I’m working on another review of a Murder, She Wrote episode, and I wanted to pause to reflect on what it’s been like.
Each review that I write takes me on average about a week to write. I only review episodes that I’ve already seen (typically more than once) but I go through them again as I write in order to ensure that I’m not missing anything, as well as to provide screenshots that capture crucial detail to understanding the episode and the commentary I’m going to give on it. The first few didn’t take me so long, but as I settled into how I want to analyze the episodes, that’s what it ended up coming out to. It’s a lot of time, but I do enjoy the process of paying such close attention.
One thing that’s really jumped out at me as I’ve been re-watching Murder, She Wrote is the degree to which Jessica is not really a small-town retired school teacher. She is, to the last degree, a big-city celebrity who has a private home somewhere that the people don’t really bother her. About the only exception to this is her distaste for people selling recreational drugs, which I would expect a big-city celebrity to be more cool about. Other than that, all of her morays are ones that make sense in a big city—not asking about people’s background or character, not being bothered by things like adultery, fornication, divorce, theft, trespassing, or really anything that doesn’t affect her personally. Most of what she is indignant about is the implication that Cabot Cove lacks anything you can find in a big city. That’s precisely the sort of thing that someone from a big city who is hiding out in a small town would be indignant about. People who are actually from small towns are quite candid that they’re different from big cities—for worse and very much for better. Especially back in the 1980s, people from small towns were proud of the fact that they don’t have to lock their doors at night. Jessica never is.
Another thing that’s really stood out to me is the degree to which the plotting of the episodes was often sloppy. It’s not that, when I watched them as a kid, I thought that every episode was a masterpiece. Further, I understood then and understand now that with over two hundred episodes, they can’t all be winners. As the saying goes, fifty percent have to be in the bottom fifty percent. Still, they’re often unnecessarily sloppy. A flashback will include things that Jessica couldn’t possibly have seen. People will behave in odd ways that could be explained but no explanation is given. Murderers will reveal secrets they shouldn’t have known for no reason, saying things that no one would ever say as if it was normal, like explaining why the person they framed won’t like jail. Jessica will lure the murderer back to the crime scene at night by pretending that an earring is there, when the murderer could first check her jewelry box to see if she’s actually missing an earring.
Having realized this, my examinations of the episodes of Murder, She Wrote have ended up being a little different than the original intention. At first I wanted to look how they were constructed to learn from them. I should say that this is still possible in some cases. If the Frame Fits comes to mind as one of the very well constructed episodes. One White Rose for Death is another. Most of the time, though, the analysis is more about why the episode is interesting despite its plot holes and flaws. In some ways this may be more instructive yet.
When a plot is really excellent, it can be easy to miss all of the other things that go into making the episode good, such as characters, setting, dialog, etc. When the plot is not the strong part but the episode is enjoyable anyway, it forces one to notice the other parts more. The best stories will be well done in every aspect of the story, not merely the plot, so it is well to notice these other things, too.
Apparently again making the rounds is the story of a “real life lord of the flies.” Six boys were stranded on an island for over a year, but unlike Lord of the Flies they actually worked together and got along. Generally left out of the retelling of the story was that they were all Catholics and kept up a strict prayer life (it is sometimes mentioned in a more general way, such as one made a guitar and then would sing songs and prayers at night). Even neglecting that, these retellings always seem to miss the point, not only of the real-life version, but also of the original story.
(For reference, he’s the article in The Guardian that is the source for many recent retellings. Also, a disclaimer, I’ve never read Lord of the Flies and have no intention to, I’ve only read about it, but that’s quite sufficient.)
The general thrust I’ve seen of the retellings is “in Lord of the Flies, William Golding took a dark view of human nature, that without the restraint of civilization we’re brutal and nasty, but when this happened for real, the boys were wonderful and got along great!” There are some superficial issues this misses, as well as some deeper ones. I’ll deal with them in that order.
To get to the superficial differences, the novel and real life had significant age differences. The boys in Lord of the Flies were all older children or pre-adolescent. The Tongan boys who were stranded on an Island ranged from 13 to 16 years old. This is a significant difference, as a few years at that age makes an enormous difference in emotional stability, self-control, a sense of responsibility, how much civilization they’ve actually absorbed so far, etc. The boys in the novel were also merely schoolmates whereas the six Tongan boys stranded on an island were friends who set out on a boat together and got lost in a storm. The six Tongan boys were all Catholics who regularly prayed together while the boys in the novel, being British from the mid-1900s would have been mostly effectively atheist though nominally Christian; Britain had largely ceased to be a Christian nation by the early 1900s. There were only six Tongan boys while there were a far larger number of boys in the novel, which makes the interpersonal dynamics far more complicated and much more liable to factionalism. There are others, but I think this suffices.
The much more fundamental problem with the common analysis I’ve seen is that it utterly misses the point of the book. I gravely doubt that Lord of the Flies is a good book; I’ve never read it and have no intention of reading it. However, all it takes is a very slight acquaintance with the plot to see that it’s an anti-war book where what happens on the island is a metaphor for World War II. The culmination of the book is the rescue of the surviving children by British naval officers from a cruiser (i.e. a warship) who is disappointed that the boys put up such a bad show, then looked awkwardly at the warship he served on, the obvious point being that the adults are no better than the horrible pointless savagery of the feral boys.
Lord of the Flies is not about what human beings are like without civilization to improve them or rules to control them. Its entire point is that civilization is just as brutal as the wild, it only pretends to be better. Now, one can argue until the cows come home about what people will be like stuck on a desert island and the truth is that it’s going to depend on who, precisely, is stuck on the desert island and what choices they make. There’s no point in arguing that World War II didn’t happen.
Lord of the Flies is probably not a good book and its central message—that World War 2 proves that civilization is a lie and human beings are unredeemable savages—is not true. It was a popular lie shortly after World War II. You can see all sorts of variants of it in the “best” literature of the time (the early 1950s), such as A Streetcar Named Desire, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, etc. The thing is, a small group of people who get along with each other on a desert island don’t prove this is a lie. Any number of people could get along on any number of desert islands and it wouldn’t prove this is a lie. After all, World War 2 happened.
What proves that human beings are redeemable is that God, in Christ, has redeemed them.
