouble related to Steve constantly being stressed and working late. Jayne has given up her career as a psychiatrist to be a full time wife in order to save the marriage, though why this is necessary as the problem is that Steve is never home is unclear.
Also, it turns out that Jessica is in town because she’s going to do a book review segment for the TV show. It’s not spelled out, but presumably this is a favor to Jayne. This was during the days of broadcast television when local TV stations were common and KBLR (the name of the station) certainly seems like a local affair. Maine to Denver is an awfully long way to go in order to review books on a local TV station.
Next we get more establishing of what a sleazeball Kenneth Chambers is. There was a segment where the police chief, acting as an expert for the show, said that while the Acme bulletproof vest (the vest from the opening of the show) is cumbersome, in a dangerous situation it’s the best safety equipment he knows. Kenneth had “the boys” do some editing, and he changed the testimonial around to have the police chief say that in a dangerous situation, he wouldn’t put it on his dog.
Steve objects that this is dishonest and unethical. Kenneth asks who cares, because it’s great television. Steve, defeated, says that he cares. Apparently no one stopped to think that this is the sort of thing which can generate lawsuits and, if nothing else, make an enemy of the chief of police which doesn’t seem like a great strategy.
Adrienne Barbeau then walks in saying that after weeks of intensive effort, she has finally dug up the evidence on some cheese producer that will “throw them into the fondue, as it were”. Kenneth declares that the story is dead, which does not please Adrienne.
Kenneth walks out, Adriene storms out, then Jessica and Jayne walk in. As a side note, these offices are really huge. It takes Adriene twelve steps to get from Steve’s desk to the door of his office. Adriene Barbeau is 5’3″ tall, so if we assume she has a 5′ stride, that makes it 30′ from the desk to the door. My house, which admittedly is not large, is shorter than that from one side to the other. This is one heck of an office.
“*Ahem* Got a minute for a famous author?” Jayne asks. Warm greetings ensue, and then we meet the final character who will make up the suspects cast. His name is Robert Warren and he is the station manager. He begins by asking Jayne when she’s going to leave Steve for him, and then remarks, after some banter, that when your best friends steals the love of your life it’s either “Laugh, Clown, laugh” or slit your wrists, and he had no blood to spare. He then charms Jessica, kissing her hand and saying that if there’s anything she wants, she has but to command. The character is played as flamboyant and over-the-top, but even so the professions of love for Jayne are far too sincere to just pass over. It’s a clue, of course—if someone is not the main suspect, background information about them is just about guaranteed to be a clue—but it’s not that well disguised. Especially because a TV station manager couldn’t plausibly be that light-hearted and unserious.
He then offers to take Jessica on the “fifty cent tour”. I’m genuinely unsure whether that’s meant to be a grand tour or a meagre one. Throwing fifty cents from 1987 into an inflation calculator, that’s worth approximately $1.15 now (it would be worth $1.19 if we use 1986, presuming that the script was written at least two months before it aired, but what’s $.04 between friends?). On the other hand, it sounds like a throwback phrase, though to when I’m not sure. If we were to go all the way back to 1925, it would be the equivalent of a $7.44 tour today. At the end of the day I don’t often go on tours that I have to pay for, so I’m out of my element here.
Either way, Jessica goes on the tour. She’ll soon get to see how unpleasant Kenneth Chambers is for herself, but first we get the semi-obligatory scene of a tough guy threatening the victim.
The tough guy, who is the owner of toy bears that Mr. Chambers is going to do an exposé on, demonstrated on the bear how he would touch Chambers if Chambers did a show about his bears. This character does show up again, but not as a suspect. For the most part people who were heard to threaten the victim are only suspected by the police if they are a friend of Jessica’s.
Shortly after this we get a scene of Mr. Chambers yelling for his assistant because his assistant was supposed to fix his TV.
This is a clue, of course—I would be hard pressed to think of a time in a Murder, She Wrote episode where a piece of technology was broken that wasn’t a clue—but it is disguised fairly well as a scene of showing just how awful Kenneth Chambers is by how he is short-tempered and yells at his subordinates.
There’s an argument that Robert Warren has with Chambers about the toy bears, saying that the tough guy (his name is Rinaldi) spends a lot of money advertising with the station and maybe they should cool it with the antagonistic episode. Chambers stands firm on principle. Then we meet someone who is, technically, a member of the cast, but she so consistently seems to be unambitious, reactive furniture that it’s impossible to consider her a suspect.
She lets it slip that she has a romantic relationship, as well as a business relationship, with Kenneth Chambers because she calls him Kenneth and then corrects herself to Mr. Chambers. This is something of a dated way of letting that information slip, since even at the time the transition from last names to first names in workplaces in America was well underway. In this case it’s especially strange since she appears on the show with Chambers, helping out in his demonstrations. Being both a mousy secretary and an on-air personality is really weird, almost to the point of saving on casting. I suppose giving her a romantic relationship with Chambers gives her some sort of motive for killing him, making him a suspect, but I don’t think that at any time it’s plausible. (Of course, the very fact that it’s implausible can be a red herring; one should always be on the lookout for the least suspicious person in a murder mystery.)
There’s some small talk, Mousy Girl says that Mr Chambers has been looking forward to her coming because he’s such a fan, etc. Then we get another clue. Kenneth leans back into his chair, knocking over the cup of coffee that Ryan the assistant was holding while fiddling with the knob on a sound system in order to get the VCR to give a video signal to the TV.
I know I always hold coffee while fiddling with nobs. How else would the detective be able to tell two identical chairs apart? There’s an attempt to disguise this clue by having Chambers fly off the handle and fire Ryan but if you’re at all familiar with the habits of Murder, She Wrote, there’s no missing this clue.
What the clue means is a different matter, though. You know that this chair and another chair will be switched, but—credit where credit is due—you don’t know why they will be switched.
