Winter is Coming

Winter is coming and here in the nort-eastern part of the United States, that means several important things in the grocery store. Apples are here in plenteous varieties. Most things not on the outside edge of the grocery store are now available in a “pumpkin spice” variety. And most important to those eating low carb: summer sausage is now available!

(For those unfamiliar: summer sausage is a dried sausage which can be kept at room temperature at least until cut open. As such it’s pretty firm, though not actually hard, and can be used as an alternative to crackers for eating various kinds of cheese. My favorite is cream cheese, though swiss, cheddar, etc go well on it too.)

The original idea of summer sausage was that it was cured in such a way that it was readily available in summertime, before the days of inexpensive refrigeration. (From time immemorial there would be people who would trudge up mountains, cut blocks of ice, haul them down, then put them in an underground cellar where they would melt slowly enough to keep the room at freezing or near-freezing temperatures, but this was very labor-intensive and hence expensive. Plus it requires tall mountains nearby.) How summer sausage came to be a winter food, I do not know. It’s possible that it’s always been like this since fall is a good time for slaughtering excess animals to reduce the need for stored feed through the winter when the land is not producing forage. Winter, at least in the northern US, is an excellent time for staying indoors and not doing much work, and meat doesn’t keep more than a few days without refrigeration, so possibly summer sausage was typically made in the fall and primarily eaten throughout the winter and spring when there were no other ready sources of meat.

Anyway, I also made another pleasant discovery, which is that cream cheese is sold in plastic tubs as well as in foil wrappers. I don’t know why this took me literally years to figure out when the tubs are next to the foil-wrapped blocks, but somehow I just went along complaining to myself about how bad the foil-wrapped blocks are as a distribution method and never though to look next to them.

After this happy discovery came another—there is a salmon version of the cream cheese made with real salmon. Salmon is by far my favorite fish and one of my favorite flavors, so I couldn’t resist trying it. I’m happy to say that it does in fact go well with summer sausage used like a cracker. If that sounds to you like it might be good, dear reader, then I recommend giving it a try. (Obviously, it’s not for everyone.)

Murder, She Wrote: It Runs in the Family

Having recently talked about one of the strangest episodes of Murder, She Wrote (Murder in a Minor Key), it seems like a good time to talk about another very strange episode. It’s the only episode (so far as I know) in which Jessica Fletcher doesn’t appear, even at the beginning to introduce the episode.

It Runs in the Family is set in England and stars Jessica’s identical cousin, Emma MacGill, as the detective. Of course, she’s not a detective at the beginning of the episode, but then again Jessica usually isn’t, either.

The episode starts with Jessica Emma in a bar, chatting with friends, when she’s approach by Humphrey Defoe, the family solicitor for Viscount Blackraven, who turns out to be an old admirer of Jessica’s Emma’s.

He invites Emma, on behalf of the Viscount, to come visit him. It’s been about forty years, and he’s a dying man, so Emma agrees. Humphrey drives her out to the Blackraven estate.

It’s big and beautiful, though it never looks that much larger than some of the larger half-million dollar homes I’ve seen in America. That’s still several times more expensive than my own (not very large) house, but it doesn’t quite bowl me over in the way it seems like it’s supposed to.

She meets several of the family. They’re rude to her with a thin, transparent veneer of politeness on top of it. We also meet the adult child of one of the Viscount’s relatives, who is spoiled beyond belief (literally—it’s not plausible he’s really this spoiled). Then we meet the Viscount.

Incidentally, I looked up what a viscount is. It’s the rank in the English peerage below Earl and above Baron. (The ranks go, in order of highest to lowest: Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, Baron.) Viscount comes from “vice count”, with “Earl” being an anglo-saxon name for a count. Curiously, there is no female form of Earl; an Earl’s wife is called “countess”.

Anyway, Emma and the Viscount reminisce about their time together forty years ago. Then we get introduced to some more characters, a husband and wife (pictured below). I’m not sure how they’re related to the Viscount, but the previous Viscount Blackraven, who passed away two months ago, is his grandfather, and he’s in line to be the next Viscount Blackraven when the current one starts pining for the fjords. His wife is very socially ambitious and we later learn was a baker’s daughter.