Early in the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote is the episode Witness For the Defense. It’s a courtroom drama, which is rare for the series. The action takes place mostly outside of the courtroom, it’s true, but that also tends to be true of courtroom dramas. Interestingly, it takes place in Canada where the court system is pleasingly British.
Jessica, by the way, is the eponymous witness for the defense. She’s been called up to Canada to be a witness in the murder trial of a friend of hers. The scene opens with Jessica being shown into the law office of Oliver Quayle. She meets, however, not Mr. Quayle but his assistant, Barnaby Friar.
Barnaby is an affable, likeable fellow who, it turns out, is much of the reason that people will deal with Oliver Quayle at all. That plus his amazing record at winning murder trials. Which brings us to the subject of why Jessica is there: she was asked to come as a witness in the trial of the Crown vs. James Harlan. Barnaby suggests letting the great man do the explanation. This, by the way, is the great man:
If you can imagine it, his speech is even more pompous than he looks. He’s also very busy; his tailor is fitting him for a new suit while he’s on the telephone. (The call was about a friend who wanted to borrow his jet for a few weeks.)
Instead of telling Jessica what the trial is all about, he has her narrate the events of the fateful night that Jim’s wife died. Jessica, for once, complies instead of demanding answers. I suppose exposition is more important than Jessica’s principles.
It was about six months ago, and Jim was about to publish his second novel, and he had invited her up to look at the galleys…
As a side note, it’s curious how many writers ask Jessica to read their book, regardless of what genre they’re writing in. I suppose her having been a high school English teacher comes in handy, here. Why they all invite Jessica over rather than sending her the manuscript I don’t know; it seems like an inefficient use of time. The writers do need to get Jessica out of Cabot Cove somehow, though, and (I suppose) this is as good an excuse as any. Even so, I can’t help but wonder how Jessica is on such close terms with people all over the world as to read their manuscripts and give them advice on their life’s work. Her myriad of nieces is more plausible.
Jessica explains by saying that she had shown him encouragement on his first book and they had become close. This reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s comments on saying that life started on earth because aliens planted it here: it’s just kicking the can down the road. If memory serves, his analogy was that it’s no answer to where did the ghost in the cemetery come from to say that it came from a neighboring cemetery. She was asked to give him advice on his second book because she had given him advice on his first book doesn’t really answer anything.
Still, I can be sympathetic to the problem of how you call your amateur detective in. It’s not easy, and the writers of Murder, She Wrote had to do it two hundred and sixty four times. With that many times of calling Jessica in, they can’t all be winners.
Here’s Jim worriedly asking what she thought of the book:
(If you recognize him, that’s because Christopher Allport, the actor playing Jim, had previously played Donald Granger in If The Frame Fits.)
After Jessica talks about how wonderful his book is, a car pulls up outside. Jim goes to the window and announces that Patricia is back. Patricia is his wife, and in the picture below is the one in blue. As she and a friend named Monica Blane walk out of her expensive sports car…
They look over at the gardener, who winks at Patricia.
She nods her head in acknowledgement, then goes into the house. How Jessica knew either about the winking or the nodding I have no idea, because Jessica was toward the back of the room with a curtain on the window and couldn’t possibly have seen either. (She’s in the same place in the room you can see in the picture of Jim asking her how she liked the book.)
There’s some schmoozing and Jim and Patricia seem genuinely affectionate. There are a few important points, though:
Monica has to leave on a 7:40pm flight
Patricia has a lovely brooch that is a gift from her husband on their first anniversary and
a family heirloom that belonged to his grandmother.
Patricia booked an appointment to have her hair done at 6pm so she asks Jim to run Monica to the airport for her.
Jim agrees and talks about stopping for some drinks with Monica on the way to the airport in a highly suggestive manner.
When this clue session is over, Jessica then skips the narration to that evening, when they gathered for dinner at precisely 8:30pm in the Harlan town house in the city. Jim’s mother, Judith, will let nothing interfere with her routine.
After a bit of chatter in which Judith seems to imply that Jim’s book isn’t any good, a servant comes in and tells her that there was a fire at the country house.
Jessica then returns to the present and tells Mr. Quayle that Jim was devastated when he learned that Patricia died in that fire. Mr. Quayle then goes on about what a great witness Jessica will make, with her national standing and Cabot Cove Maine down-home background. He asks if she has a straw hat with violets in it and says that Barnaby will get her one to complete the look. Jessica indignantly protests that she will not play a country bumpkin for him or for anyone else when he’s interrupted by a phone call from his ex-wife.
I find it difficult to take Jessica’s indignation seriously. She is not so scrupulously honest that she never lies during her investigations. In Night of the Headless Horseman she pretended to be Dorian Beecher’s mother. Mr. Quayle isn’t even asking her to lie—he’s just asking her to dress in a way that will be particularly sympathetic to the jury. This isn’t the sort of thing that anyone should be indignant about, let alone a woman who will lie and wear costumes during an investigation and who is never bothered adultery to say nothing of fornication.
As Quayle’s phone call with his ex-wife—which, oddly, contained an amount of affection which might have been excessive had it been his wife—concludes, Barnaby reminds him of his next appointment and he leaves a flustered Jessica without answers. The next scene goes to the Harlans’ town house at night where Jessica asks Jim why he’s been charged for murder. He explains that the authorities believe that the fire was arson. His mother then comes down and he goes up to bed. During the conversation with Judith, it comes out that Judith thought that Patricia was a bad woman. “Jim was such a serious, studious boy, that he really had no experience with that sort of person.”
In the next scene we go to the courtroom where the prosecutor for the crown (Miss Pirage, pronounced “peer-ahj”) asks a witness what he concluded after his laboratory investigations. I can’t tell what her accent is supposed to be; she pronounces laboratory “lah-bohr-a-tory” as the posh English do, but this is in Canada. Quebec, even, which makes it strange that the trial is conducted in English, and even more strange that the judge, learned counsel, etc all have quasi-English accents rather than French accents. C’est la vie, I suppose.
In his laboratory investigations, he discovered that a gas line in the hot water heater in the basement was disconnected, allowing gas to escape. A gas jet in the stove had been left on upstairs, causing a gas explosion. I’d have thought that all this would have been easier to determine in a crime-scene investigation than a laboratory investigation, but perhaps in Canada they have better lighting in their laboratories and no flashlights. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Canada. I don’t remember what it’s like up there.
