At the end of Three Act Tragedy, after the murderer has been revealed and some after-discussion is happening, a character asks Poirot an interesting question:
“You’ll excuse me—” said Mr. Satterthwaite.
“Yes, there is some point you wanted explained to you?”
“There is one thing I want to know.”
“Why do you sometimes speak perfectly good English and at other times not?”
Ah, I will explain. It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. but, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despite you. They say—a foreigner—he can’t even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people—instead I invite their gentle ridicule. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, ‘A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.’ That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard. Besides,” he added. “it has become a habit.”
Three Act Tragedy was published in 1935, after Murder On the Orient Express and before Death in the Clouds. It is set quite late in Poirot’s life; he was, at this time, retired.
This habit of Poirot’s solves a problem that all detective writers face: a lot of people don’t like to talk to detectives. There are different solutions to this problem; Poirot in general likes to set people at ease and make them think that the easiest way to deal with him is just to humor him. This was taken even further by Columbo, many years later, but it certainly makes sense as an approach.
It also makes sense that Poirot decided to turn his disadvantage—the famous dislike of the English for foreigners, especially for French-speaking ones—into an advantage.
A number of years ago I spent some time watching movies which were influential in the history of cinema. American Graffiti was one of those movies. It was the second film that George Lucas co-wrote and also the second film he directed. Its success is probably why Star Wars exists, so it would be influential on the history of cinema even apart from any qualities it has as a movie. It was also influential in its own right, though. It helped to get 1950s nostalgia going as a type of cultural entertainment and was directly responsible for getting Happy Days going. (Ron Howard had been in an unsold pilot for Happy Days which was aired as a segment on Love, American Style. Because of this Lucas cast Howard in American Graffiti; when ABC saw Howard in American Graffiti they took a renewed interest in the pilot of Happy Days.) But what is the movie like?
The movie itself is a bit weird, at least from a modern perspective. It is, in a sense, about the time and place that George Lucas grew up (Modesto, California, in the late 1950s and early 1960s). This largely, though by no means exclusively, featured cruising culture, where young men would cruise slowly along main roads in their cars and stop to talk to women who would be walking along these roads and invite them for a ride. This sounds pretty weird, and to some degree it is—the practice lasted perhaps a decade—but it makes a little more sense when one takes into account that the cars were mostly convertibles with their tops down, so this was still semi-public. (California has very nice weather almost all the time.)
My mother frequently described the 1950s and early 1960s as a much more innocent time than today, and cultural practices like cruising—even if this was mostly limited to a few places in California—do attest to that. I think it’s important to distinguish between an innocent time and a traditional time, for tradition is not innocent. Tradition, like The Shadow, knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men.
There’s also the theme of drag racing and its dangers; several of the threads of the movie culminate in a drag race in which one of the main characters is almost killed. After she crawls out of the burning vehicle, her (former, as of a few hours ago) boyfriend holds her and she begs him to never leave her. He promises to stay with her. This isn’t quite the ending of the film, but it does wrap up a bunch of it.
The most interesting—to me—theme of the movie is that of the radio DJ Wolfman Jack.
The people driving around are disconnected from each other by technology; each car is something of an island and transports people away from each other so quickly that they lose touch. In fact, that’s the thing which drive’s Curt’s thread in the story; a beautiful blond woman mouthed “I love you” when they were next to each other at a light, then she drove off down a different road. The thing which connects the teenagers driving around is the shared experience of listening to the radio. Even that is fairly empty, as the radio mostly plays recordings. There’s only one live person on the radio—the DJ. In this case, Wolfman Jack.
However, it turns out that even the DJ is inaccessible.
If you watch the clip to the end you’ll see that the man is the wolfman; he’s inaccessible not because he isn’t there, but because he can’t be what the audience imagines him to be. This scene has a lot in common with the Wizard of Oz, though it goes in a different direction. In The Wizard of Oz, the ordinary person meets Oz the Great and Terrible, and it turns out to be just a little man behind a curtain. Here, the ordinary person meets a little man behind a curtain, and he turns out to be Wolfman Jack, the Great and Awesome. In both cases reality cannot live up to what people hope for, though in the Wolfman’s case the illusion is preferable and in the Wizard of Oz it’s only by piercing the illusion that they are able to make progress.