Her facial expression gives you a pretty good indication of what her character is like. Her husband is far more reasonable and far less snobbish, making me wonder how they are married. It’s plausible that he married her for her beauty, though—he wouldn’t be the first character in a murder mystery to have married for physical rather than moral virtue.

A minute later, we get introduced to the final members of the cast, the next Viscount’s (I presume, younger) brother, Johnny, and his floozy (“personal assistant”) who happens to have the same accent Emma does.

After some more snobbishness and rudeness, everyone assembles for dinner, which drags on for a long time. The women of the family and the younger men snipe at each other unpleasantly throughout, while the Viscount reminisces with Emma about old (embarrassing to Emma) times. An extremely important fact comes up, though, which is that the Viscount served Emma pickled herring because they used to eat it at a charming little restaurant. He asks what happened to the restaurant and she says that it went bankrupt after serving bad pickled herring, which she herself got sick on. She hasn’t been able to look at a pickled herring since.

They retire to the study (or some such room) and there is some music, with the Viscount asking Emma to play and sing. She tries to refuse but eventually does. She tries to sing a nice song and he demands a bawdy song from forty years ago, which Emma is embarrassed for but plays since he’s a dying man, to the disgust of the ladies present.

The next day the doctor shows up to breakfast and announces that the Viscount’s health has taken an amazing turn for the better. His blood pressure is normal, his heartbeat is regular, and if what the doctor just saw is any indication, the Viscount could go on living for another twenty years!

Oh, and he doesn’t need a wheelchair anymore!

The doctor said that it’s as if he’d found a reason to go on living. I guess he was dying of a broken heart? Seriously, what the heck did the doctor think was medically wrong with the Viscount that he diagnosed him with only two, maybe three months to live? Are we really to believe that the only thing wrong with the Viscount was that he didn’t have his useful sweetheart by his side? Also, how could such a cheerful, down-to-earth person be so depressed that he psychosomatically needed a wheelchair?

No one asks any of these questions. The Viscount has decided on a picnic with Emma, and a picnic with Emma there shall be. I guess they spent too much time establishing how awful the family was at dinner and need to on with the murder.

On the way to the picnic the Viscount mentions that his father, the seventeenth Viscount Blackraven, died only a few weeks ago. He was eighty seven and the doctor wanted him on a strict diet of boring food but he snuck brandy and chocolates every night. Then they found him one morning ice cold and stiff as a board. When the Viscount and Emma get to the picnic, the Viscount eats some pickled herring and…

…he starts (painfully) to think of the fjords. From the look of things he’ll be pining for them in minutes.

Emma says she needs to bring the Viscount to the hospital, but he says that instead she should go for help. I’ve no idea why Emma takes this idiotic advice, but she does, and when the help she goes for arrives the Viscount is long dead.

As the detective inspector investigating the case is smelling the pickled herring, the doctor muses that it’s surprising that the Viscount died of a heart attack when he was looking so good just this morning. “A heart attack? That’s what you think, doctor?” the DI asks incredulously. He orders an autopsy. The doctor, who still thinks that a man who ceased to need a wheelchair when he cheered up a bit was actually dying, protests that it’s outrageous to think that his diagnosis of a heart attack is in any way questionable. The detective is unmoved by the doctor’s protests and orders the autopsy anyway.

The detective then goes and interviews the family, who are on their worst behavior as usual, and also Emma. He questions her about the food and its preparation, then mentions that he thinks that the former Viscount might have been poisoned. Emma is distraught that the former Viscount (I’ll call him Jeffrey from now on since that was his name) was poisoned, and that the police think that she did it!

Except just a few scenes that have neither the detective nor Emma in them later, Emma is in the detective’s office at police headquarters and the detective says that he doesn’t think that Emma did it. The pickled herring was poisoned in order to frame her.

Why does he think this? Who knows? Certainly not the audience. On the other hand she’s the main character so we don’t need much selling on this point.

Seriously, though, these two scenes were practically next to each other. the longest scene between them involved the son of the new Viscount riding up on a horse to the funeral and asking for money to go skiing with his friends in Grenoble and his father telling him that he will get no more money and must go find himself a job. While there may have been a tiny bit of suspense because of the idea that Emma was suspected, her character did absolutely nothing (on screen or, so far as we know, off screen) because of it. On the other hand, Emma was the only one who said anything about her being a suspect; I’m tempted to think that it was included only to be available for the “tonight on Murder, She Wrote” teaser at the beginning.