Next we see Jessica, Jayne, Steve, and, for some reason, Robert, at a restaurant. Jessica works it into the conversation that Robert was a former patient of Jayne’s. Steve says, speaking of a racketball game he played with Robert, that Robert is competitive to the point of compulsion. Jessica then says, “Oh, perhaps your former psychiatrist could give us some insight into that.” But Jayne demures, saying that there are strict rules about doctor-patient confidentiality. Yeah, no kidding. Of course Jessica knows that; I don’t think that the attempt to disguise this clue as dinner banter works at all. The actors do a good job making it feel like trading wit but it really stands out.
Steve excuses himself because he has to go back to the station to work. Kenneth Chambers has demanded it, though how Chambers is in a position to demand it is not clear, since Steve is, in theory, Chambers’ boss. Shortly afterwards Robert says that he can commiserate with Steve, having worked at the station every night for the past week he can say that the station is a very lonely place when you’re the only one there. Robert then goes off home to get a good night’s sleep.
As he drives off, Jessica notices that Jayne looks upset. Asked, Jayne says that Steve had said he had worked late at the station every night that week, but Robert just let it slip that he had been there all alone.
In the next scene George Takei, sorry, Bert the janitor, discovers Kenneth Chambers slumped over in a chair. He turns the chair around and then is horrified, though of what we can’t see. It’s dark, and the bullets didn’t seem to penetrate through to the front of Chambers, so we don’t see any blood.
In the next scene Jayne is driving Jessica to the station in the morning.
Curiously, they both forgot to wear their seatbelts. This is consistent with other times that they’re shown in the car. I wonder if it was deliberate or if the actors just forgot because they were filmed in a stationary car with the driving just being a rear-projected film. The rear projection is pretty good, except that they’re on a two-lane highway that ends in the parking lot of the TV station without any kind of turning off. The station parking lot is filled with police cars and camera crews, so Jayne and Jessica discover that something happened.
We then meet Lieutenant Lou Flanagan, the police detective for the case. He turns out to be the expert that Chambers had dishonestly edited, though he never actually learns this and nothing comes of it.
He tells the reporters that Chambers was shot twice, and Jessica manages to get out of him that Chambers was shot between 10pm and midnight before he asks who she is. She is familiar, but he can’t place her, but thinks that she’s part of the media. She says no, she’s just a friend, but when he loses interest in talking to her, she pretends to be a reporter (though with plausible deniability in her wording) and was impressed that he “saw through” her.
Steve shows up from a run he was on—the man is certainly dedicated to exercise. Despite having gotten to be after 1am, he was up in the morning before his wife so he could go on a run in a sweatsuit. It’s a bit of an odd choice to do that early morning run and return to the office in need of a shower, rather than to return home, take a shower, then go to work. Nothing really comes of it, though, since it was his absence the night before which makes him a suspect. (He’s a friend of Jessica’s with no alibi, so the Lieutenant is, of course, convinced that he did it.)
During the investigation, Lieutenant Flanagan helpfully shows an ashtray with a large cigar ash in it to the camera, but it’s so blatant an action that even Jessica notices.
He then blows on the cigar ash (for good luck?) and puts the ashtray back on the desk. It’s instincts like that for bringing clues to the attention of other people which got him all the way to Lieutenant!
Then another clue turns up. The murder weapon (a revolver) was found in the back seat of Steve Honig’s car! A deputy spotted it when he looked in the window!
Flanagan asks if Steve has a permit for the gun, but Steve dismissively says that it isn’t his. Flanagan doesn’t believe him, and Jessica has had enough. She goes on a tirade about how there’s no common sense here. Why would Steve, if he was the killer, come to the scene of the crime with the murder weapon in plain sight in his car when he had hours to dispose of it?
Before he can answer, Robert Warren shows up in an exercise outfit that puts Steve’s to shame.
Warren asks what’s going on and Flanagan says that he is taking Steve into custody on suspicion of the murder of Kenneth Chambers. Apparently Flanagan has a very short memory. Warren says that he will send a lawyer along with Steve.
We’re almost halfway through the episode and the middle of a Murder, She Wrote rarely contains any clues. I think that this is to give the audience some time to think over the clues that they were already presented with. We’re given a bunch of suspicious stuff, of course. Jessica asks Jayne when Steve actually came home and it was around 1am. Adrienne Barbeau talks the blond assistant to become the new host of The Bottom Line.
Jessica walks onto the set of the new The Bottom Line and talks with Adrienne, who is the new producer. She observed that Steve never wanted the job anyway. He really wanted to be the producer, but Kenneth Chambers had made sure that Warren got that job. This might have been an interesting sub-plot, but we never learn any more about it.
Jessica talks to the blond assistant, but not much comes out. The subject of Rinaldi (the teddy bear thug) comes up. They look for the tapes of the show, but can’t find them. Jessica Fletcher talks to Rinaldi about the missing tapes, and he tells her that he paid Chambers twenty five thousand dollars in cash to buy the tapes and kill the show. This leads to a scene of a bunch of people standing around while Lieutenant Flanagan opens a safe in what I assume was Chambers’ office.
It turns out that Kenneth Chambers accepted bribes to kill stories. The cheese maker story that was killed towards the beginning of the episode was also in the safe. The blond assistant is disillusioned, and Adrienne Barbeau is excited because now she knows why the story was killed and as the new producer she’s going to run it.
This new evidence should have opened up the possibility of Chambers being killed for some reason relating to his criminal enterprise. It doesn’t, though. Flanagan gives Jessica a ride to somewhere and while riding they talk about the case and Flanagan comes up with the theory that Steve planted the tapes and money to smear Chambers’ good name and Chambers surprised him to Steve had to shoot him. How Chambers ended up sitting in his chair and turning his back to Steve isn’t mentioned, and the idea is so absurd Jessica just asks to see pictures of the crime scene instead.
Jessica notices that the chair was shot in the back, meaning that his back had to be to the door. Unfortunately for this revelation we already saw it when George Takei found the body. Flanagan says that he must have been watching TV, but Jessica points out that this is impossible since his TV was broken. Somehow it never occurs to either of them that he could have been shot while facing another direction then his chair rotated afterwards, e.g. to make people think that he was doing something so as to delay the finding of the body. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case so our sleuths not thinking of it doesn’t matter.