(As an interesting historical note, Wolfman Jack was played by the actual Wolfman Jack. George Lucas gave him a tiny percentage of the profits of the movie in gratitude, but the movie was so profitable that the Wolfman ended up with a steady income for life.)
Something I’ve encountered in Boomer nostalgia is nostalgia for the glory days of radio, when local DJs were big personalities. As a child (I’m talking about the late 1980s and early 1990s) I can remember when radio stations would compete with each other on how much music they played and how little yapping the DJs did, and to the limited degree that I listened to radio, I preferred the stations with more music and less yapping. I wasn’t much into parasocial engagement as a child; I was always a bit of a loner and I suspect that most of my parasocial engagement came from reading, not from listening or watching. Radio DJs with big personalities were certainly parasocial; and I suspect that with the isolation of cars being fairly new for young people in the 1950s, the radio as parasocial engagement was especially important to combat this feeling of isolation. (Cars were certainly in common use earlier than the 1950s, but for various economic and technological reasons they don’t seem to have been as commonly attainable by teenagers then as they were during the post-war boom.)
Of course, I may be biased by thinking of radio and cars in part because when I was in a car was the only time I ever listened to the radio and in part because I was just thinking of American Graffiti. It’s quite possible that radio was simply the most accessible form of parasocial engagement in the late 1950s. Televisions were widespread, but they tended to be in a central location and watched together. A teenager could own a radio in their room which they listened to alone.
As a side note, it’s curious how often parasocial engagement is fostered around something else, that something else often being a form of entertainment. Talk Radio would later be a thing, but DJs jockeyed disks—they picked music and played it, coming in only between songs. I suppose that this is only an extension of how watching entertainment together is a form of bonding even between friends sitting next to each other at a play. Human beings bond over shared experiences, even if they are manufactured experiences. Parasocial relationships probably only mirror real relationships in this regard.
I was talking with a friend about the subject of Christian Esotericism after watching a video in which Jonathan Pageau talked with a few others about the subject and he mentioned the old esoteric idea that King Solomon used the power of God to force demons to build the Temple. I found this a very strange idea not merely for the obvious reasons, but also because it just doesn’t make sense. If God wanted to delegate the construction of the temple to some creatures and it wasn’t to men, why would he give this privilege to demons? Why wouldn’t he give this privilege to angels?
God certainly doesn’t need to delegate the construction of the temple to anyone. Aside from it being the obvious consequence of God’s omnipotence, it’s also quite visible in the way that God was often worshiped on mountains, and God made the mountains. God had no qualms about making places to worship Him, he just refrained from making all of them, giving it as a privilege to some creatures to imitate, in a small way, the mighty places of worship that God made.
Why on earth would God force this privilege of imitating Him onto angels who rejected Him, rather than give it to angels who would want it?
This, ultimately, seems to be the problem with Christian esotericism—it’s just esotericism, with Christian trappings. At the end of the day, there’s no good reason to make a deal with a devil, even if you think you can cheat the devil. (Yes, the magicians thought that they were merely forcing the devil to do their bidding rather than making a deal with it, but really that’s just a deal in which the devil doesn’t get anything. If God were actually guaranteeing the devil’s good behavior, then you’re actually forcing God to do your bidding and the demon is just a puppet. It’s an even worse idea to try to control God than it is to try to make a deal with a devil.)
My recent musings on the coincidences that went into Mystery Science Theater 3000 being a success got to me to thinking about coincidences in murder mysteries. The general rule is, of course, that coincidences may not help the hero of a story, and this was codified in Fr. Knox’s decalogue in rule number six. It would be a fool’s errand to try to count up which rule was most often broken, but I suspect it might be this one.
I should clarify that I mean broken but not to the benefit of the story. Agatha Christie managed to break several of the rules in ways that produced a good story, but not this one. (There are two examples I can think of in Agatha Christie’s work that involve coincidences, one in Poirot and one in Miss Marple. In the case of Poirot, she even went to the trouble of saying that Poirot considered the case a failure because he would not have solved it except for the coincidence.)
