Why Are English Great Houses So Interesting?

Perhaps the most classic golden age murder mystery story is that of a murder taking place at a dinner party in a country house. It didn’t happen very often in the golden age novels; I suspect it may actually be more common in plays from the time since it lends itself to the confines of a stage so well. It certainly made it to the board game Clue (or Cluedo, if you’re from England). If we broaden out a little to a murder in an English Great House, this certainly becomes more common in novels, though still by no means the norm. I think that these sorts of murder mysteries are so classical—so typical—because the setting particularly captures the imagination. But why does it?

I think that the answer is that an English Great House is a small and, to all appearances—except for the murder—harmonious society. Modern society, both from the changes brought about by technology and from the deterioration which started with Modern Philosophy (that doubted truth), has been especially discordant. This makes us long for society whose parts fit together.

When we look at the parts, I think that it is actually the servants who are the most important part of this. But not for the reasons many people think.

Though the servants are not frequently major characters in the story, they are a major part of what makes the English Great House harmonious. The key thing about them is that they have their varied roles and are content with those roles. That is not to say that the servants’ dreams have all been fulfilled, or that they would do these jobs if they didn’t need the money; neither of those is an important part of being content. It is also not to say that they enjoy their work. That’s not a part of contentment, either. The servants do not make demands past what they are owed for their labor, and they (it is always implied) receive what they are owed. The gardener does not covet the parlor maid’s job, nor does the parlor maid covet the gardener’s job. The cook makes no speeches about how she should be the lady’s maid. The servants work together with acrimony, jealousy, and spite.

This is not to say that they never like anything about their job. You will not infrequently see servants who have been with the family for many decades will be fond of people they served as children. I think that this is often misunderstood; it really just refers to the human tendency to grow fond of what is familiar, and also to easily grow fond of children, especially when their bad behavior is a distant memory. It’s also typically a housekeeper or a butler who is fond of the young adult who used to be a child; these are people who would mostly see the children having fun but would not be responsible for disciplining them. It’s a common enough experience to grow fond of an employer’s children one happened to come into regular contact with but was never responsible for.

For that matter, it’s also common for people who have worked in a workplace for a long time to become fond of the people with whom they’ve worked, including their boss if he was a good boss. The loyal servant—who is almost invariably old—is no great stretch of the imagination if they regarded their work as a job of which they had no great complaint; it is the nature of human beings to start to think of as family those who are in our lives for a long time. This is a common phenomenon in modern workplaces; it’s not mere romanticization to think it also happened in workplaces a century ago.

The family who lives in the Great House also forms a part of this society, of course; in a sense the more stable part (except for how one of them has murdered another of them), since they cannot be sacked and will not give notice because they’ve accepted descent from some other ancestor. (That said, they can leave because of marriage, so I don’t want to make too much of their greater stability. Sometimes it’s the other way around, where a servant has been with the family for fifty years but a daughter left at twenty two when she married.)

The families of Great Houses tend, in murder mysteries, to be far more discordant with each other than the servants are with each other, and here again the servants help to make the whole thing work. The family may quarrel, but their relationship with the servants is harmonious. In the main the family asks the servants for things which are reasonable enough and within the servants’ job description, and the servants generally do them in reasonable ways. The relationships between the family and the servants are quite unequal, but they are reasonably stable and no one actively fights them. That is the essence of a harmonious society. (By contrast, in high school, at least within a grade, everyone is equal and there is a great deal of discord.)

When people admire the English Great Houses and the society of the time, or say such things as “wouldn’t it have been great to have lived back then?” it is, I think, really this social harmony that they long for. And I think it is this longing for such social harmony which makes the English Great House such an iconic golden age mystery setting. It is perfect to set off what the detective story is—because of all of those caveats I had to add about “except for the murder”.

In the English Great House we have a harmonious society which is suddenly thrown into disarray by the murder of one of its members. But no one knows who did it because the murderer has used his cleverness to conceal his identity. That is, the society’s right order was put wrong through a disordered use of intellect. Into this once-great-now-broken society comes the detective. He moves about the house and gets to know it, and then by a rational process deduces the identity of the murderer. With the murderer’s identity known justice may be served and the society can continue, constructed differently because of its changed members, but this new ordering will once again be a harmonious ordering. That is, the detective restores, through a right use of intellect, a proper ordering of the society.

Regarded in this way, I think it becomes clear why the Great House is so iconic. Like icons, it paints the picture in bright colors and clear lines that make it easy to see the important parts.


Incidentally, this might be why, in good murder mysteries, it’s almost never the case that The Butler Did It.

Empathy Is Such a Stupid Basis For Morality

If you’ve spent more than a few minutes arguing with atheists on the internet, the subject of how they justify morality will have come up and they will have tried to justify it by saying that “they have empathy”. Usually, though not always, in very self-satisfied tones. It is curious that they are oblivious to how stupid this is. And not just in one way.

The first problem, of course, is that empathy doesn’t inevitably lead to treating people well. It’s very easy to lie to people because one doesn’t want them to suffer, to give too much candy to a child because you can’t bear to hear them cry, to give alcohol to an alcoholic because he feels miserable without it, etc. Empathy also provides no check against suffering that cannot be seen. It’s hard to shoot a man standing in front of you, and not so hard to shoot him when he’s 200 yards away, and not nearly as hard when he’s inside of a building that you’re bombing. It can be downright easy when it’s giving orders to people who don’t feel empathy to execute people in a camp hundreds of miles away.

For that matter, empathy can even lead to being cruel; if two people’s needs conflict and one feels more empathy for one person than another, that empathy can lead one to harm the other for the sake of the one more empathized with. Parents are notorious for being willing to go to great lengths for the sake of their children, even to the point of doing all sorts of immoral things to spare their children far less suffering than the harm they cause to spare it. I can testify to the temptation. If I were to consult only my feelings and not my principles, there’s no limit to the number of people I would kill for the sake of my children.

