Murder She Wrote: The Bottom Line is Murder

Late in Season 3 of Murder, She Wrote we get an episode set in a Denver TV sation called The Bottom Line is Murder.

As is fairly common with titles, it’s something of a pun on the episode itself—the TV show in the enter of the episode is called The Bottom Line.

It is a hard-hitting investigative journalism show which focuses on faulty consumer products. The show feels like a reference to something, but as it originally aired in February the year of our Lord 1987, I don’t know what it was referencing. I wasn’t even 10 at the time the episode originally came out, and even if I remembered much from that time I wouldn’t have watched the sort of TV shows this was referencing.

I was tempted to say it this was a generalized Dateline: NBC, as I have a vague memory of them having done the sort exposé journalism that The Bottom Line does, but Dateline: NBC first aired in 1992. Even if the writers could be that prescient, they would not have referenced something their audience wouldn’t know for another five years, so that possibility is right out.

It does seem like it was quite prescient, though. I looked up Dateline: NBC on Wikipedia and there was a section about a show that Dateline did about a GMC pickup truck purportedly exploding on impact because of poor design. The only problem was that their demonstration was completely fabricated. They planted remote control incendiary devices on the truck that they crashed and those were what caused the explosion that Dateline showed the public. An investigation actually found the burned husk of the vehicle in a junkyard and did analysis on it, finding that the fuel tank had remained intact. As a minor detail, they drove the truck into the barrier at about forty miles per hour but lied and said that it was at thirty miles per hour. It turns out that sanctimonious people are not always honest.

Actually, the entire format has a problem designed into it. A show which is focused on finding outrageous things can only find as many outrageous things as the world produces; if this is fewer per year than the number of episodes the show has, it must either cancel episodes or fabricate outrages. Worse, if someone looks at thirty outrages a year (one per week), they will become numb and require a higher dose to achieve the same level of outrage. Since the world can be relied upon to not produce ever-growing levels of outrageous material every week, either honesty or the show will have to give. (It should be noted that this also forms a selective pressure for bad judgement, which is more effective than outright dishonesty.)

Anyway, the show opens with a graphic demonstration of a bulletproof vest that doesn’t stop bullets.

The only problem is that the vest does stop the bullet, which causes the host doing the demonstration, Kenneth Chambers, to go into a meltdown. In fairness to him, though, he claims that they tried it ten times before filming and the bullet went through every time when the cameras were off. He then yells at everyone for everything, establishing that he’s a self-centered egomaniac without manners or human kindness. In other words, we establish who is 98% likely to get murdered in this episode.

We’re then introduced to a few more characters:

The guy on the left is Steve. He’s the producer of the show. The woman has a name I’ll remember at some point but she’s played by Adrienne Barbeau, which is far more memorable. (If you confuse her with Sigourney Weaver, you’re not alone.) This is Ms. Barbeau’s second (and final) appearance in Murder, She Wrote. She’s a tough-as-nails career woman who doesn’t like anyone and isn’t afraid to let them know. A few moments later we get introduced to another character, Ryan, but even though his introduction establishes that he was probably dallying with a female staffer in a closet, he’s so minor I’m going to use the shot which only shows the back of his head. We almost never see his face again, anyway:

Adrienne chews Ryan out and sends him to Mr. Chambers. Ryan is some sort of assistant and Mr. Chambers clearly needs assistance. Then we finally find out what Jessica has to do with this bunch of people:

The woman driving the car is Dr. Jayne Honig. It’s likely that Jayne isn’t one of Jessica’s many neice’s as there’s a reference made to Jayne’s wedding seven years ago and how she rescued Jessica from a dance marathon with Jayne’s Uncle Buck. Jessica also asks “how is your dear husband” which suggests that of the two it’s Jayne she knows better.

This question brings up an awkward moment, apparently the couple are having trouble related to Steve constantly being stressed and working late. Jayne has given up her career as a psychiatrist to be a full time wife in order to save the marriage, though why this is necessary as the problem is that Steve is never home is unclear.

Also, it turns out that Jessica is in town because she’s going to do a book review segment for the TV show. It’s not spelled out, but presumably this is a favor to Jayne. This was during the days of broadcast television when local TV stations were common and KBLR (the name of the station) certainly seems like a local affair. Maine to Denver is an awfully long way to go in order to review books on a local TV station.

Next we get more establishing of what a sleazeball Kenneth Chambers is. There was a segment where the police chief, acting as an expert for the show, said that while the Acme bulletproof vest (the vest from the opening of the show) is cumbersome, in a dangerous situation it’s the best safety equipment he knows. Kenneth had “the boys” do some editing, and he changed the testimonial around to have the police chief say that in a dangerous situation, he wouldn’t put it on his dog.

Steve objects that this is dishonest and unethical. Kenneth asks who cares, because it’s great television. Steve, defeated, says that he cares. Apparently no one stopped to think that this is the sort of thing which can generate lawsuits and, if nothing else, make an enemy of the chief of police which doesn’t seem like a great strategy.

Adrienne Barbeau then walks in saying that after weeks of intensive effort, she has finally dug up the evidence on some cheese producer that will “throw them into the fondue, as it were”. Kenneth declares that the story is dead, which does not please Adrienne.

Kenneth walks out, Adriene storms out, then Jessica and Jayne walk in. As a side note, these offices are really huge. It takes Adriene twelve steps to get from Steve’s desk to the door of his office. Adriene Barbeau is 5’3″ tall, so if we assume she has a 5′ stride, that makes it 30′ from the desk to the door. My house, which admittedly is not large, is shorter than that from one side to the other. This is one heck of an office.

“*Ahem* Got a minute for a famous author?” Jayne asks. Warm greetings ensue, and then we meet the final character who will make up the suspects cast. His name is Robert Warren and he is the station manager. He begins by asking Jayne when she’s going to leave Steve for him, and then remarks, after some banter, that when your best friends steals the love of your life it’s either “Laugh, Clown, laugh” or slit your wrists, and he had no blood to spare. He then charms Jessica, kissing her hand and saying that if there’s anything she wants, she has but to command. The character is played as flamboyant and over-the-top, but even so the professions of love for Jayne are far too sincere to just pass over. It’s a clue, of course—if someone is not the main suspect, background information about them is just about guaranteed to be a clue—but it’s not that well disguised. Especially because a TV station manager couldn’t plausibly be that light-hearted and unserious.

He then offers to take Jessica on the “fifty cent tour”. I’m genuinely unsure whether that’s meant to be a grand tour or a meagre one. Throwing fifty cents from 1987 into an inflation calculator, that’s worth approximately $1.15 now (it would be worth $1.19 if we use 1986, presuming that the script was written at least two months before it aired, but what’s $.04 between friends?). On the other hand, it sounds like a throwback phrase, though to when I’m not sure. If we were to go all the way back to 1925, it would be the equivalent of a $7.44 tour today. At the end of the day I don’t often go on tours that I have to pay for, so I’m out of my element here.

Either way, Jessica goes on the tour. She’ll soon get to see how unpleasant Kenneth Chambers is for herself, but first we get the semi-obligatory scene of a tough guy threatening the victim.

The tough guy, who is the owner of toy bears that Mr. Chambers is going to do an exposé on, demonstrated on the bear how he would touch Chambers if Chambers did a show about his bears. This character does show up again, but not as a suspect. For the most part people who were heard to threaten the victim are only suspected by the police if they are a friend of Jessica’s.

Shortly after this we get a scene of Mr. Chambers yelling for his assistant because his assistant was supposed to fix his TV.

This is a clue, of course—I would be hard pressed to think of a time in a Murder, She Wrote episode where a piece of technology was broken that wasn’t a clue—but it is disguised fairly well as a scene of showing just how awful Kenneth Chambers is by how he is short-tempered and yells at his subordinates.

There’s an argument that Robert Warren has with Chambers about the toy bears, saying that the tough guy (his name is Rinaldi) spends a lot of money advertising with the station and maybe they should cool it with the antagonistic episode. Chambers stands firm on principle. Then we meet someone who is, technically, a member of the cast, but she so consistently seems to be unambitious, reactive furniture that it’s impossible to consider her a suspect.

She lets it slip that she has a romantic relationship, as well as a business relationship, with Kenneth Chambers because she calls him Kenneth and then corrects herself to Mr. Chambers. This is something of a dated way of letting that information slip, since even at the time the transition from last names to first names in workplaces in America was well underway. In this case it’s especially strange since she appears on the show with Chambers, helping out in his demonstrations. Being both a mousy secretary and an on-air personality is really weird, almost to the point of saving on casting. I suppose giving her a romantic relationship with Chambers gives her some sort of motive for killing him, making him a suspect, but I don’t think that at any time it’s plausible. (Of course, the very fact that it’s implausible can be a red herring; one should always be on the lookout for the least suspicious person in a murder mystery.)

There’s some small talk, Mousy Girl says that Mr Chambers has been looking forward to her coming because he’s such a fan, etc. Then we get another clue. Kenneth leans back into his chair, knocking over the cup of coffee that Ryan the assistant was holding while fiddling with the knob on a sound system in order to get the VCR to give a video signal to the TV.