Having said that, I don’t think it’s impossible to use coincidences in mystery stories. One tolerable example of this is a coincidence which brings the detective in to the case. A good example of this is the Lord Peter Wimsey novel Unnatural Death. Lord Peter learns of the case by the accident of being seated in a restaurant next to someone who was telling a friend about it. He then weedles his way into an acquaintance with the man who told the story and sneakily gets enough information about it out of the man that he can begin investigating. Thus even in this coincidence Lord Peter has to do work to really get started.
This kind of coincidence is tolerable, I suspect, because it’s just a somewhat exaggerated form of the sorts of coincidences which are necessary for the detective to be involved at all. If Sherlock Holmes is to be called into a case, the murder must take place in London, or at least in England. If a man murdered another in the central African jungle in the cleverest possible way, Sherlock Holmes would never hear of it. This is even clearer in terms of time; if a man in the 1980s murders another, Sherlock Holmes could not possible have heard of it, at least Holmes as written by Conan Doyle. Nor would a fiendish plot ever come to the attention of Holmes which happened upon a whaling ship at sea which was lost in a storm before it ever reached port, with all hands dying. For a detective to embark upon a case, many things need to be coincident with his location in time and space. To add on top of this someone happening to talk about the mystery at lunch with a friend at a table next to the detective is just more of the same.
So what are we to make of the sort of coincidences which are more than this but less than just giving the detective the solution?
One of the more difficult ones are coincidences which look like they help the detective but are actually misleading. Probably the best example I can think of, here, is in the story Have His Carcass. Harriet finding the fresh blood seems to be helpful in pinning down the time of the murder with unusual precision but actually confounds the investigation almost until the end of the story. It definitely was quite interesting in that story, though I think it would be difficult to pull off well.
Then there are the coincidences which only seem to be clues, but actually aren’t.
These are often quite interesting when they happen prior to the detective getting on the scene. Red herrings are probably the most obvious example of this. Finding out that the maid’s earring was in the parlor where the body was found because the butler had been stealing jewelry and secretly hiding it in the chandelier above the door (which was never used) is, properly speaking, untangling a coincidence from the main problem.
Red Herrings are not the only such coincidence, of course. Sometimes things look weird for the murderer to have done because the murderer did not do them, but at the same time the person who did is not available. There might be a book missing from the library because someone—perhaps a neighbor—borrowed it a week ago and no one (still alive) knew that or noticed it then. It’s possible that someone was mistaken about which book is missing, and the person who borrowed it didn’t say anything because they were asked about the wrong book and weren’t told why they were asked, so couldn’t tell that there might be a mistake. Perhaps the police are withholding the evidence that the book is missing because they don’t want to tip off the murderer that they know, and so the person who could have easily told them didn’t know to come forward. All of these would work well in a story.
Then we come to the cases of coincidences that do actually help the detective, though they are not merely handing him the solution. Can these work?
I want to say that they can—the safe answer is to never say never—but it’s hard to think of how it can be done. One obvious answer is for the help to be trivial. The problem with that solution is: then why bother at all?
I suspect that the answer has to be something that preserves the detective working hard and being the only person who could solve the crime even with the luck. I suspect that the best way for this to work would be for the detective to manufacture his luck. That is, it is only through his knowledge and effort that he was in the place to receive the luck at all.
A good example of this would be reasoning that if there was evidence to prove who did it, it would be of a particular kind that would then have fallen in a particular place. Since it is not there to be found, if it ever was there it must have been picked up by a particular kind of person and so if he circulates word among these people—or interviews them, or some such—the evidence will fall into his lap. I have a memory that Sherlock Holmes did this, perhaps more than once. I can’t place the story, but I have a memory of more than one person coming, hat in hand, saying that he heard that Mr. Holmes was looking for someone who saw something-or-other, and he did, and getting rewarded for it.