Which brings us to another problem: empathy is merely a feeling. To claim that the basis of morality is empathy is to claim that the basis of morality is a feeling. In other words, “morality is based on empathy” means “do what you feel like.” That’s not morality, that’s the absence of morality. Moreover, human beings demonstrably feel like doing bad things to each other quite often.

(Unless, of course, the atheist is trying to claim that one should privilege the feeling of empathy over feelings experienced more strongly at the time, in which case there would need to be some rational argument given, not based in empathy, for why it should be thus privileged. But if one were to try this, one would run into a sort of Euthyphro dilemma—if empathy is good because it conforms to the good, then it is not the source of goodness, and it is a distraction to talk about it; if good is good because it conforms to empathy, then to call empathy good is merely to say that it is empathy, and there is no rational basis for preferring it to other feelings.)

The fact that people feel like doing bad things to each other really gets to the heart of the problem for the atheist. It’s all very well for the atheist to say “I prefer to harm no one.” He can have no real answer to someone else replying, “but I do.” Indeed, he has no answer. If you ever suggest such a thing, the atheist merely shrieks and yells and tries to shout down the existence of such a thing. His ultimate recourse is to law, of course, which means to violence, for law is the codified application of violence by people specially charged with carrying that violence out.

(It’s hardly possible to arrest someone, try, convict, and imprison them all without at least the threat of force from the police; if you don’t think so try the following experiment: construct a medium sized steel box (with windows), walk up to some random person while manifestly carrying no weapons, and say “In my own name I arrest you and sentence you twenty years inside of my steel box. Now come along and get in. I will not force you, but I warn you that if you do not comply I shall tell you to get in again.” Do this twenty or thirty times and count how many of them the person comes along and gets in.)

Of course, when the atheist appeals to the laws which enforce his preferred morality, we may ask where his empathy for the transgressor is. Where is his empathy for all of the people in prison? It must be a terrible feeling to be arrested by the police; where is the atheist’s empathy for them?

If you go looking for it, you will find that the atheist’s empathy is often in short supply, though he credits himself in full.

I Debugged a Program in My Dreams

This morning (as of the time of writing) I had a very weird experience: I woke up while dreaming so I remembered it, and in that dream I successfully debugged a program in a way that actually works when I think about it while I’m awake.

The program wasn’t real, of course, but it was very curious that the bug was perfectly possible. It was some sort of program like one of the ones I work on at my day job and the program tagged commands it sent to the server with a string. Each command also includes a tag for the next command, which the next command must include. Another developer overrode the current tag, and consequently the client program didn’t have the right command tag for the next command, so its commands wouldn’t be accepted. The overriding of the tag would in fact cause subsequent commands to not be accepted, and the fix would be to resynchronize the client with the server (whether by changing the next command tag on the server or the previous command tag on the client).

The normal experience of figuring out the solution to a problem in one’s dreams is to find out that the perception that the solution worked was just a feature of the dream, and it doesn’t really work, if one can even remember what the solution even was. I find it very interesting that it was possible to have a real solution in a dream where the problem was also a creation of the dream, and the sort of problem is entirely a human creation (computer programs).

I suspect that this is why programming and video games are so popular among atheists; since these things are creation of the human mind they feel safe in a way that things which exist apart from the human mind are not safe.

Some Impressively Bad Advice

Avicii’s song The Nights contains a chorus sung in a very inspiring-sounding way, which makes it impressive how bad the advice in it is:

The chorus says, “One day, you’ll leave this world behind so live a life you will remember.”

It would be difficult to think of a worse lesson from “one day you’ll leave this world behind”. There are only two possibilities for after you die:

  1. You don’t remember anything from this life (e.g. because you no longer exist)
  2. You do remember things from this life

If #1 is the outcome, then there is zero point to trying to “live a life you will remember.” So we’re only concerned with possibility #2.

If you will remember things from this life, then there are two possible ways that the afterlife could go:

  1. The things you did matter
  2. The things you did don’t matter

Since the afterlife is, presumably, going to be a lot longer than this life, if we’re in condition 2.1 then forget living a life you will remember and live a life of virtue. If we’re in condition 2.2, then we’re talking about ideas like the ancient pagan idea that the afterlife was just a dark motionless cave in which nothing bad or good happened, the spirits just kind of are. It probably gives some idea what that would be like to consider that the shades from Hades all told Odysseus that it really sucked to be dead and a miserable life alive was still better than being a mere shade. A life that you will remember will probably just torment you with what you no longer have and can no longer do.

If you look at the video, it’s mostly short clips of Avicii in places that are impressive and cost a decent amount of money to go to. In short, this is an anthem of having money and spending it all on fleeting experiences.

In fact, you can tell that they don’t fill his soul up nearly so much as he pretends that they do because he constantly needs new ones. He’s never in the same place twice. It’s a pretty good hint that you can find something substantive at Church because people keep going back to the same church, just as you can tell that people find real food at the grocery store because they keep going back to the same grocery store.

One might almost propose it as a test: you can tell that a man has found something truly interesting if he is boring. There are exceptions, but most of the time people do interesting things it is because their attention isn’t occupied by something interesting so they must do something interesting to have something to think about.


This, by the way, is why I’ve never been drunk in my life. There are far too many interesting things in life to take time off from paying attention to them. I’ve already got to spend a large fraction of my time asleep; I can’t spare more.

