The 4:50 From Paddington

I recently finished Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novel, The 4:50 From Paddington. Published in 1957, it was the seventh Miss Marple novel which Agatha Christie wrote, though I’ve been reading them out of order so it’s the ninth that I’ve read. It’s an interesting story with an interesting premise. It moves quickly, with a lot of twists and turns. The odd thing is that it ends quite abruptly. In order to explain what I mean, I’m going to give a brief synopsis of, approximately, the first half of the book. If you don’t want spoilers, go read it now. (You’ve had more than 60 years to do it, so I’m going to go ahead.)

Miss Marple’s friend, Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy, was travelling on a train from London a few days before Christmas when another train ran next to it on a parallel track. Suddenly the curtain in one of the private compartments flew open and Mrs. McGillicuddy saw a man strangling a woman. The tracks then separated and the other train went out of view. She told the porter, who clearly thought she was dreaming, so she did the only sensible thing: she went to her friend Jane Marple and told her. Miss Marple then did the sensible thing and waited a day or so for the body to be discovered, as it probably would be. When that didn’t happen, she took the investigation on, telling Mrs. McGillicuddy that she (Mrs. McGillicuddy) has done her duty and there’s nothing more she can do.

Miss Marple then enlists the help of the Vicar’s son (grown up from the end of the first Miss Marple novel, Murder At the Vicarage, published back in 1930), who is interested in cartography. He gets for her the necessary maps where she can look at where the murder might have actually taken place and where the body could have been thrown off from the train without being found. This plus a trip on the train that had to be the one Mrs. McGillicuddy saw lead her to conclude that the only plausible place for the body to have been thrown from the moving train (without being seen) was next to the grounds of Rutherford Hall. Not up to doing the investigation herself, she hires Lucy Eyelesbarrow, who is a professional domestic and a very interesting character (more on her later) to take a post at Rutherford Hall and try to find the body. This, Lucy does (including finding the body in a rarely used spot on the Rutherford Hall grounds).

The quest becomes one of trying to identify who the corpse was, since no one recognizes it. Lucy stays on because she’s become interested, and various clues turn up. The clothes on the corpse are mainly French, so it is a working hypothesis that the victim was French or had at least lived in France until recently. One possibility that various investigations the police do turn up is a french ballerina. Another is a French woman by the name of Martine who the eldest brother in the family had said in a letter to his sister that he was going to marry shortly before he was killed in World War 2. They never heard from her until about a month ago, when she wrote a letter asking for help for her son who was the child of the dead brother, but then she wrote a telegram saying that she unexpectedly had to return to France and they never heard from her again.

There are many twists and turns, with interesting clues, and a few of the characters turn into corpses before the end, too. Right as the identification of the corpse is nearly certain, it falls to peaces. With the mystery at an extremely high pitch, Miss Marple summons Mrs. McGillicuddy who was on vacation, and when she arrives plays a trick at Rutherford Hall that catches the murderer and gets him to confess. We then get a four-page final chapter with some explanation and a little wrap-up, and we’re done.

Now, while it is abrupt, it is not unfair. The wikipedia page for the book quotes a critic by the name of Robert Barnard who says, “Miss Marple apparently solves the crime by divine guidance, for there is very little in the way of clues or logical deduction.” This is unfair. There are sufficient clues and, while Miss Marple doesn’t show her logical deduction, I was able to guess the solution before it was revealed because it was possible to logically deduce it.

My objection isn’t really to the pacing of events in the book, but to the pacing of the book, specifically, the pacing of the last few chapters. After the murderer is revealed he tries to defend himself asking why he’d kill a woman he’d never met, and Inspector Craddock reveals his motive. What we’re never told is how on earth Craddock knew the motive, since the last we had heard of him was somewhere between hours and a day before (the exact time is not specified) and he was completely bewildered about every aspect of the case when he left Miss Marple.

It just feels rushed, like the last two chapters were written in a tremendous hurry because it was a day before the deadline and she had to finish it somehow.

In one sense, this is plausible. On the other hand, by 1957 Agatha Christie was enormously popular and sold extremely well, so if she told her publisher she needed an extra week or do, I doubt the publisher was in a position to tell her, “no.”

Lucy Eyelesbarrow was an interesting character. The premise of a highly competent person who did menial labor because she could do all of it well and deal with everything, and who charged enormously high prices for it because there was so little competition, is interesting. It would be difficult to call it realistic, but then consulting detectives are not realistic, so that’s a difficult complaint to make in a murder mystery. She has the plausibility of internal consistency, which is what we can ask for.

The other curious thing about it is that its instability makes sense in context. She is a young woman who is interested in marriage and can probably make a match where she will not need to work for pay. She enjoys domesticity, too, so probably will not want to work for entertainment. She’s not a marxist, so doesn’t believe that the worth of a human being is his economic output. In short, while she is not on the lookout for a husband as soon as she can get one, the long-term viability of her profession was probably not high in her list of considerations. (To put things in perspective, if she was in her early twenties in 1957, she would be in her mid fifties in 1990.) And I must say that Lucy does make an interesting detective, at least until Miss Marple comes on the scene and takes the more prominent role.

The method of disposing of the corpse is, I think, very interesting. It’s very strongly English, since it relies upon a very specific kind of change in circumstances to produce a stone sarcophagus in a barely-used barn on a lonely estate that’s falling apart. It would not be easy to come up with that in America. You can find abandoned buildings, of course—abandoned factories come to mind—but they don’t have the aspect of people regularly using them. It’s the people inhabiting the grounds which tends to make one not think of it as a place to hide a body. It would be possible, of course, to hide a body in a rarely-used shed on the grounds of some building one has access to in a modern American story, but there is the issue of how to avoid the stench of decomposition giving away the body’s location. One solution I’ve seen is sealing the body in plastic, which I suppose would work. That lacks the style of the sarcophagus, though.

How easily one could do it in a modern story aside, it is interesting that Miss Marple really has two triumphs, the second being the uncovering of the murderer. The first is the discovery of the body, and of the two it is the most satisfying. While part of that is the abrupt way in which the murderer is discovered, I think it makes for a very interesting story that the detective has a brilliant victory early on, that victory only producing more work for the detective to do.

Overall, while I don’t think that it’s the best Miss Marple novel, I do think it was quite a good one, aside from the abruptness of the ending. It has some very interesting ideas that, I suspect, could be used profitably.

Poirot’s Broken English

At the end of Three Act Tragedy, after the murderer has been revealed and some after-discussion is happening, a character asks Poirot an interesting question:

“You’ll excuse me—” said Mr. Satterthwaite.

“Yes, there is some point you wanted explained to you?”

“There is one thing I want to know.”

“Ask then.”

“Why do you sometimes speak perfectly good English and at other times not?”

Poirot laughed.

Ah, I will explain. It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. but, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despite you. They say—a foreigner—he can’t even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people—instead I invite their gentle ridicule. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, ‘A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.’ That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard. Besides,” he added. “it has become a habit.”

Three Act Tragedy was published in 1935, after Murder On the Orient Express and before Death in the Clouds. It is set quite late in Poirot’s life; he was, at this time, retired.

This habit of Poirot’s solves a problem that all detective writers face: a lot of people don’t like to talk to detectives. There are different solutions to this problem; Poirot in general likes to set people at ease and make them think that the easiest way to deal with him is just to humor him. This was taken even further by Columbo, many years later, but it certainly makes sense as an approach.

It also makes sense that Poirot decided to turn his disadvantage—the famous dislike of the English for foreigners, especially for French-speaking ones—into an advantage.

Coincidences in Mysteries

My recent musings on the coincidences that went into Mystery Science Theater 3000 being a success got to me to thinking about coincidences in murder mysteries. The general rule is, of course, that coincidences may not help the hero of a story, and this was codified in Fr. Knox’s decalogue in rule number six. It would be a fool’s errand to try to count up which rule was most often broken, but I suspect it might be this one.

I should clarify that I mean broken but not to the benefit of the story. Agatha Christie managed to break several of the rules in ways that produced a good story, but not this one. (There are two examples I can think of in Agatha Christie’s work that involve coincidences, one in Poirot and one in Miss Marple. In the case of Poirot, she even went to the trouble of saying that Poirot considered the case a failure because he would not have solved it except for the coincidence.)