I know I always hold coffee while fiddling with nobs. How else would the detective be able to tell two identical chairs apart? There’s an attempt to disguise this clue by having Chambers fly off the handle and fire Ryan but if you’re at all familiar with the habits of Murder, She Wrote, there’s no missing this clue.

What the clue means is a different matter, though. You know that this chair and another chair will be switched, but—credit where credit is due—you don’t know why they will be switched.

Next we see Jessica, Jayne, Steve, and, for some reason, Robert, at a restaurant. Jessica works it into the conversation that Robert was a former patient of Jayne’s. Steve says, speaking of a racketball game he played with Robert, that Robert is competitive to the point of compulsion. Jessica then says, “Oh, perhaps your former psychiatrist could give us some insight into that.” But Jayne demures, saying that there are strict rules about doctor-patient confidentiality. Yeah, no kidding. Of course Jessica knows that; I don’t think that the attempt to disguise this clue as dinner banter works at all. The actors do a good job making it feel like trading wit but it really stands out.

Steve excuses himself because he has to go back to the station to work. Kenneth Chambers has demanded it, though how Chambers is in a position to demand it is not clear, since Steve is, in theory, Chambers’ boss. Shortly afterwards Robert says that he can commiserate with Steve, having worked at the station every night for the past week he can say that the station is a very lonely place when you’re the only one there. Robert then goes off home to get a good night’s sleep.

As he drives off, Jessica notices that Jayne looks upset. Asked, Jayne says that Steve had said he had worked late at the station every night that week, but Robert just let it slip that he had been there all alone.

In the next scene George Takei, sorry, Bert the janitor, discovers Kenneth Chambers slumped over in a chair. He turns the chair around and then is horrified, though of what we can’t see. It’s dark, and the bullets didn’t seem to penetrate through to the front of Chambers, so we don’t see any blood.

In the next scene Jayne is driving Jessica to the station in the morning.

Curiously, they both forgot to wear their seatbelts. This is consistent with other times that they’re shown in the car. I wonder if it was deliberate or if the actors just forgot because they were filmed in a stationary car with the driving just being a rear-projected film. The rear projection is pretty good, except that they’re on a two-lane highway that ends in the parking lot of the TV station without any kind of turning off. The station parking lot is filled with police cars and camera crews, so Jayne and Jessica discover that something happened.

We then meet Lieutenant Lou Flanagan, the police detective for the case. He turns out to be the expert that Chambers had dishonestly edited, though he never actually learns this and nothing comes of it.

He tells the reporters that Chambers was shot twice, and Jessica manages to get out of him that Chambers was shot between 10pm and midnight before he asks who she is. She is familiar, but he can’t place her, but thinks that she’s part of the media. She says no, she’s just a friend, but when he loses interest in talking to her, she pretends to be a reporter (though with plausible deniability in her wording) and was impressed that he “saw through” her.

Steve shows up from a run he was on—the man is certainly dedicated to exercise. Despite having gotten to be after 1am, he was up in the morning before his wife so he could go on a run in a sweatsuit. It’s a bit of an odd choice to do that early morning run and return to the office in need of a shower, rather than to return home, take a shower, then go to work. Nothing really comes of it, though, since it was his absence the night before which makes him a suspect. (He’s a friend of Jessica’s with no alibi, so the Lieutenant is, of course, convinced that he did it.)

During the investigation, Lieutenant Flanagan helpfully shows an ashtray with a large cigar ash in it to the camera, but it’s so blatant an action that even Jessica notices.

He then blows on the cigar ash (for good luck?) and puts the ashtray back on the desk. It’s instincts like that for bringing clues to the attention of other people which got him all the way to Lieutenant!

Then another clue turns up. The murder weapon (a revolver) was found in the back seat of Steve Honig’s car! A deputy spotted it when he looked in the window!

Flanagan asks if Steve has a permit for the gun, but Steve dismissively says that it isn’t his. Flanagan doesn’t believe him, and Jessica has had enough. She goes on a tirade about how there’s no common sense here. Why would Steve, if he was the killer, come to the scene of the crime with the murder weapon in plain sight in his car when he had hours to dispose of it?

Before he can answer, Robert Warren shows up in an exercise outfit that puts Steve’s to shame.

Warren asks what’s going on and Flanagan says that he is taking Steve into custody on suspicion of the murder of Kenneth Chambers. Apparently Flanagan has a very short memory. Warren says that he will send a lawyer along with Steve.

We’re almost halfway through the episode and the middle of a Murder, She Wrote rarely contains any clues. I think that this is to give the audience some time to think over the clues that they were already presented with. We’re given a bunch of suspicious stuff, of course. Jessica asks Jayne when Steve actually came home and it was around 1am. Adrienne Barbeau talks the blond assistant to become the new host of The Bottom Line.

Jessica walks onto the set of the new The Bottom Line and talks with Adrienne, who is the new producer. She observed that Steve never wanted the job anyway. He really wanted to be the producer, but Kenneth Chambers had made sure that Warren got that job. This might have been an interesting sub-plot, but we never learn any more about it.

Jessica talks to the blond assistant, but not much comes out. The subject of Rinaldi (the teddy bear thug) comes up. They look for the tapes of the show, but can’t find them. Jessica Fletcher talks to Rinaldi about the missing tapes, and he tells her that he paid Chambers twenty five thousand dollars in cash to buy the tapes and kill the show. This leads to a scene of a bunch of people standing around while Lieutenant Flanagan opens a safe in what I assume was Chambers’ office.

It turns out that Kenneth Chambers accepted bribes to kill stories. The cheese maker story that was killed towards the beginning of the episode was also in the safe. The blond assistant is disillusioned, and Adrienne Barbeau is excited because now she knows why the story was killed and as the new producer she’s going to run it.

This new evidence should have opened up the possibility of Chambers being killed for some reason relating to his criminal enterprise. It doesn’t, though. Flanagan gives Jessica a ride to somewhere and while riding they talk about the case and Flanagan comes up with the theory that Steve planted the tapes and money to smear Chambers’ good name and Chambers surprised him to Steve had to shoot him. How Chambers ended up sitting in his chair and turning his back to Steve isn’t mentioned, and the idea is so absurd Jessica just asks to see pictures of the crime scene instead.

Jessica notices that the chair was shot in the back, meaning that his back had to be to the door. Unfortunately for this revelation we already saw it when George Takei found the body. Flanagan says that he must have been watching TV, but Jessica points out that this is impossible since his TV was broken. Somehow it never occurs to either of them that he could have been shot while facing another direction then his chair rotated afterwards, e.g. to make people think that he was doing something so as to delay the finding of the body. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case so our sleuths not thinking of it doesn’t matter.

The next morning Jessica talks with Robert Warren to get some more information. It turns out that it was Adrienne Barbeau’s idea to revive the show with the blond assistant as the star. Warren went on to say that Chambers wanted to take the show to the national network and leave everyone behind, but with him dead everyone comes out ahead, especially the blond assistant. Personally, I don’t think that this red herring is very plausible based on the character herself, but I do have to admit that the motive was a decent one and innocents with big doe eyes have turned out to be murderers before and will again.

Jessica then steps in to watch the filming of the new Bottom Line, with the blond assistant as the star.

Claire flubs a line and they move on to another scene. Jessica runs into Ryan, who Chambers had fired by Adrienne Barbeau re-hired. Jessica says that she finds it perplexing how much better off everyone his. Ryan tells her the secret of show business. “The secret to this business is hustle. Any boob can do these jobs. You just have to make sure that you’re the any boob who gets hired.” There’s another minor interaction, but that’s the last we see of this character. He had a good line before we went, at least.

Now we finally move on to the last act before the denouement. Jessica meets George Takei, who has a bunch of evidence to give her. Jessica tries to throw away her coffee cup but George grabs it before it lands in the garbage.

It turns out that he has a collection of trash from famous people, which he offers to show her. Jessica agrees to see it because she would like to talk to him. Pleasantly, he not merely collects trash but he preserves it in a way that sanitizes it.

I thought that the embedding the trash in lucite was a nice touch. (He also bronzed an apple core someone threw out.) I suspect that this would have been funnier back in the late 1980s because there was more of a trend for preserving things in bronze and lucite back then—more typically things like baby shoes and comic books—but it’s still amusing now.

During the course of the conversation George reveals three important clues. The first is that he cleaned Steve’s office when Steve and Kenneth were fighting. The second was that Steve actually was working late every night for the past week. The third was he spilled coffee from his coffee mug, making Jessica think to look for the chair with the coffee stain, which turns out to be in Steve’s office.

Can you see the coffee stain? I can’t. We just have to trust Jessica that it’s there.

Jessica runs over to police headquarters and gets Lieutenant Flanagan to let her look at the murder chair.

Personally, I don’t see a coffee stain here about as much as I don’t see one on the other chair.

No coffee stain! That proves it!

What does it prove? We’ll have to wait for Jessica to set a trap for the killer to find out.