Ugly Detectives

Detectives in the golden age of mysteries were frequently described as ugly in one way or another. Sherlock Holmes was pictured with a hawk-like face and a large, hatchet nose, and Conan Doyle was disappointed when Holmes began to be drawn as a good looking man in illustrations. Lord Peter was described with his face looking “as if it had generated spontaneously from his top hat, as white maggots breed from Gorgonzola”. Poirot was short, had preposterous military mustaches, and an egg-shaped head. (The main exception to this trend which comes to mind is Dr. Thorndyke.)

I’ve had occasion more than once to wonder why this is. One possible explanation, of course, is that it was true of Sherlock Holmes for whatever reason Conan Doyle chose to do it and everyone else merely copied him. They certainly did copy him in a great many ways, typically quite consciously, so this can’t be entirely ruled out.

If it is the case, then Conan Doyle’s reason for making Holmes ugly is worth considering. Unfortunately, I don’t know that he ever gave it. Certainly, he was trying to convey intensity, for intensity is the chief mark of the descriptions of Holmes. Holmes was unusual, and I think that the degree to which he was an unusual man was meant to be stamped on his features. Beyond that, I don’t know. His physical description was not of primary importance to Conan Doyle, since we got none in the chapter in which Holmes was introduced.

Detectives being ugly may not have been merely in imitation of Holmes, however. The main exception that I alluded to above—Dr. Thorndyke was quite handsome—may be brought to bear in support of this, because Thorndyke was remarkably a copy of Holmes in most other respects. Thorndyke had a not-very-bright doctor friend who ended up sharing rooms with him and chronicling his cases. Thorndyke was a coldly logical calculating machine with little regard for the bumblers on the professional police force. Thorndyke was austere in manner and uninterested in women. If you read the stories (such as The Red Thumb Mark or The Eye of Osiris), you will see even more how much Thorndyke was a copy of Holmes. And yet Thorndyke was not ugly. Perhaps, then, this was not regarded as an integral feature of Holmes.

So why, then, was it so common? Even if it was in part an imitation, why was it so frequently imitated when other things—for example, Holmes’ drug use—was not.

I’m inclined to think that it was about balance. Writers feared making their detectives too great, and so sought to give them some flaws. The problem with giving your characters flaws is that flaws tend to be unpleasant to others. One must pick the flaws of one’s main character very carefully. It’s all to easy to make a story unreadable by having a main character who one wants to throttle, not read about.

Flaws of appearance are well suited to written stories, since they will not be frequently felt by the reader. This also explains, I think, why they do not tend to survive to plays and movie versions—an ugly leading man will be felt quite a lot by the viewer.

Having said that, these flaws frequently do not survive long even in print. They’re not interesting. Moreover, we grow to like the detective and we do not like picturing our friends as ugly.

I believe that for the most part writers in the second century of detective fiction don’t bother with ever having their detectives be ugly. This shows better sense, I think (in this very limited way), but I wonder if it may be in part that brilliant detectives are so well accepted that we no longer feel a need to try to counterbalance their brilliance so that readers will accept them.

Great Light Saber Parodies

The movies which came out after Star Wars: Return of the Jedi did what sequel movies inevitably do—try different things. Some of these worked, some were a bit silly. Fortunately, the silly parts resulted in some really entertaining parodies, so they weren’t a complete loss. Below are a few of my favorites, in case you haven’t seen them yet:

In the “George Lucas Special Edition” of The Force Awakens trailer, there was this great parody of Kylo Ren’s silly cross-guard saber:

I put that one at the time stamp where it happens, but the whole thing is funny and worth watching.

My son recently showed me this parody of General Grievous with his many light sabers:

And perhaps my all-time favorite is Rey’s Swiss Army light saber:

Hayek vs. Keynes

With a hat tip to Father Poeking on Twitter, I came across this fascinating video:

It’s a (scripted) rap battle and boxing match which is actually about the main economic arguments of Keynes and Hayek. A thing which is entertaining about economics is already a very rare beast, but one which has high production values and good acting is a bit like finding a two-headed unicorn.

Also interesting is that, as the thumbnail suggests, the rap battle is interspersed with a boxing match. There is the interesting detail that boxing has been called “the sweet science” while economics has been called “the dismal science”.

It’s very much worth watching; it’s entertaining and there’s a lot of attention to detail.

The Demand for Signs

A friend brought up the subject of people demanding signs from God, which reminded me of a thing that comes up sometimes among atheists where they say that if God wanted people to believe in Him, he should do [whatever]. It doesn’t take much experience of atheists to realize that it doesn’t matter what the thing is, it wouldn’t be enough. There could be mile-high letters in the sky made of unquenchable flames saying, “I made the world. –God” and atheists would say it’s an unexplained natural phenomenon that guided the development of language and its inexplicability was what drove the development of religion before the advent of modern science.

Vary the thing as much as you like, as long as it predates what the atheist sets as the condition, the result will be the same. It will only be believable if it happens in response to what the atheist asks for. That is, it will only be believable if God’s actions conform perfectly to the will of the atheist.

That’s the key to understanding the fundamental problem.

You can see the exact same phenomenon in romantic relationships where one partner is insecure. Let’s call them I and O, for brevity: I isn’t sure that O loves her, and asks him to do something reasonable to show it. But as soon as he does it, it occurs to her that maybe he did it for some other reason. Maybe he just thought it was a good idea, or thought that he was going to get something out of it. So I comes up with some other test for O’s love, this time more extreme; something he couldn’t think is reasonable. When he does it, she then wonders if he really loves her or is just trying to humor her because he wants sex. So she needs to push him away and demand something that he would have to hate. If O is sane, I will eventually succeed in driving him off, proving that he didn’t “really” love her. And if he isn’t sane and stays, it’s always possible that he’s doing that because the alternative is even worse, which isn’t really love, etc.

Ultimately, the problem in both cases is that the person will only believe in what is a complete extension of their own will. But if it a thing were a complete extension of one’s will, it would be a part of one (since we can’t create ex nihilo). Ultimately, the only thing that the atheist and the insecure person can believe in is… themselves.