Having said that, I don’t think it’s impossible to use coincidences in mystery stories. One tolerable example of this is a coincidence which brings the detective in to the case. A good example of this is the Lord Peter Wimsey novel Unnatural Death. Lord Peter learns of the case by the accident of being seated in a restaurant next to someone who was telling a friend about it. He then weedles his way into an acquaintance with the man who told the story and sneakily gets enough information about it out of the man that he can begin investigating. Thus even in this coincidence Lord Peter has to do work to really get started.

This kind of coincidence is tolerable, I suspect, because it’s just a somewhat exaggerated form of the sorts of coincidences which are necessary for the detective to be involved at all. If Sherlock Holmes is to be called into a case, the murder must take place in London, or at least in England. If a man murdered another in the central African jungle in the cleverest possible way, Sherlock Holmes would never hear of it. This is even clearer in terms of time; if a man in the 1980s murders another, Sherlock Holmes could not possible have heard of it, at least Holmes as written by Conan Doyle. Nor would a fiendish plot ever come to the attention of Holmes which happened upon a whaling ship at sea which was lost in a storm before it ever reached port, with all hands dying. For a detective to embark upon a case, many things need to be coincident with his location in time and space. To add on top of this someone happening to talk about the mystery at lunch with a friend at a table next to the detective is just more of the same.

So what are we to make of the sort of coincidences which are more than this but less than just giving the detective the solution?

One of the more difficult ones are coincidences which look like they help the detective but are actually misleading. Probably the best example I can think of, here, is in the story Have His Carcass. Harriet finding the fresh blood seems to be helpful in pinning down the time of the murder with unusual precision but actually confounds the investigation almost until the end of the story. It definitely was quite interesting in that story, though I think it would be difficult to pull off well.

Then there are the coincidences which only seem to be clues, but actually aren’t.

These are often quite interesting when they happen prior to the detective getting on the scene. Red herrings are probably the most obvious example of this. Finding out that the maid’s earring was in the parlor where the body was found because the butler had been stealing jewelry and secretly hiding it in the chandelier above the door (which was never used) is, properly speaking, untangling a coincidence from the main problem.

Red Herrings are not the only such coincidence, of course. Sometimes things look weird for the murderer to have done because the murderer did not do them, but at the same time the person who did is not available. There might be a book missing from the library because someone—perhaps a neighbor—borrowed it a week ago and no one (still alive) knew that or noticed it then. It’s possible that someone was mistaken about which book is missing, and the person who borrowed it didn’t say anything because they were asked about the wrong book and weren’t told why they were asked, so couldn’t tell that there might be a mistake. Perhaps the police are withholding the evidence that the book is missing because they don’t want to tip off the murderer that they know, and so the person who could have easily told them didn’t know to come forward. All of these would work well in a story.

Then we come to the cases of coincidences that do actually help the detective, though they are not merely handing him the solution. Can these work?

I want to say that they can—the safe answer is to never say never—but it’s hard to think of how it can be done. One obvious answer is for the help to be trivial. The problem with that solution is: then why bother at all?

I suspect that the answer has to be something that preserves the detective working hard and being the only person who could solve the crime even with the luck. I suspect that the best way for this to work would be for the detective to manufacture his luck. That is, it is only through his knowledge and effort that he was in the place to receive the luck at all.

A good example of this would be reasoning that if there was evidence to prove who did it, it would be of a particular kind that would then have fallen in a particular place. Since it is not there to be found, if it ever was there it must have been picked up by a particular kind of person and so if he circulates word among these people—or interviews them, or some such—the evidence will fall into his lap. I have a memory that Sherlock Holmes did this, perhaps more than once. I can’t place the story, but I have a memory of more than one person coming, hat in hand, saying that he heard that Mr. Holmes was looking for someone who saw something-or-other, and he did, and getting rewarded for it.

The other, I suspect inferior, kind of luck would be something coming completely out of the blue, but only the detective understands its true significance. An example which comes to mind, though it is a very imperfect example, since it wasn’t discovered by luck, would be the evidence given by the nanny in the Poirot story Five Little Pigs. The nanny thinks that the evidence she has proves the guilt of Caroline Crale (which is why she withheld it), when Poirot knows that it proves Caroline’s innocence. If that kind of evidence were to come to the detective, even by accident, I think it would still work.

To bring this back to where I started: I think that coincidences are acceptable only when something unusual and special went into taking advantage of them. This is very much true of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Yes, a lot of unusual circumstances came together to make it possible, but it was a special group of people who took advantage of those circumstances and made it happen. Most people would not have made something great in the same circumstances.

Murder She Wrote: Showdown in Saskatchewan

On the tenth day of April in the year of our Lord 1988, the Murder, She Wrote episode Showdown in Saskatchewan first aired. It was the third from last episode in the fourth season. As the title implies, it takes place in Canada, making it the second episode this season to be set in the Great White North. (The first was Witness For the Defense.)

After some scenes of people driving in, we meet two of our main characters:

Her name is Jill Morton. She’s one of Jessica’s many nieces, which is why Jessica is going to be in this episode.

Here’s a better picture of the man she’s with:

His name is Marty Reed. As you might be able to guess, he’s a professional cowboy. Rodeo star is probably more accurate, since he does not in fact ranch cattle but ride ornery bulls and ornery horses and such-like.

After some discussion of dinner (and after-dinner) plans, Marty leaves and we meet another character:

Her name is Carla Talbot. She’s the wife of (aging) big time rodeo star, Boone Talbot. It comes up that it was Carla who invited Jill to spend the summer with her and Boone on the circuit; this places her in a difficult spot because she’s supposed to be watching over Jill, not being a pretext for Jill to live with Marty as if she was his wife. Jill’s mother has been calling Carla, making life difficult for her.

In the next scene, Jessica gets a call from Jill’s mother (Louise).

This was right after an establishing shot of Jessica’s home. I find this extremely domestic shot of Jessica quite interesting. They could have picked nearly anything for Jessica to be doing. They could have had her working at her typewriter or reading over galley proofs or reading a book or any number of book-related things. Instead, they chose to depict her cleaning her oven.

Jessica as detective is meant to contrast with Jessica as retired schoolteacher in Maine; with Jessica going to Canada there won’t be many opportunities to establish this dynamic. Taking a moment to lay it on thickly, here, works, I think.

In the next scene Jill is called to Carla’s trailer, but when she knocks, instead of Carla, Jessica comes out. Jill is pleased to see Jessica, but then realizes what she’s there for. Jessica owns up to having come in order to spy on Jill on behalf of her mother. They go for a walk to talk to each other. Jessica is compassionate and understanding, but also points out that Jill’s mother has a right to know what sort of a man Marty is, and what the situation really is. Jill doesn’t like it, but understands that Jessica is right.

Jessica meets Marty, who is very charming to her. We then meet another character:

His name is Luke Purdue. He works with Marty as some sort of partner/assistant. Marty invites Jessica to join them all for dinner at the restaurant that night, and she accepts.

At the restaurant there’s music and dancing. A rodeo clown named Wally introduces himself to Jessica by commiserating about not being able to go all night (she had begged off dancing again as the scene began, and he has a bum leg). Then we meet a new character:

He came to be a drunk jerk and eat lollipops and he’s all out of lollipops.

His name is Doc Shaeffer. He’s the rodeo association’s official doctor, but Luke and the rodeo clown give him the reputation of not doing a good job. In fact, the rodeo clown used to be a rodeo player until he broke his leg and Doc Shaeffer set it wrong. In the present, Doc is drunk and ornery, and tries to force Carla to dance with him, but Boone intercedes, angering the doc. The Doc’s wife, Consuela, comes up to try to get him to back off. Doc does back off, though angrily, and Consuela apologizes to Boone.

It looks funny in this still, but Boone was just telling Consuela that Doc isn’t her fault.

A few minutes later, Doc comes over and issues a challenge: whichever of Boone and Marty can stay on Doc’s bull the longest gets $500 ($1206 in 2022 dollars). The bull is apparently an extremely mean bull, even by rodeo standards. Boone accepts, since it was a public challenge, despite this being an obviously stupid idea.