George helpfully plants the bait. He very conspicuously says that the chair in Steve’s office needs to be replaced because of the terrible coffee stain that no power on earth can get out. So, of course, the killer will come to take the chair away at night once everyone has left in order to… OK, I’ve got nothing. Once it’s publicly known that the chair had an awful coffee stain, removing it will accomplish precisely nothing. Still, someone has to go to the trap and threaten to kill Jessica to hush her and her flimsy evidence up.

Jessica actually waited in the chair, in the dark, for the murderer. You’ve got to give it to her—when she sets a trap, she’s willing to use herself as bait. And the murderer turns out to be…

Robert Warren!

But, there’s a twist. He wasn’t trying to kill Kenneth Chambers, he was trying to kill Steve Honig. All those things about being madly in love with Jayne? Yeah. It turns out that they were true. Robert wanted Jayne for himself and tried to kill Steve to make room for himself. But when he discovered that the man he shot in Steve’s chair was actually Kenneth—who was watching Steve’s TV because his own was broken—he figured that framing Steve for the murder would serve the same purpose.

Steve does what any Murder, She Wrote killer does when Jessica presents him with extremely flimsy evidence alone, at night—he announces his intention to kill her.

He doesn’t say it, but one gets the distinct impression he’s planning to strangle her with his necktie. Jessica asks if his solution is to kill her too, and he replies that it shouldn’t be too hard to find another writer for their book review show.

Jessica then says that he needs help. Specifically, help from Jayne. I really don’t get that last part; she’s given up her practice and a man who is madly in love with his psychiatrist probably should get help from just about anyone but the object of his fixation. However that may be, as is the case in about 9 out of 10 episodes, Jessica has witnesses waiting in the wings to hear the killer’s confession. As is often the case, one of them is the police detective.

Oddly, the other witness is Jayne. This is a very odd choice for a witness, but it gives her the opportunity to talk to him. She says that violence didn’t work before, and it won’t work this time.

Yeah, no kidding. That’s kind of the meaning of that police offer standing there in the background looking glum.

He says that she shouldn’t be there and she asks why. Would he kill her too? Then she caresses his face.

This seems wildly inappropriate no matter which way you look at it—as a psychiatrist or a married woman or the woman he murdered someone for or the wife of the woman he framed for the murder. Maybe that’s why, when she looks over at Jessica, Jessica just looks down.

The next morning Jessica talks to Steve and Jayne on the front stairs of the television station and explains why she set the trap. Steve says that he can’t thank her enough, both for getting him off of the murder charge and also for the brilliant interview she gave. Apparently they didn’t bother talking about what happened the night before until after they filmed her book review show. That’s show biz for you, I guess.

Lieutenant Flanagan then walks out of the station, followed by a gaggle of reporters. What he was doing in the station or why the reporters were in their with him, I cannot imagine. He stops at the top of the stairs and tells the reporters that it takes a trained eye to spot something like the switched chairs because of the coffee stain. He’s going to take credit for it but then spots Jessica. However, she gives him her blessing to take credit.

Which he does, with aplomb. The episode ends with Jessica, Jayne, and Steve laughing when Flanagan said, “I said to myself, ‘mere furniture? I think not.'”

The Bottom Line is Murder is, overall, a strange episode. It is very memorable, but not really for the mystery, which was not all that well crafted. Don’t get me wrong, it holds together well enough, minus it being a bit strange that the janitor didn’t hear the gunshots and the direction the chair was facing in no way being an indication of the direction it was facing when the victim died. The coffee stain indicating the switched chair was solid enough, though it was extremely contrived that the chair had a coffee stain. Likewise the broken TV causing the victim to be in the wrong place was fine, if the significance of the broken TV was a bit telegraphed. (Also fairly coincidental. It isn’t very plausible that Chambers would have had hours of footage to watch, so the odds of catching him in Steve’s office, sitting down and watching, would not have been very high. Granted, it’s fine for coincidence to be involved in the murder itself, but only up to a point.)

I think that what really makes the episode so memorable is that it has so many talented actors playing well defined—if not always sensible—characters. Adrienne Barbeau’s tough, ambitious producer leaps off the screen, even if she is barely related to the plot. Barry Corbin’s Lieutenant Flanagan is, despite his foibles, deeply likable. Judith Chapman’s Jayne makes you feel all of the trouble and pain her character is going through; one believes that she was a magnificent psychiatrist before she gave it up. She is plausible as a woman worth killing for. George Takei’s janitor was a fascinating character. He’s almost like a happy grouch, with a completely unrelatable love of garbage. One might almost want to see his collection of immortalized trash. Even Pat Klous’s blond assistant was a vivid character—so innocent, fragile, and trusting. That makes no sense for a woman who was romantically involved with a man like Chambers, not to mention being both his secretary and an on-air co-host makes absolutely zero sense. Still, she was a vulnerable almost-child, and you felt that. And then there’s Morgan Steven’s Robert Warren. He is plausible as a charming psychopath, especially the charming part.

So, ultimately, the story structure doesn’t make much sense but the setting is great and the actors are phenomenal. To some degree they’re under-developed because there are so many great characters, development takes time, and there is only 47 minutes divided by the number of characters available to develop them. None the less, it makes for a very memorable episode. I am almost fixated on structure, so I have trouble regarding it as a really good episode, but it is certainly an extremely memorable one.

I also have to say that I found the set decoration very interesting in both Steve and Kenneth’s office. (It was pretty clearly actually the same set just redecorated, with the TV/sound equipment on the back wall not even being different.) The cavernous office was so large it had quite a lot of furniture in it, so there was plenty to look at. Wall sconces, art on pedestals, five varieties of things to sit on, statues, paintings—there was a ton of visual interest. It was just an interesting place to watch a murder mystery.

Fun Characters

One of the decisions which needs to be made in a story (I’m thinking of mysteries, of course, but this is a general issue) is whether to make characters realistic or fun.

(This post is, in a sense, related to my post Sympathetic Suspects In Murder Mysteries, but it’s not really the same subject.)

I do have to admit that I am cheating, slightly, when I pose the dichotomy of fun versus realistic. There are fun characters who are realistic; what is unrealistic is really the presence of more than one such character in a story. Whatever exactly the criteria one has for a fun character—whether it’s having interesting hobbies, being wide read in literature, being a wit, etc.—such people are, simply, rare. People are, on average, average. That is no slight against them; God evidently likes many variations on a theme—just look at The Lessons of Beetles.

Anyway, when the question is posed, “should I have interesting characters or realistic characters” the answer is almost self-evident. (Despite having a central conceit as unrealistic as a Franciscan order of consulting detectives, I suppose I still have a hangup about realism that I’m working my way through.) The real question, I guess, is how to make the interesting characters seem realistic.

To some degree I think that the answer is to commit to them. From afar they will seem improbable. However, everyone is normal to himself so if we actually get to know the character sufficiently his odd point of view (that he’s not odd) will tend to rub off on us.

The other important thing, which is really another form of committing to the characters, is to follow through with what makes them interesting. That is, not merely to add it in for spice, but to actually make use of it and even to consider what sorts of things such an interesting person would under the interesting circumstances we’ve put them in. That said, a murder mystery tends be something of an equalizer. As Chesterton observed human beings are most like each other in the great events of their lives—birth and death and so on. I suppose that murder mysteries make life easier on the author this way, that we can throw in interesting characters and they’ll act much the same as any other, except they’ll do it in a more interesting way.

Dust Jackets

My novels, printed in hardcover, come with the cover art printed on the book itself, and with no dust jacket. Though this is clearly superior to the flimsy paper which easily tears and makes reading more difficult it one tried to do it without setting the dust jacket aside, it did make my books (printed by a small indie publisher) feel less real, somehow. Wondering why a superior bookbinding felt less real, I looked up the history. It turns out to be interesting and different than I expected.

Apparently until the 1820s books were not (typically) bound by their publishers. The publisher’s job was to print the book up, it was left to a bookseller or the customer to bind it in whatever way they wanted. It was a man by the name of William Pickering who, in 1819, first offered inexpensive books bound with a cloth binding. These books were quite popular and it changed the publishing industry forever. It was not long before publishers started making the bindings fancy.

An issue which came up is that fancy bindings do not do well with the rigors of distribution such as being carted around in boxes on trains or thrown into carts. In order to protect these fancy bindings, publishers began to wrap the books in dust jackets, though they were more akin to a paper version of modern plastic wrap—wrapped all around and sealed. Being paper they were not transparent, so some indicating of what book was inside was found to be a good idea, and a name was often printed on this paper, though very plainly. The expectation (and frequent reality) was that the bookseller would remove the protective paper as he was stocking the books in his store.

By the 1850s, the all-around dust jacket was replaced the dust jacket that folds around and is tucked inside the cover, as we typically know it today. It was still very plain and meant to be discarded, but this format provided the requisite protection without costing as much either in material or labor to wrap, as well as to unwrap for display in a bookstore.

In the early 1900s the economics of books changed and since it was cheaper to make the dust jacket fancy than it was to make the book binding fancy, that’s what happened. It seems like the transition was mostly complete by the 1920s, when the price of a (harcover) book was moved to the inside flap, rather than the spine, where it would not get in the way of appreciate the cover art.