It’s a solipsistic trap.

They will tend to be very angry that they are in this trap; they don’t want to be. They cry out to people to get them out of this trap. But no one can get them out. That’s the problem with mental prisons: the prisoner is the guard.

Actually, it’s worse.

The prisoner is the prison.

TV Has Always Been Para-Social

I was talking with a friend about how I’ve noticed that my children aren’t as interested in narrative fiction as I was at their age, and they’re more interested in YouTube stuff. A lot of it is educational in one form or another, though some of it is also a discussion of fiction. He made the point that YouTube has a heavily para-social component to it, and while that’s true, I do think that it’s more about the incredible specificity of topic possible on YouTube.

In thinking about that conversation later, it occurred to me that Television has always been para-social, though, even the narrative stuff. There is probably a more para-social component to non-narrative programming, which might be why shut-ins are more likely to watch the news. However, narrative TV was also para-social. We grew fond of the people on TV.

I suspect that the para-social aspect was especially responsible for the boom in family-based shows (and, more generally, domestic shows) like sitcoms in the 1980s. Though it certainly applies all over.

And come to think of it, there was a joke about the para-social nature of old time radio programs in an episode of Hogan’s Heroes. Someone had to break the bad news to Carter that the bank foreclosed on Mary Noble, Backstage Wife and Carter almost broke down in tears.

This raises the interesting question of why does YouTube work better for para-social video? I suspect that the answer is the vastly lowered production costs mean that it can be worth it to do YouTube videos for much smaller audiences, which means that they can be far more specific, and so the match with the much smaller audience is much better.

Murder She Wrote: Just Another Fish Story

The episode Just Another Fish Story first aired on March 27, 1988 putting it late in the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote. It is a Grady episode, set in New York City, and features Grady being engaged to a young woman named Donna.

The first scene opens with an introduction to a shady character:

“Listen, just because it’s you, how about 1,000 for the lobster and 2,000 for the caviar?” he says quietly, so no one can hear. He asks if the other party wants it delivered at the usual time, and answers some question with, “Hey, they haven’t noticed so far. Why should they now?”

We then cut to Jessica in a taxi cab looking at her watch and saying to the driver that she would like to stop off at her hotel and freshen up but Grady said that they can’t change the time of the reservation for anything, so she doesn’t have time. The driver replies that if they hit cross-town traffic, she’ll be lucky to get there for desert, if the place is still open by then. A lot of places have opened and quickly closed on the block she’s going to.

Well do I remember NYC cabs with their raised back seats and lack of windshields.

Jessica mentions that Grady advised her to invest in this restaurant, and it seems to be doing well. The driver mentions that he took a lot of people to a Serbo-Croation restaurant at the same address last year, and it was doing well, then, too. This cab ride fit a lot of exposition into a short space, and made it all the more entertaining with glorious rear-projection and the occasional camera shake to make it seem like the car was going over a bump.

When they get to the restaurant, Grady is outside, dressed like a cowboy for some reason.

He really looked like he was about to draw a six-gun.

Apparently this is the dress code for accountants at Alice’s Farm Restaurant, where Grady works. Or perhaps it’s Donna, his fiancé, who works there, and Grady is just dressing appropriately for a theme restaurant. He doesn’t say.

Their sign is interesting:

I can’t help but wonder if this is meant to be a reference to Arlo Guthrie’s song, Alice’s Restaurant. It was a somewhat famous 1967 anti-vietnam war song (sort of) and also a film of the same name based on the song. I’m pretty sure that the plot has nothing to do with the song or the movie; at most it would be meant for a humorous moment.

When they get inside it turns out that the shady character from the first scene—his name is Chaz—is the maître d’ of the restaurant and cannot find their reservation. He keeps interrupting the conversation to welcome famous people and bring them to their table.

Chaz excuses himself to see to someone exceptionally famous and a new character, Doug, walks over and greets Grady.

That is a weird, weird necktie.

He’s apparently the brother of the Alice after whom the restaurant is named. They have a convenient arrangement: he stays out of her kitchen and she stays out of his books. Once he finds out that their reservation has been lost he angrily finds Chaz and points him to the reservation. Chaz claims he mis-heard the name and sheepishly says he’ll have their table ready in a few minutes. Doug takes them to the bar to buy them some drinks.

A famous video artist named Narissa walks in and hands Chaz money to get her a table, which he gladly does. Doug walks up and tells him that he’s had it with Chaz selling off tables and snatches the bribe, but Chaz snatches the money back and replies, “Look, amigo, I don’t take orders from some punk who rides in here on his sister’s apron strings.” Doug angrily walks off to the kitchen where he talks with his sister about what a problem Chaz is.

Ah, the 80s, where even casual blouses for professional kitchens had shoulder pads.

Doug suggests buying Chaz out but Alice doesn’t really care that Chaz takes bribes since he brings in a lot of investors and also attracts the right sort of clientele. In her words, “Look, he brings in the right kind of people, OK? The kind of people who think there’s something chic in paying $22.50 for fried chicken.” That would be $53.47 in 2022 dollars, which for an exclusive Manhattan restaurant isn’t all that expensive. Considering that in 2018 you could get 10 gold-covered chicken wings for $30 (I’ve got a post talking about its symbolism, btw), this is closer to the value-side of Manhattan pricing than it is to the Ritz.

It also puts the character of Chaz in a strange light. He’s sleazy, but his partners accept him being sleazy. Also, for that matter, he’s a partner. It’s a bit weird that he’s stealing from the restaurant for relatively petty amounts, considering that the restaurant is, at the moment, highly profitable, and he’s making plenty of money on bribes for tables, too. Greed knows no bounds, however, so it’s not implausible.