The bull is in an open pen and no one actually manages to get on the bull. It chases them around and hurts Luke pretty badly. In Doc’s trailer, he pronounces Luke to have a hairline fracture in his leg, and he’s going to give Luke a walking cast. Marty was also hurt, though slightly; the Doc says that he got a concussion and he’s medically disqualifying Marty for the next day at least. When Marty protests, he tells Marty to leave before he medically disqualifies him from the whole rodeo. Marty storms off. He runs into Jill, who tries to calm him, but he yells at her too and then leaves.

That evening Boone is looking pensively at the bull when he notices smoke coming from the medical trailer. He runs over to it and it turns out to be very much on fire.

A red gel over a light is much safer than a real fire, in addition to being cheaper.

After calling for help, Boone goes in, calling to Doc. Instead of finding Doc, he stumbles over Luke, on the floor, who he drags out. Others run up and he tells them that Doc and Consuela are still in the trailer, but they only find Doc, who is dead. Consuela comes running up. She cries out when she finds out that he’s dead, and she cradles his body, sadly repeating “Doc, doc.”

The scene fades to black, and we go to commercial.

When we come back it’s the next day and the rodeo is starting. Amongst others riding through the gates to kick things off are the mounties. The camera zooms in on the mounty who will conduct the investigation into Doc’s death:

His name is Inspector Roger McCabe. He begins his investigation by interrogating Boone. He seemed to think it a suspicious coincidence that Boone was up and saw the fire. He also asks about their previous altercation with Doc. When Boone asks what’s up, McCabe says that the preliminary report indicates that the fire may not have been an accident, and if it’s not, he’s going to have a lot more questions so Boone should keep himself available.

Jessica runs into Jill, who is upset because Inspector McCabe is asking questions about Boone and Marty. She doesn’t seem very concerned about Boone, but is very worried about Marty. She hasn’t seen him since their fight the previous day (this is when Marty yelled at her when she tried to calm him down when he said that Doc suspended him for a day due to concussion). She asks Jessica to investigate, for Marty’s sake.

Jessica wanders around until she finds Inspector McCabe. At first, he’s none to pleased to see her (she crossed a police tape to find him), but his manner changes completely when he discovers who she is, as he’s read most all of her books. When she explains what she’s doing there, he invites her in to the scene of the crime, to fill her in on what’s known.

The fire was started on the couch, and didn’t actually get much farther than that.

The fire marshall found traces of a “flammable liquid” sloshed on the couch. Further, a crude time-fuse fashioned out of a matchbook and a cigarette was used to ignite the flammable liquid. Jessica notices a warped piece of plastic which Inspector McCabe explains was an x-ray. Possible, he suggests, used as fuel to help start the fire, though if so the perpetrator was unaware that x-ray film doesn’t burn well. Also, the window above the couch was found shut, but not locked.

Jessica asks if his theory is that someone tossed the flammable liquid and the time-fuse in through the window and didn’t enter at all. McCabe says that it’s a possibility. Neither of them seem to consider that it would be unlikely that the perpetrator also tossed an x-ray in through the window.

Jessica asks why someone would do this. To kill the doctor? To kill Luke? To frighten someone? Just to destroy the trailer? McCabe says that the reason is immaterial; the doctor died of smoke inhalation and everyone know that he had emphysema, so any way you look at it, it’s murder. I think he missed the point of Jessica’s question, but she doesn’t press it.

In the next scene, Jill finally finds Marty, who is flirting with (or at least being flirted with by) a blond woman in a shiny red shirt.

She brings the only shoulder pads to this rodeo I’ve seen, but at least it’s still the 80s for one character.

After getting rid of the blond woman, Jill demands to know where Marty was. His story is that he was playing cards with “some of the boys”, had a few beers, and slept it off. She doesn’t entirely believe him, but he points out that she doesn’t own him.

The scene shifts to the rodeo, where Boone rides a bronco. He looks like he does a great job. The announcer says that it wasn’t a great ride. (There’s a bunch of dramatic looking from Boone to Inspector McCabe, so I suppose McCabe was supposed to have ruined Boone’s ride by making him unable to concentrate.)

The scene then shifts to the hospital, where Jessica runs into Consuela (Doc’s wife). After expressing her condolences, and just as Consuela turns to leave, Jessica remarks that it was very lucky that Consuela wasn’t in the trailer when the fire started. Conseuela says that it was unfortunate, as she never let Doc smoke his cigars. Jessica asks if there was a particular reason she wasn’t in the trailer, and she says that she wanted no part of Doc when he was drunk, so after helping him with Luke she spent the night with a friend. At this point she picks up on Jessica’s questions being pointed and asks what’s up. This is a frequent thing in Murder, She Wrote—Jessica asks remarkably non-subtle questions as if she is being subtle. I never really understand it; it mostly just makes Jessica look incompetent. Given that she’s an older woman she should be able to make being nosy look perfectly natural. Maybe it’s just that I’ve recently been reading Miss Marple stories. Miss Marple never arouses suspicions.

Anyway, Jessica tells her that the fire wasn’t an accident. Consuela isn’t surprised. Doc was a mean man and not good at what he did, so he had a lot of enemies. She mentions that before he worked at the rodeo he worked in a prison for ten years, and she wondered if he might have been on the wrong side of the bars. She’s not sorry he’s dead, she only feels relief.

That conversation over, Jessica visits Luke. He’s fine except for his leg, but when the orderly offers to get him an x-ray, he aggressively refuses it. As he’s going to leave Inspector McCabe shows up. Luke is in a hurry to get back to the rodeo, so McCabe offers to drive him there.

Rear projection is never less than delightful.

Luke scoffs at the idea that anyone was trying to kill him. His enemies would face him down with a knife, not set a fire. When Jessica asks if he remembers anything, he says that he kind of woke up at one point and heard footsteps and a jangling, like of fancy spurs. He was on a lot of pain killers, though, so he’s not sure of anything.

In the next scene Jill is giving Marty a massage while she tries to talk about their future. Marty will have none of it. Their agreement was one season on the circuit then she would go back to college and hit the books.

In the next scene Jessica talks with Carla. It comes up that Wally (the rodeo clown) had Luke as a manager when he was injured; he didn’t like the look of the bull but Luke made him ride it.

In the next scene Inspector McCabe is talking to Consuela. Jessica comes up and asks if it was generally known that Luke was heavily sedated. Consuela says that it is, but Doc kept asking Luke questions anyway, such as where Luke worked before the rodeo and where he lived. Consuela takes her leave, then Jessica tips McCabe off about the rodeo clown.

Jessica is pulled away from this conversation by Jill, who wants to talk to Jessica. She asks Jessica for advice about Marty, who she loves and she feels loves her too, but who she also suspects isn’t ready for commitment. Jessica gives her the advice to talk to Marty about her concerns, and to ask the hard question, and if he won’t answer, then that is her answer. At this point Marty steps out of his trailer and a child cries out “Daddy! Daddy!” and runs up. He picks up the child, then kisses the woman who was with the child and asks what she’s doing here.

Well, we now know why Marty is afraid of commitment (with Jill). We get a few significant looks between the various parties, and we go to commercial break.

When we get back from commercial break, we get a very strange scene:

Her name is… actually, we don’t learn her name. Based on the credits, it might be Mona. Anyway, she’s his wife. She stays home during the rodeo season because they have a little ranch back home, and Buster is too young for all of the traveling. She’s just so gosh-darn lucky to be married to Marty, who is the greatest. She’s so naive it’s cute, if completely implausible. She’s from a small town in Montana. If small town folk are known for anything, it’s for suspecting sexual interaction when attractive women are hanging around attractive men without supervision. I mean, have the people who wrote Murder, She Wrote never listened to country music? (An example that leaps to mind is Dolly Parton’s song Jolene, in which she begs a prettier woman to not steal her husband. It came out in 1973.) In the 1980s, a hick from Montana might not suspect something new like cocaine use or recently popular sexual perversions. Infidelity is as old as the hills. Be that as it may, Marty comes over to get her and she says it was nice meeting some of his friends—it’s the first time she’s ever met any of them.

The next scene is more rodeo, this time bull riding. Boone has a great ride, at least according to the announcer, though it doesn’t look any better than his bronco ride (which looked good but was called bad). Next up is Marty, who is thrown from the bull and then attacked by it while he’s on the ground. We see Boone, who hadn’t left the arena yet, start to run over and the scene goes to Jessica receiving a phone call in her hotel room (Jill is with her). It’s Carla. Boone’s been hurt. Jessica says that they’ll be right there.