Thus hardcover books remained until recently. With printing technology having changed to use what are effectively (as I understand it) industrial scale laser printers and even industrial scale color laser printers, together with other machines of automation and more advanced plastics, it became viable to inexpensively print durable cover art directly onto hardcover books.

This is better in every way than the dust jackets which dominated the twentieth century, and yet it’s curious how powerful associations can be. Instinctively, I still think of a book with a plain, dark cover wrapped in a dust jacket to be better, somehow. In spite of the fact that it is typically much worse, including having no water resistance on the cover. In fact, so annoying is this, that I actually used wood finish on the cover of a beloved copy of Pride and Prejudice in order to make it resist the occasional unlucky drop of water (the dust jacket wasn’t very good and has long-since been lost).

There is a curious relationship, I think, to how we grew used to thinking of classical marble statue as monochromatic (white). In its day it was painted bright colors; by our time the paint has long-since flaked off. We took the simplicity to be deliberate and learned to appreciate it, associating it with good judgement because it so commonly went with good judgement.

But it was accidental.

Sherlock Holmes Often Lets the Criminal Go

In the end of The Three Gables, the woman responsible for the trouble in the story asks Sherlock Holmes for help.

“Well, well,” said he, “I suppose I shall have to compound a felony as usual.”

It’s an interesting phrase, because it’s true—Holmes does often let the criminal go. I was reminded of this when I recently re-watched the Jeremy Brett version of The Priory School, and then re-read the short story to see the differences. Perhaps the biggest change is that in Conan Doyle’s version, Holmes lets the criminals off, while in the Jeremy Brett version there’s one fewer criminal, and the main criminal ends up falling to his death rather than being let off. (To be fair, in the Conan Doyle version, the actual murderer does get caught and is said to be almost certain to hang for the murder.)

This is a rather curious trend. Though the Holmes stories in large part launched the genre of detective stories, in many ways they frequently bucked the trends that quickly came to dominate the genre.

Holmes stories do not tend to feature fair play; in fact they often almost pointedly eschew it with Holmes seeing some evidence which he refuses to show to Watson. The Priory School has an example of this; Holmes stands on Watson’s shoulders to see who is holding the young boy who was kidnapped, but Watson doesn’t get to see who it was and only learns it when Holmes accuses the man.

Holmes stories are frequently not about murder, though admittedly even in the golden age not every mystery story was about murder. I can think of at least three Father Brown stories off of the top of my head which were not. That said, in Holmes stories murder is probably more the exception than the rule.

But perhaps nowhere do Holmes stories buck the trends of the genre they started so much as in how often Holmes lets the criminal off. It’s not merely occasional, it’s all over the place. Perhaps the most memorable instance of it is in the end of The Blue Carbuncle:

“After all, Watson,” said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies. If Horner were in danger it would be another thing; but this fellow will not appear against him, and the case must collapse. I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness. Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward.

Perhaps it’s the second bucking of the trend which is so often responsible for the first; I can’t think of any case where Holmes lets a murderer go. (I should note that my knowledge of his cases is not encyclopedic. That said, I think that in later stories the preference in both readers and writers developed for the detection in detective stories to have some purpose, that is, to have some effect. It need not be a legal effect, of course, though it commonly was that. The solution should please more than just the detective; it should reconcile people to each other or give someone peace.

There are no hard and fast rules on this, of course. I’m quite fond of the Poirot story Murder on the Orient Express, where Poirot lets the killers off. It’s actually more complicated than that; he does not make the decision at all. The director of the Wagon-Lit company that runs the orient express asked him to investigate and he did. He then presented to the director two possibilities. The first was of an assassin who snuck out through a window when he was done. The director dismisses, but Poirot warns him not to dismiss it so quickly. After he hears the second explanation, he may not think so badly of this one. He then explains what really happened, where the death was, basically, the execution of a foul murderer of an innocent child, who had heretofore escaped justice. When he fully understood what had happened, the director did indeed prefer the first explanation, and it was what was given to the police when they eventually arrived. There was a cathartic effect to the action, though, where an impartial judge was given to judge the case, and pardoned the killers. The detective, effectively, reconciled the killers with society.

I am, in fact, fond of the surprise ending where the detective lets the killer go because he is not really a murderer. I suppose I just think that it should be a rare exception for it to have its real effect.

Ultimately, though, it is right that the detective cares more for justice than for the law, and it is generally best when the detectives are not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies.

Sympathetic Suspects In Murder Mysteries

There are two types of suspects in murder mysteries: sympathetic and unsympathetic suspects. Oh, a suspect can go from one category to the other. We might not know which category a suspect is in. But ultimately, every suspect will be sympathetic or else not. So, which is better?

I can already all but hear people clamoring that a mystery story needs both. These people are probably right, but “both” is no fun as an answer so bear with me while I consider the question as a simple binary.

The first thing to say in favor of sympathetic suspects is that they are more pleasant. One can stand to read far more about sympathetic characters, in general, than unsympathetic ones. This is an important consideration. There is a danger here, though, which is that if a sympathetic character turns out to be the murderer, it is something of a blow. This is often a popular way to disguise a murderer, but it runs the risk, when overdone—as it often has been—of unintentionally conveying the idea that apparently good people always have some secret evil which they are hiding.

I should clarify that a sympathetic character need not be an outwardly moral character. It is possible to make an explicitly immoral character sympathetic, though care should be taken here not to let that lead the reader to approve of the sympathetic character’s vice. I will say that this sort of sympathetic character would be the better choice for murderer, if one must make the murderer sympathetic.

That is especially true in the modern era, where the general trend is in favor of excusing all vices, or at least almost all vices. Tempting people to excuse the vice of the sympathetic immoral person and then it turning out that they were merely being taken advantage of—there may be a useful corrective in that to the general vices of our time.

Probably the strongest argument to be made in favor of unsympathetic suspects is that it is often better for the murderer to be an unsympathetic character. Having said that, this does have the unfortunate consequence that one must have several unsympathetic characters in order to avoid making it obvious who the murderer is. (I’m speaking in generalities, of course. Enough gambits have been tried, and bluffed, and double-bluffed that one can probably pull off making the murderer unsympathetic, and making everyone suspect him, and starting off with some pretty damning evidence against him, only for the reader—and detective—to refuse to believe it because it’s too obvious. I can’t think off-hand of an Agatha Christie in which this was done, but if anyone could pull it off, she could.)

The downside to unsympathetic suspects is so obvious it may go without saying, but just in case it doesn’t: they tend to be unpleasant to read about. One must, therefore, keep their “screen time” short. A little bit of them will, usually, go a long way. This puts us in an especially bad place if the murderer is unsympathetic, since then we’ll need to have at least a few unsympathetic characters. Several characters, all of whom get fairly little time on the stage in order to spare the reader, will be harder to keep separate in the reader’s mind.

It will be well, therefore, to make them more stylized, in order to make them more memorable. One way of doing this is to give them vices which tend to be excused in popular culture. Poking fun at the vice will be more tolerated in an unsympathetic character, and it will be more memorable. It will also probably be more realistic, too, since vices have a tendency to cluster (as several vices often share a root cause).

In the end, I think that there’s a lot to be said for having a good number of sympathetic characters. Care must be taken if one of them is the murderer, but care will always have to be taken in writing a murder mystery.

Why Dorothy L. Sayers Stopped Writing Lord Peter

I’ve never seen a coherent account written down of why Dorothy L. Sayers stopped writing Lord Peter when she did. There are plenty of bits and pieces, of course, but I’ve not seen them organized into a coherent account, so I will endeavor to do so here.

The last piece of hard evidence that I know of was an essay she wrote about Gaudy Night in the book Titles to Fame, first published in October of 1937. Presumably Ms. Sayer’s chapter in it was written not long before, as she quotes from Busman’s Honeymoon, also published in 1937. Though, to be fair, Busman’s Honeymoon was originally a play which came out in 1936. In this chapter she says that she is often asked if Peter’s career will end with marriage, and she says (with some regret) that she does not foresee Peter’s career ever ending while she is still alive. How is it, then, that no more Lord Peter was forthcoming?

Actually, it’s not quite true that none was. After Busman’s Honeymoon, three Lord Peter short stories were written. Striding Folly and The Haunted Policeman were published in something called Detection Medley (I do not know whether that is a magazine or a book, though I would guess a magazine) in 1939. The short story Tallboys was written in 1942, though only discovered and published in 1972. But why were there no more novels?

There was supposed to be. In 1936, she began work on the novel Thrones, Dominations, which was to explore the married life of Harriet and Lord Peter, in part by contrasting it with other marriages. She never got more than about six chapters into it. One theory, which I find compelling, is that the abdication of King Edward VIII so that he could marry a devorcée threw a wrench into Ms. Sayer’s plans because this new environment would cause the book to be read very differently than she had intended. It is very believable to me that she would find the whole thing a mess and need some time to sort it out, and the more she tried to sort it out, the more of a mess it became while she was still trying to salvage the original form. And unfortunately, she didn’t have all that much time to sort it out.