Back at the bar, the bartender, Harry, is pouring wine for Jessica. The same wine he poured for “Tennessee”, presumably Tennessee Williams. Jessica likes it.

He looks really familiar but, oddly, was in only one other episode (Dead Heat)

Given that Tennessee Williams died five years prior to this episode, that bottle must have been open for a long time. He then does something where we get a closeup. I don’t know what it means, but it’s got to be a clue—Murder, She Wrote doesn’t give closeups for non-clues.

He said that he’s got a wine cork signed by Hemmingway. Given that Ernest Hemmingway died in 1961 and this restaurant is only a year old, it’s a bit strange that he keeps this treasured memento here. Anyway, we can see that the drawer has no handle and Harry uses some sort of knife to open it; it has scratches from where he did that many times before.

Shortly after, another character comes up.

I wonder if you can see a message in her coat if you look at it through red cellophane.

Her name is Mimi and she writes a gossip column. Harry introduces her to Jessica with, “meet a real writer.” She’s rude and brash, and also seems to be given Jessica and Grady’s table.

They don’t have long to lament that their table has been given to another, though, as Grady’s fiancé Donna walks in.

Ah, the late 80s, where even accountants wore shoulder pads.

Fun Fact: in real life Michael Horton, who played Grady, and Debbie Zip, who played Donna, are married (and were at the time of filming, too).

Donna is thrilled to meet Jessica and, if anything, is even more nervous than Grady is. She also has the news that her parents are throwing a party for her and Grady at their house up in Fishkill and she’d like terribly if Jessica could come. Her parents are looking forward to meeting both Jessica and Grady.

It strikes me as a bit odd that Grady is engaged to their daughter and they’ve never so much as met him, but the 80s were a strange time.

Jessica asks them to tell her about their plans for the wedding, and is greeted with an embarrassed silence. Neither one wants to be responsible for making any decisions and the conversation devolves into them assuring the other that whatever the other wants would be fine.

Finally they’re seated at a table and Jessica tries to order caviar. The restaurant is out of caviar, though, but the waiter recommends “Alice’s Farm Caviar”, where instead of fish eggs it’s made of “oeufs de poulet”, aka chicken eggs.

Presumably they’re out of caviar because Chaz sold it. This means that he’s not only greedy and dishonest, but also stupid. It’s one thing to steal some lobster and caviar such that they need to be ordered more frequently than makes sense. It’s another thing to clean the place out; that just draws attention.

By the way, given how the place is southern-country themed and sells fried chicken for $22.50, why do they have lobster and caviar in their freezer?

Alice comes over and thanks Jessica for her investment and asks how the food was. Jessica says that it was marvelous. She didn’t know it was possible to get yellowtail on the east coast, and Alice admits that it was frozen. Jessica is surprised; she never would have guessed that.

In the next scene, Grady and Jessica drop Donna off at her place, then Grady smashes his fingers in the door getting back into the cab. Jessica relates the story of how Frank (her deceased husband) had a broken leg when she and he got married.

The scene then shifts to Chaz stacking up boxes of frozen lobster in the empty kitchen (presumably it’s late at night). He checks his watch, then the scene shifts to the next morning. The phone rings while Grady is singing in the shower so Jessica answers the phone. It’s Donna, in distress.

Does her dressing gown have shoulder pads?

The police have come to her apartment to take her to the restaurant. Chaz was just found murdered at there. Then the scene fades to black and we go to commercial break.

It seems a bit weird that they are escorting Donna to the scene of the crime, but there is an explanation and we find out what it is as soon as we come back from commercial break:

It turns out that there is a ledger that has entries whited out, and the detective wants to know what they were. When Donna says that she doesn’t know off the top of her head. He asks her to find out. Now.

Lt. Rupp goes to look at the body and Jessica follows to ask if Donna can look up the books after the weekend (because of the party). In the freezer, where the corpse was frozen, Jessica finds a pocket knife tucked away.

How did it get wedged between the boxes?

We never got a good look at the tool that Harry used to open the drawer, but it might well have been a pocket knife, which means it’s highly like that this is his pocket knife.

The cause of death is currently unknown. The victim was slashed across the chest but the wounds seem too shallow to cause death. He was also hit on the head by something. After Rupp is done examining the body he talks to Doug about a slip found on the body. Alice interrupts to announce that they’re missing six cases of lobster (Lt. Rupp had her check). That’s about $1,500 worth of lobster ($3,564 in 2022 dollars). Lt. Rupp suggests that Chaz interrupted a thief at work.

That’s a curious suggestion because, while in real life it might be plausible, we know it wasn’t the case because we’re watching a murder mystery and that would be a completely unsatisfying solution. As a result, it makes Rupp look a little dumb, or at the very least not clever, since we know he has to be wrong.

There’s a small interlude where Grady is reluctant to go up to meet Donna’s parents because, he reveals to Jessica, several years ago he worked for Donna’s father for a few days then was fired. Then Mimi calls and asks for a breakfast date with Jessica, and Grady accepts on Jessica’s behalf. Jessica doesn’t like this but since it would be convenient to pump Mimi for information, she goes.

Mimi gossips about the restaurant they’re at and in so doing reveals that it’s the restaurant at which Alice had worked before opening up her farm restaurant. Moreover, Alice took Harry and Chaz with her when she left. Valentino, the owner of the restaurant, was absolutely furious. I suppose Chaz could have been the maitre d’ here, though his style would certainly seem to clash. But what did Harry do? This doesn’t seem like the kind of restaurant to have a bar, and certainly when we pan over the restaurant, none is visible. So what did Harry—a lifelong bartender—do there?