Mr. Quayle cross-examines in a pompous style that’s pretty funny. He begins by clarifying whether it’s Miss Pirage or Mrs. Pirage, and explains that he prefers to be precise and would hate to begin by giving her a husband she does not have. She quips back that if she decides she wants a husband, she’ll remember his generous offer. The actors pull it off, and it does come across as funny.
Mr Quayle then begins his cross-examination; he very theatrically elicits from the witness that all he found was an open valve on the stove which is the limits of his knowledge, and is merely surmising that it was left on and was the cause of the fire.
The next witness is the gardener, who testifies that on the day she died he heard Patricia and Jim yelling at each other. She wanted a divorce. Jim’s answer to this request was, “before I give you a divorce I’ll see you dead.”
Mr. Quayle’s cross-examination is basic character assassination; he brings up that the gardener passed a course in auto-repair from a penitentiary institution, and was fired for theft. He concludes, from the way that the gardener shouts that it was a lie, that he was going to ask if the (the gardener) bears the Harlan family ill-will, but the question is no longer necessary.
The next witness is a doctor who testifies that autopsy was very difficult because the fire had almost entirely destroyed the remains. They could only identify the body from the jewelry on it—a engagement ring and engraved wedding band. She does elicit from him—he’s prone to tangents—that what was left of the victim’s skull had a large fracture in the frontal lobe, and there’s no question about it, the victim died from the blow to the head.
We do not see Quayle’s cross-examination. Instead we go back to Mr. Quayle’s office where Jessica, Judith and Jim are sitting on a couch while Barnaby is pouring them tea and Mr. Quayle is asking Barnaby for a list of doctors they’ve used in the past. What they’re all doing here, I’ve no idea; I can’t see why Jessica and the Harlans would go back to their barrister’s office. Anyway, Jessica goes into Mr Quayle’s office as he’s doing research and informs him that it seems to her that Patricia was dead before the fire started. Mr. Quayle asks if she has some medical expertise and she replies that it’s just a matter of common sense—it must have taken some time for the gas to have gotten up to the top floor and if she were alive she would have smelled it.
Quayle replies that it’s up to the crown to prove that she didn’t die in the fire. Jessica answers that it’s not a matter of proof, it’s a matter of logic. I think this is supposed to come off as dishonest Quayle vs. honest Jessica, but she just seems a bit thick-headed to not realize that in a murder defense, ambiguity is on the side of justice if the defendant is innocent.
Quayle is interrupted by his secretary, who tells him that his ex is on the line. This turns out to be another ex-wife, who he addresses in terms equally affectionate as he addressed his previous ex-wife.
Jessica walks back into the waiting room and talks to Jim. She tells him that if Patricia did die prior to the fire, he may need to establish his whereabouts. He reminds her that he took Monica to the airport. How that’s supposed to help, I’m not sure. Her flight was at 7:40pm and even back then you didn’t drop someone off at 7:39 for a 7:40 flight. Unless these things are far apart he would have had plenty of time to get back, murder Patricia, and arrive on time for dinner. Jessica decides that it’s very important to track Monica Blane down. She goes and asks Mr. Quayle if he’s tried to track her down and he tells her that he has decided that her (Jessica’s) testimony will not be necessary, Barnaby will reimburse her for expenses, and he wishes her a pleasant trip back to Maine. (Judith slipped into Quayle’s office before this; it seems possible that she might have had something to do with it.)
Jessica and Jim then go for a walk past a Mounty to talk over the case.
Jessica then asks Jim about the gardener’s testimony. He says that Patricia had been going through a lot of money and refused to account for it. They both got upset and said things that they didn’t mean, but he didn’t threaten Patricia and never would have hurt her. Jessica says that the question is, then, why the gardener was lying.
Jessica then takes a cab to the gardener’s shack where he’s working on a vintage car.
Jessica pretends to be a country bumpkin who is hoping to get a story into the Cabot Cove Gazette. I suppose she won’t pretend to be a country bumpkin for Mr. Quayle or anyone else; she’ll only pretend to be a country bumpkin for herself. I believe that in modern parlance that sort of selfishness is supposed to be independence, or integrity, or something. Be that as it may, it’s things like this that make it very hard to take Jessica’s indignation seriously. And be that as it may, she does manage to pump the gardener for a little information. It turns out that he saw Patricia lying on the floor (presumably dead) through a window before the fire. He didn’t say anything about it because he doesn’t get involved with the police and he would deny what he told her if anyone else asked about it.
For some reason we now get back to the cross-examination of the crown’s medical witness by Mr. Quayle. He asks whether the skull could have been crushed by a falling beam during the fire, or if in fact it is not most probable that the skull was crushed in that fashion. The medical examiner admits that it is possible.
The crown next calls Nathan Klebber, whoever he is.
He turns out to be the owner and operator of the Blue Sky Motel on Aviation Boulevard near “the airport”. I find that last little imprecision amusing because it makes sense for television but is out of character. If the learned counsel is going to the trouble of specifying the Blue Sky Motel and the street it’s on, it would be natural to specify its distance from the airport and also which airport. I haven’t checked but it seems likely that there is more than one airport in Canada. That’s the sort of detail that screenwriters often leave out, in part because it’s (almost) certain you won’t get sued by a real person or business if you don’t actually name them. It’s a little odd not to make up a fake name for it, though.
The learned counsel for the crown asks if on May 14 “of last year” whether he rented a room to an attractive blond woman in her early thirties. He replies that he did; he punched “the card” at 6:53pm. He then leans forward and in his sleasiest voice says that with everyone travelling he sometimes rents by the hour. She gave the name “Monica Blane” on the registration card. She came into the office alone but there was a man with him, and he saw the man. He then identifies Jim Harlan.
This is a strange turn of events for several reasons. The one that stands out most in my mind is that the sleazy motel owner makes a remarkably confident identification for a man he saw out his office window and in a car, somewhere around a year ago.