The other, I suspect inferior, kind of luck would be something coming completely out of the blue, but only the detective understands its true significance. An example which comes to mind, though it is a very imperfect example, since it wasn’t discovered by luck, would be the evidence given by the nanny in the Poirot story Five Little Pigs. The nanny thinks that the evidence she has proves the guilt of Caroline Crale (which is why she withheld it), when Poirot knows that it proves Caroline’s innocence. If that kind of evidence were to come to the detective, even by accident, I think it would still work.
To bring this back to where I started: I think that coincidences are acceptable only when something unusual and special went into taking advantage of them. This is very much true of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Yes, a lot of unusual circumstances came together to make it possible, but it was a special group of people who took advantage of those circumstances and made it happen. Most people would not have made something great in the same circumstances.
In a sense, of course, all things can only happen when they did. Still, it’s interesting to consider how much the circumstances that led to Mystery Science Theater 3000 existing. (These thoughts were triggered by coming across some DVD special features as I was curating my MST3K DVD collection.)
MST3K began when Minneapolis-local UHF station KTMA needed programming but had all but no budget.
That in itself is an interesting sentence to unpack, because a lot of younger people won’t know what a local TV station is, nor what UHF was. (It has been very interesting explaining this to my twelve year old son who has become a fan of MST3K.)
For those who don’t know, in the 1940s when television got started through the 1980s, TV was broadcast over radio waves. This meant that the station was a building with a tall tower, atop of which was a very powerful radio antenna (ranging from the kilowatts to the megawatts, depending on the station, its budget, and its radio license). A given station could reach, depending on geography and other factors, from a dozen miles to a few hundred miles. There were a few nationally broadcast channels; this meant that they sent their signal out to many stations throughout the country which would broadcast it over their radio transmitters simultaneously. (For a long time there were only three; ABC, NBC, and CBS.) Most TV channels were local, though, typically only viewable from a single city and its surrounding area.
The first radio spectrum allocated to television was higher frequency than that allocated to radio, which was in part a necessity because it needed far more bandwidth, which can only be found higher up in the spectrum. This was still all fairly low frequency, though, as the technology to easily transmit and receive at higher frequencies was harder to make and, in practice, out of reach. Early TVs could only receive these low-frequency channels, channels 2-13. Later on the technology to broadcast on higher channels came about and began to be incorporated into television sets. These channels (channels 14-83) were called UHF channels, for “ultra high frequency”. On early radio TVs these were received somewhat differently and were thus less convenient than the lower frequency channels. This coupled with the shorter propagation of high-frequency radio waves meant that UHF channels tended to have a smaller audience than the standard channels would get.
KTMA (which was the radio call-sign of the station broadcasting in the Minneapolis area on channel 23) began as a station for broadcasting local sporting events. This niche fits a UHF station fairly well since only people relatively close will care about local sporting events anyway. That said, it didn’t really work. (There were other things relating to subscription television that also didn’t work.) Thus around 1988 Jim Mallon was hired as the station director to try to make it viable. There were a few packages of movies that had been purchased to try to broadcast something but because they were the cheapest ones possible they were the worst movies available that no one else wanted.
To make KTMA financially viable, Jim Mallon needed to create some extremely cheap local programming that was at least better than the stuff they were licensing. Jim had roots in the local comedy scene and made contact with Joel Hodgeson. Joel had the idea for MST3K and KTMA having a vault of the worst movies available for license was a great fit. Joel also had contacts in the local comedy scene, and pulled in J. Elvis Weinstein and Trace Beaulieu to co-star with him. At this point all of the riffing was ad-libbed during the live broadcast. (Supposedly Trace and J. Elvis were making $25 a show.) The show was popular but not enough to save KTMA, which was heading into bankruptcy and canceled it. Joel thought that there was something to the show, though, and had enough material to put together a 4 minute pitch tape. He put this together because he’d heard that the newly forming Comedy Channel on cable TV desperately needed programming, and Joel happened to have worked with the president of the forming channel so had a contact and a path of trust.
(For those who don’t know, Cable TV largely replaced broadcast TV because it had much higher quality and, having vastly more bandwidth, it had far more channels on it. People would pay a subscription fee to their local cable TV provider to cover the cost of physically running cables out to everyone’s house. Cable Channels would broadcast their transmission over satellites which the local cable providers would receive on satellite dishes and distribute over physical cables. Adding channels didn’t require licensing radio spectrum and there weren’t issues of radio interference that caused visual and audio static.)