The Detective Inspector asks Emma, in detail, about how she prepared the food and she did it all herself, with no help. She just used the leftover pickled herring from the night before then left the picnic basket unattended for a while after preparing it. Also, Emma gets the idea that if Jeffrey was poisoned for his title, perhaps the previous Viscount Blackraven was also poisoned. Jeffrey said that when they found him in the morning he was cold as ice, which suggests that he had been dead for a long time. I suppose that is meant to suggest that he might have died from the chocolate and brandy he would always sneak before bed. Of course, he could just as easily have died of a heart attack half an hour after falling asleep; she’s on much safer ground with the whole impatient-killer-might-have-killed-before angle.

The inspector thinks that this is excellent reasoning and orders an exhumation and autopsy of the Viscount Blackraven who died a few months ago. Curiously, we never find out the result of the autopsy. Anyway, we’re on to the next clue.

The butler (or whoever he is) is washing the new Viscountess Blackraven’s car. He was washing it anyway, but it’s got to be spotless for a luncheon engagement she has at precisely 1pm. Take careful note. The car must be absolutely spotless and the luncheon is at precisely 1 O’Clock.

And then we get the setup for a plot twist. Johnny (the younger brother of the new Viscount) is going to do some shooting with Derrick (the new Viscount’s son) in Brindley woods. He discusses his plans with the Viscountess.

When they’re done we’ve only got ten minutes left in the episode, so it’s time for some final red herrings. Humphrey learns from friends in London that Johnny is big into debt to unsavory middle easterners. Emma takes Johnny’s floozy out to lunch and pumps her for information. Johnny was, indeed, in best to unsavory middle easterners. And it turns out that the old Viscount had turned down Johnny’s request for money, and after he smuggled the old Viscount so many chocolates that we wasn’t supposed to have, too! That is enough of the herrings that are red, so it’s time to get back to the plot twist.

Humphrey intrudes with the news that young Derrick has just been shot. They run out of the bar to go back to the mansion, stopping on the way at the Viscountess’ luncheon, where it turns out that they hadn’t yet started eating. Humphrey calls attention to this, saying, “Luckily I caught them before they started to eat.” This seems oddly clumsy; why was it lucky? It wouldn’t be that big a hardship to put down a sandwich with a few bites taken out of it. It’s a clue, of course. We’re not told exactly how much time has passed but with the big deal that the Viscountess had made before about the luncheon starting at precisely 1pm sharp, the food being late simply has to be a clue.

Also, the camera carefully showed us the extremely muddy tires and undercarriage of the car that was so conspicuously washed just an hour or two before. Then, since that was too subtle, when they arrive at the mansion Emma’s attention is caught by the muddy tires and they show us a close-up of the tire.

How the tire is supposed to have gotten muddy up to the spokes but the body is only very slightly dirty is not obvious. I guess whoever’s job it was to paint the mud onto the tires wasn’t feeling energetic (you can sort-of see the brush strokes if you look closely).

Anyway, they go inside, into the accusing parlor, and Johnny gets accused of shooting Derrick. Why? The Viscountess suggests that with Derrick out of the way, Johnny is next in line to inherit the title after her husband kicks the bucket. This is more than a little flimsy. Are we really to suppose that someone who likes spending his time in London with east-end floozies killed four people to inherit a title? Are we further to suppose he shot one of them while out hunting and hopes to get away with it being called an accident? If that weren’t enough, there’s no way to believe this because his tires weren’t muddy right after being cleaned.

While they bicker, Emma calls the detective inspector over and (offscreen) shows him the muddy tires. He then asks Johnny to come with him to the police station. Emma is about to leave for London but Humphrey took the distributor cap off of their car so that they can be “forced” to borrow the Viscountess’ car in order to make Emma’s train. The Viscountess doesn’t want to let them, and the detective inspector appears from out of the bushes and asks what the problem is with them borrowing her car.

“I thought you left!” the Viscountess says in surprise. “No, you saw one of my sergeants drive off,” he replies.

This is like those scenes where the murderer confesses and is about to kill Jessica when the police walk in from behind the curtains, except that she hasn’t admitted anything and his pretending to not be there had no purpose.