The next scene is Marty talking to Boone. He asks Boone what he did that for, was he going for hero of the year? Boone asks if there’s any prize money for that, and Marty replies, “not as I’ve heard of.”

We get more of the story from the rodeo clown, who met Jessica on the way. The bull was going for Marty and Wally couldn’t distract the bull but Boone ran out in front of the bull, which then started going after Boone, and Boone is lucky to be alive.

They talk to Boone a bit, then Marty comes up, and when asked says that he feels fine except for his arm. “The medic says that it’s not broken, but what does he know?” Luke then walks up and angrily demands what Marty thinks he’s doing, pulling out of the competition. He only needs one more event to beat Boone. Marty explains that his arm hurts too much. (Marty’s arm is obviously fine, and is throwing the competition in gratitude, so that Boone will get the prize money.) Luke angrily storms off.

After this, as Jessica and Jill are walking away, a woman we haven’t seen before is in Doc’s trailer and calls out to no one in particular that someone is calling Doc long distance, and she doesn’t know what to do. (For those too young to remember, in the late 1980s telephone numbers were tied to particular locations, and telephone numbers for locations that were far away were expensive to call—often in the range of $.25/minute or more. Such calls were called “long distance”.) Jessica says that she will take the call. When she asks to whom she’s speaking, it turns out to be Warden Barnes of the Oregon State Penitentiary.

He’s been trying to return Doc Shaeffer’s phone call from last night. Doc had called at about 9pm, which Jessica says would have been 11pm Saskatchewan time. Jessica asks, and it turns out that the prison Doc Shaeffer had worked at was the Oregon State Penitentiary. He had quit 8 years ago, but for the decade prior had been the prison surgeon there. Jessica thanks the Warden, saying that he’s been extremely helpful. More than she can tell him.

Jessica then calls Inspector McCabe. She asks about whether there was oxygen in the trailer, since Doc suffered from emphysema. He checks the report, then says that there was. An oxygen tank was found on the floor inside the door, nearly empty. He remarks that it was strange that it was empty, but Jessica says, “No, not strange at all.”

The scene then shifts to a bar.

Jessica and Inspector McCabe come up. He gets Luke to identify a picture of Wally, but it was just a ruse to get his thumb print on the photo when he handled it to look at it. McCabe tells him this, saying that Mrs. Fletcher has a theory that Luke is actually an escaped prisoner from the Oregon State Penitentiary. He’s going to hold Luke in protective custody until he finds out. Luke strikes him down with a beer mug and tries to steal his gun, but police officers rush in from both entrances and point their guns at him. Luke knows that he had it and surrenders.

The explanation comes in the next scene, in Boone’s room at the hospital. Luke’s real name is Carl Mattson. He escaped from the Oregon State Penitentiary thirteen years ago. He grew his hair out and grew a beard, which is why Doc didn’t recognize him. Presumably Doc recognized his own handiwork in the x-ray he took of Luke’s leg, though, which is why the x-ray was destroyed. Luke must have heard Doc’s phone call to the penitentiary and knew he had to do something quickly. He staged the fire, ensuring that the x-ray was destroyed, and then used Doc’s oxygen tank to keep himself alive until Boone broke the door down.

Jessica then tells Jill that they need to go as they have a plane to catch. Outside, Jill worries because her Mom will kill her. Jessica says that if she does, it will be asphyxiation from excessive hugging. Then she hugs Jill and we go to credits.

This was a fun and interesting episode.

It was more complex than the typical episode, or at least the complexity was more pleasing. The character of Boone Talbot was interestingly drawn—the aging athlete who still has it but is recovering from injury and won’t have it for too much longer. This is a very real phenomenon. People do come back from injury to be on top, but it’s very hard, and over time it’s not even so much that the athletes are older as that they’ve got a lot of accumulated injuries, especially smaller ones. For a while they can work around this because they’re getting more skilled and doing fewer stupid things like staying up late drinking, but eventually the injuries add up. I like that he’s a genuinely good guy, too.

The character of Marty Reed is a great contrast to Boone, especially once we learn his true character. Initially he’s charming and has great manners and is a young up-and-comer with a very bright future. He turns out to have few morals and poor self control. Eventually this helps explain how he was working well with as bad a character as Luke. It also fit in that when his wife turned up and so his using Jill was exposed for what it was, he didn’t say anything at all to her. He was not a good man, but he was a polite man, and there was nothing polite to say.

I do wish that Carla had been given more depth. I’m not sure how old Carla was supposed to be. Cassie Yates, who played Carla, was 37 at the time the episode came out, and Larry Wilcox, who played Boone, was 41. Presumably they were both playing younger, so perhaps Boone was supposed to be in his mid thirties and Carla her early thirties? It’s a bit strange that there was no mention of children, for example, or how she got involved with Boone or even what she does other than come with him.

Jill Morton, Jessica’s niece, was also an under-drawn character. She’s foolish and a slave to her impulses, which wouldn’t be too bad as a starting point if there was some character growth from learning this about herself. There really isn’t. As she is, she’s mostly an excuse to get Jessica up to Canada and into this strange world with which she has nothing to do.

The murder itself was interesting and, by Murder, She Wrote standards, the motive was fairly plausible. Luke was a bad guy and the sort of person who would murder in order to protect himself, especially as far away from where his motive for murder would be known. He’s been a criminal and caught before, and he’s got no morals, so taking a criminal risk that didn’t look too big but turned out to be is in character. He was made just clever enough to do it but not so clever as to not do it. It was a nice touch that big prize money seemed within reach, which is why he didn’t just run away as soon as he figured out that Doc suspected him. On the other hand, that suspicion was a weak link in this plot.

Doc Shaeffer suspecting that Luke was actually an inmate at an Oregon penitentiary thirteen years ago who escaped, and suspecting this because he recognized something in Luke’s leg that showed up on an x-ray is… implausible. There’s really no aspect of this which is believable. It’s hard to believe that Luke had some sort of thing in his leg which would really stand out as so unique it would be memorable to someone who looked at a lot of x-rays. The idea that it was Doc Shaeffer’s handiwork is even less plausible unless Luke’s leg was badly damaged and the bone had to be held together with an unusually high number of titanium bolts, or something like that. Merely setting a broken leg badly isn’t likely to be as unique as a fingerprint. Moreover, even if Doc Shaeffer had seen something in Luke’s leg thirteen years ago which was highly memorable, why would he have heard about Luke escaping in a way that he would connect with what he remembered in the x-ray? Unless for some reason he knew that Luke had been in prison for a very long sentence (and why would a prison doctor know this?), on recognizing Luke in the present day from his x-ray, he’d have no reason to think that Luke had escaped. At most he’d think that he knew Luke a long time ago. On top of all this, Doc Shaeffer was a drunkard. They’re not known for their powers of recall.

All of this relates to two small plot holes: Luke’s aversion to x-rays. If, somehow, Doc Shaeffer had recognized Luke by the x-ray of his leg, this was a power unique to Doc Shaeffer. Luke had no reason to burn the x-ray Doc had taken of his leg and no reason to avoid an x-ray at the hospital. No one else could have recognized Doc Shaeffer’s handiwork from thirteen years ago when he was a prison doctor. This could be explained away, though, as Luke panicking because murdering someone makes one paranoid.

Next week we’re back to New York City for the episode Deadpan, where a critic is murdered after the opening night of a play based on one of Jessica’s books.

Ingenious Murders

Having read a fair number of Agatha Christie mysteries lately, and especially thinking about her earlier mysteries, has led me to think about ingenious murders and the related subject of ingenious plots of murder mysteries. Agatha Christie was, I think, the queen of outwitting the reader. Certainly, she broke more of Fr. Knox’s rules in a way that forced him to amend the rules than anyone else I know of. This was a trait that was much appreciated in her day, and I think still is, though I suspect less so now. Which leads me to ask how important it really is.

The main thing, it seems to me, that a really ingenious murder gives a story is the ability to present all of the evidence up front and maintain an air of mystification among the characters while keeping them reasonably intelligent. It also, of course, makes for a very satisfying reveal at the end of the story.