England entered World War II in September of 1939, shortly after Germany invaded Poland. This was three years after she had begun Thrones, Dominations, but with Gaudy Night having been such a turning point in adding depth to her characters and Busman’s Honeymoon having been a strong continuation of that, it’s believable to me that she got bogged down by the more difficult task of making drama with a working marriage that needs to remain a working marriage at the end and thus cannot materially alter. The thing is doable, but it is far from easy, which is why most people don’t attempt it. Once World War II came, Ms. Sayers put down Lord Peter, except from some wartime propaganda to bolster morale (letters ostensibly from the Wimsey family about wartime conditions) and the short story Tallboys which wasn’t even published until after her death.

I should note, in passing, that Tallboys is not a bad story, though it’s really not much of a mystery. It explores, though briefly, Lord Peter and Harriet as parents, by contrast with a prig staying with them for the summer who is vocally against disciplining children, especially physically. The mystery is simply who stole Mr. Puffet’s peaches off of the peach tree in his garden, which Lord Peter does with some investigation and a clue furnished by his 8 year old son about another child’s missing fishing apparatus. It is worth reading, especially for a few more glimpses into Harriet and Lord Peter, though the two barely interact with each other in the story. Unlike The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head, it’s not really a story that one would read merely for itself. Basically, it’s not entirely shocking that the story remained unpublished until after the authoress’ death.

It makes sense that in England in World War II, Miss Sayers found it impossible to write Lord Peter. The war was not a universal block to writing—Agatha Christie kept writing mysteries throughout it—but it makes sense that to Ms. Sayers, who had chafed under the constraints of writing detective fiction which was not also significant, in a literary sense, the pressures of World War II were overwhelming. How could she write a Lord Peter story during World War II without it being about what’s going on, but at the same time with things being uncertain and always changing, how could she write a Lord Peter story in that time period and be sure conditions would be the same when it was published as when it was written? She had already been bitten by this once with Thrones, Dominations and the abdication of the King.

So much for Lord Peter during the war, but what about after it? Dorothy L. Sayers lived for twelve years after the resumption of peace in England. From what I’ve read, though I can’t at present remember where in order to cite it, post-war England was just a very different place than inter-war England, and Lord Peter was a creature of the inter-war period. This was so in a number of ways; his defining characteristics were largely from the first world war, in 1946 he was now fifty six years old, and as the parent of several children and (with the plan to have Lord Saint-George die in the war and Gerald to peg out as well) with heavy responsibilities, his time would not be his own to run around investigating crimes in the same way as it used to.

This last part would not be so much of a problem if the goal was merely to preserve the character’s function in the story, but it would be a rather large problem with the humanization of Lord Peter that happened in the last few novels. In the end, I suspect that it was precisely the determination to make Lord Peter a fully human character that made Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon such great books which also made them the last books. The main concerns of the prime of Lord Peter’s life—his mid fifties—would be at odds with him being a detective, and moreover are not the sort of thing which lend themselves well to novels. Novels are a concentration of life; they are about moments which symbolize much larger patches of life. Simply put, novel-worthy events really should not happen to a successful man in his mid-fifties. They may happen to those around him, drawing him in to such a novel. He should have his life sufficiently well figured out at this point that he has fairly little personal growth to do.

That last point would not be generally fatal; it was not fatal to any of Agatha Christie’s detectives. Poirot kept detecting his whole life, and Miss Marple started detecting in her old age. Both were stable people who were swept into the troubles of others. Lord Peter got into detection because it was one of the few things which drew him out of the shell he grew in the shock of the first world war. I do not mean that this could not have been overcome, but it would have been difficult to overcome. Lord Peter novels almost entirely consisted in Lord Peter sticking his nose into other people’s business. The one major exception to this is Clouds of Witness, and even there it was, technically, his brothers’ business. People came to Poirot because it was his job; he hung out a detective shingle, as it were. To write Lord Peter mysteries in his fifties and beyond would require people to come to Lord Peter, since Lord Peter should no longer be seeking these problems out. I can say from experience that stories in which people seek out a detective are very different stories from ones in which a detective seeks out the problem; the structure of them is different. Someone must already have suspicions; something grave must be at stake to bring in a stranger. In short, to have kept writing Lord Peter stories after the second world war would have required significantly changing what a Lord Peter story was. I do not say that Ms. Sayers could not have done it. All I am saying is that it makes sense why she did not, in fact, do it.

The Problem of Thor Bridge

The Problem of Thor Bridge was first published in 1922, making it one of the last Sherlock Holmes stories published in The Strand Magazine and towards the last of the Holmes stories published anywhere. (Only ten Holmes stories were published after, the last in March of 1927.)

By this time, other detective stories were well underway. Dr. Thorndyke had been solving cases for fifteen years, Father Brown had been solving cases for twelve years and Poirot for two. I don’t know whether Sir Arthur ever read any of these stories, or to what degree they influenced him. It seems possible, though, as this is one of the only Holmes stories in which there is a ingenious murder device, that is, with a clever and unusual method of committing murder. Far more common in Holmes stories are fairly ordinary means of committing murder that only left a few clues behind. (As well, there are plenty of non-murder cases entirely. Possibly the majority—I haven’t counted.)

Technically all the villain got away with, in the story, was self-murder, and merely attempted to murder the woman she hated by setting the scene to look like murder and framing her rival. It was still a very clever and original technique for murder.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, Mrs. Maria Gibson was jealous of miss Grace Dunbar, the governess of her children, because her husband had fallen in love with Miss Dunbar. Mrs. Gibson made an appointment with Miss Dunbar for a certain time in the evening and had Miss Dunbar confirm it with a note. After Miss Dunbar came, Mrs. Gibson insulted her until she ran away. Once Miss Dunbar was safely out of earshot, she tied a heavy rock, with a long piece of twine, to a gun, and shot herself, with the note clutched in her other hand. When she fell dead, the rock pulled the gun over the edge of the bridge and into the water below. The final piece of evidence against Miss Dunbar was a duplicate gun, planted in Miss Dunbar’s wardrobe.

The absence of the gun was very strong evidence against suicide, and the timing selected gave most people, except for Miss Dunbar, an alibi for the time of death. It’s quite clever.

I find it curious that this means of murder has been copied so little. I couldn’t think of any examples, and the Wikipedia page mentions only two TV shows which have borrowed the idea, one CSI in an episode titled Who Shot Sherlock? The other is a Murder, She Wrote episode from the eighth season titled To The Last Will I Grapple With Thee.

I watched that episode of Murder, She Wrote, as I didn’t remember it. It’s a good episode, though a bit strange because most of the cast are Irish immigrants; most of the cast except for Jessica Fletcher and the Police Lieutenant speak with an Irish brogue. It’s one of the episodes set in New York City when Jessica is teaching classes as some university. There’s an Irish ex-policeman who moved to America to start a new life, with his adult daughter, and he’s pursued by a career criminal from Ireland, with whom he had a long history including having tried to win the hand of the same woman, who tries to frame the ex-policeman for his murder. He uses a weight on a string tied to a heavy weight to hide the gun in the open cavity of an unfinished wall, but Jessica spots the marks the gun made on the wall and deduces what happened. It turned out that the career criminal had an inoperable brain tumor, and since he had so little time left, he decided to make one last attempt to get back at his old enemy.

He is explicitly likened to Ahab in Moby Dick, and a part of Ahab’s final speech is quoted. It’s worth quoting in full (if you haven’t read Moby Dick, Ahab had dedicated his life to veangeance against the white whale, who has just rammed Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, and the ship is sinking).

I turn my body from the sun. What ho, Tashtego! let me hear thy hammer. Oh! ye three unsurrendered spires of mine; thou uncracked keel; and only god-bullied hull; thou firm deck, and haughty helm, and Pole-pointed prow,—death-glorious ship! must ye then perish, and without me? Am I cut off from the last fond pride of meanest shipwrecked captains? Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!

The most famous of the lines is, of course, “to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee”. (It was also quoted very well by the dying Khan, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, as Khan self-destructed his ship to try to kill Kirk. Ricardo Montalbán was a good actor.) You wouldn’t think that Murder, She Wrote could pull this sort of true drama off, but somehow it did.

I’ve never seen CSI and have no intention of seeing it, so I can’t comment on it, but I find it curious that the only place this murder device has been used was in long-running TV shows, which have a huge demand for material, and only after many years. And in the Murder, She Wrote episode they played somewhat fast and loose with the wall having an open cavity in it. They never really showed us that it had that feature.

I wonder why this is. Is it just that copying the greats feels cheap? But copying the greats is usually the best strategy for a writer, at least while making it one’s own. Mediocrity borrows, genius steals, and all that.

Perhaps it’s just that the disguised suicide of The Problem of Thor’s Bridge is so recognizable? If a body was found on a bridge with a chip in the stonework, a modern audience might scream if the detective does not immediately dredge the lake or stream for the gun. Yet, I have not seen even variants of this—murdering someone and then dropping the gun over a bridge with a rock on a rope to disguise the murder as suicide-disguised-as-murder. With modern materials one need not even use a rock a a counterweight. Elastics, springs, and other things would expand the range of hiding places for a murder weapon. It is, at least, an interesting direction to explore.