Then it turns out that the car is actually registered to the Viscountess’ sister-in-law, who invites the inspector to open the boot (what we Americans call the trunk). In it we find…

…some muddy boots and the murder wounding weapon. The Viscountess shot her own son in the arm! Who could have seen this coming (except for someone who had been watching the episode)?

The sister asks her why she tried to kill her own son, and she replies, “No. I wouldn’t hurt him. Not seriously. I had to do something. I had to make them think it was Johnny who…” The sister asks, “Who what? Killed my father and my brother?” The Viscountess replies, “Oh don’t look at me like that. You’ve always been the great lady. You don’t know what it’s like to have people laughing at you behind your back because you’re a baker’s daughter and you won’t be anything else. Well I am something else. I’m the wife of the nineteenth Viscount Blackraven, and I… oh haugh haugh.” She breaks down sobbing and the sister says, “I’ll take her inside, inspector.” She puts an arm around the Viscountess and leads her inside.

Curiously, the detective inspector is fine with this. He doesn’t even send any men inside to follow. I suppose, in fairness, she’s not very likely to run away. Anyway, he doesn’t follow or even seem to care what happens to the woman he’s about to arrest for two murders and an assault with a deadly weapon. Instead he asks Emma if she’s ever considered being a detective? She has a knack for it. Emma replies, “Do I? Well, let’s just say it runs in the family.”

And once again the episode ends with everyone laughing. I’m not sure why this is supposed to be funny to the characters. It’s only funny to us because Angela Lansbury plays both Jessica Fletcher and Emma MacGill and both characters are written by the same writers. The detective inspector has never even met Jessica, and has heard about two lines of description of her the other day.

All in all, this is a very weird episode. It’s not just that it has English Jessica (Emma) in it, though that, too, is a strange choice. A big part of what’s great about Murder, She Wrote is the small town character of Jessica Fletcher. (Even though, depending on the episode, she really isn’t a small town character. Still, the episodes where she is carry a lot of episodes where she isn’t.) A big city, annoying version of Jessica is not nearly as endearing. That we don’t even get Jessica for a minute in the beginning to introduce the episode is even more unfortunate.

Apart from all that, though, the episode is kind of a mess. We spend a bunch of it reminiscing about a character we don’t like and will never see again (Emma) and one we don’t know, have never seen before, and never will again (Jeffrey, the eigtheenth Viscount Blackraven). It would be one thing if these reminiscences were in any way interesting, but they’re not.

We spend a lot of time establishing that every member of the family is unbearable. The one exception is, of all people, the stuffy banker who ends up with the title of Viscount Blackraven at the end of the episode. He has no personality and isn’t likable, but he seems kindly enough that one doesn’t dislike him, either. On the other, other hand, he did raise his son so badly that his son has no skills, no discipline, and no thoughts other than to find some form of entertainment. A father is not wholly responsible for the behavior of his adult child, but he does have some responsibility for it.

The family lawyer is played by an enormously likable actor, and his part is not tiny, but neither does it have substance. He’s a close friend of Jeffrey, and is loyal, but that’s only established right before Jeffrey is killed and he’s not a suspect. At one point he somewhat suspiciously points out that he wasn’t present at dinner when Emma says that she doesn’t eat kippered herring, but absolutely nothing comes of that.

The plot about the old Viscount Blackraven being murdered has no resolution. We literally don’t know whether he was or wasn’t poisoned. It’s implied by the sister’s line, “Who what, killed my father and my brother?” and the Viscountess’ reply “Don’t look at me like that”, but certainty would have been better. At the very least, we could have gotten the toxicology report back.

It was also strange that we got no closure on any of the family. We didn’t see the Viscount Blackraven learn that his beautiful wife murdered his father and brother. We don’t see Derrick learn that his mother murdered people. Neither character is given any growth or development. Emma has no real character development, here. She investigates the crime with all of the disinterest that Jessica normally has when she solves crimes as mere intellectual puzzles. The extraordinary turbulence of the last few days—someone she was very fond of was just murdered in front of her and she was sort-of framed for it—seems to have no effect on Emma whatever. Even discovering that detective ability runs in the family has no effect on her; it’s just sort of funny.