Of course, if this is not done well—if, for example, the solution is obvious—it makes for a particularly uninteresting murder mystery in which all of the characters seem to be idiots. The best example I can think of this is The Benson Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine. It was extremely obvious that the brother of the victim had killed him, and the entire rest of the novel until the last chapter was uninteresting filler because it obviously bore no relationship to the characters figuring out whodunnit. Worse, Philo Vance (the detective) already knew that it was the brother, too, so he was fairly explicit that he was wasting everyone’s time. The Benson Murder Case is a book that I cannot recommend too little. If you ever have the opportunity to not read it, I strongly suggest you take it.

The downside to the clever murder with the facts set out early—when it’s done well—is that re-reads have a very hard time being satisfying. This is not necessarily a problem for most people, but I prefer to read, as far as possible, only books that are worth re-reading. On this score, murder mysteries were the detective must find evidence, which leads him to the next evidence to find, etc. tend to have significant advantages.

This can be ameliorated, however, by the introduction of red herrings which require additional evidence to eliminate. If done well, the red herrings, prior to elimination, make the solution possible but improbable. Once the red herrings are gone, we get to Sherlock Holmes’ famous dictum that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the case. This, I think, tends to be far more satisfying on re-reading because the work is necessary and not merely killing time until the detective realizes the true solution.

Perhaps the best example I can think of this is my favorite Cadfael novel, Saint Peter’s Fair. (spoilers ahead.)

Once the killer of Ewan of Shotwick is found out to be Euald, on top of Turstan Fowler having given evidence against Philip Corviser and having been found by Ivo, drunk but suspiciously recovered in the morning—it is possible to guess that Ivo was responsible and Euald and Turstan were acting under his orders, but it was by no means probable. It took more evidence for Cadfael and Hugh Beringar to see Ivo’s evil as really possible. The getting of this evidence by Philip, which foreclosed other possibilities, was very helpful, and in consequence it’s one of the great things to re-read in the novel each time I do.

Miss Marple and The Moving Finger

The third Miss Marple novel, The Moving Finger, was first published in 1943. In some ways it is more of a love story than a detective story, though the two do intertwine. Miss Marple appears only at the end of the story, and then only for about as many pages as she appeared in many of the short stories featuring her. (Spoilers below.)

Miss Marple is in the book at all because, towards the end, she is called in by the vicar’s wife as a specialist in solving murders. How the vicar’s wife knows Miss Marple and further how she knows that Miss Marple is good at solving murders is completely unstated. We don’t even have a decent sense of how far away St. Mary Meade is from Lymstock.

The narrator, Jerry Burton, is a decent enough chap. The premise of the story is that he was badly injured in a plane crash and is recovering. His doctor recommends complete rest, so he rents a house for six months in a quiet little town in the English countryside (Lymstock) with his sister, Joanna, who is five years his junior. Shortly after arriving they receive a nasty letter accusing them of not being brother and sister, which is ridiculous. It turns out that many other people have had similar letters, equally inaccurate. Jerry takes an interest in this and after one woman commits suicide and another is murdered, he ends up unofficially working the police, though it is eventually Miss Marple who actually solves the case.

There are a decent number of hints given throughout the story, the narrator even sometimes calling attention to them. For example, it is mentioned that the address on a letter for Miss Burton was originally addressed to Miss Barton (the old maid from whom they’re renting the house), with the ‘a’ being changed to a ‘u’. Jerry comments that this should have been a significant clue to them, if they’d had the wit to realize it at the time. There are some clues which are not discussed, however. For example, the poison pen sends letters accusing people of things to the people themselves, rather than to the people who might be angry at the secret. That is, the poison pen will send a letter accusing a woman of cheating on her husband, not to the husband, but to the woman. Such a thing would be unpleasant, but it would not be particularly dangerous or apt to cause her any problems if the letter is promptly destroyed. This strikes me as being at least as significant as the letters all being entirely false. Miss Marple points out that the falsity of the accusations was a clue that a man had written the letters, since a woman would be more aware of the general gossip and would, thus, have come much nearer the mark. This is, I dare say, true enough, but I think it’s more important that the letters were not written in such a way as to accomplish anything, not even a deranged goal, which showed that they must be a smoke screen.

Before we got the hints, there was a decent amount of anticipation in the narrative, as until the six or seventh chapter (if I recall correctly) the story had some mild element of mystery in it as to who was writing the letters, but other than that it was just a domestic story of a young brother and sister from London finding it interesting to take up resident in a country town. I think that, ultimately, the foreshadowing did work to keep the reader’s attention, but it is interesting to consider that this was necessary.

I’ve read, at this point, most of the Miss Marple novels and all of the Miss Marple short stories, and I find myself wondering how much I like Miss Marple as a detective. In some sense this is not really even a well-formed question because (apart from Nemesis) Miss Marple is not a detective. She’s really much more of a mystery consultant. Which is fine; it suits her character. It does, however, lead to her being very little in her own stories. In consequence, Miss Marple stories are far more of one-off stories where you’ve never met the characters before and won’t meet them again. (The major exception to that is The Body In the Library.)

The Moving Finger is a good illustration of how much Miss Marple stories are one-off stories. All of the characters in it are new and we’ll never see them again. The only exception to that is Miss Marple herself, but she’s a very minor character. If this was your first Miss Marple story, you’d come away with almost no impression of her.

To be fair, it is all but necessary for most of the characters in a story to be new each time; you can’t go about having the same characters keep killing each other off. The usual counter-balance to this is to have a detective and his side-kick form a major part of the story. Contrary to popular belief, the Watson is not there merely to make Holmes look brilliant; the include not only of two recurring characters but of a recurring relationship (which is not antagonistic) provides a great deal of familiarity and stability.

The author’s voice is, of course, another constant throughout the books and one that does provide familiarity to the reader.

I don’t yet know what I think. It’s a subject I need to mull over, more.

Miss Marple Short Stories vs. Novels

In the year of our Lord 1932 the first thirteen Miss Marple stories were collected into a book, The Thirteen Problems. The 1953 edition of this book contained a forward by Agatha Christie in which she said that Miss Marple is better suited to short stories (unlike Poirot, who does better with novels). I find this quite interesting:

I enjoyed writing the Miss Marple stories very much, conceived a great affection for my fluffy old lady, and hoped that she might be a success. She was. After the first six stories had appeared, six more were requested, Miss Marple had definitely come to stay.

She has appeared now in several books and also in a play—and actually rivals Hercule Poirot in popularity. I get about an equal number of letters, one lot saying: “I wish you would always have Miss Marple and not Poirot,” and the other “I wish you would have Poirot and not Miss Marple.” I myself incline to her side. I think, that she is at her best in the solving of short problems; they suit her more intimate style. Poirot, on the other hand, insists on a full-length book to display his talents.

These Thirteen Problems contain, I consider, the real essence of Miss Marple for those who like her.

This may contain something of an explanation for why Miss Marple is so little in her own books. She is more in them than she is in her short stories—she’s often only in a page or so of the short story—but the belief that she is better at solving short problems may shape the novels so that other people do the long work and it is presented to her as only as a summary, such that for her it is a short problem.

I can also see what Agatha Christie has in mind. Miss Marple does a little investigating in A Caribbean Murder and most of the investigating in Nemesis, and as much as I liked both I have to admit that it didn’t quite feel right. People should come to her, rather than the other way around. In some sense I think that the essence of Miss Marple is not precisely that she is intimate, but that she is domestic. This relates to how Sir Henry Clithering would always tease Miss Marple about how the people in a crime remind her of people from the village; the whole point is that the public world was not really larger than the domestic world. When Miss Marple does the investigating, she ventures outside of the domestic sphere. It is right, in a sense, for someone else to do the investigating in the public world then bring it to her, where she uses her knowledge of the domestic world to solve the problems of the public world.

That said, the way she does the investigation in Nemesis does not violate this; one of the parts of the domestic world is visiting other domiciles. Old ladies visit each other, and pay calls, and chat about local and family things, and Miss Marple mostly solves the mystery in Nemesis using these tools.

All that said, of the short stories and novels, I’m inclined to say that The Body in the Library was the best of the Miss Marple stories. So I suppose I must respectfully disagree with Dame Agatha, though I will say I think that she’s right when she said that the Thirteen Problems contain the essence of Miss Marple. They give you a clear sense of who and what Miss Marple is, but I do not think that they are her at her best.