Lord Peter Short Stories: The Necklace of Pearls

The Necklace of Pearls is a short story about a pearl necklace given by Sir Septimus Shale by his daughter, its theft, and Lord Peter Wimsey’s finding of the necklace and catching of the criminal. It follows the general structure of a detective short story, giving us the setup, the crime, the production of clues, and then on the last page the solution, and as a puzzle, it is enjoyable.

One does not really read a Lord Peter story for a mere puzzle, and The Necklace of Pearls does provide some comedy of manners. The main point of comedy is the Christmas traditions of Sir Septimus. A brief quotation from the beginning of the story will make this clear:

Sir Septimus Shale was accustomed to assert his authority once in the year and once only. He allowed his young and fashionable wife to fill his house with diagrammatic furniture made of steel; to collected advanced artists and anti-grammatical poets; to believe in cocktails and relativity and to dress as extravagantly as she please;d but he did insist on an old-fashioned Christmas. He was a simple-hearted man, who really liked plum-pudding and cracker mottoes, and he count not get it out of his head that other people, ‘at bottom’, enjoyed these things also. At Christmas, therefore, he firmly retired to his country house in Essex, called in the servants to hang holly and mistletoe upon the cubist electric fittings; loaded the steel sideboard with delicacies from Fortnum & Mason; hung up stocking at the heads of the polished walnut bedsteads; and even, on this occasion only, had the electric radiators removed from the modernist grates and installed wood fires and a yule log. He then gathered his family and friends about him, filled them with as much Dickensian good fare as he could persuade them to swallow, and, after their Christmas dinner, set them down to play ‘Charades’ and ‘Clumps’ and ‘Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral’ in the drawing-room , concluding these diversions by ‘Hide-and-Seek’ in the dark all over the house. Because Sir Steptimus was a very rich man, his guests fell in with his invariable programme, and if they were bored, they did not tell him so.

This juxtoposition of modernist furniture in steel with an old-fashioned English Christmas is very hard to appreciate for an American in 2020. The traditional English Christmas is not my tradition, even in mutated form, and steel furniture seems almost the height of stupidity. We have some steel in our kitchen; an aesthetic whose aim is to suggest the appliances are fit for a commercial kitchen, where stainless steel is used because it is easy to clean and no one really cares whether employees have anything pleasing to look at while they work in oppressive heat. Other than that, steel is rarely seen in an American household, so it seems, rather than modern, merely in bad taste.

There is the further remove that people don’t really want to be modern any more. Even extremely modern things, like smart watches, almost go out of their way to at least partially disguise themselves in inconspicuous colors. In the 1930s, new technology was promising. In the 2020s, it’s commonplace and best known for its frustration, addictive properties, and general propensity for making people less social and less happy. (This is actually somewhat unfair, as technology does enable all sorts of great conversations to happen, but general regard is not always fair.)

The mystery itself is the disappearance of the necklace, and there are really two parts to this mystery:

  1. Where did the pearl necklace go?
  2. Who stole the pearl necklace?

The short story only concerns the first question. Lord Peter searches carefully, with Sir Septimus following him as witness. This turns up a small, fine pin, of the sort that an entomologist might use to pin a butterfly to a display board. Lord Peter asks if anyone has a hobby of collecting beetles, and when Sir Septimus says that they don’t, Lord Peter knows where the pearls are, and how they were hidden there.

This is where we come to the weakness of a comedy of manners in a short story—we have too many characters and with many of their interactions being governed by their rigid manners, we can’t really get to know any of them well enough to guess who stole the necklace, or why. To be fair to the reader, neither does Lord Peter, so instead he sets a trap. I think that the game here turns into who can spot the person falling into the trap first. The only real downside is that, since we don’t know anything about the culprit—just the name of the guy who shows up in the trap—it’s not very satisfying.

The real payoff is the way in which the pearls were hidden. The villain cut them from the necklace and used the pins to hide the separated pearls among the mistletoe. At this point, I should note that European mistletoe has white berries, unlike the holly which is commonly used in the place of mistletoe in America, and is sometimes confused for it because of that. It’s an interesting technique for stealing pearls in a house so completely made of smooth, hard surfaces that there is nowhere to hide things.

Odd Short Stories

Having recently read through the collected Lord Peter short stories of Dorothy L. Sayers, I can’t help but notice that a few of them are fairly odd. The one which comes to mind as an example of this is the story where Lord Peter is driven in a car to a castle (or perhaps it was a mansion) to pick up some secrets from the scientist who lives there and upon entering meets another Lord Peter, whereupon the scientist proposes a wine identification contest to determine which Lord Peter is the real Lord Peter. (The real Lord Peter turns out to be the chauffeur. ) This is rather far off of the beaten track of Lord Peter stories. Granted, his expertise in wines does sometimes come up, but never before (or after) has it been critical.

Then it occurred to me: I have no idea where this story was published.

For all I know, Ms. Sayers wrote the story for a friend who ran a magazine called Wine Tasting Monthly. If that were the case, it would make perfect sense why she wrote such an unusual Lord Peter story. It would be fun for the (hypothetical) readers of Wine Tasting Monthly and would be very unlikely to confuse anyone who was merely an ordinary reader of Lord Peter Wimsey stories since they would be unlikely to ever see it.

I am, of course, just speculating. In fact, I doubt that I got it right; I think it more likely that not that this story was not written for Wine Tasting Monthly. It’s a good illustration, though, that there may have been context which makes oddities make perfect sense. Just to come up with another, to illustrate, perhaps there was an “adventure issue” of Detective Stories Weekly where the theme was seeing all of one’s favorite detectives but in an adventure story. The point is that with the right expectations, this story would be fun (and possibly funny) rather than just weird.

There’s a lesson in there…

The Queen’s Square (A Lord Peter Wimsey Short Story)

The Queen’s Square, a short story by Dorothy L. Sayers featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, is a murder mystery set at a costume party. It’s a great setup for a murder mystery, but for some reason it doesn’t seem to live up to this. It’s not a bad story, of course, but it feels a little bit like Miss Sayers is going through the motions.

To recap briefly, for those who’ve not read the story and don’t intend to, Lord Peter is at a costume ball, and a bunch of people we’ve never met before are dancing several dances and talking to each other. Then the fiancé a woman discovers her corpse—she’d been strangled—and the police come and investigate. There’s a tangle of witness of who was where, when, then Lord Peter solves the case by figuring out that one of the guests was mistaken for another by a trick of colored light, the two guests costumes being identical except for color.

The initial part of the story gives atmosphere, a few introductions, and Lord Peter a chance to have a little conversation. Unfortunately, there are only two characters who are really introduced, and one is an older lady who has nothing to do with the rest of the story. The other is the victim, but other than being a “fast” woman, nothing revealed about her is much relevant to the story.

The gathering of clues by the police is somewhat lengthy and in a way reminds me of The Five Red Herrings. That, too, was a timetable mystery in which the timetable was wrong, and therefore didn’t really matter. I’m being a little unfair, here, because the basic setup is that the victim was seen at a certain time, but couldn’t have been killed after it. Of course, that means that it was not the victim who was seen but someone mistaken for the victim, which means that the solution to the mystery revolves around who could have been mistaken for the victim. That said, it is an examination of the time table that shows clearly that this must be, so the timetable is not irrelevant.

I actually wonder if I’m not reading this incorrectly. It is overly tedious to commit all of these details to memory, but perhaps the reader is not supposed to. Such stories may be intended more like logic problems, where one is meant to construct a table that helps to keep track of the relationships and x out all of the squares that cannot be, with only a single stroke through the boxes that we have evidence against but it’s not conclusive. Those are fun to do, though having grown up in the 1980s I was used to the tables being drawn for one in the logic puzzle books.

Lord Peter figures out the solution to the puzzle in the darkroom, when he sees a red thing change color when the red darkroom light is switched off and the white light is switched on. There was a colored lamp which threw red light into the hallway in which the victim was last seen, and this made red costume which was seen appear to be white. Or, possibly, the white costume appear to be red. I don’t remember exactly, now, and either is possible depending on how much ambient light the witness saw.

It’s by no means my favorite story, but it is worth reading. Something seems a bit off with its structure, however, as the various parts give us time to meet characters who never do anything, followed by an information dump which is mostly unimportant, followed by Lord Peter and Bunter doing some photography and Lord Peter realizing the key to the mystery. The story is disjointed and we don’t get to have much fun with Lord Peter or any of the other characters. Had the cast been a little smaller and the best characters had some involvement during Lord Peter’s investigation, I think it would have been a significant improvement.

All of this said, I wonder I wasn’t more correct in thinking that this was meant to be more like a logic puzzle and less like a story. There is a solution which is actually set off with some space, told as the policeman having told Wimsey about the criminal’s confession. One unfortunate aspect of the book in which I’m reading the short stories is that it gives no information about where they were originally published.

Were Plays the TV of Previous Centuries?

Being, as I am, a fan of English Literature from previous centuries, especially of Pride & Prejudice and golden age detective stories, something I couldn’t help but note is that if anyone was near London (or another big city), going to plays was a common form of entertainment. Something else I’ve learned, in doing research about early detective stories, is that a lot of detective stories and tropes seem to be from plays more than novels.