Even at its best, Murder, She Wrote isn’t Shakespeare, but it does often have the fundamental mystery structure of the detective using reason to put right what was put wrong through a misuse of reason. Technically this episode has that, in that the murderess is caught and stripped of her ill-gotten status (we assume), but far more is wrong than is fixed. Obviously the detective in a story never fixes the whole world, but there were things that should have been impacted by this that weren’t.

More than anything, this episode is just confusing. In the beginning there’s a momentary subplot on Humphrey giving Emma 1000£ for her trouble, which she turns down. Why spend time on that? All it establishes is that the Viscount doesn’t expect her to want to come, but then she does want to come. There are many such instances; there’s the better part of a minute wasted on Derrick being dismissive of his mother in the beginning and driving off. It doesn’t really establish anyone’s character—Derrick remains the same stereotype throughout—it just takes up time. It’s not like they needed to pad the episode out; they pretty clearly ran out of time at the end.

It is possible that they realized this, or at least some of it. The episode is early on in the fourth season and we never see Emma MacGill in Murder, She Wrote, again. And that despite having plenty of episodes set in England. I suppose, at the end of the day, when you have 264 episodes of a TV show, they can’t all be winners.

Certainly, this one wasn’t.

Mary Bennet Was Glad To Purchase Praise

Miss Mary Bennet is only a minor character in Pride and Prejudice and yet, in spite of that, she’s a very interesting one. She is not a stereotypical character. She has interests and reads a good deal, but not from passion or even particularly from interest.

There’s a section, which I find a fascinating examination of her character from chapter six in which Miss Lucas had just forced Elizabeth to be the first one to play and sing at a gathering at Lucas Lodge.

[Elizabeth’s] performance was pleasing, though by no means capital. After a song or two, and before she could reply to the entreaties of several that she would sing again, she was eagerly succeeded at the instrument by her sister Mary, who having, in consequence of being the only plain one in the family, worked hard for knowledge and accomplishments, was always impatient for display.

Mary had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached. Elizabeth, easy and unaffected, had been listened to with much more pleasure, though not playing half so well; and Mary, at the end of a long concerto, was glad to purchase praise and gratitude by Scotch and Irish airs, at the request of her younger sisters, who with some of the Lucases and two or three officers joined eagerly in dancing at one end of the room.

When Jane Austen writes that Mary acted out of vanity, I don’t think that we are to suppose she meant that Mary acted in a calculated manner. Rather, I think she was overly shaped by the people around her. There is a hint of this in the epilogue.

Mary was the only daughter who remained at home; and she was necessarily drawn from the pursuit of accomplishments by Mrs. Bennet’s being quite unable to sit alone. Mary was obliged to mix more with the world, but she could still moralize over every morning visit; and as she was no longer mortified by comparisons between her sisters’ beauty and her own, it was suspected by her father that she submitted to the change without much reluctance.

I think what we see is that Mary received pleasing attention only from her accomplishments, and so in pursuit of that attention, pursued accomplishments. Her trouble was that she failed to recognize that it is as much vanity to wish to be thought wise as it is to wish to be thought beautiful. It is just as much of a trap to long for people to want you to be around because they like listening to you as it is to long for people to want you to be around because they like looking at you.

So what sort of girl is Mary? In one sense it’s not hard to find her; all one need do is to look among the people with accomplishments for those who do them more for the praise than for the sake of doing them. So why, then, is Mary not a stereotype?

I suspect it’s because the stereotypes are frequently created by people just like Mary. Actors, singers, writers, YouTubers—I don’t think that it’s hard to find vanity that could not be sated otherwise, here. And vanity does not often mix well with self-examination and honesty.

This is, I think, a mark of the greatness of Jane Austen as a writer. She is sometimes described as writing biting satire, though I think that this description is in many cases projection. However that may be, when she wrote what could be considered satire, she did it honestly. Many satirists simply wish to take their competition down a few pegs. Jane Austen was willing to look at the failings of people who bore at least superficial resemblance to herself.

Miss Mary Bennet is, indeed, a very interesting character.

Murder In An Obvious Order

When a person wishes to inherit a title or a fortune (or both) but is several levels of inheritance removed from the object of his desire, it’s a bit strange when the ambitious person kills off the necessary people in the order of succession. It’s odd because this almost invariably means killing them in the order of most plausibly natural causes to least plausibly natural causes.