At Bertram’s Hotel

Published in 1965, At Bertram’s Hotel was the second-to-last Miss Marple novel written, though the third-from-last published. (Like with the final Poirot novel, Curtain, Agatha Christie had written the final Miss Marple novel, Sleeping Murder, in the 1940s and put it in a safe with her lawyers to be published after her death.) It is a strange story, more a light thriller about a police detective who on the trail of an organized crime syndicate than a mystery. Miss Marple, as is often the case, does not feature heavily in the story, but when she does it’s as a witness, rather than as a detective. (Spoilers below.)

In fact, we don’t even get a murder until a few chapters from the end, and there isn’t much of a mystery in the story until the murder comes along. I suppose that there is a bit of mystery about what the deal is with Bertram’s Hotel, but it seems plausible that it’s simply an expensive hotel with an old-timey gimmic. It’s not that expensive to have a dozen varieties of tea, to make real muffins with lots of butter, and to have real seed cake. Granted, these things would have been more expensive in England 1965 than in America in 2022 (which I’m used to), but food rationing had been over for 10 years by then. It doesn’t require astonishing amounts of money to have these things and old furniture.

The idea that the whole thing is a front for organized crime, and that’s where the real money comes from, is also a bit far-fetched. Crime does pay, but it rarely pays well. It has large ongoing costs, but can only opportunistically generate revenue. That revenue tends to be a small fraction of the value of the goods stolen, too, since the pool of people who will buy stolen goods is fairly small, and will tend to insist on a huge discount for the risk that it’s taking.

Crime also has higher costs than legitimate business since it has a limited labor pool and can’t outsource contract enforcement to the courts and the police. That limited labor pool also tends to have few highly talented people, since highly talented people can probably make more money through legitimate businesses. The entire labor pool—high or low talent—also has issues with reliability. Carefully planned robberies that require a dozen people or so to all do what they’re supposed to, when they’re supposed to—you can’t use just ordinary criminals for that.

When you put it all together, it makes more sense for Bertram’s Hotel to be able to run because it is expensive and serves a niche who will pay for it than because it is a front for a criminal organization. Moreover, what good did the hotel actually do for the criminal organization? They weren’t using it to store stolen goods until the heat cooled down. As far as I could tell, the mastermind more-or-less lived there, and they had a very strange habit of having character actors impersonate recognizable guests who were staying at the hotel.

Speaking of which, why did they bother with the impersonations of recognizable people who were all staying at the hotel they ran their criminal empire from? Some sort of costume makes sense, but why impersonate a specific person? Moreover, why impersonate a specific person who was staying at the headquarters of the criminal organization? They didn’t need to keep exact tabs on the whereabouts of the people being impersonated. All it did was serve to point to their headquarters by giving the police a weird and unexplained coincidence. I could see the point if they had selected some other hotel from which to choose the people impersonated; this would serve to send the police on a wild goose chase if they noticed the odd coincidence.

(I do suppose that impersonating people from Bertram’s allowed them to borrow the actual clothing of the people in question, but this is a very curious sort of cost-cutting measure.)

Also very strange is that Miss Marple is on vacation in this novel, both literally and in many ways, figuratively. She was given a two week stay at the hotel by her niece-in-law as a treat, and is in the plot mostly because her various reclinings in high backed chairs and shopping expeditions put her in places to witness things relevant to the plot. She does make deductions, of course, but no earlier than the police make them; her only assistance to them is telling to them what she saw.

I can’t help but wonder why this novel is the way that it is. It is always possible that Mrs. Christie had gotten bored and wanted a change, or else that her life was busy and she wanted to write an easy novel. In her autobiography she said that thrillers were much easier to write than murder mysteries since you could make things up as you went along in thrillers.

It is also the case that tastes change, over time. Agatha Christie wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916 and it took her three years to find a publisher. Detective fiction was wildly popular at the time, and still quite new. Detective fiction is still extremely popular, though it is not nearly so new. The 1960s, however, were a very strange time. The mystery stories written during the inter-war period knew that they were at the end of an era and stories written in the 1950s (and set then) seem to know that they are at the transition point. In the 1960s people knew that they were at the beginning of something else, but not really of what, because it was completely unsettled. Nothing old was really appropriate, but nothing new was really any good. (You can tell this, in part, because of how bad—by which I largely mean nihilistic—popular culture became in the 1970s.) Truth be told, things haven’t really settled down even yet. If you look closely at popular culture, it’s still a rebellion even though it is in many ways a successful rebellion and should have moved on to being conservative. Bishop Barron once described it as modernity needing to constantly tell its founding myth, but I think it’s actually more that the fundamental nihilism at the core of modernity requires an enemy in order to give it a framework to define itself. (Hence, incidentally, why so many moderns are busy trying to re-tell older stories, badly. They need enemies.)

The 1960s must have been a strange time to write a murder mystery in, and Agatha Christie wrote in order to please her audience, so she would have been at least partially sensitive to the times. Especially since she wrote during the golden age of detection fiction, she would have been in a difficult place to keep writing the same kind of things. It is relatively easy for young people to look back at a golden age and say, “I want to write that kind of thing” since we will never have a sneaking suspicion that we’re simply stuck in our ways. For us, to write the good old stuff is to swim against the currents, and as G.K. Chesterton once observed, while a dead thing can go with the flow, only a live thing can swim against the current. Agatha Christie was not quite in this happy position; she must have had doubts that people still wanted the classic stories when so much else of their tastes have changed.

I don’t want to exaggerate this, of course. Nemesis, the next Miss Marple story, published in 1971, was in many ways a classic detective story, or at least much more of a classic detective story. Still, after almost fifty years, it’s not shocking that she should try something a bit different. I guess what I wonder is why Agatha Christie put Miss Marple in At Bertram’s Hotel if she didn’t intend to make it a Miss Marple story. She was quite willing to write stories which had neither Poirot nor Miss Marple in them.

This story reminds me a bit of the Dorothy L. Sayers story Murder Must Advertise. There aren’t many direct parallels, but both are quasi-thrillers about about the police taking down a massive crime syndicate. Lord Peter is far more in Murder Must Advertise than Miss Marple is in At Bertram’s Hotel, of course, but he spends a lot of his time under cover as Death Bredon and his personality is significantly shifted when he does, especially when he goes further undercover. I don’t really remember it because it’s been many years and I don’t really care for the story. It’s another mostly-action story where the murder is solved almost as an afterthought, a bit like The Maltese Falcon. For some reason the part of the story that stands out to me the most was when Lord Peter, in whatever alias he was in at the time as an underworld criminal, dives off of a statue into a shallow pool of water. I suppose Lord Peter might have picked up the skill of shallow diving at some point. To be fair, there’s really no reason that he shouldn’t. It just felt so random and out of character, and certainly never came up before or since.

A problem that I have with both is that I really don’t like the thriller genre. As such, I have no good way of determining if these are mediocre examples of it, or if they’re quite well done and I just don’t like this kind of story.

Murder With Poisons

Poisons were a common method of killing people in golden age detective stories. The two primary ones were arsenic and cyanide. I believe that this was the case primarily because of availability. (It seemed that they were commonly sold as weed killer and insect killer.) I’ve seen more than a few references, however, to people using exotic, undetectable poisons (often from South America) in murder mysteries, though I’ve never seen its actual use in them.

I’ve recently been reading some Miss Marple stories, and while the Miss Marple short stories began in 1927 and the first Miss Marple novel was in 1930, the bulk of the Miss Marple novels were in the 1950s and 1960s. Times had changed, especially with regard to poisons.

I found the description of a poison in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962) extremely interesting:

Heather Badcock had died as a result of four grains of hy-ethyl-dexyl-barbo-quinde-lorytate, or, let us be frank, some such name.

This drug turns out to be a (fictional) anti-anxiety medication which goes by the brand name “Calmo.” It is by this name that it is typically referred to throughout the rest of the book.

A similar device was used in A Caribbean Mystery (1964):

“They found he’d had a lethal dose of something that only a doctor could pronounce properly. As far as I remember it sounds vaguely like di-flor, hexagonal-ethylearbenzol. That’s not the right name. But that’s roughly what it sounds like. The police doctor put it that way so that nobody should know, I suppose, what it really was. The stuff’s probably got some quite simple nice easy name like Evipan or Veonal or Easton’s Syrup or something of that kind. This is the official name to baffle laymen with. Anyway, a sizeable dose of it, I gather, would produce death, and the signs would be much the same as those of high blood pressure aggravated by over-indulgence in alcohol on a gay evening.”