Putting these together, I’ve begun to wonder whether plays were not, speaking broadly, the television of yesteryear.

In my own experience of plays, these are either some of the cream of English writing, as in the case of Shakespeare, or else are at least fairly time-tested things that are quite expensive and one travels a long distance to see. But plays are not generally talked of that way in earlier British fiction; they were as often a spur-of-the-moment thing as planned, and if planned, just an alternative to something like having people over for dinner. What is, or at least was, talked of like this in my experience is television.

Further, there are parallels. People usually didn’t seem to expect the plays to be very good, and they really didn’t expect them to last. And, indeed, most plays did not. As far as I can tell, the typical play had a short run in a small theater, and then everyone local had seen it and they’d move on.

If this is the case, it makes sense that plays would be frequently formulaic, since they were written on tight schedules and without any expectation of being remembered, and so it would be possible for the theater critic in the story What, No Butler? to say that in all the plays he saw, the butler always did it. (I’ve got a bunch of posts about the trope that the butler did it, btw.) This would be a lot like saying that in Murder, She Wrote the businessman’s wife did it. (There is, by the way, a hilarious formula for a typical Murder, She Wrote episode that illustrates some of what I’m talking about.)

Obviously, there are differences between plays back in the day and television today, even apart from the technology. Television shows have long runs of consistent characters, and occasionally the episodes try to be consistent with each other. (After Babylon 5, it became common to have a “show arc” where there was a long-running story that would make up some and occasionally all of each episode. In a sense these are just a return to the days of the serials, though.)

That said, I think that this might be a useful interpretive key to understanding the attitudes characters would show toward plays in older literature. Even more importantly, I think, it suggests that when trying to work out the development of genres like mystery, it means that by not having access to many of the plays people were seeing, we’re lacking one of the major influences on writers of the novels and short stories that we do have access to. In some ways, it might be like, in the future, trying to understand the development of Science Fiction through the present time without having seen Star Trek or Babylon 5. People who, in the early 2000s, write science fiction novels certainly have seen these influential things and moreover expect that their audiences to have seen them, too. It would be interesting to get a hold of some of those short-lived detective plays from the 1900s.

Murder She Wrote: When Thieves Fall Out

The second episode of the fourth season of Murder, She Wrote, is titled, When Thieves Fall Out. It’s a very unusual episode of Murder, She Wrote.

The episode begins with the owner of a car dealership firing a drunk salesman. After that we meet a rather enigmatic character. I’m not sure whether to call him the protagonist or the antagonist, and in many ways the episode isn’t sure, either.

His name is Andrew Durbin. It’s a bit complicated, but we learn his backstory: he just got out of prison for a murder he claims he didn’t commit 20 years ago. He had been a hitchiker, and a wealthy businessman was giving him a ride. A car swerved almost into their lane and they swerved to avoid it, crashing. The businessman was injured and Durbin ran to a nearby farmhouse for help, but they didn’t hear his banging on the door. When he got back someone had bashed the businessman’s head in with a rock, and $100,000 in bearer bonds were missing. At that moment the police showed, and he was taken to be the murderer, and was convicted.

He’s back in Cabot Cove because he recognized a kid in the car (in a prom outfit; it was prom night) that ran them off of the road, and he wants vengeance and to know who the driver is.

The kid turns out to be Bill, the owner of the car dealership.

Somewhere around here, the car dealership owner recognizes that some weird things are going and her husband is very scared, so she goes to Jessica for help.

Andrew Durbin goes to the car dealership and says that there seems to be some electrical trouble with his car.

Bill says that he’s busy and will need some time to get the repair done. He suggests that Andrew come back at 9pm to pick up his car. Andrew agrees. Jessica shows up and talks to Bill, but not much really comes from this. He denies everything. Jessica leaves, and Bill calls a confederate—presumably the other person in the car, that fateful night.

Interestingly for a Murder, She Wrote episode, while we’re pretty sure that someone is about to be murdered, we don’t really know who.

It turns out to be Bill, which is an interesting turn of events because it leaves the field so wide open for who the murderer could be. One obvious suspect is the man with whom he had an appointment at around the time he was killed, Andrew Durbin, but it turns out that Durbin has an air-tight alibi. He was eating dinner for 2 hours at a restaurant where several reliable witnesses could vouch for him.

The alibi is useful, structurally, but it’s also very curious that Durbin never showed up to the appointment. It’s somewhat implied, later in the episode, that this was really a setup; he expected this to stir up Bill’s confederate and get him to kill Bill. It’s never explained in detail, and doesn’t make all that much sense as a plan. Unless he figured that Bill’s killer would be sloppy and get caught, this plan would most likely result in the trail going cold and Durbin’s only hope of justice being extinguished. That said, for whatever reason he does it, he never shows up and is careful to have an excellent alibi for before, during, and after the murder is committed.

Convinced that Durbin is both innocent and telling the truth, Jessica interviews Bill’s old high school friends who were with him that night.

They lie to Jessica, of course, in order to protect Bill’s memory, and say that he was with them the whole time. Eventually it comes out that Bill was drunk and left early. There’s some further investigation and a sub-plot where one of Bill’s old football friends who is pretending to have been crippled in a car crash and is suing Bill turns out not to be crippled and to only be scamming.

I probably should have mentioned earlier that high school football was a big theme. All of Bill’s male friends from high school were on the football team with him, and they were the only team from Cabot Cove who ever won the state championship. This is important because it turns out that the driver, and the murderer both of Bill and of the driver 20 years ago was the beloved high school football coach.

There was actually a pretty good line from his confession, when he talked about how the business he had invested his share of the $100,000 into went bust almost immediately: “I guess I should have known that nothing good would come of that money.”

What really makes this episode special, though, is that it doesn’t stop here. Later that night, as Jessica and Amos are having dinner, Andrew Durbin shows up at Jessica’s doorstep to thank her.

Jessica says that she wishes he wouldn’t. She acknowledges that he was telling the truth and spent 20 years in prison unjustly, but he knew what would happen when he came. He replies that he did warn her that he was after justice.

“I can’t help but think that justice could have been served in a better way.”

Then he gets one of the all-time great lines in Murder, She Wrote.

“Oh? Well you give it some thought, Mrs. Fletcher, and when you figure out what could have been, let me know.”

Jessica is at a loss for words. He turns and leaves, and she closes the door. She then leans against it, thinking.

And there the episode ends.

Something I touched on in my blog post about how Jessica Fletcher is an oddly libertine scold is that she has an extremely strong but highly selective sense of indignation. She deplores violence but not, in general, any of the things which tend to make it necessary.

She dislikes, tremendously, that people she cared about were made to suffer. This is understandable, but it is a fault in Jessica that she didn’t rise above her feelings and stick to her principles and acknowledge that Durbin was in the right. Instead, she resents being made to be the one to find them out. In short, she is entitled to grieve, but not to be indignant, and Durbin’s final line points out to her how little she is entitled to her indignation.

Jessica does not learn from this moment, of course. First, because she’s written by television writers. Second, because Murder, She Wrote was episodic, with episodes not being related to each other. Frankly, I think it’s really more the former than the latter, though. All that said, it’s pretty satisfying for Jessica to get a comeuppance, for once.

Apart from all this, it’s an interesting episode. Detectives investigating long-ago mysteries is interesting, because the evidence is so limited (at least when people don’t oddly good memories about things long-past to which they hadn’t attached any great significance at the time). This is done much better in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, but it’s an unfair comparison. That was a novel; a 48 minute long TV episode cannot be as good. It does partake of some of what made that novel so good, though, even if it takes the easy route and uses photographs instead of people’s partial memories.

Further Preliminary Thoughts on Dorothy L. Sayers on Gaudy Night

This is a continuation of my post from yesterday, giving some prelimary thoughts on Dorothy L. Sayers essay Gaudy Night in the book Titles to Fame. Today something Ms. Sayers said about the development of a character over many books caught my attention. I’m going to quote it here because I think that the expression of Ms. Sayers own words are necessary to understand the thing she is trying to communicate:

I had from the outset, of course, envisaged for Peter a prolonged and triumphal career, going on through book after book amid the plaudits of adoring multitudes. It is true that his setting forth did not cause as great a stir as I had expected, and that the adoring multitudes were represented by a small, though faithful, band of adherents. But time would, I hoped, bring the public into a better frame of mind, and I plugged confidently on, putting my puppet through all his tricks and exhibiting him in a number of elegant attitudes.  But I had not properly realized—and this shows how far I was from understand what it was I was trying to do with the detective novel—that any character that remains static except for a repertory of tricks and attitudes is bound to become a monstrous weariness to his maker in the course of eight or nine volumes.

I cannot contradict Ms. Sayers from my own experience, yet, as I’m only beginning work on my third Brother Thomas novel. However, there is something here on which I think she is mistaken, or, rather, about which she is over-generalizing.