These thoughts are inspired by the Murder, She Wrote episode, It Runs in the Family, which will do as an example (note: spoilers ahead).

There’s a woman who wishes to be a viscountess, so she murders the 17th viscount, who is 87 years old, then murders the 18th viscount, who is only in his sixties. Granted, he has some sort of terminal condition where he has only a few months left to live, but the morning of the day she murders him the doctor remarks that he’s doing remarkably well and might live another twenty years. He also abandons the wheelchair he had been going around in and walks like normal. This is actually what makes her think to poison the viscount, because she could wait a few months but not a few years. Granted, she makes a lame attempt to frame Emma Magill (Jessica Fletcher’s identical cousin).

Had she killed in the opposite order, where she killed her brother-in-law while he was still merely the oldest son of a viscount, suspicion would not have fallen nearly so directly on her and would more plausibly have fallen on Emma.

This sort of long-game murder is not a foolproof protection for the murderer—or else it could not be used in murder mysteries!—but it would certainly make the murderer less likely to be suspected. There’s a lot to be said for this making the murder more difficult for the detective and thus more interesting for the reader.

One downside, from the perspective of an American writer such as myself, is that this only really works for hereditary things like titles where succession is guaranteed. Playing the long game with something like a chance to be the CEO of a company would be far riskier; boards of directors cannot be relied on to choose a particular person as CEO. Committing murder for a small chance to become the CEO of a company is much harder for the reader to believe.

On the other hand, it would be quite interesting for the murderer to execute this plan on multiple continents. For example, the current heir to the title could be killed in America, where (him not having a title yet) no one thinks that the title is a possible motive for the murder because they don’t know about it and wouldn’t think to ask about because they’re Americans. When the second murder (disguised as death from natural causes in old age) happens, it will take a quick wit or a suspicious person to connect the two occurrences, especially if they’re separated by enough time that they’re not immediately connected. On the other hand, people who commit murder so that they don’t have to wait are not widely known for their patience.

Such a story also has the benefit of being able to bring the detectives across the ocean—in either direction. Also, if an author had two sets of detectives, one in England and one in America, this could work to create a crossover. It could also be used to set up a cold-case story—someone from England could contact the American detectives about the death that happened in America a year or two ago in light of the sudden death, supposedly (but not plausibly) from a heart attack of an old man who was in robust health (or so the person writing believes). There are more than a few interesting possibilities here.

Speaking About The Weather

I was recently speaking to a friend who lives in Pittsburgh about the forecast weather for what was, then, the next day. It was forecast to be seventy degrees and she remarked that we never used to see days this warm in November. Being a nerd, I did a little research, then sent this to her:

I looked up Pittsburgh’s weather for November 2009 and it hit 72 degrees on November 8. According to weather.gov, historical temperatures for Pittsburgh, the average temperature in November of 2019 (the last november they have data for) was 37.7 degrees. Going back 100 years, to 1919, it was 44.6 degrees. In 1871, the first year they have weather for, it was 38.2 degrees.
(source https://www.weather.gov/media/pbz/records/histemp.pdf)

According to the warm days by month (https://www.weather.gov/media/pbz/records/warmdaymonth.pdf)
The warmest November 3 was in 1961 at 82, the warmest Nov 1 was 80 degrees in 1950, the warmest November 7 was 78 degrees in 1938. In other words, if it his 70 degrees tomorrow, that will be 8 degrees shy of the record back in 1938.

Weather is more variable than people remember it.

Discontinuing the Podcast

For a while I’d been running a podcast which was the audio of my YouTube videos, but because of a problem in wordpress’s API for file uploads, it’s just too much of a pain in the neck right now, so for the foreseeable future I’m not going to be uploading the podcast.

(I am planning to make posts which embed the YouTube video, which is far less work for me than extracting the audio and uploading it.)

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box

Of all the kinds of murder mysteries, I think that the murder for revenge is the least fun. The basic problem with them, if it can be called that, is that they necessarily leave justice improperly served. That’s not quite entirely true, as it is possible for the death to be a justified killing, as in Murder on the Orient Express. In that case, though, the killer must not be convicted for murder. If that happens, justice has been served but in figuring out what happened the detective is mostly only satisfying his own curiosity. That can be an interesting story, but it lacks the satisfaction of the detective using reason to put right what was put wrong through a misuse of reason.