Mimi then gets a message on her beeper, asks the waiter for a phone, and calls whoever paged her. She discovers that her fingernail designer has been arrested and—since she has a major party to go to that evening—she has to go and bail him out. She asks Jessica to messenger her a bio for the article Mimi is writing, then leaves after handing Jessica money for her portion of the breakfast since she always pays her own way because of journalistic ethics.

There’s an interesting gag which happens as they leave. Someone tells Valentino to turn off the ambiance tape as no one is listening anymore, which he does, and and the restaurant goes silent. As Jessica comes up to the register, we see that she and Mimi were the only customers.

The camera panned to get here and there was no one anywhere else.

Jessica goes to pay the bill and Valentino tells her the meal is on the house. Besides, he adds, it’s easier than starting a new register tape. This gives Jessica an idea, which she presents to Lt. Rupp over at police headquarters.

I think the American flag in the corner really pulls the office together.

Jessica explains that perhaps Chaz closed the register out early and pocketed the money from later meals. Donna explains that it’s consistent with the white-out entries, which always had smaller amounts written in—after Donna paid the larger amount. Rupp asks why Chaz would rip himself off and Donna explains that Chaz was ripping off the investors in the restaurant.

Rupp asks for a list of the investors and who had access to the books, since anyone who found this out could have a motive to kill Chaz. When Jessica objects, he threatens to arrest them for suspicion of murder. While the charges wouldn’t stick, it would take all weekend to process them, so it would be faster for them to just get him the information he wants.

In response to an accusation from Jessica that he’s having them do all of his work, he tells her that he found out that the blade which caused the wound was “a sickle-shaped, jagged-edged knife.”

At lunch the next day, Jessica is enjoying the fish, which was also previously-frozen yellowtail. it was left out over night to defrost, Alice thought by Doug but he disclaimed this. Jessica says “Oh my.”

“I think I just found our sickle-shaped murder weapon, and we just ate it,” Jessica says. (This makes the title of the episode a bit on-the-nose.)

“Yellowtail” can actually refer to several different species, but apparently the yellowtail amberjack is the most common. Here’s what it looks like before eating:

I can see the sick-shape of the dorsal and anal fins, but I’m having trouble believing that the fins could be strong enough to cut deeply enough into a human being’s chest to cause fatal wounds. There’s a lot to get through, and the vital stuff is protected by ribs. A fin, when frozen, might be sharp, but I doubt it’s got the structural integrity to cut through bone.

Actually, I guess the writer’s thought the same thing because in the next scene—Alice and Jessica are in Rupp’s office—it comes up that the wounds were not the cause of death. (The police did find traces of the victim’s blood on the fins, btw.) Rupp wonders who would use a fish as a weapon to attempt to murder someone in a kitchen full of much better weapons.

Jessica suggests that the person caught Chaz steeling, then Chaz attacked them and they defended themselves with the fish because it was close at hand. It fits the position of the body, Jessica says, and he might have bumped his head as he stumbled back. Rupp replies that he needs to read one of Jessica’s books. (Also, it comes up that Alice was home with her brother when Chaz was murdered. They live together because no one can afford to live alone in Manhattan.)

The only problem with this theory is that it doesn’t account for how the fish got out of the freezer and into the kitchen. If the frozen fish was the closest thing to hand in the freezer, where Chaz was killed, the killer would have had to carry it out to the kitchen and leave it on the counter in order for Alice to have found it there, defrosted, the next day. It’s hard to see how anyone could have a motive to do that, but that is especially the case for someone who struck out in self defense.

In the next scene, Jessica visits Grady and Donna, who are working on the information that Rupp wants. Grady can’t make the investors’ investments add up to the total capitalization of the restaurant and Jessica suggests that there are silent partners. There is also a list of initials nearby, one of which matches Mimi Harcourt’s initials, and Jessica takes a cab ride over to see if she can find out from Mimi that this is correct.

It is. Chaz talked her into investing, promising her secrecy, then blabbed all over town about Mimi’s involvement. Jessica all but accuses Mimi of murdering Chaz, so Mimi produces an alibi—she was in her apartment all night with Doug (Alice’s brother).

Jessica confronts Alice about this, who admits that she lied, but now swears that she didn’t leave her apartment all night. She lied, not for herself, but to give Doug an alibi. (I don’t know that a sister swearing her brother was home would count as an alibi… for precisely this reason. A sister might be 1% better than a mother as an alibi, but that’s not saying much.) Doug takes offense that she thought he needed an alibi, and they squabble for a bit. Then Jessica asks if there would be many people interested in cases of stolen lobster.

This leads Jessica to talk to Valentino, who, after all, is not an unreasonable guess for the purchaser. Chaz had a relationship with him, and he had no great love for Alice’s Farm Restaurant. Jessica’s pretext is that she is thinking of setting a novel in a restaurant and wants to do research. Of course, Jessica discovers the boxes of lobster left out on the counter.

Odd that he’s thawing all of it out at once.

She accuses him of it and he more-or-less admits to buying them from Chaz. How else can I get lobster and caviar at reasonable prices, he asks? Then Grady calls calls her at the restaurant because Donna broke off the engagement.

They talk, then Lt. Rupp comes and finds Jessica. He thanks her for putting him onto Valentino, as his alibi “won’t hold minestrone.” Jessica points out that this doesn’t make any sense—Valentino had no motive. Perhaps there’s someone they hadn’t thought of, though. Chaz wouldn’t have done his own deliveries. Harry then goes to show somebody his Hemmingway cork, but can’t find his pocketknife to open the drawer. Rupp notices this and accuses him of being the owner of the pocketknife found at the scene of the crime.