The Comedy Channel picked up the show; as (IIRC) Trace Beaulieu put it, they represented 90 minutes of inexpensive pre-packaged content to a network that rapidly had to create 24 hours of programming in a genre that is notoriously best when short. At first the network tried to interfere a bit, but it didn’t have time to interfere much and rapidly MST3K was popular, took care of itself, and was produced in the mid-west which was inconvenient to travel to so they mostly left it alone. (Things would change a little bit when they got canceled on the Comedy Channel and moved to the SciFi channel, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)
This is quite a string of coincidences that could only really have happened when they did. There hasn’t really been another time when people would invest the sort of money into a TV station which needed programming like in the UHF days; enough to pay a bunch of people, not enough to pay them much. There hasn’t been the same sort of cache where talented people who dreamed of being on TV would work for peanuts because at least they were on TV. There is rarely that kind of money available to hire talented people who will work for peanuts with so little oversight. Even when you have something like this, it’s almost never the case that when the first one evanesces (as such things always will in this world) a second such opportunity, with a larger budget, shows up.
I don’t want to overstate my meaning; weird and unlikely things happen all the time. This one was just especially weird and unlikely, and extraordinarily a product of its time.
There was a time during the late 1980s and much of the 1990s when computers were tremendously exciting because they were getting better at an unbelievable pace. Though from an intentionally comedic perspective, the later portions of Weird Al’s parody song All About the Pentiums captures some of this spirit (link because they don’t allow embed).
You’ve gotta be the dumbest newbie I’ve ever seen You’ve got white-out all over your screen You think your Commodore 64 is really neato What kinda chip you got in there, a Dorito? You’re usin’ a 286? Don’t make me laugh Your Windows boots up in what, a day and a half? You could back up your whole hard drive on a floppy diskette You’re the biggest joke on the Internet
And again, later:
My new computer’s got the clocks, it rocks But it was obsolete before I opened the box You say you’ve had your desktop for over a week? Throw that junk away, man, it’s an antique Your laptop is a month old? Well that’s great If you could use a nice, heavy paperweight
When this song was written we had had about a decade of computers being approximately twice as fast every year, though I think that CD-ROM played a big part in this general sort of impression, too. To see what I mean, I want to run through a very brief history of processors.
In 1982, Intel released the 80286, more popularly called the 286. It was used in a variety of things at a variety of speeds, so for simplicity I’m going to focus on where I met it: the IBM PS/2. It had 1MB of RAM and the CPU ran at 10MHz.
The 286 was succeeded by the 386, though at the time it often took years for these things to work into consumer hardware. We had our 286-based PS2 in about 1988, while the 386 came out in 1995. We got a computer with a 386 somewhere around 1990. That ran at about 20MHz, and was faster at executing instructions even at the same clock speed. The 486 was released in 1990 and started at 25MHz in the computers available to us some time later. In 1992 the DX2 was launched, which was a 486 running at 50MHz. Shortly thereafter a version at 66MHz was launched. These were over twice as fast as the initial 486, since being on the same architecture the clock speed mostly tells you the performance.
In 1993 the DX4-100 as well as the next-generation Pentium were launched, and again performance lept up, somewhere around doubling. The Pentium Pro would follow in 1995 and the Pentium II in 1996. By the time of the Pentium II, not only was the architecture faster at the same clock speed, but clock speeds had reached up to 450MHz (lowest was 233MHz). The Pentium III was released in 1999, and would have clock speeds that, in the high-end models, reached up to 1.4GHz (the lowest was 400MHz). By now there were becoming issues with fetching data from RAM that meant that increased clock speeds didn’t linearly increase processing power, but the increased processing power around now was still almost beyond comprehension compared to what it was a mere ten years before.