Actually, this time frame is itself a problem because when Jessica gives her narration to Mr. Quayle in the beginning of the episode she says that the events she narrated took place “about six months ago”. Six months from May 14th would be in November of the same year. Even if one stretched eight months to be “about six months” that would only place the episode in early January. As I’ve previously noted, I’m not an expert on Canada. That said, it is my distinct impression that Canada, in January, tends to be cold. It’s not really the sort of place that a person would work on a car outdoors with rolled up sleeves. Moreover, the exterior scenes we’ve seen so far all showed the lush greens of late spring or summer. Jessica’s flashbacks, likewise, showed lush greens—the gardener was outside trimming bushes—so I don’t see any way for this trial to be less than about a year ago, despite Jessica’s putting it only six months ago.
So how valuable is the identification provided by one of the sleaziest witnesses ever to sit in the witness box of a man he saw a year ago, through his office window, sitting inside a car? Moreover, when there was absolutely no reason for the motel owner to have attached any significance to the event?
To be fair on that last point, it’s likely that the police, during their investigation, would have questioned him days or weeks after the event. Presumably he would have identified Jim from a photograph then and his testimony in court a year later is merely referencing his earlier identification. They don’t show that, but it’s more reasonable and plausible with what they’ve said. Even so, though, that identification would have been under the really terrible circumstances I described above. I also have to question why a motel owner who rents by the hour would even look at his guests enough to notice them. When you deal with the general public they tend to become a blur. Perhaps Jim stood out because Monica was so pretty and he was curious who was with her? That’s not absurd, but it would have been nice to establish.
However that goes, Mr. Quayle does not tear the motel owner to shreds but instead asks to cross-examine at a later time, which the judge grants. The crown then calls Jessica Fletcher to the stand!
Some very dramatic music plays. Mr. Quayle looks surprised then looks at Jessica as if she’s betrayed Jim. She looks around as if he might have been looking at someone else.
Or perhaps she was just looking away in shame.
The sum total of what she’s asked is all she would have testified had Mr. Quayle called her—that Jim and Monica left the country house just before six o’clock and dropped her off at the Harlan town house just after 6:30. He then left with Monica and the next she saw Jim was at 8:30 for dinner. The learned counsel for the crown dramatically asks if Jessica has no knowledge of Jim’s whereabouts between 6:30 and 8:30 and Jessica confusedly says that’s correct.
The learned counsel for the crown then states that these two hours were plenty of time for the defendant to go back to the country house, murder his wife, then get back to the city for dinner.
Perhaps so, but if it takes over half an hour to get from the country house to the city house, as the learned counsel for the crown just established, what on earth is her theory of the crime given that she was the one who called the witness to testify Jim was checking into a by-the-hour motel with Monica Blane at 6:53pm? I suppose that the airport could be right next to the country house, but unless that’s the case and we’re further to suppose that Jim and Monica didn’t actually do anything in the hotel room they rented, the learned counsel for the crown just established Jim’s alibi.
Instead of thanking the Queen’s Counsel for proving the innocence of his client, Mr. Quayle immediately cross-examines Jessica and engages in one of the most entertaining courtroom character-assassinations I’ve ever seen.
He begins by asking if she has ever used the alias “J.B. Fletcher,” and when she says that it’s the name she uses on her books, he asks, “So, you admit that you are a writer?” When she admits this, he asks, “And it was in the guise of a writer that you wheedled your way into the confidence of the Harlan family?” A moment later he asks, “Do you deny that the plot for your next book was stolen from an unpublished manuscript by James Harlan?” Quayle replies to her denial that it’s a matter that they will leave to the civil courts to decide. He then asks if she remembers being committed to the State of Maine Institute for the Criminally Insane in 1985.
The learned counsel for the crown objects and the judge sustains the objection, but Jessica answers anyway—she wasn’t committed, she entered the institution voluntarily. Mr Quayle asks if it was under the care of Dr. Sidney Buckman, a specialist in the field of criminal psychosis (whatever that is). Jessica says yes, she was researching a book. Mr. Quayle then commends it as a perfect subterfuge. Jessica replies that the book was called Sanitarium of Death and was dedicated to Dr. Buckman. Mr. Quayle surmises out of gratitude for the care which she received.
He proceeds to ask whether Jessica’s neice, Victoria Griffin, was arrested for murder last year. Jessica says yes. (This is referring to the third season episode Corn Beef & Carnage.) He also asks whether another neice, Tracy Magill, was also arrested for murder. (This is referring to the second season episode Dead Heat.) And that her nephew, Grady Fletcher, was arrested for murder not once but twice? (I forget which episodes this would be and there are too many with Grady to spend the time refreshing my memory of the plots of them all, unfortunately.) He concludes that “it seems that one of New England’s most respected families is a breeding ground for homicidal lunatics!”
Part of what I love about this character assassination is how completely pointless it is. Quayle had no interest in discrediting Jessica’s testimony—she gave Jim an alibi up to 6:30pm and placed him at the townhouse at 8:30pm, which was better than he was doing without her. Moreover, this testimony was in no way different than what he had previously said was a small but vital role for her to play in getting Jim off of the charge. In any event, it’s not like the jury is going to not believe Jessica about being dropped off at the townhouse at 6:30pm because she comes from a family that’s frequently arrested for murder. About the only possible reason that Mr. Quayle had for performing this pointless character assassination was to keep in practice.
It was a lot of fun to see an episode of Murder, She Wrote that actually acknowledges previous episodes, though. Further, the actor playing Mr. Quayle (Patrick McGoohan), plays him very over-the-top. It’s just delightful.
Quayle says that he has no further questions and Jessica, bewildered and appalled, gets up. The learned counsel for the crown buries her head in her hand as if something bad just happened for her case.
As I noted, I think that something bad did just happen for her case, but it was what the last two witnesses which she called testified to. Quayle did her a favor in discrediting Jessica, if indeed we are to assume that he succeeded in that. No one seems to notice this, however, so we move to the next scene in some sort of cafeteria, where Jessica, sits down with the Queen’s Counsel at her invitation.
The QC condoles with her, saying that it feels like being mugged. Jessica asks whether she really believes that Jim Harlan murdered his wife, and Miss Pirage (the QC) says that she intends to prove that Jim Harlan conspired with Monica Blane to kill Patricia.