I strongly suspect, though I can’t prove, that Mrs. Christie had no real medication in mind, in either case, and I must say that this does greatly simplify the job of the mystery writer. There is the question of whether this violates the fourth commandment of Fr. Knox’s ten commandments of detective fiction, but I think that it does not. The point of the commandment is not whether the poison is known to the reader, but whether it is known to the medical science of the people in the stories. The point is that the big reveal at the end may not be a completely made-up poison, since if it is the solution becomes completely fictional. If the poison, though fictional, is known in the middle of the story, then the reveal at the end will rely on real human things such as motive and opportunity.

This approach does leave off a few issues of verisimilitude, though. One of the great problems with a poison is the dose that is needed to kill. It’s not that hard to make people feel sick, but actually killing—especially in a reasonably short time frame—requires an accurate dose. This will vary considerably with the individual chemical, and the LD50 of a particular drug is not always easy to come across. You can often find information with google on the LD50 (lethal dose for 50% of the population) of medications for rats and mice, but human LD50s are not always available, and the values for rats and mice can vary considerably. This is not just about making the dosage appropriate in the book, for the murderer to use the poison, he probably needs to have some idea of how much he should use in order to feel confident at the attempt.

To pick an example at semi-random (I had to google about five different medications before I found one with human info), Citalopram, sold under the brand name Celexa, has a human LD50 of 56mg/kg. For 110 pound people, this means that a dose of 2,800mg would kill half of the people you gave it to. To put this into perspective, the dosing is usually about 30mg/day, though possibly up to 40mg/day. Let’s assume the source of the pills are 40mg pills, this would mean having to give a 110 pound person 70 pills in order to have a 50/50 shot at killing them. You’re not going to manage putting 70 ground up pills into someone’s coffee. You’re probably going to need something like a stew, but it’s going to have to be one heck of a stew to cover over 70 pills worth of magnesium stearate or whatever chalk-like substance makes up most of the pills. (This, incidentally, is why pills tend to be mostly inert ingredients—it is extremely effective at preventing accidental overdose in significant quantities.)

Now, I doubt that I happened to select the most dangerous drug with human LD50 information on my first few tries, but it would be quite a coincidence if the murderer did, too. This means that trying to kill someone with medicine would be very unlikely to be a spur-of-the-moment thing, and would need to be researched. (To be fair to Mrs. Christie, btw, medicine has mostly gotten safer since the 1960s, so things weren’t quite as bad for murderers in her day.)

I also suspect that, if one were doing a properly researched murder, it would be a better idea to try to play off of drug interactions. There are a lot of combinations of drugs that are far more dangerous than simply a larger dose of the one, and of course many of these also interact with alcohol which is a lot easier to get into somebody’s blood in large quantities than most medicines are, since the victim might well put the alcohol there on purpose. Though it might be more effective, this approach is, perhaps, even less of a spur-of-the-moment weapon than a simple overdose is.

There is also a curious problem on the other end of the murder mystery—identifying the stuff in a corpse. Chemicals are identified by tests with reagents, which means that they must be specifically tested for. The police lab must, therefore, have some reason to test for the medicine in order to find it. Merely having the police report that a high level of an unpronounceable poison was found is cheating. And that is, of course, supposing that the medicine would even still be in the blood to test for. All sorts of chemicals break down in the body over the course of a few hours, many medicines among them, and cannot be found even if you know to test for them unless you run the test immediately. I suppose that this later part can be hand-waved away by simply not giving the made-up medicine this property, but there’s no real way around the test needing to be specific.

Ultimately, I think that this approach to medicine-as-poisons (just making them up) is fine, but doing it right would be so much work that it probably would be easier to use a real medicine. I think better than medicines, though, are recreational drugs. LD50 information tends to be readily available on these, and owing to being illegal they are generally available (to the degree that they are available) in pure forms quite in excess of a lethal dose. Further, since they are illegal, anonymous procurement does not greatly stretch the imagination.

Of course, there would be no harm in mixing recreational drugs with other drugs for synergistic effect. As long as it was planned well ahead of time.

The Immodesty of Hercule Poirot

One of the things which comes up in Poirot novels and short stories is how immodest Poirot is. He is very willing to say that he is the greatest detective ever, since it’s an indisputable fact and is often relevant to clients. Hastings, whose ideas of modesty are more English, frequently teases Poirot about this. I find this aspect of the stories very interesting, especially because Agatha Christie seemed to think it was funny enough to include quite often.

It is also curious to consider the contrast: Poirot was immodest but humble. Captain Hastings was modest but not humble.

I’m not really sure what to make of this; sometimes Agatha Christie seemed to hold it against Poirot and other times she seemed to side with him. Poirot has asked, quite reasonably, why it is considered better for a man who is good at something to lie and say that he is not. At other times Poirot seems to stray out of merely stating relevant facts and becoming boastful. I suppose to some degree we cannot expect a character written over the course of more than forty years to be entirely consistent. For that matter, real people are not always consistent even within a day, to say nothing of being consistent in many different circumstances over the course of forty years.

(Actually, the duration of Poirot stories is not really calculable; as Agatha Christie observed in her autobiography, given how she made Poirot of retirement age in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, he must have been well over 100 by his later cases, since they were all—or at least, mostly—set contemporaneously.)

A curious contrast to this is Miss Marple, who is extraordinarily modest. In a most Victorian style, she will not allow anyone to say anything positive about her without some sort of disclaiming it; the closest she comes to acknowledging the truth is a qualification to her disclaimer (“though it is true that I’ve been of some little assistance once or twice…”).

Modesty can, of course, be an enormously useful social grace. Being boastful can come at enormous social cost. That said, there is a danger of these things being confused with the far more important moral virtue of humility. Captain Hastings, in the books, frequently thought himself far more clever than he was, though he never said so except in his memoirs. In consequence he made all sorts of mistakes and occasionally made situations worse. In contrast, Poirot’s boasting was always in service of a practical point; he wanted clients to trust him because it was to their benefit to trust him. He wanted police inspectors to trust him, because their cases would go better if they trusted him. He never boasted of his abilities for his own benefit, but only for the benefit of those to whom he boasted.

Agatha Christie was, in her temperament, closer to Miss Marple than to Poirot, though based on her biography she was not greatly like either. Still, I do wonder how much she was actually able to see Poirot’s point of view. Authors cannot give characters what they do not have, but authors can give characters what they do not know that they have. It would be curious to know how much this is a case of that.

Miss Marple

So far I’ve read 13 Miss Marple short stories (the first thirteen) and the novels Murder at the Vicarage, The Body in the Library, and A Murder Is Announced. These span 23 years (from 1927 to 1950), and while the environment of the mysteries changes quite considerably (especially in A Murder Is Announced, which is clearly set after World War II), there are some strongly consistent elements throughout.

The consistent element which strikes me the most is the degree to which Miss Marple stories are not about her. If it is the case that in Poirot stories Poirot emphasizes that he does not get down on his hands and knees to look for clues because that is the work of others, who bring what they find to Poirot so that it may be understood, nevertheless Poirot features quite heavily in Poirot stories. If he’s not in every chapter, he’s certainly in most of them.

Miss Marple is far less prominent in her stories.

The short stories, I suppose, are not so surprising in this regard. In the golden age of detective fiction short stories were quite frequently meant—and read—as decorated logic puzzles. It was common enough for them to be a recounting of the events to the detective, followed by the detective giving the solution, and these were most of the Miss Marple short stories.

Novels, however, are different. Detective novels are stories about a detective, or at least stories that involve a detective, in which the problem and its solution makes up only one thread of the story. In these, it is far more common for the story to be about the detective, to at least some degree. Miss Marple stories are not about her; in fact she’s not even the primary detective in her stories. I don’t mean that there is, technically, a police detective in charge of the case. I mean that the police detective does most of the work, and, more to the point, most of the time in the novel is spent with him (while he does it).

I find this very curious. It’s not bad, and doesn’t make the novels less enjoyable—though it does rob them of the comfort of having familiar characters. Murder mysteries necessarily involve new people in each novel—you can’t keep killing off the same victim, after all—but there is something very comforting in getting back together with familiar characters. This may be most pronounced in my experience in the Cadfael series, where after a few novels we have the familiar characters of Cadfael, Hugh Berringar, Abbot Rodulphus, Prior Robert, Brother Jerome, and several other brothers such as Edmund the infirmarer and Petrus, the cook. These characters are not only familiar, but form a community.