The next morning Jessica talks with Robert Warren to get some more information. It turns out that it was Adrienne Barbeau’s idea to revive the show with the blond assistant as the star. Warren went on to say that Chambers wanted to take the show to the national network and leave everyone behind, but with him dead everyone comes out ahead, especially the blond assistant. Personally, I don’t think that this red herring is very plausible based on the character herself, but I do have to admit that the motive was a decent one and innocents with big doe eyes have turned out to be murderers before and will again.
Jessica then steps in to watch the filming of the new Bottom Line, with the blond assistant as the star.
Claire flubs a line and they move on to another scene. Jessica runs into Ryan, who Chambers had fired by Adrienne Barbeau re-hired. Jessica says that she finds it perplexing how much better off everyone his. Ryan tells her the secret of show business. “The secret to this business is hustle. Any boob can do these jobs. You just have to make sure that you’re the any boob who gets hired.” There’s another minor interaction, but that’s the last we see of this character. He had a good line before we went, at least.
Now we finally move on to the last act before the denouement. Jessica meets George Takei, who has a bunch of evidence to give her. Jessica tries to throw away her coffee cup but George grabs it before it lands in the garbage.
It turns out that he has a collection of trash from famous people, which he offers to show her. Jessica agrees to see it because she would like to talk to him. Pleasantly, he not merely collects trash but he preserves it in a way that sanitizes it.
I thought that the embedding the trash in lucite was a nice touch. (He also bronzed an apple core someone threw out.) I suspect that this would have been funnier back in the late 1980s because there was more of a trend for preserving things in bronze and lucite back then—more typically things like baby shoes and comic books—but it’s still amusing now.
During the course of the conversation George reveals three important clues. The first is that he cleaned Steve’s office when Steve and Kenneth were fighting. The second was that Steve actually was working late every night for the past week. The third was he spilled coffee from his coffee mug, making Jessica think to look for the chair with the coffee stain, which turns out to be in Steve’s office.
Jessica runs over to police headquarters and gets Lieutenant Flanagan to let her look at the murder chair.
No coffee stain! That proves it!
What does it prove? We’ll have to wait for Jessica to set a trap for the killer to find out.
George helpfully plants the bait. He very conspicuously says that the chair in Steve’s office needs to be replaced because of the terrible coffee stain that no power on earth can get out. So, of course, the killer will come to take the chair away at night once everyone has left in order to… OK, I’ve got nothing. Once it’s publicly known that the chair had an awful coffee stain, removing it will accomplish precisely nothing. Still, someone has to go to the trap and threaten to kill Jessica to hush her and her flimsy evidence up.
Jessica actually waited in the chair, in the dark, for the murderer. You’ve got to give it to her—when she sets a trap, she’s willing to use herself as bait. And the murderer turns out to be…
But, there’s a twist. He wasn’t trying to kill Kenneth Chambers, he was trying to kill Steve Honig. All those things about being madly in love with Jayne? Yeah. It turns out that they were true. Robert wanted Jayne for himself and tried to kill Steve to make room for himself. But when he discovered that the man he shot in Steve’s chair was actually Kenneth—who was watching Steve’s TV because his own was broken—he figured that framing Steve for the murder would serve the same purpose.
Steve does what any Murder, She Wrote killer does when Jessica presents him with extremely flimsy evidence alone, at night—he announces his intention to kill her.
He doesn’t say it, but one gets the distinct impression he’s planning to strangle her with his necktie. Jessica asks if his solution is to kill her too, and he replies that it shouldn’t be too hard to find another writer for their book review show.
Jessica then says that he needs help. Specifically, help from Jayne. I really don’t get that last part; she’s given up her practice and a man who is madly in love with his psychiatrist probably should get help from just about anyone but the object of his fixation. However that may be, as is the case in about 9 out of 10 episodes, Jessica has witnesses waiting in the wings to hear the killer’s confession. As is often the case, one of them is the police detective.
Oddly, the other witness is Jayne. This is a very odd choice for a witness, but it gives her the opportunity to talk to him. She says that violence didn’t work before, and it won’t work this time.
Yeah, no kidding. That’s kind of the meaning of that police offer standing there in the background looking glum.
He says that she shouldn’t be there and she asks why. Would he kill her too? Then she caresses his face.
This seems wildly inappropriate no matter which way you look at it—as a psychiatrist or a married woman or the woman he murdered someone for or the wife of the woman he framed for the murder. Maybe that’s why, when she looks over at Jessica, Jessica just looks down.
The next morning Jessica talks to Steve and Jayne on the front stairs of the television station and explains why she set the trap. Steve says that he can’t thank her enough, both for getting him off of the murder charge and also for the brilliant interview she gave. Apparently they didn’t bother talking about what happened the night before until after they filmed her book review show. That’s show biz for you, I guess.
Lieutenant Flanagan then walks out of the station, followed by a gaggle of reporters. What he was doing in the station or why the reporters were in their with him, I cannot imagine. He stops at the top of the stairs and tells the reporters that it takes a trained eye to spot something like the switched chairs because of the coffee stain. He’s going to take credit for it but then spots Jessica. However, she gives him her blessing to take credit.
Which he does, with aplomb. The episode ends with Jessica, Jayne, and Steve laughing when Flanagan said, “I said to myself, ‘mere furniture? I think not.'”
The Bottom Line is Murder is, overall, a strange episode. It is very memorable, but not really for the mystery, which was not all that well crafted. Don’t get me wrong, it holds together well enough, minus it being a bit strange that the janitor didn’t hear the gunshots and the direction the chair was facing in no way being an indication of the direction it was facing when the victim died. The coffee stain indicating the switched chair was solid enough, though it was extremely contrived that the chair had a coffee stain. Likewise the broken TV causing the victim to be in the wrong place was fine, if the significance of the broken TV was a bit telegraphed. (Also fairly coincidental. It isn’t very plausible that Chambers would have had hours of footage to watch, so the odds of catching him in Steve’s office, sitting down and watching, would not have been very high. Granted, it’s fine for coincidence to be involved in the murder itself, but only up to a point.)