Next we see Jessica and Jim driving in a car. Jessica asks Jim for the truth, and he agrees to tell her. He and Patricia tried to keep up appearances but their marriage was sinking fast. Patricia went through money like Jessica wouldn’t believe. Even on the day she died she took out twenty thousand dollars in cash. (It was never found.)
Jessica asks about Monica Blane and the motel. Jim admits that it’s true. He left at 8pm. Monica took a taxi to get to her flight. Given that her flight was at 7:40pm, that taxi must have driven awful fast for her to make it on time. Jim went straight back to the town house to it make it there for dinner. Jim says that he’s embarrassed by it, but Jessica points out that at least Monica Blane could give Jim an alibi. If she could be found.
That evening while Jessica is getting ready for bed, Judith knocks on her hotel room door and asks if she can come in. She apologizes for the vicious way that Mr. Quayle attacked her. After some conversation, it comes up that Judith found out that Patricia had spent a year in jail for embezzling funds from a previous employer and that she had been nothing more than a common Las Vegas showgirl when Jim had met her. Jessica surmises that Monica Blane was not an old schoolmate of Patricia’s but in fact had met her in prison, and was blackmailing Patricia. Judith had paid Monica a great deal of money to disappear through an intermediary—a private investigator.
The next day Jessica goes to Mr. Quayle’s office and talks to Barnaby where she gets him to show her a copy of the police report. It’s got a picture of the jewelry that Patricia’s body was identified with. Jessica asks where the diamond brooch is that Monica was wearing, and Barnaby tells her that there was no mention of a brooch.
Just then a private investigator walks in and announces that he’s there to see Mr. Quayle with information about the location of Monica Blane in exchange for “five large”.
Since Mr. Quayle isn’t around, Jessica goes to meet the private investigator instead. Then Mr. Quayle shows up. It doesn’t matter much because either way they get the location of Monica Blane.
The next day in court, before Mr. Quayle can call Monica Blane the Queen’s Counsel does instead. Monica testifies that she did spend time with Jim at the motel, but then she took a taxi to the airport because she had a 7:40 flight. When asked if it’s true that Jim did not drive her, she said that no, he said that he had to go to the country house to straighten some things out with his wife. Jim stands up and shouts that this is a lie and Mr. Quayle tells him to sit down.
At this point I don’t think that the timing works out no matter who you believe. The motel owner testifies that they booked the room at 6:53pm. Even back in 1987, arriving 47 minutes before an international flight was cutting it close. But she didn’t teleport to the airport, she spent time with Jim and then called a cab. Given the time it would take to call a cab, for a cab to arrive, then to drive Monica to the airport, it’s not very plausible that she spent any time with Jim and still made her flight.
More relevantly to the case, if we assume that the couple only spent ten minutes together… coupling, then Jim has an alibi until 7:03pm. Since it takes well over half an hour to get from the country house to the town house, where Jessica put him at 8:30, this gives him less than an hour to go from the motel by the airport to the country house to kill his wife and arrange the gas. I suppose that this depends on where the airport is, but my impression was that the town house was on the way to the airport, which would make the timing extremely close and pretty implausible. Outright impossible if the couple was together for twenty minutes and the airport was at least ten minutes further away from the country house than the town house was.
No one bothers to think about this, though. The next scene is at Mr. Quayle’s office, where Jessica and the Harlans are seated, talking. Jessica offers the suggestion that if Monica was blackmailing Patricia, perhaps she was trying to incriminate Jim in order to distract from her own crimes. This possibility really should have occurred to Jessica when she was spending so much effort to try to locate Monica to help Jim.
Mr Quayle arrives, yells at Jessica, then demands the Harlans come with him into his office. Mr. Quayle’s secretary comes in looking for an earing, which Jessica finds for her. She remarks that it’s not worth much but has a lot of sentimental value to her. Jessica then realizes who murdered Patricia.
The problem is how to prove it. Jessica talks to Barnaby and explains her idea. The gardener had told her that he went back to the house long after everyone had left. Perhaps he killed Patricia and stole the brooch. It would be stupid to sell the brooch so soon after the death, so if he took it he probably still has it hidden somewhere. Barnaby interrupts Mr. Quayle’s conference with the Harlans to propose this idea (Jessica thought Mr. Quayle would be more receptive if it came from Barnaby), and Mr. Quayle thinks he may be on to something. He instructs Barnaby to telephone a judge to get a search warrant. I guess in Canada private citizens can get search warrants? What a strange country.
Anyway, the next thing we see is a shadowy figure in a fancy car driving up to the gardener’s shack (where Jessica had interviewed him).
Oddly, for Murder, She Wrote, they didn’t disguise the figure very well, and in fact in the very next scene they show us that it’s Judith, wearing sunglasses and gloves but also distinctive jewelry and with her unusual hair on full display.
This strikes me as being about a 3% disguise. I suppose that there was no real point in trying to hold out the suspense of who the murderer was since the options were:
Option 1 isn’t impossible, but it’s highly unlikely since Jim is a friend of Jessica’s and also a writer. I don’t think that they’re ever the murderer. Also, I can’t remember Murder, She Wrote ever pulling a bluff by having Jessica working to clear the murderer the whole episode while the dumb police officer turned out to be right.
Option 3 would be very difficult to believe, even given the sloppy way that this episode plays with time. Jim alibis Monica until some time after 7pm and at a motel near the airport. Wherever exactly the airport is, it’s clearly not in walking distance of the country house, so Monica would have had to take a cab or rent a car to get there, both of which would have been idiotic. Plus, Patricia was Monica’s cash cow. The blackmailer doesn’t kill the victim for the same reason that children are told the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs.
Option 4 is unlikely, too, since the gardener had no motive to kill Patricia and also didn’t use the time-delay given by the gas leak to try to establish an alibi for himself. It’s not outright impossible. If Jessica was wrong about the blackmail, the gardener could have seen the twenty thousand dollars in cash and tried to steal it, killing Patricia in the process. The only problem, there, is that he would have had no way to know that anyone was searching for the brooch so he couldn’t be caught moving it to a better hiding place and we could hardly expect him to sneak into his own shack to plant the brooch on himself to throw suspicion onto himself.
That just leaves Judith. Since we don’t have any options, I guess that there was no point in pretending that we did.
As a small point, I wonder how Judith knew or expected that the gardener would be away from his shack. It would be very awkward for him to have found her there. She does call to him several times to make sure he’s not there, but I can’t imagine what she would have done had he been there.