He denies it, but Jessica points out that it wouldn’t be hard to get fingerprints from the pocketknife, or to get Valentino to identify the guy who dropped off the stolen supplies. Harry admits that he worked with Chaz to scam the restaurant, but last night was weird because the supplies were out but Chaz was nowhere to be found. He went into the freezer to get one more box of lobster tail to complete the order—how he knew what the order was, he didn’t say—and then he saw Chaz just lying there. (He guesses that the pocket knife fell out of his pocket as he was backing up. Pocketknives jumping out of pockets is a common problem when walking backwards, and why one should always stick to walking forward if carrying a pocket knife in one’s pocket.)

Jessica goes back to Grady, who is trying to figure out what’s wrong and says that he snapped a little bit when Donna said that she was calculating the value of the lobster and caviar that was stolen—Jessica interrupts him in surprise that caviar was stolen, too. When she confirms that Donna said lobster and caviar, she realizes who did it.

We get clue face.

Jessica then excuses herself.

We next see Donna packing when there’s a knock on her door.

I don’t believe that Donna would have that awful modern art on her wall. The unicorn on the desk, I believe.

Jessica points out that the only way she (Jessica) knew about the stolen caviar was because Valentino told her. The only way Donna could have known about it was if she had seen it the night Chaz was killed.

Donna tearfully admits that this is true. She thought she made a mistake when she heard at dinner that they were out of caviar, since she had just paid for a shipment of it the day before. She asked Chaz and he told her to come back later. When she arrived, he let her in and wasn’t even trying to hide what he was doing. He tried to bribe her to join him and got angry when he refused. He hit her and she ran away, accidentally going into the freezer. He followed her and was about to hit her again when she grabbed the frozen yellowtail.

I get why they used a styrofoam prop, but they could have cut a sickle shape into the fin.

He was going to hit her again, so she struck out with it.

The scene shifts from this recollection to Lt. Rupp’s office, where Jessica asks if he agrees that it was self defense. He says that it looks like it, but they should talk to the DA first thing on Monday morning.

Grady comes to the police station and he and Donna are reunited. There’s a cute bit where Grady finally confesses that he’s already met her father, and he fired him. Donna replies, “Oh, that’s fine. He fires everyone. He probably won’t remember it. He fired me, once…”

And we go to credits.

There’s something always a bit disappointing about a mystery whose solution is that the killing was done in self defense but the person who committed the justified homicide just didn’t admit it. It robs the mystery of the element of the detective restoring the right order of things, since things were not actually disordered. The detective still provides a service, but it’s not much of a service to explain that everything’s actually the way it should be. Instead of the brilliance of the detective, all that would have been required was a little bit of courage on the part of the innocent killer.

This episode was pleasantly low on plot holes, though to some degree that was because very little actually happened. No one had a motive to kill Chaz and no mysteries were untangled before coming to the solution; we kind of killed time until Jessica figured out that Donna did it.

The one plot hole I can think of is that it makes very little sense for Valentino to spend $3000 on lobster and caviar when he doesn’t have any customers. Where is he getting the money from, and who is he planning to feed them to? The problem is that if his business was only a little hurt, it wouldn’t be possible to set him up as a suspect (which I think the episode was trying to do). If his business was badly hurt, he shouldn’t have the money. It would have made more sense if his business was doing fine but he was unreasonably angry at Alice and was buying the stolen goods just to hurt her. That would have been a very minor alteration to the story.

Speaking of Valentino, it’s a historical curiosity that Sonny Bono played the character. It was later in 1988 that Bono became mayor of Palm Springs and thus began his political career. At the time this episode was cast, he was just a former rock star doing bit parts on TV.

Oddly, I can’t find much to talk about in this episode. The only real human drama in it was Grady and Donna. I’m more sympathetic to Grady than most people I know are, but instead of Donna being written to temper Grady, the writers took everything that people dislike in Grady (his cluelessness, social awkwardness, and timidity) and turned it up to 11. I think that this was done to make it believable that Grady could find a woman who would tolerate him, but this was the wrong way to go about that. It would have been much better to have a more normal woman—only a little mousy—who could see past his flaws. As it was, one is just left hoping that the scenes with Donna in them would be over sooner than they were.

(I want to be clear that I don’t think that this is a question of the actress, but of the part she was given.)

Lt. Rupp wasn’t a sympathetic police detective, given how much he bullied Grady and Donna to do accounting work for him, but he then was shifted into that role towards the end, especially in his collaborations with Jessica. This made him hard to like. You need enough consistency to feel like he’s a person in order to like him. A bully who suddenly turns nice just feels like a manipulative bully.

Alice and Doug were barely characters in the story, and the plot twist where Mimi spent the night of the murder with Doug was, perhaps, the least believable part of the episode. I think that they just cast about to find some man who was actually a character and since Harry was unavailable because he had to be at the scene of the crime to drop his pocket knife, the only other option was Lt. Rupp, and that would have been even less believable. I suppose that there was also Valentino, except they needed his alibi to be unable to hold minestrone. Anyway, I don’t think that Mimi was ever a very plausible suspect. There wasn’t much of a reason for her to avoid publicity about investing in the restaurant—she wrote a gossip column, not a restaurant review column—so even by the standards of Murder, She Wrote she didn’t have much of a motive.

Ultimately, I suspect that the episode was more of a comedy episode than a mystery episode. Grady is always played for laughs, and much of the beginning of the episode was making fun of expensive gimmick restaurants. As such, it’s bound to be a bit disappointing as a mystery. There can be jokes in mysteries—there certainly were plenty of funny parts in the Father Brown mysteries—but I don’t think that a comedy can really be a mystery. Actually, that’s not quite right. It can. But it is very difficult and must be a certain sort of comedy—the sort where the comedy is over at the end. Since the essence of a mystery story is that something wrong is put right, the problem the detective is trying to solve can generate comedy, but when the detective solves it, there should be nothing left to generate the comedy. If there is, the detective has not really put things right; at most he put a small thing right.