I think that what really makes the episode so memorable is that it has so many talented actors playing well defined—if not always sensible—characters. Adrienne Barbeau’s tough, ambitious producer leaps off the screen, even if she is barely related to the plot. Barry Corbin’s Lieutenant Flanagan is, despite his foibles, deeply likable. Judith Chapman’s Jayne makes you feel all of the trouble and pain her character is going through; one believes that she was a magnificent psychiatrist before she gave it up. She is plausible as a woman worth killing for. George Takei’s janitor was a fascinating character. He’s almost like a happy grouch, with a completely unrelatable love of garbage. One might almost want to see his collection of immortalized trash. Even Pat Klous’s blond assistant was a vivid character—so innocent, fragile, and trusting. That makes no sense for a woman who was romantically involved with a man like Chambers, not to mention being both his secretary and an on-air co-host makes absolutely zero sense. Still, she was a vulnerable almost-child, and you felt that. And then there’s Morgan Steven’s Robert Warren. He is plausible as a charming psychopath, especially the charming part.
So, ultimately, the story structure doesn’t make much sense but the setting is great and the actors are phenomenal. To some degree they’re under-developed because there are so many great characters, development takes time, and there is only 47 minutes divided by the number of characters available to develop them. None the less, it makes for a very memorable episode. I am almost fixated on structure, so I have trouble regarding it as a really good episode, but it is certainly an extremely memorable one.
I also have to say that I found the set decoration very interesting in both Steve and Kenneth’s office. (It was pretty clearly actually the same set just redecorated, with the TV/sound equipment on the back wall not even being different.) The cavernous office was so large it had quite a lot of furniture in it, so there was plenty to look at. Wall sconces, art on pedestals, five varieties of things to sit on, statues, paintings—there was a ton of visual interest. It was just an interesting place to watch a murder mystery.
Recently, I was idly browsing Amazon for bamboo towels. (Technically bamboo used in towels is a rayon, which is essentially a chemically spun cellulose rather than a mechanically spun cellulose like linen. It’s very soft and absorbant.) While browsing, I came across several listings which advertised the towels being sold as “hotel quality”. Why anyone would want to proudly proclaim that their towels are small, rough, and threadbare is beyond me. But, still, there it is.
I wonder if the package comes with a card asking you to not wash the towels in order to save water.
I do have to admit that I am cheating, slightly, when I pose the dichotomy of fun versus realistic. There are fun characters who are realistic; what is unrealistic is really the presence of more than one such character in a story. Whatever exactly the criteria one has for a fun character—whether it’s having interesting hobbies, being wide read in literature, being a wit, etc.—such people are, simply, rare. People are, on average, average. That is no slight against them; God evidently likes many variations on a theme—just look at The Lessons of Beetles.
Anyway, when the question is posed, “should I have interesting characters or realistic characters” the answer is almost self-evident. (Despite having a central conceit as unrealistic as a Franciscan order of consulting detectives, I suppose I still have a hangup about realism that I’m working my way through.) The real question, I guess, is how to make the interesting characters seem realistic.
To some degree I think that the answer is to commit to them. From afar they will seem improbable. However, everyone is normal to himself so if we actually get to know the character sufficiently his odd point of view (that he’s not odd) will tend to rub off on us.
The other important thing, which is really another form of committing to the characters, is to follow through with what makes them interesting. That is, not merely to add it in for spice, but to actually make use of it and even to consider what sorts of things such an interesting person would under the interesting circumstances we’ve put them in. That said, a murder mystery tends be something of an equalizer. As Chesterton observed human beings are most like each other in the great events of their lives—birth and death and so on. I suppose that murder mysteries make life easier on the author this way, that we can throw in interesting characters and they’ll act much the same as any other, except they’ll do it in a more interesting way.
In his YouTube channel The Symbolic World, Jonathan Pageau has an interesting video about the symbolism of conspiracy theories:
It’s a very interesting video and very much worth watching. He talks about how conspiracy theories have a tendency to be symbolically true (at least from the vantage point of the conspiracy theorists) even though they tend to be factually wacko.
For example, consider the conspiracy theory that the moon landing was faked. Actually executing such a conspiracy in a way that would usefully fool the Russians (who were the primary audience for the moon landing) would be absurdly difficult. This Mitchell & Webb sketch isn’t terribly accurate, but it will suffice for my present purpose, and as a bonus it’s funny:
The idea that the moon landing was faked on a sound stage is ridiculous if you try to think it through, but it’s interesting what it means if you take it symbolically. Doing the moon landing on a sound stage symbolizes that going to the moon was not a real capability. Not in the literal sense that we couldn’t do it, but that we couldn’t keep it up. And, indeed, we couldn’t. Going to the moon was a cold-war flex on the Russians designed to try to win that war without resorting to nuclear weapons. If you want to know why, in 48 years, we haven’t been back to the moon, the real reason is obvious if you just look at a picture of NASA’s budget over time (moon landings took place from 1969-1972):
Going to the moon is extremely expensive. Absent dunking on the Russians, it’s really hard to justify spending a ton of money on it. Following the few years where we did it to dunk on the Russians, we in fact haven’t spent a ton of money on it. So, was the whole “We can go to the moon! We can do anything!” thing a lie? Yes. In a sense, it was.
There are an awful lot of things that we, as a society, could do if we decide to allocate a large fraction of our national resources to it. We could bell every cat to protect the song birds. We could build high speed trains connecting every city with at least ten thousand people in the country. We could give every person their own pet robot elephant, if we wanted to. However, none of these things—and many others—are worth the trouble. There is some technical sense in which we could do these things, but we can’t do them in the very practical sense that we won’t do them. We don’t want to do them. We might airily daydream that they would be nice. Especially the robot elephants. But when it comes to the actual things rather than merely a passing thought about them—we don’t want them if we’d have to actually do them in order to get them.
And so it is with going to the moon. It is possible that in another decade or two SpaceX and its competitors will have brought down the cost of massive rockets enough that someone will consider the few hundred million dollars it will probably cost worth it. If so, it will not really change things; going to the moon was supposed to usher in the space age. Instead, we’ve stayed firmly on the ground because, quite literally, there’s nothing in space and therefore no reason to go there.