Part of what I find curious about this is that Miss Marple is, herself, an extremely settled character. She has spent nearly her whole life in the village of Saint Mary Mead. She has even lived in the same house during the entire time she’s been there. She is a Victorian who is well settled in her ways—though not so much that she can’t adapt to changing circumstances. It is also significant that she is a spinster. The life of a parent changes very greatly over time—there is marriage, then a child, then children; the children start out as young children and grow, their needs constantly changing with their size and age. Eventually they become adults and may well give their parents grand-children, which is yet another set of changes in the grandparents life. A spinster’s life, by contrast, changes far less, or at least has far fewer necessary changes of such direct magnitude. In short, Miss Marple, the character, is a very settled character.

I wonder whether part of this is that Miss Marple is a feminine character. Agatha Christie very much wrote Miss Marple as a woman, not merely a gender-swapped man. A great many female characters, especially in modern times, are very masculine women, or more often characters that were written as men and then cast with a woman playing the part of the man. Agatha Christie tended to write genuinely female characters for her women, and I think that this is true of Miss Marple, who has the feminine characteristic of liking to be unobtrusive. This is not at all the same thing as liking to be passive—Miss Marple is most certainly not a passive character. Like a great many women, however, she does have a marked preference for not being noticed by people too far outside of her social circle, and for not drawing too much attention to herself within it. This is a difficult thing for males to understand because people are so much less interested in us than they are in women. We like when people pay attention to us because it happens so rarely. We are also trained from a young age to be used to the downsides of publicity, because women like to use males to shield them from public interactions that they don’t want. Miss Marple was raised as a lady and thus would want her privacy; Miss Marple books being largely about others may, in a subtle way, be related to this.

Some Thoughts on Murder On the Nile

I recently watched the David Suchet version of Murder On the Nile with my oldest son, then out of curiosity read the novel so I could compare. While the movie version was quite faithful to a lot of the story, it did have some changes, I think mostly to make it shorter. Unfortunately, I think it cut some of the best parts.

The novel was published in 1937 and is, by my count, the fourteenth novel featuring Hercule Poirot. Agatha Christie would have been approximately forty six years old when she wrote it, and the depth of characterization in it reflect both her experience as a writer as well as her greater experience of life. It is still, fundamentally, a murder mystery more than a novel—in distinction to Dorothy L. Sayers later work, especially Gaudy Night. That said, it certainly has a lot more meat on its bones than does, say, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. To be clear, this is in no way a knock against Styles; for that matter Dorothy L. Sayers’ first novel, Whose Body? was, as she put it, conventional to the last degree. My point is just that Agatha Christie has really developed as a writer; this book has not only the sort of brilliant plot that Christie’s books have always had, but also several human themes.

(As a warning, spoilers follow.)

The main theme of the book, of course, is how dangerous love is. Jacqueline really loved Simon Doyle too much, so she was willing to use her brains in service of his evil ends. Simon nearly got away with murder because she loved him too much. Jacqueline was willing to murder two people—one by stabbing—in order to protect Simon and help him to get away with his murder. Poirot tried to warn Jacqueline off from her course, but it was too late because she loved Simon too much. And then, finally, at the end, where Mrs. Allerton said, “Love can be a very frightening thing,” and Poirot replied, “That is why most great love stories are tragedies.”

This is all quite true. What’s really being described, of course, is not love, but idolatry. Jacqueline would do anything for Simon because, to her, he was God. A most inadequate God, to be sure. She recognized his flaws. Yet, she made her choice and would not go back on it.

Another interesting theme in the book is the immorality of Mr. Ferguson. He has the full measure of loathesomeness of a communist, and in one sense is merely a realistic portrayal of how bad such a man is, down to complaining about everything while he takes a pleasure cruise and pretends that he is “studying conditions”. It is interesting, though, that he is not merely malign. He has a curious trick of getting to know people; he relates all sorts of personal information about various people at different times. He has no pity and cares only for himself; his communism is merely an expression of that. This can also be seen, I think, in the way that his clothes were shabby but his underclothes were high quality.

Another aspect of his evil is his refrain that it is not the past that matters, but the future. (This is evil because it can be used to justify anything, and only people who want to justify evil use justifications that will justify anything. For people who mean well, ordinary justifications will suffice.) He has no pity for anyone, and no loyalty. All that matters is what people can do for him, now.

(As a side note, I also find it curious that this—presented slightly differently—is the theme of the Star Wars sequel Episode VIII: he Least Jedi.)

It is very interesting that the book ends with Mr. Furguson, and his philosophy of life.

[News of Linnet Ridgeway’s death spread.] …and it was discussed in the bar of the Three Crowns in Malton-under-Wode.
And Mr. Burnaby said acutely: “Well, it doesn’t seem to have done her much good, poor lass.”
But after a while they stopped talking about her and discussed who was going to win the Grand Nationa. For, as Mr. Ferguson was saying at that minute in Luxor, it is not the past that matters but the future.

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.

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.

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.

The Mysterious Affair At Styles

I recently re-read the first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. Some day I will write a full, detailed analysis of it, but right now I just wanted to jot down a few thoughts. It’s a very interesting book, both in itself and because of its historical significance.

One of the things that is very striking—especially for a person whose first introduction to Poirot was through the David Suchet adaptations—is how much of an idiot Captain Hastings is. One of the Fr. Ronald Knox’s ten commandments of detective fiction was “The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.” Christie seemed to take the idea of the “stupid friend” to rather extraordinary lengths. Hastings is constantly making unwarranted assumptions, thinking Poirot is senile, saying that inexplicable things don’t matter, taking offense, telling Poirot that he did the wrong thing, etc.

Despite all of this, there is a kernel of a character inside the depiction which is quite intriguing, and which I think that Hugh Frasier and the writer who did the David Suchet adaptation of Poirot really got hold of. This kernel is the “beautiful soul” which Hastings had; it explains why Poirot is so fond of him and why he keeps him around. Hastings is not clever, but he is simple and earnest. He is innocent and means well.

I can’t help but think that Agatha Christie did not see this in Hastings; it seems to be as much an excuse to have Hastings around as it is anything else. He was there because Watson was there before him; he was stupid because Watson being mystified by Holmes made Holmes more impressive. I think these two issues go some of the way to explaining why she got rid of Hastings and immediately brought him back.

Moving on: Agatha Christie is rightly known as a master of mystery plots, but I can’t help think that the final proof in this case was not her best work. That Alfred should write to Evelyn when the plan didn’t go off at the right time is defensible, if it stretches the imagination a little bit. That Mrs. Inglethorpe found the letter is not a problem, and given that she found it, that Alfred had to get it back after her death makes perfect sense. The problem comes in with the way he hid it in the spills.

He had a very small number of minutes in which to recover the letter and had to reveal that someone had broken into the despatch case, so in consequence he had to hide it in a hurry, fine. Putting it into the spills rather than sliding it under his own door was… iffy, but I think defensible because if he was caught and it was revealed that he must have stolen something, his room might be searched. It is something of a difficulty that he was not caught; if he could get away so easily, it takes away considerably from his fear of being caught. Still, this is defensible.

I think it much more difficult to justify why he never recovered the letter from the spills. Poirot explained this as a result of his taking the household into his confidence that a document had been stolen from the despatch case, and in consequence Alfred could not enter the room without being observed. I find this a bit thin—there were only four of five servants inside the house, and they had duties which would in all probability make for moments when Alfred could move unobserved. What I really can’t see, though, is what would have prevented Alfred from entering his wife’s room during the night. The servants would all be asleep, and the only person in his wing of the house would be Cynthia. Even when not drugged, she was not described to be an especially light sleeper. And he had more than one night to try. He did not move out of the house and into the hotel until the day after the funeral, and was not really forced to even then. His being in the house during this time, however, was not necessary for anything within the plot. I think this could have been solved by having Alfred be forced to leave the house the day of the murder. It would not have been difficult to come up with something which would force John to tell Alfred that Mrs. Inglethorp only had a life interest in the house and now it’s his and under the circumstances it would be better if Alfred removed himself, etc. etc.