Be that as it may, Judith is caught planting the brooch…
…by Jessica and the Queen’s Counsel, Miss Pirage. Normally, I’d say that this was a strange choice for an authority figure since prosecutors never go on searches for evidence because if anything happens during the search, they will be unable to prosecute the case because they are now a witness in the case. Who else could do it, though? There is no police detective in the case and it’s too late to bring one in. Jim wouldn’t be a great choice and Mr. Quayle or Barnaby would be worse choices. The gardener would technically be a possibility, but I know I wouldn’t want to rely on his testimony. It’s kind of curious that he’s not there, though, since without his permission Jessica and Miss Pirage are trespassing. Perhaps that’s not illegal in Canada?
Judith asks Jessica how she knew, and Jessica says that she had to ask herself who would take an antique brooch and leave a five karat diamond. The answer is someone to whom it was a family heirloom. Judith says that her mother was very fond of it, and it was a gift from her father.
Judith decides to confess to everything. Patricia’s appointment was not with her hairdresser (what a shock!) but with Judith. She was going to confront Patricia with everything that the private investigator had found out about her background. She offered Patricia a lot of money to quietly divorce Jim, without scandal. Patricia was not only greedy but abusive; she hit Judith. Judith grabbed whatever was nearby—the poker in the fireplace—and struck her down. She’s the one who disconnected the gas. She calculated that she had enough time to get to the town house before the fire consumed Patricia’s body. She couldn’t bear to see her mother’s brooch destroyed so she removed it from the body.
I find it curious that the brooch was the only thing of sentimental value in the entire country house. It was fortunate, I guess, that all of Judith’s sentimental attachments were stored in the town house.
Miss Pirage leads Judith away as if she has some sort of authority to arrest her, and before leaving the shack Judith turns to Jessica and says, “I hope you realize that I never would have let Jim be convicted for something I had done.” Jessica nods.
The closing scene is of Jessica and Barnaby talking. Barnaby says that their ploy worked, so I guess he was in on it. Jessica replies that she hopes Mr. Quayle appreciates what Barnaby did for him, and Barnaby shows off his new title.
Jessica comments that it has a “good, solid sound.” Mr Quayle walks in and Jessica says goodbye to him. He corrects her that it’s not goodbye, but au revoir. He’ll see her again a few months for the trial. He’s going to defend Judith. “Even the guilty deserve their day in court. I’m going to get her off. I always get them off.” Jessica says that it’s a trial she would rather skip, and Mr. Quayle says that she can’t. He’s going to call her as a witness.
The episode ends on Jessica’s look of horror.
There are a few things which are not small points that this episode leaves unanswered. Why did the gardener testify that Patricia asked for a divorce and that Jim replied that he’d kill her first? I suppose we’re meant to assume that he lied about it to try to hurt the Harlans in revenge for having been fired, but this would have been nice to establish. It’s also a somewhat strange motive. Again, we have to assume that this is based on testimony he gave the police in the days or weeks after the crime; without knowing that the fire was started intentionally, it would be a somewhat odd lie to tell. On the other hand, if he was telling the truth about having seen Patricia’s body before the fire, perhaps he thought that Jim really did do it and was trying to help the police get him. Which would be out of character, since he doesn’t like to talk to the police. Come to think of it, why did he cooperate with the police enough to lie about the fight but not enough to tell the truth about having seen the body on the floor prior to the fire? I don’t see any way that this makes sense.
Another question that is left unanswered is what actually happened with Jim Harlan and Monica Blane? I don’t see any way that she actually made her 7:40pm flight, but if she didn’t, what happened to her? Why did she try to incriminate Jim in the death of Patricia if she wasn’t involved? It doesn’t help her to make an enemy of Mr. Quayle (even if she doesn’t know him by reputation). Having just testified that they spent time together then she took a cab to the airport would have been her safest bet.
Another weird point is how on earth the two ended up getting a room together. They were, so far as we can tell, barely in each other’s company prior to driving Jessica to the town house and in Jessica’s company from then until about twenty minutes before they got a motel room next to the airport. I realize that some people move quickly but this rivals how fast Pepe le Pew falls in love. Perhaps Monica Blane, with her criminal background, might be this impulsive. Jim Harlan, the studious and sensitive soul, would hardly be likely to jump into bed with Monica twenty minutes into what seems to be his first private conversation with her. Especially since he wanted his marriage to work out.
Another question that’s completely unanswered is what existed between Patricia and the gardener? If Monica Blane was blackmailing Patricia and Patricia was paying, that would mean that Patricia wanted to stay in her marriage. Why would she cheat with the gardener if she wanted to remain married to Jim? Was she even cheating with the gardener? The only real evidence we have is the gardener winking at her and her nodding back—all of which happened in Jessica’s retelling and which Jessica couldn’t have known.
Also, on the assumption that Patricia was paying Monica blackmail money, why was she? The things that Judith’s private investigator found out about were that Patricia had spent a year in prison for embezzling money and that she was a las vegas showgirl when Jim met her. Presumably Jim already knew she was a showgirl when he met her, so what harm was there in her past coming out. It would be embarrassing to have served prison time for a crime, but why would she wreck her marriage over keeping this secret?
These questions aside, I was really shocked when the completely unidentifiable corpse turned out to be who it was assumed to be on the basis of jewelry and not the person who has been missing ever since then. I had assumed that the corpse was actually that of Monica Blane until she was located. That the mystery was not so complicated was a kind of twist, but not the good kind. Nothing was made of it; none of the characters were misled by it. Nothing was covered up by it. It almost seems like it was just an accident that this was possible until it wasn’t anymore.
The unwritten rule of mysteries is that it only counts as a twist if the story turns out to be more clever than it seems.
Overall, this is a very curious episode. As a mystery, it isn’t very good. It’s overly simple. Absent Jessica’s interference, the learned counsel for the crown had probably proved Jim’s innocence herself. Failing that, the murderer would have revealed herself had the person Jessica was trying to save been convicted. Most of the ends were loose ends; very little was made to fit. On the other hand, as an episode of a TV show, it was extremely entertaining. The courtroom scenes were enjoyable, especially Oliver Quayle’s over-the-top pomposity. It was especially fun to see a nod toward the ridiculousness of all of the episodes when put together. The supporting characters were also fun, except for Judith who was kind of grating but she turned out to be the murderer so that was OK.