In short, there were people who hoped that the moon missions meant that we’d soon be building these:
The conspiracy theory that the moon landings were faked basically means that we aren’t. And that part—the practical part—is right. We’re not building a Stanford torus anytime soon.
Despite being in my early 40s, I grew up listening to folk songs and especially protest songs, like Leaving on a Jet Plane, Blowing in the Wind, Sunshine Go Away Today, and pretty much anything by Phil Ochs. It was not what kids typically listened to in the 1980s, but I was exposed to it and it resonated. In a sense the cry for justice is timeless.
But only in a sense.
The basic problem that protest songs from the 1960s have, in terms of being timeless, is that they are fundamentally childish. Not that it’s childish to cry out for justice—that cry is an ancient and very adult cry. But the adult cry for justice is a cry to God. It is childish to cry out to men for justice with an expectation that the cry will be answered.
The protest movement of the 1960s and the folk song movement were both many actions taken by many people so they are complex things with many causes and many aspects. To accurately describe this would take tens of thousands of years. That said, there is some useful painting with a broad brush that we can do.
The key to understanding protest songs is to situate them historically. The people big in the folk song movement were, for the most part, in their 20s or early 30s when the movement was at its height in the 1960s. This means that they were born in the 1940s and grew up in the 1950s. In fact, looking it up, I discovered that Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Art Garfunkel were all born in 1941. To be fair, Peter and Paul were born in 1937 while Mary was born in 1936. Phil Ochs was born in 1940. The major exception I’m aware of was Pete Seeger, who was born in 1919, but some people never grow up.
While decades like the 1920s, 30s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and to a lesser extent the 90s tend to be characterized with particular cultural trends, that’s not so true of the 1940s, and for good reason. The first half of the decade was dominated by World War II, while the second half was the beginning of the post-war boom. The first half of the decade was very much its own thing. With much of the culture being shifted over to a war-time footing, it was a radical change from the 1930s. The second half of the decade featured an aggressive return to a normalcy which young people had never really known after the depredations of the great depression and the war. This attempt to return to a normal they hadn’t experienced in people just settling down to (sometimes delayed) parenthood was aided by the tremendous technological progress which happened during the war. Though every age is made up of many feelings and many trends, one of the dominant feelings the late forties and 1950s was optimism. All of the people who had caused World War II had unconditionally surrendered and we were fixing their countries so that they wouldn’t do it again. Moreover, technology was booming, television was just starting to become a widespread thing, and we would soon have free, unlimited energy because of the nuclear age. Things were, at long last, finally going to become great.
By the 1960s, it became apparent that things were not, in fact, going to become great. The cold war was on. The Soviet Union had gotten the nuclear bomb and was pursuing an aggressive expansionist policy to spread communism and create buffer states to protect themselves. At home, the evil of racism was becoming less overlookable and in the late 1950s the civil rights era was really getting underway.
To someone who was born in the early 1940s and was a teenager in the 1950s, all of their memories would be from the post-war boom when optimism dominated and the general expectation was that life was going to be wonderful. The future, if you look at how it was portrayed, was largely supposed to be great. (There were, of course, premonitions that this would not be the case. The Day The Earth Stood Still was made in 1951 and Forbidden Planet was made in 1956. Again, I’m painting with a broad brush.) The clash of the unreaslistic post-war prosperity and expectations (as received by children) with late 50s and early 60s disappointments produced a specific sort of outrage.
Anyone, at any time, can be outraged that an injustice has happened. Anyone, at any time, can be outraged that the people with the power to fix it have not fixed it. Only people at a time like this could really be surprised that the people with power did not fix it, though. Most people, at most times, are more cynical, by which I mean, they are more realistic. The people who sang Blowin’ In the Wind really thought that there was a real chance of ending war if only everyone would just decide to. Speaking about the song at the time, Bob Dylan said:
There ain’t too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind. It ain’t in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it’s in the wind — and it’s blowing in the wind. Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some … But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know … and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong. I’m only 21 years old and I know that there’s been too many wars … You people over 21, you’re older and smarter.
The protest movement was, fundamentally, asking the people in power to fix things. It was a childish thing in that it was underlied by the assumption that the people in power could fix everything if only they decided to. A parent sees this all the time with children; they are certain that if only they ask hard enough the parent can do anything. If only they beg hard enough, they can eat candy right before bed and not brush their teeth and go to the toy store instead of going to bed and everything will be fine because their parents will make it fine.
It is possible to sing protest songs as a general lament of sin and the fallenness of the world, but at least at present, it’s not easy to ignore the childish nature of such songs. It’s not easy to appreciate a flawed thing in the way a child does, paying attention only to the best parts and ignoring the flaws. Children have the advantage that they usually don’t even notice the flaws. I don’t mean that they take them in without noticing, I mean that their limited attention, knowledge, and understanding strains out the flaws so they don’t get them. Perhaps this is one reason that the older one gets, the harder it is to take part in popular culture.
My novels, printed in hardcover, come with the cover art printed on the book itself, and with no dust jacket. Though this is clearly superior to the flimsy paper which easily tears and makes reading more difficult it one tried to do it without setting the dust jacket aside, it did make my books (printed by a small indie publisher) feel less real, somehow. Wondering why a superior bookbinding felt less real, I looked up the history. It turns out to be interesting and different than I expected.
Apparently until the 1820s books were not (typically) bound by their publishers. The publisher’s job was to print the book up, it was left to a bookseller or the customer to bind it in whatever way they wanted. It was a man by the name of William Pickering who, in 1819, first offered inexpensive books bound with a cloth binding. These books were quite popular and it changed the publishing industry forever. It was not long before publishers started making the bindings fancy.
An issue which came up is that fancy bindings do not do well with the rigors of distribution such as being carted around in boxes on trains or thrown into carts. In order to protect these fancy bindings, publishers began to wrap the books in dust jackets, though they were more akin to a paper version of modern plastic wrap—wrapped all around and sealed. Being paper they were not transparent, so some indicating of what book was inside was found to be a good idea, and a name was often printed on this paper, though very plainly. The expectation (and frequent reality) was that the bookseller would remove the protective paper as he was stocking the books in his store.