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box is very much a tale of revenge. If you haven’t read it, the short version is that Holmes is called in to a case where a respectable woman was sent a box filled with salt and in the salt were two severed human ears. Holmes does some detection and realizes that the ears are those of the youngest sister of the woman and the man with whom she was adulterating her marriage; her (now former) husband was the killer. It turned out that the package was not meant for the oldest sister, however, but for the middle sister. The middle sister, who had been in love with her sister’s husband, tried to seduce him, and failing this, had turned her sister against her husband and then introduced her sister to a captivating man she fell in love with. Holmes directs Lestrade where to find the husband, who is a sailor. Lestrade was, at first, worried because the husband was a large man, but he was haunted by what he had done and had given up living. He went in and gave a full confession, which Lestrade sent a copy of to Holmes, and fills in many of the details.

The story ends with some thoughts on the story by Holmes:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

The Adventure of the Cardboard Box was originally published in Strand magazine in 1893, which places it among the first Holmes stories published and among those short stories which made Sherlock Holmes so famous and popular. Its contents were so shocking, however, that for a time it was removed from publication and was not collected in the collection of short stories called The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. When it was removed, an initial section in which Holmes mind-reads Watson (in imitation of Edgar Allen Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin) was transferred to The Adventure of the Resident Patient.

It is, perhaps, a commentary on the great principles and sensitivity of our forebears that it was later published in the 1917 collection of Holmes stories, His Last Bow, in America, and added to later additions of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (first published in late 1893, where the rest of the Holmes short stories published in 1893 were collected). It took twenty one years to conclude that people were now so bad that they would not be corrupted by contemplating the sins described in the story.

It is a rather strange story, all things considered. It is pathetic, in the original sense of the word—creating pathos. It involves a certain amount of detection, but overall not a very great amount. In fact, Holmes says so himself:

Holmes scribbled a few words upon the back of one of his visiting cards and threw it over to Lestrade.

“That is the name,” he said. “You cannot effect an arrest until to-morrow night at the earliest. I should prefer that you do not mention my name at all in connection with the case, as I choose to be only associated with those crimes which present some difficulty in their solution.

Holmes solved it more quickly than the police did, of course, but it is likely they would have eventually found the solution, too. When Mary was reported as missing, they would have gone to look for her husband. He had given up on living, and confessed as soon as he was able. When they went to ask him about his wife, it is doubtful that he would not have confessed then. Alternatively, Sarah would at some time have come out of her “brain fever” and, since she was motivated by hate for her brother in law after he spurned her, she would in all probability have gone to the police and accused him.

In any event, finding out that a husband killed his wife in a fit of rage for her adultery is… a story without any twists. About the only twist in the entire story is that the box was only addressed by the initial, S, which both the older and middle sister shared, and since the middle sister had quit the premises recently, it was assumed that it was meant for the older sister when it was, in fact, meant for the middle sister.

It’s not a bad story, all told, though I do actually agree with the people who decided not to republish it that it is not really a story that people need to read. There are two types of good stories: the celebration of virtue and the lament of vice. This story does qualify as the second, but not in a useful way. It may, perhaps, be of some use as a warning to women who fall in love with their sisters’ husbands that nothing good will come of turning their sister against their husband then luring her into adultery with another man, but I’m not sure this is a warning many people need.

And the story has some real flaws in it. For example, the husband who committed the murders describes the three sisters, “There were three sisters altogether. The old one was just a good woman, the second was a devil, and the third was an angel.” Angels are not so easily manipulated into being unfaithful to their husbands.

Granted, the characterization is given by a broken man who has not been shown to have great judgment, but at the same time this is towards the beginning of a long explanation and is never challenged. Worse, the pathos of the story depends, to some degree, on the wife being angelic and innocent in spite of her obviously culpable sins. Framed properly, the story really offers no insight into human nature past the observation that if everyone is bad, the results will be bad. It’s not wrong, precisely. It’s just that I don’t see what good wallowing in it does. We already know that the evil man brings evil out of the evil stored in his heart. That the bad tree goes not produce good fruit.

And so we come again to Sherlock Holmes’ question at the end of the story.