All things considered, Witness For the Defense is a good lesson in how strong characters can carry a weak story. It’s better to have strong characters in a strong story, of course, but strong characters are, clearly, worth an awful lot.
Over at Amatopia Alexander Hellene has an interesting post about repentance with the fascinating (if long) story of Saint Mary. It’s worth a read.
I must confess that the intellectual problem of repentance has never really bothered me; I can’t conceive of a sin being stronger than God’s ability to fix it. But, for that reason, I do really like stories of repentance, because they demonstrate the mighty power of God.
Back in the fall, as the weather was getting cold and plants were dying off I bought some flower bulbs and planted them in a newly open spot by my house. This spring, they’ve bloomed, justifying the effort involved. (Already done are some crocus, in the foreground, and not yet done is some weeding.)
I also planted some tulips next to some rhododendron bushes.
Back when I planted them things were cold and there was not much green to be seen. The bulbs I planted were brown and gave no visual hint of the flowers that would come forth from them. In order to get the tulips in spring, I needed to trust that the brown balls I was planting in the cold dirt were alive, and would stay alive, and would in fact put forth beautiful flowers come spring-time.
It is often under-appreciated how practical a virtue faith is. For some reason people talk as if the practical virtue of faith and the theological virtue of faith were somehow utterly unlike each other. In both cases they amount to trust in previously known evidence during the immediate absence of that evidence. We trust that God’s purposes are good because we know that His purposes are good because He is good, even though we can’t see that in the moment because all we can see is suffering or pain, such as weeds growing among the flowers or deer eating the leaves on one’s recently planted apple trees. This is not really different in kind from knowing that a brown ball is alive despite looking dead and when planted in the cold dirt will take root and put forth beautiful flowers when—despite the world growing colder and darker—it will one day be warm enough for flowers to bloom.
As we’re getting into Spring and COVID-19 vaccination is rolling out, it’s time to revisit the all-cause mortality data for the US. As a quick refresher, all-cause mortality data is important because (after a few hours) there’s no ambiguity to whether a person is dead or alive and so mortality numbers are comparable across time, medical systems, states, countries, etc. If a person with COPD and COVID-19 died, we can have legitimate arguments about whether they died from COPD or COVID-19; we will all agree that they’re dead. Thus we can look at trends in all-cause mortality to get a sense of what might be going on. It won’t tell us what is going on, but it’s a very important sanity check.
On caveat to this is necessary. While it is the case that all-cause mortality is reliable, it’s only reliable over time. At least in the United States, it takes up to two months for all deaths to be reported to the CDC. The CDC, therefore, estimates deaths for the most recent two months on the basis of how jurisdictions have historically updated their numbers over time. In the past, that has meant sometimes over-estimating deaths; in the last year or so that’s tended to under-estimate the deaths, so we have to assume that the most recent 6 bars on the graph will grow over time, though less the further in the past they are. That said, let’s look at the data:
To see the change over the last two months, let’s look at what the graph was back in February:
As you can see, the third wave did eventually turn out to be very slightly higher than the first wave, though it was considerably wider at that height than the first wave. On the other hand, the first wave was mostly just New York City, while the third wave was most of the country.
Unfortunately, the data being so unreliable for the most recent two months makes it very difficult to draw much in the way of conclusions. We haven’t seen so many recent weeks in a row so far under the excess-mortality line but we can’t really know if that’s just because the jurisdictions are now sitting on data even longer than normal before reporting it. The change in presidential administration is not likely to have made the various jurisdictions substantially worse at reporting deaths, but it cannot entirely be ruled out as impossible. (I have in mind less cascading incompetence and more a change in priorities making old priorities fall by the wayside.) I think that we can reasonably assume that the jurisdictions haven’t suddenly turned radically incompetent, though, so we can at least conclude that the third wave is over.
Past that there isn’t much to say. All of the interesting data is in the window that is too subject to revision to say much about it. It’s suggestive, but at this point we need more to refrain from conclusions than to even tentatively come to conclusions. I suspect in another six months, we’ll be in a good position to start doing historical analysis on the covid-19 contemporary analysis and reactions vs. what actually happened.
Several years ago, I did some research into the origins of the phrase The Butler Did It. This led to a series of posts on the subject, and I even tracked down and read some of the original source material. You can see the posts on the butler did it tag. One annoying thing about tags is that they have the newest post first, but this makes more sense to scroll to the bottom and start reading from there. It’s worth checking out as I came across some interesting and mostly forgotten history in mystery fiction. Nothing earth shattering, but interesting.
In this video I look at the song The Big Rock Candy Mountains and how it describes a dime-store heaven, and how you can see this same sort of thing in all sorts of bad political philosophies which don’t even take themselves seriously.
One downside to blogs is that older posts have a tendency to get lost to the passage of time. This isn’t so much of a problem for blogs which are about current events, but for those which aren’t, the options are largely either to repeat oneself or to remind people of the better ones. I’m going to try the latter approach. So, here’s a post I did on navel gazing.
To give you a sense of what it’s about, it begins:
It has always struck me as very strange that navel gazing has a bad reputation. The first thing that should occur to a person looking at his navel—other than perhaps gratitude to his mother—is that it is obvious that he did not create himself. From there, it should be obvious that his parents—having navels—didn’t create themselves either, and so on back until one comes to a necessary being. That is, something that is uncreated, utterly different from us, existing outside of time and space, and which was the sufficient condition for us. That is, gazing at one’s navel should lead pretty directly to contemplating God…
A fairly popular mantra on the subject of weight loss is that “it’s just calories in vs. calories out”. There’s a sense in which this is obviously true but uninteresting and also a sense in which it is obviously false but uninteresting. I’ll explain, then get to why this is so tiring.