By the 1850s, the all-around dust jacket was replaced the dust jacket that folds around and is tucked inside the cover, as we typically know it today. It was still very plain and meant to be discarded, but this format provided the requisite protection without costing as much either in material or labor to wrap, as well as to unwrap for display in a bookstore.
In the early 1900s the economics of books changed and since it was cheaper to make the dust jacket fancy than it was to make the book binding fancy, that’s what happened. It seems like the transition was mostly complete by the 1920s, when the price of a (harcover) book was moved to the inside flap, rather than the spine, where it would not get in the way of appreciate the cover art.
Thus hardcover books remained until recently. With printing technology having changed to use what are effectively (as I understand it) industrial scale laser printers and even industrial scale color laser printers, together with other machines of automation and more advanced plastics, it became viable to inexpensively print durable cover art directly onto hardcover books.
This is better in every way than the dust jackets which dominated the twentieth century, and yet it’s curious how powerful associations can be. Instinctively, I still think of a book with a plain, dark cover wrapped in a dust jacket to be better, somehow. In spite of the fact that it is typically much worse, including having no water resistance on the cover. In fact, so annoying is this, that I actually used wood finish on the cover of a beloved copy of Pride and Prejudice in order to make it resist the occasional unlucky drop of water (the dust jacket wasn’t very good and has long-since been lost).
There is a curious relationship, I think, to how we grew used to thinking of classical marble statue as monochromatic (white). In its day it was painted bright colors; by our time the paint has long-since flaked off. We took the simplicity to be deliberate and learned to appreciate it, associating it with good judgement because it so commonly went with good judgement.
In the end of The Three Gables, the woman responsible for the trouble in the story asks Sherlock Holmes for help.
“Well, well,” said he, “I suppose I shall have to compound a felony as usual.”
It’s an interesting phrase, because it’s true—Holmes does often let the criminal go. I was reminded of this when I recently re-watched the Jeremy Brett version of The Priory School, and then re-read the short story to see the differences. Perhaps the biggest change is that in Conan Doyle’s version, Holmes lets the criminals off, while in the Jeremy Brett version there’s one fewer criminal, and the main criminal ends up falling to his death rather than being let off. (To be fair, in the Conan Doyle version, the actual murderer does get caught and is said to be almost certain to hang for the murder.)
This is a rather curious trend. Though the Holmes stories in large part launched the genre of detective stories, in many ways they frequently bucked the trends that quickly came to dominate the genre.
Holmes stories do not tend to feature fair play; in fact they often almost pointedly eschew it with Holmes seeing some evidence which he refuses to show to Watson. The Priory School has an example of this; Holmes stands on Watson’s shoulders to see who is holding the young boy who was kidnapped, but Watson doesn’t get to see who it was and only learns it when Holmes accuses the man.
Holmes stories are frequently not about murder, though admittedly even in the golden age not every mystery story was about murder. I can think of at least three Father Brown stories off of the top of my head which were not. That said, in Holmes stories murder is probably more the exception than the rule.
But perhaps nowhere do Holmes stories buck the trends of the genre they started so much as in how often Holmes lets the criminal off. It’s not merely occasional, it’s all over the place. Perhaps the most memorable instance of it is in the end of The Blue Carbuncle:
“After all, Watson,” said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies. If Horner were in danger it would be another thing; but this fellow will not appear against him, and the case must collapse. I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness. Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward.
Perhaps it’s the second bucking of the trend which is so often responsible for the first; I can’t think of any case where Holmes lets a murderer go. (I should note that my knowledge of his cases is not encyclopedic. That said, I think that in later stories the preference in both readers and writers developed for the detection in detective stories to have some purpose, that is, to have some effect. It need not be a legal effect, of course, though it commonly was that. The solution should please more than just the detective; it should reconcile people to each other or give someone peace.
There are no hard and fast rules on this, of course. I’m quite fond of the Poirot story Murder on the Orient Express, where Poirot lets the killers off. It’s actually more complicated than that; he does not make the decision at all. The director of the Wagon-Lit company that runs the orient express asked him to investigate and he did. He then presented to the director two possibilities. The first was of an assassin who snuck out through a window when he was done. The director dismisses, but Poirot warns him not to dismiss it so quickly. After he hears the second explanation, he may not think so badly of this one. He then explains what really happened, where the death was, basically, the execution of a foul murderer of an innocent child, who had heretofore escaped justice. When he fully understood what had happened, the director did indeed prefer the first explanation, and it was what was given to the police when they eventually arrived. There was a cathartic effect to the action, though, where an impartial judge was given to judge the case, and pardoned the killers. The detective, effectively, reconciled the killers with society.
I am, in fact, fond of the surprise ending where the detective lets the killer go because he is not really a murderer. I suppose I just think that it should be a rare exception for it to have its real effect.
Ultimately, though, it is right that the detective cares more for justice than for the law, and it is generally best when the detectives are not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies.
On his YouTube channel, Jonathan Pageau gave an interesting talk on the symbolism in the story of Jonah.
There’s something very interesting about the story of Jonah which Jonathan didn’t touch on. It was pointed out to me by Brant Pitre in his book The Case for Jesus (which I highly recommend, btw). Here’s the thing: Jonah didn’t survive in the belly of the fish (ancient Hebrew did not distinguish whales from fish, so it can be translated whale, too).
I know all of the kids books always show Jonah camping out in the belly of a whale with a big air pocket and a lantern and a canteen with fresh water and whatnot. But if you look at the text, not at children’s books, it’s very much written as if he died. The fish didn’t swallow him with a huge pocket of air, and not digest him, and so on. It ate his corpse.
The prayer of Jonah is, I believe, a mosaic of psalms, but it states fairly clearly that he is calling out to God from the land of the dead. It also describes him dying in the ocean. That he spent three days in the belly of the fish shows that he was good and dead. Absent a miracle, no one survives in the belly of a fish for one day, let alone three.
Then Yahweh made the fish vomit Jonah up onto dry land. And what does God say to Jonah? “Up!” This sure reads like a command to a corpse to get up and stop being dead (with echoes of Christ’s words to the daughter of Jairus, “little girl, arise”).