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

There is an element of hope here, but not much of one. This non-answer could really have been improved upon a great deal; if nothing else he could have quoted the parable of the wheat and the tares. Even if the answer was not accepted, merely entertaining it would have been an improvement over this blank mystification.


As a curious side-note, at the time the story would have been set cardboard was a relatively recent invention, though that depends in part on what sort of cardboard it was. The two main candidates are paperboard (the sort of thing cereal boxes are made of) and corrugated fiberboard (probably better known as corrugated cardboard). The first paperboard boxes were readily available in the 1860s. Corrugated fiberboard was developed in the 1870s.

The Holmes stories were often set before their publication, many of them in the 1870s or possibly the 1880s. Cardboard would have been a relatively new thing, though not a complete novelty. Then again, it may possibly be an anachronism; by 1893 it would have been common enough that it would no longer feel new and Conan Doyle might, taking it for granted, not have bothered to remember when it first came into use.

Normal People Doing Average Things

From the comedians Tripp and Tyler, we have Regular People Stunts:

It’s funny, but there’s an interesting point to it, too, which is that with a combination of great camera work, good editing, good acting, and intense music, they make very ordinary things look amazing. It’s a lesson about what one sees on television and in movies, and how much of it is really what you’re seeing versus how it’s presented.

Fun Settings for a Murder Mystery

Nearly anything can be a good setting for a murder mystery, but I’ve been thinking of late of how to select fun settings. One of the great archetypal settings for a murder is a mansion. My own survey over golden age detective fiction is that murders in a mansion—especially during dinner parties—are not nearly as common as they are iconic. I think that they’re iconic for two main reasons.

The first reason that a mansion is iconic for a murder mystery is that it’s a closed environment. The ability to exactly identify all of the suspects makes the problem fit in one’s head better, and also promises that a solution is available. The other reason is that a mansion would be a really fun place to visit. One wouldn’t necessarily want to live in a mansion, it certainly has its downsides. But one does not read a book forever. In a book one necessarily only visits, and a mansion would be a ton of fun to visit.

Looked at this way, Murder on the Orient Express, which I think everyone will agree has one of the great settings in murder mysteries, has these properties. A train is a closed environment, at least when between stations. (Yes, a person might slip out of the train, but then someone might slip out of a window in a mansion. It’s even harder in a train than it would be in a mansion.) Equally important, the Orient Express was a piece of high luxury that few of us could ever afford.

Of the two, I think that the second reason is probably more important than the first. A closed group of suspects is interesting, but it is by no means the only interesting possibility. Even if a person is murdered in a crowded train station, one tends to suspect only those people who actually had a connection to the victim. It has a different feel, to be sure, but it makes for perfectly good stories.

And, to be fair, a boring setting can still host a fascinating murder mystery. The Adventure of the Clapham Cook comes to mind as an example—Poirot is called in because of a missing cook and his investigations largely center around a suspicious border in the extra room of this not very interesting house. That said, that even the apparently ordinary can lead to something extraordinary is the theme of the story; its being an exception is not lost on the story itself.

My own two murder mysteries are set in a college campus that’s mostly deserted because of winter break and a large (public) conservatory and botanical garden. The mystery I’m working on at the moment, tentatively titled He Didn’t Drown in the Lake, is set in a camp resort in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York and promises to be a lot of fun. The one after that will be set at a Renaissance faire next to a Monastery, which takes its name from is neighbor, Saint Anselm’s Fair. None of these settings is opulant, but each is interesting, I think. The university on break has something of the feel of a mansion, though the field of suspects is much wider than the guests at a dinner party. The conservatory also has the mansion feel and, if you discount a stranger jumping the fence, does have the closed list of suspects. There is the difficulty that a conservatory is a very visual place, though, which—even if superbly described—doesn’t carry over as well in a book as it would in a movie. The resort camp should be quite a lot of fun. It may not be the height of luxury, but it is certainly the sort of place I would love to go. The Renaissance fair is a bit different, as after all anyone with fifteen dollars plus gas money can go to one, but it should be a really fascinating and fun place to be.

I think that after that I should probably go to someplace expensive, for a change. It will be a minor difficulty that I’ve never personally been to anyplace very expensive, but then most readers won’t have, either, so at least they won’t be in a position to spot my mistakes. It should also be a fun contrast with the friars who’ve taken vows of poverty, investigating.