However, it was still small compared to how big an improvement CD-ROMs were. To see this, we have to consider what (in a sense) they replaced: the floppy disk. While there were several formats of floppy disk, the dominant one in the mid to late 1980s was the 3.5″ floppy disk. Here’s a decent picture of them from Wikipedia:
(For those wondering about the name, the floppy disk was inside of the hard plastic case. The metal door slid to expose the floppy disk to the drive that read it.)
This stored 1.44MB of data. Hence the Evil Overlord rule, “all important data will be padded to 1.45MB”—so the hero couldn’t copy the critical file onto a floppy drive and escape with it, as often happened in movies from a very specific time period. The 1.44MB 3.5” floppy disks were not overly expensive, but they were not super cheap and they were cumbersome. They also were not fast. It would take close to a minute to read all of the data on a floppy disk, though there was some variability. Software would come in boxes that had multiple floppy disks. Early games might be on three floppies, while later games might be on seven or eight. I remember the first time I played around with installing Linux, it took about twenty floppy disks.
Then some time around the later days of the 486 came the widespread availability of affordable, if still expensive, CD-ROM drives. These had a capacity of 650MB and a read speed of 150 Kilobytes per second, making them almost eight times faster than a floppy drive, but more importantly, they had the capacity to store as much data as 450 floppy drives. Hard drives of the day were often in the range of only 200 or 300 MB, so these amazing disks had as much capacity as two to three hard drives, which were the enormous storage vessels we had been copying floppy disks to in order to install software for years. It was an amazing revolution. Computers were getting faster, but doubling speeds at every 18 months (though it seemed faster at the time) by 1992 they were less than 100 times faster than they were in 1985. With the CD-ROM, we had something that could store over 400 times as much data in a portable format as the year before they were introduced. It was a revolution in what could be distributed with software. Games quickly began shipping with far more art, for more screens, and actual music. I remember getting a demo copy of the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica on a single CD, complete with pictures.
DVDs would come out in 1996, though those were movies that came out and it took a year or so for DVD-ROM to really start being used. They were a revolution in movies for various reasons I won’t get into here, but in computers they only represented an increase in storage, and the change was not nearly as great. A single-layer DVD could store 4.7GB and a dual-layer DVD could store 8.5GB. Taking the bigger of the two (which were common), that was thirteen times the capacity of a CD-ROM. That’s a big improvement, but nothing like the CD-ROM’s 450x improvement over the floppy disk. I think that DVD-ROM also made less of a splash because, while almost nothing fit on a single floppy disk, quite a large number of things fit on a single CD-ROM and even more things fit on two CD-ROMs, which were not much harder to package than a single one. Still, it was more than a ten-fold improvement in capacity.
(As a tangent, where we are on the s-curve of technology can be seen in Blu-Ray disks, which had capacities of 25GB and 50GB for single an dual-layer disks. This represents only a six-fold increase in storage capacity over DVDs.)
So while computers got faster, the explosion in storage, for a time, outpaced the explosion in speed. While we tend to forget how much of a revolution CD-ROM was in its day, I do think that it made a large contribution to the heady sense of technological improvement accelerating almost beyond comprehension.
Of course, these days, a two year old computer is still pretty new and quite capable. I’m buying a new laptop this summer to replace my five year old laptop, but only because I’m tired of the palm-detection not working and because I’d like a bit larger screen. It still has enough storage and is fast enough for what I want to use it for. It’s rare to bother with physical disks for data storage these days (except for buying movies), but while WiFi keeps getting faster, it’s hard to care, even for tech nerds like me, because it’s been plenty fast enough for everything everyone does with it for years now. WiFi 6 is cool and all, but the total amount of time it saves in a day is, perhaps, a few seconds.
This is, by the way, something that people who looked at pure technological capacity tended to miss, back when they expected unbridled growth to continue. Eventually, technology reaches a point where it can do most of what people want it to do, so the additional benefits of improved technology become smaller. At the same time, at some point improved technology becomes more expensive (typically after improvements are figuring out how to do what one is already doing better, and when they come from new, more difficult but now possible ways of doing what one is doing). At some point, the additional benefits aren’t worth the additional cost, and while the technical ability to improve technology exists, the money to do that improvement isn’t there. This is rarely a sudden stopping-point; more often it’s a gradual slowing down of improvements.