Calories-in-vs-calories-out is obviously true in the sense that through mere chemical reactions matter is neither created nor destroyed, so if a person’s body is going to be made up of less matter, the matter no longer a part of them had to go somewhere. Since the human body is highly efficient, calories are a reasonable approximation of this. That is, since calories are precious to the human body it will not merely throw them away uselessly. Thus if one wants to get rid of fat matter without using a scalpel to cut it away, all of the options involve convincing the body to burn the calories for what it perceives as a useful purpose. This is quite true. It is uninteresting because it merely describes what goes on during fat loss. It says nothing whatever about how to convince one’s body that burning fat for energy is a good idea. That’s the thing we actually want to do and the part that’s not so easy to figure out how to do while still being a functioning member of society. (Observationally, the people who say that this is easy are unmarried and/or have no children.)
Calories-in-vs-calories-out is obviously false in the sense that this formula does not in fact compute fat loss. All it tells you is a uni-dimensional constraint on a complex system. It’s quite possible for your body to burn protein (harvested from muscles) in order to make up a caloric deficit while conserving fat. In fact, the body somewhat prefers to do this because it’s a much better strategy in a famine than conserving muscle and spending all of its fat. Plus, in extremes like starving to death, one will die before there is zero fat in the body (even excluding the brain). Very little fat, but more than zero. It’s entirely theoretically possible that if the body were to become disregulated, the body could think it’s got no fat to burn while it’s got tons. You can induce this with certain kinds of brain lesions in rodents, where they swell up to astonishing obesity on tiny amounts of food and you can starve them to death without them getting meaningfully thinner. Most of us, fortunately, are not in the unhappy position of lesion-induced-fatmice, but the point is that calories-in-vs-calories-out will only tell you that in a calorie deficit you will burn something. If your house is warmer in winter than the outdoors, we know you’re burning something. The problem is, it might be your furniture, or worse, your floor joists. This is uninteresting because you don’t even have a good way of measuring calories in and you barely have a terrible way of measuring calories out. Measuring food works to like +/- 10%. The sort of calorie deficits that people try to achieve are often in the 15-20% range. The other end is even worse, though. The only really reliable way of knowing how many calories you burn is to have a device which measures your CO2 output—this can be a thing strapped to your head or an airtight room. After that, guesses about how many calories you are burning might be accurate to +/-50%. (This is exascerbated by the fact that the body will, in a calorie deficit, down-regulate your metabolism.) This is why the advice from non-idiots for achieving a calorie deficit is to keep reducing food until you start losing weight, at which point you know you’re in a calorie deficit (assuming you’re not merely losing water weight).
The reason that all of this is so tiring is that it’s all an exercise in missing the point. It is true that there are laws which govern the human body, but we operate within all of them all the time. Merely picking one and ignoring the rest is not being insightful. Sometimes it’s not even getting that limited relationship correct.
To give an example, suppose you came across a strength coach who told you that f=ma. (That is, force is equal to mass times acceleration.) Thus if you want to get stronger, that is, to produce more force, you need to increase your acceleration. The more you accelerate the same mass, the stronger you will get. It’s basic science!
The problem is that this is treating an instantaneous relationship as if it was a causal relationship. f=ma is describing what happens in the moment when force is being applied to mass. It’s not training advice for the long term. It says nothing about what stimulates muscles to be able to apply more force.
In like manner, calories in vs calories out only describes what happens in the moment. The second law of thermodynamics only tells you the momentary relationship between various things. It’s not dieting advice.
If you want to know what to eat, you need to consider how the body behaves in response to various stimuli. Bodies do not all behave in the same way, otherwise there would be no such thing as diabetics. Moreover, you also need to consider how much exercise the body is getting; exercise induces all sorts of changes in the body such as increasing hunger, basal metabolism, insulin sensitivity, and many, many other things. All of this means that a person who has too much fat on their body and wants to get rid of some of it will have to do a lot of work to find out what works for them. A person with a particular dysregulation in their body will have an enormously difficult time losing fat until they figure out how to fix this dysregulation. For someone who dysregulates because of insulin problems, they will need to solve this differently than someone who is dysregulating because of thyroid problems.
To give an example, about 6 years ago I lost close to 40 pounds eating an extremely low-carb diet, eating when I was hungry until I was full. This diet clearly fixed a disregulation in my metabolism because after about a week on it I simply became a lot less hungry. I didn’t eat as much, or as often, and felt full and had plenty of energy. I wasn’t stressed, I just felt like everything was fine with less food. (I subsequently gained much of the weight back through some poor choices involving candy; I have discovered that I will significantly dis-regulate if I eat a lot of fructose. As long as I limit candy, cookies, etc. to Christmas and Easter, my weight is very stable while eating when I’m hungry until I’m full. I plan to go back to eating strictly low-carb to see if that will get rid of the weight again, but I need to get some things in my life in order before I do because of dealing with antagonistic family members.)
There’s an interesting saying, attributed to Bion of Borysthenes:
Though boys throw rocks at frogs in jest, the frogs die in earnest.
There is an interesting phenomenon in life that people can play entirely serious games. This is an oxymoron, of course, but the nature of a fallen world is that it will contradict itself without blushing.
There is a sense in which all sin is this sort of serious game. Fornication makes as good an example as any. The fornicator generally pretends at marriage when he engages in the marital act. He may even make children by doing it. He meant none of this; to him it was just a game.
It is a strange thing that we human beings can think that we can play at real life and it will obligingly not be real merely because we didn’t really mean it.
This is, I think, a key to understanding more than a few perplexing behaviors.
In this video I talk about my favorite proof for the existence of God — the argument from contingency and necessity — because of how much this proof for God tells us about God, such as that God is love, God created creation for the sake of creation, as an act of generosity, etc.
There are various sayings which one can come across expressing the same basic idea, such as “the only real tragedy in life is to not be a saint” or “the saddest thing in the world is that not everyone is a saint.” All excellent sentiments, especially because they’re quite true.
There’s an interesting saying from Mark Twain, though I suspect more properly from a character he wrote, which proposes an interesting sort of goal because it gets at the same sort of idea, though by being secular in a very narrow and lacking sort of way:
Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die, even the undertaker will be sorry.
–Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar
I find it a very evocative quote for two reasons. The first is that the undertaker profits by death, since he’s paid to bury people. When a man would rather not earn his living this way, it says something.
The other reason the quote is evocative is that since the undertaker is a professional, he cannot help but become used to his profession. It is not easy for a man to feel much about the two hundred and thirty first person he’s buried this year, especially if he buried five hundred and seventeen last year.