Granted, the text doesn’t explicitly say “Jonah died, he did not survive in the belly of the fish”, but absent someone starting a tradition of interpreting the text that way, it’s not ordinarily the sort of thing you’d need to be that explicit about; the man dying and praying in the land of the dead would, ordinarily, suffice.
The whole book of Job is a very interesting book, for a great many reasons. But I do very much like that when it comes to a prophet, not even dying is enough to get out of the job.
There are two types of suspects in murder mysteries: sympathetic and unsympathetic suspects. Oh, a suspect can go from one category to the other. We might not know which category a suspect is in. But ultimately, every suspect will be sympathetic or else not. So, which is better?
I can already all but hear people clamoring that a mystery story needs both. These people are probably right, but “both” is no fun as an answer so bear with me while I consider the question as a simple binary.
The first thing to say in favor of sympathetic suspects is that they are more pleasant. One can stand to read far more about sympathetic characters, in general, than unsympathetic ones. This is an important consideration. There is a danger here, though, which is that if a sympathetic character turns out to be the murderer, it is something of a blow. This is often a popular way to disguise a murderer, but it runs the risk, when overdone—as it often has been—of unintentionally conveying the idea that apparently good people always have some secret evil which they are hiding.
I should clarify that a sympathetic character need not be an outwardly moral character. It is possible to make an explicitly immoral character sympathetic, though care should be taken here not to let that lead the reader to approve of the sympathetic character’s vice. I will say that this sort of sympathetic character would be the better choice for murderer, if one must make the murderer sympathetic.
That is especially true in the modern era, where the general trend is in favor of excusing all vices, or at least almost all vices. Tempting people to excuse the vice of the sympathetic immoral person and then it turning out that they were merely being taken advantage of—there may be a useful corrective in that to the general vices of our time.
Probably the strongest argument to be made in favor of unsympathetic suspects is that it is often better for the murderer to be an unsympathetic character. Having said that, this does have the unfortunate consequence that one must have several unsympathetic characters in order to avoid making it obvious who the murderer is. (I’m speaking in generalities, of course. Enough gambits have been tried, and bluffed, and double-bluffed that one can probably pull off making the murderer unsympathetic, and making everyone suspect him, and starting off with some pretty damning evidence against him, only for the reader—and detective—to refuse to believe it because it’s too obvious. I can’t think off-hand of an Agatha Christie in which this was done, but if anyone could pull it off, she could.)
The downside to unsympathetic suspects is so obvious it may go without saying, but just in case it doesn’t: they tend to be unpleasant to read about. One must, therefore, keep their “screen time” short. A little bit of them will, usually, go a long way. This puts us in an especially bad place if the murderer is unsympathetic, since then we’ll need to have at least a few unsympathetic characters. Several characters, all of whom get fairly little time on the stage in order to spare the reader, will be harder to keep separate in the reader’s mind.
It will be well, therefore, to make them more stylized, in order to make them more memorable. One way of doing this is to give them vices which tend to be excused in popular culture. Poking fun at the vice will be more tolerated in an unsympathetic character, and it will be more memorable. It will also probably be more realistic, too, since vices have a tendency to cluster (as several vices often share a root cause).
In the end, I think that there’s a lot to be said for having a good number of sympathetic characters. Care must be taken if one of them is the murderer, but care will always have to be taken in writing a murder mystery.
A friend of mine was recently telling me about some COVID-19 mitigations going on in Washington DC, where restaurants were permitted to winterize their outdoor dining areas, which means putting walls around them and a roof over them. I.e. they are putting their outdoor dining area indoors for the winter, and it apparently counts as being what we might call “ritually outdoors”.
My friend laughed at this, but it’s actually a really interesting example of how paganism works and the human urge to pagan superstition. I’d like to talk about it for the sake of understanding those better. (COVID-19 will eventually pass, the urge to paganism will always be with us.)
I maintain that one can see the most essential element of paganism in the Book of Exodus, when the Israelites turn to paganism while Moses is talking with God on Mount Sinai. They are wondering in the desert and are running low on food and water. They asked Moses whether he brought them out into the desert to die, because they could have done that with more convenience back in Egypt. Moses went up to Mount Sinai to ask God for help, and when he was gone for longer than the Israelites had patience for, they asked Aaron to make them a god. He gathered up their gold, and using the fire melted it and cast it into the form of a calf. Then the Israelites worshiped it, and shouted,
Israel, here is your God who brought you here from Egypt!
The key thing to notice is that they did not turn to worshiping someone else’s god. They were still trying to worship the one who brought them out of Egypt; they were just trying to worship him on their own terms. They did not want to worship him according to his instructions; that was taking too long and they couldn’t see Moses and didn’t know what became of him. They did not want to trust. They wanted something that they could take an active part in. They wanted control.
So they made themselves a statue. They made it of gold, to please the god they were trying to worship. They worshiped it, to please the god. In effect, they were trying to do what all pagans do—they were trying to engage in a transaction with the god. They had no real way of knowing what, exactly the god wanted. That wasn’t really the point, since the gods were, if you get down to it, unknowable. The point was that they were doing something, and about as much as a human being could be expected to do, and that really should be enough, shouldn’t it?
And here we come back to indoor areas which are ritually outdoors. COVID-19 has a lot in common with the ancient gods, especially if you bear in mind that the ancients generally had gods of sickness and pestilence that one would give offers to in order to be spared. We have some basic knowledge about how COVID-19 works, but it’s still mostly guesswork how it spreads. (It’s pretty clear that it’s airborn, I don’t mean that basic fact, but what actions actually spread it, and how far, etc are not known with certainty.) No one can ethically set up controlled experiments to see what does and does not spread it, so we have to remain in ignorance about most of the practical aspects of how it spreads. Still, we have to do something. We can’t all hide in individual burrows until the disease goes away (storing up weeks of food per person would massively overtax our food delivery infrastructure), so what do we do while we’re not doing the thing we know would actually work? It’s got to be something.