A good example of this is the movie Clue. It has some plot holes which are excusable for the sake of the comedy but make it hold together poorly as a mystery. Even if they had been resolved, though—for example, had Mr. Body’s butler been given a plausible motive for why he showed up and acted as he did—it would still not have been a satisfying mystery because the characters were all too shallow for the sake of the comedy. The third ending is my favorite because it comes closest to a satisfying mystery ending, but even so it’s a thing that needs to be enjoyed for the jokes, not the mystery.

That said, while I’m sure it can be done, it would need a very deft touch indeed. Clue didn’t try—part of why it was excusable that they didn’t succeed—but it feels like Just Another Fish Story tried a little bit. It also tried just a little bit at being a comedy, though. I suppose the lesson we can take away from it is: if you’re going to do something, commit.

Next week’s episode is Showdown in Saskatchewan. Jessica is going to go to the Great White North (in summer, when it’s green) to track down a wayward niece who’s at a rodeo. If nothing else, it should be picturesque.

Contingency and Space

The natural theology argument for the existence of God from contingency and necessity rests on the existence of something contingent. This is remarkably easy to supply, since any telling of this argument is, itself, contingent, and supplies the necessary contingent thing. However, explaining why it is contingent sometimes confuses people, because the non-existence of the contingent thing at some point in time is most typically used.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but it can accidentally mislead people into thinking that the causal chain that must be finite (since there cannot be an actual infinity) is a temporal chain of causation. E.g. I’m here because of my parents, who are here because of their parents, and so on back to the Big Bang, which is here because of God. This can be helpful to illustrate the concept of a causal chain, but it’s not the kind that’s actually used in the argument, since it’s not the sort referenced by “actual infinity”. What’s discussed is why the contingent thing is here, now, as in, what is giving it the power to exist this moment. It cannot be something that doesn’t exist, because things which don’t exist have no power. So it must be something that also exists right now. That thing which exists right now can either be contingent or necessary, and if contingent, it too must be dependent for its existence on something else which also exists right now. And so on; this is what must terminate in something necessary because there cannot be an actual infinity.

Something that my attention was drawn to by a commentor asking me a question in one of my videos is that one can use the existence of a thing in one part of space but not another as a demonstration of contingency. If a thing were necessary and not contingent, it would exist at every point in space, since a particular location cannot cause a necessary thing to not exist. Thus anything which is someplace but not another must be contingent. The advantage to demonstrating contingency in this fashion is that space is simultaneous, and a temporal sequence will not be suggested. It is possible, then, that a person will not be accidentally led astray into thinking of a temporal sequence of events where the argument about how an actual infinity cannot exist is less clear, since the moments of time don’t exist side-by-side. (From our perspective; all moments are present to God in His eternity, of course.)

Top Hat Really Holds Together

Last night I watched the Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers movie Top Hat with my oldest son who, at twelve, is finally old enough to get the humor, or at least most of it.

Early on he kept asking why the characters don’t just talk to each other and explain the mix-up. I took a minute to explain how the characters were acting in reasonable ways given what they knew at the time, and we looked at it a bit in detail. After Dale thought that Jerry was actually Horace, she slapped him and then walked off; he was stunned for a moment then tried to follow but the elevator doors closed. Before he could get up to see her, though, he was detained by Horace who was extremely concerned with scandal ruining the show. When he finally was able to get away, he wanted to go see Dale and straighten things out, but she had already left.

Considered from Dale’s perspective, as soon as the mistake was made in which Jerry was mis-identified to her as Horace, she felt enormously betrayed on several levels. Before she had any time to think, he approached her and tried to flirt, which only made things worse, and before he could say anything else she slapped him and left. At this point, any further interaction with him was awful, and though she was willing to go to Italy and see Madge, she very reasonably wanted to put off for as long as possible seeing “Horace”. So she left.

In the morning in Italy, it was still too fresh and she couldn’t bear to see “Horace” yet, so she ran off. Having already told Madge what happened, Madge told Jerry to leave Dale be for the moment, so he didn’t follow her. Later at dinner, it was natural that Madge didn’t use Jerry’s name as she had earlier found out from Jerry that he and Dale had already met. There was no office of introduction to perform, and the habit people have of addressing others by name is actually pretty unnatural—an artifact of movies needing to remind the audience of who everyone’s name is.

And so it went until it was finally revealed that Dale thought Jerry was Horace. There were plenty of circumstances where things could have gone differently, but none where things were unnatural or out of character in order to keep the mistake going. That last part is important as the characters were, for the most part, all eccentric. They were, however, consistently eccentric. They weren’t merely eccentric when it was convenient, and moreover they all knew each other’s eccentricities. Madge was an over-eager match-maker, but she was up front about that and everyone knew it. That she told Dale that Dale should get a husband of her own should have tipped Dale off when Madge was encouraging her to dance closer to Jerry, but she was convinced that Jerry was Horace, and that’s the sort of mistake it takes a lot of evidence to make one re-evaluate. She was confused, which was a realistic result.

I thought it especially brilliant how Horace made Jerry promise not to ask Dale to marry him until Horace learned more about Dale’s past, and then when Jerry and Dale were talking and Dale thought that Jerry was trying to talk her into marrying him after he divorces Madge, and she says, “Go on,” he replies, “if it weren’t for a promise I made in a moment of weakness, I would go on.” It’s both entirely correct from his perspective and sounds exactly like what Dale was expecting from someone trying to say that it’s fine to disregard a marriage vow. It really was brilliant writing.

As an Astaire/Rogers film, it had great dancing, but I appreciate Top Hat more for its excellent writing. The jokes are great and I’ve never seen a mistaken identity premise carried through half as well. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it. At the time of writing, the DVD is only $13 on Amazon. (Rather disappointingly, the blu-ray seems to be out of print, and I never managed to get a copy of it.)