As the days with COVID-19 drag on, the amount people are willing to not do grows less and less. So, in the absence of knowing how to do the things we want to do while staying safe, we must do something to show that we have not grown proud, that we’re doing as much as a human being can be expected to do, and so we should be spared. So we wear masks while no one really knows their effectiveness. (There are some designs of mask which do a very good job at stopping respiratory droplets. There are some designs of masks that aerosolize respitory droplets more than wearing nothing. Whether stopping respitory droplets or aerosolizing them further affects transmission is, however, not known. Even apart from that, how masks are worn significantly affects their performance, making any sort of generalization near impossible. In medical settings people are trained in how to use N95 masks and are actually tested on it by being put in environments with aerosolized aspartame. If they can taste the aspartame, the mask doesn’t fit correctly. Without a proper fit, air tends to pull in from the outside through the bad seal because there’s less resistance there than through the filter medium, meaning that a poorly fitted N95 mask provides almost no protection.)
And when people want to eat at restaurants, the restaurants ritually purify themselves by building new buildings, dedicated to the god of disease, in order to placate the god of disease to show that we are not being hubristic but are taking it seriously and asking it to spare us.
This is a thing you will see any time danger intersects partial ignorance and necessity or desire. When people do not know what to do in order to avoid bad fates, they will make offerings to the gods in order to be spared.
And, as a bonus, if the one who made the offering was not spared, then at least he will not be shamed before other men; he did everything he could, and the gods are capricious.
Unfortunately, so are men. His fellow creatures will be very tempted to suspect that he did not make the offering in good faith, that he had some private vice that the god saw but men didn’t, and is being punished.
As COVID-19 has recently reminded us all, we human beings live in ignorance and so paganism will always temp us.
I recently watched the Jeremy Brett version of the Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Red Circle. There were a number of changes from the original short story, as there inevitably are in translations of Holmes stories to the screen.
Some of these changes make perfect sense—these are generally of the form of filling in the minor actions which can be elided in prose, or creating dialog which was merely described. Of the former, an example might be greetings exchanged with a servant, the giving of hat and walking stick, etc. Of the latter, an author may write “he gave his consent enthusiastically,” but an actor must actually say specific words. These sorts of things are just a necessary act of translation of the written word to the performed word.
Some of these changes are mere additions. One such are things done to set the scene and tone. Examples of this might be showing the man merely described as a teacher actually teaching a class, or showing a blacksmith working iron. Another mere addition is padding. This is often an issue in the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes episodes based on short stories, as the short story really gave material for about half an hour, while the TV episodes were an hour. It varied from episode to episode, but some of them involve a fair amount of padding. A good example of this might be from the Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle—the TV episode begins with showing the lady who owned the gemstone coming to her hotel after shopping, going to her room, order a bath to be drawn for her, and finally discovering the stone to be missing. None of this appeared in the short story itself, but as presented it was congruent with it. It also served no discernible function beyond avoiding the credits being twenty minutes long.
Padding can be done well, though in later Jeremy Brett episodes the padding often consisted of revealing a good chunk of the mystery right at the beginning. An extreme example of this is the Jeremy Brett version of The Three Gables, in which the opening depicted the relationship between the dead man and the rich lady which was the reveal toward the end of the short story. I don’t think that there’s really any defense of this which can be given; it makes no sense to turn a Sherlock Holmes story into an episode of Colombo. That said, this is just a question of execution; padding need not hurt the story that is being added to.
And then we come to the changes which make no sense, in which something that appeared in the original story was removed and something else substituted in its place. I will draw my example from The Red Circle, since it’s what inspired this blog post. In the short story, Holmes meets inspector Gregson on the street as Gregson had been working with a Pinkerton detective to follow and try to arrest Black Gorgiano of the Red Circle, and Black Gorgiano was after the lodger that Sherlock Holmes had been called in to investigate. In the TV episode, Holmes met Inspector Hawkins (who replaced Gregson, presumably for casting reasons) at the murder scene of an invented character named Enrico Formani, and then the two joined forces. It might be argued that this was done in order to pad the story out, though, so I will move on to another, though shorter, change, as my example.
In the TV episode, Inspector Hawkins insists that Emilia and her husband Gennaro must be tried for the murder of Black Gorgiano, though he expects that they will not be convicted because it was self defense. He even takes tickets for departure on a ship from Gennaro. (There is also a post-script by Watson which says that they were aquitted and lived happily ever after in Australia.)
In the short story, Emilia surmises that it was her husband who killed Gorgiano and tells the story of what happened—how Gorgiano was following them to murder them, and how he must have come upon her husband and he defended himself. At the end, she asks, ” And now, gentlemen, I would ask you whether we have anything to fear from the law, or whether any judge upon earth would condemn my Gennaro for what he has done?” Here’s the rest:
“Well, Mr. Gregson,” said the American, looking across at the official, “I don’t know what your British point of view may be, but I guess that in New York this lady’s husband will receive a pretty general vote of thanks.”
“She will have to come with me and see the chief,” Gregson answered. “If what she says is corroborated, I do not think she or her husband has much to fear.
There was absolutely no need to change the ending in this way. It might be argued it followed from the earlier change of pushing the explanation from the scene of the death to Holmes going into Emilia’s room, but that change did not entail this one. Emilia could just as easily have asked if they had anything to fear this way. This change accomplished nothing except to slightly dehumanize the character of the inspector and create an element of fear for the couple which was immediately put to rest by Watson’s postscript.
I can think of no explanation for this sort of change except to try to make the story feel a bit more like a cookie cutter TV episode. The mantra of the time, in television (though more in the US than in the UK) was to “raise the stakes”. This was, more often than not, bad advice, though it made sense in the context of an era in which people had recently gained remote controls for their television and, with a much larger number of available channels than two decades before, people growing restless and changing channels was the TV writer’s greatest fear.
(Less talked about, but also interesting, was the concomitant effect on TV episodes that the writers had to bear in mind that the viewer at any given moment may not have watched the episode from the start and thus cannot be relied upon to remember what happened before the current scene. Keeping a viewer from losing interest and changing channels was of utmost importance, but keeping a viewer who lost interest in his original show and changed channels to yours was also very important, and this definitely had an effect on how TV shows were written.)