Before saying what, I also think it’s worth considering the Lord Peter bibliography, bearing in mind that Ms. Sayers had tired of Lord Peter and set off to retire him in Strong Poison:

  1. Whose Body?
  2. Clouds of Witness
  3. Unnatural Death
  4. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
  5. Strong Poison
  6. The Five Red Herrings
  7. Have His Carcase
  8. Murder Must Advertise
  9. The Nine Tailors
  10. Gaudy Night
  11. Busman’s Honeymoon

The eight or nine volumes in which Lord Peter had become a monstrous weariness to his maker was, in fact, four volumes. It’s worth considering what those four volumes were like. In Whose Body? we (and the authoress) meet Lord Peter, and everyone is interesting when you first meet them. Clouds of Witness was an excellently crafted mystery, and there was some character development in it, though in the sense of revealing the character of Wimsey rather than changing it. In Unnatural Death we see a great deel more of Miss Climpson and not nearly as much of Wimsey, and that quite often to serve the plot. In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, we see more of Wimsey, but his personality has largely retreated. Over the stories, we also see the diminution of Charles Parker, in whom Sayers seemed to initially place some personality and intend character development.

What we see, when we look at him, is that he became somewhat more of a puppet in these stories; he was there because someone had to investigate the mysteries, and Sayers balked at introducing a new detective in each story after her experiment with doing so in Unnatural Death. The problem, though, is not really that Lord Peter wasn’t changing. The problem is that Lord Peter didn’t have much of a personality (yet). You can see this in what Ms. Sayers said she needed to do in order to humanize him in order to pull off the romance which was started in Strong Poison but which didn’t work there:

If the story was to go on, Peter had got to become a complete human being, with a past and a future, with a consistent family and social history, with a complicated psychology and even the rudiments of a religious outlook.

None of this requires Peter to change throughout the books. All it requires is to actually do it.

To give an example of what I mean, in the first four books we do learn that Lord Peter likes music, but he never says anything about it. We don’t know what he likes about which pieces. He collects first editions, but we don’t know why he collects first editions, and rarely which things he collects first editions of. He has read literature, but we don’t know what he thinks of it. And then, of course, he’s the sort of pointlessly non-religious character which was extraordinarily common amongst golden age detectives, for no discernible reason.

I don’t mean to keep harping on this point, but it is closely related to the problem Ms. Sayers has with Lord Peter—that he can’t articulate a reason for anything that he does other than sheer curiosity is a massive problem to him being a flesh-and-blood human being. All human beings have curiosity; the detective merely being curious is not enough. He must also either overcome the inhibitions which people have to investigating murders, or he must simply lack them. A religious reason for risking death and people disliking you can overcome this inhibition, as they did for Father Brown. The other detectives of the time seem to merely lack this inhibition. This may partially be why they are all eccentric, but they are mostly eccentric without being interesting because of it.

While there was still the thrill of working out the form and nature of the mystery novel, this could be overlooked. One detective might do as well as another when the reader wasn’t much paying attention to him anyway. As Chesterton showed, however, this was in no way necessary. And I think that this is what Ms. Sayers discovered when she finally started putting flesh onto her detective.

Materialist Detectives

One of the things which I disliked about the second Dr. Thorndyke novel, The Eye of Osiris, is that all of the principal characters were Materialists. (For those not familiar: materialism, in this sense, is the belief that the only thing which exists is matter and its interactions; it denies things like God, the soul, free will, etc.) While the characters were not religious in the first book, it was far more explicit here and the book was, in consequence, less enjoyable.

The main problem with Materialists as detectives is that their position is a false one with regard to the main activities of a detective. A detective detects, yes, but for a purpose. In a mystery, the world has become corrupted through the wrong use of reason, and the detective enters it in order to restore the world to its proper order through the right use of reason. It is true that detective stories sometimes aimed to be pure puzzles, as if they were a long-form version of a logic problem where “The baker is sitting next to the red haired man, and across from Sally”. That is simply false, though. The moment that there are characters who are moving through time, they must have motives; they must have a theory of the world and be acting according to it or against it, and thinking well of themselves or being self-reproachful. In short, once you have characters not not mere chess-pieces, they must be human. They might be failed human beings, as in the classic creature of pure habit who goes to work, comes home, watches TV until it’s bedtime, and repeats the process every day merely because it is his habit, with no more thought than we can perceive a rabbit gives to munching grass. But the very fact of telling us what a man does during the day tells us what he doesn’t do, by exclusion. In short, the pure puzzle does not work.

The Materialist cannot do anything other than a pure puzzle. To the Materialist, a human being is merely a clump of matter that happens to be more interesting than an equally sized clod of dirt for reasons of pure sentimentality. The mystery cannot actually be a problem, to the Materialist, because he has no theory of the world in which one organization of matter is superior to any other. He cannot be restoring the world to its proper order because it has no proper order. The Materialist, in truth, has no reason to do one thing instead of another; all he has are the tendencies he has inherited from men who did have a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

This problem is exacerbated in The Eye of Osiris because the person whom Dr. Thorndyke is helping cannot pay Dr. Thorndyke’s fee. Some reason must be put forth for Dr. Thorndyke helping, and since charity is not a permissible reason, as Materialists may neither give nor receive charity for reasons a little too involved to go into here, Dr. Thorndyke is in the absurd position of insisting that he is not in the least helping the old man intentionally, but purely as a by-product of satisfying his own curiosity in the case. In fact, he goes so far as to reject the old man’s thanks.

This is reasonably true to life; Materialists cannot actually exist in society with other Materialists, because their mutual philosophy leaves no room for human beings. It is not, however, interesting. The wretched state of the Materialist is true, so in that sense the book does embody a truth about real life, but it is an unpleasant truth. Unpleasant truths are not what we look for in mystery novels. We look to mystery novels, not for the temporary truth that the world has fallen, but for the eternal truth that the world has been saved. It’s hard enough to remember in this world of sin and woe; we don’t need our reminders of it to make it harder to remember.

Jessica Fletcher is a Weirdly Libertine Scold

I am a big fan of Murder, She Wrote. I watched it very fondly as a kid, and I own the DVD box set of all 12 seasons. I enjoyed it then and I enjoy it now. I am a fan. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the thoughts I am going to relate.

One of the really weird things, that’s obvious to me now that I’m watching it as an adult, is that Jessica Fletcher is a weirdly libertine scold. She absolutely deplores violence, and also murder. She also has absolutely no patience for selling drugs. Other than that, she really doesn’t care what people do and will smile at just about anything.

This is odd for several reasons, not the least of which is how completely at odds this is with her background. Jessica is a retired school teacher from a small town in New England. This is a place where people are expected to pull their weight and screwing over friends and family for personal selfishness is frowned upon. The sort of selfishness involved in cheating on a spouse, prostitution, casual sex, leaving someone to move to a big city and follow ones dreams, and the like—these are the sorts of things which city-folk don’t care about, in part because half of them have done these things and the other half expect that they will in the not too-distant future. These aren’t part of the things small-town America approves of because they see the damage they cause.

Another odd thing about this is Jessica Fletcher’s age. She was a retired schoolteacher, which means that she had to have been in at least her late 50s in 1984 (the shows are contemporary). The latest she could have been born would have been around the year 1930. (Angela Lansbury was born in 1925, and was generally about the age of Jessica Fletcher.) A woman who grew up in small-town America in the 1930s and was a young woman in the late 1940s and early 1950s would not have been someone who instinctively approved of fornication, adultery, infidelity, and selfishness.

It may be objected that we normally see Jessica take in all of these acts unphased during an investigation, when, as a detective, she needs the confidence of the people she’s pumping for evidence. This might work if she weren’t willing to turn scold if one of the few things which offended her popped up. Moreover, she never scolds anyone about these things after the investigation, though she will scold them, then, for murder and violence.

This is most easily attributed, of course, to the loose morality of the people writing Murder, She Wrote. They, being in Hollywood, didn’t really disapprove of much of anything at all, though at times they were obliged to pretend to. That said, if we refrain from drawing back the curtain and only consider the work of fiction on its own terms, Jessica Fletcher is a very strange character.

Murder, She Wrote, for all that it’s fun, is often corny, though I admit it with great reluctance. That Jessica Fletcher was never given any actual principles, which is to say that she was never given any definite beliefs about the meaning of life and the attendant consequences of that, is I think what really kept the show from ever being great. She is, in a certain way, a direct descendant of the early detectives, who were often supposed to be mere calculating machines with legs. She had traits, but never really a personality.

I think that this is a great pity, though I doubt that it could have been otherwise in American television in the 1980s.

The Eye of Osiris

So, I’ve read the second Dr. Thorndyke novel, The Eye of Osiris. I didn’t entirely expect to do that, but I was curious how Dr. Freeman introduced the inverted detective story (“howchatchem” as opposed to “whodunnit”). I didn’t find out, though, because it turns out that he didn’t do it in this novel, either. The villain was relatively obvious, but his identity was not revealed until the second to last chapter.

I doubt that there is a point to spoiler warnings on works so old that they were published before any reader of this blog post was born. Moreover, if one wants to read the story The Eye of Osiris in a state of total ignorance as to what the next page carries, it seems improbably in the extreme that one would read a blog post with that title, and whose first paragraph purports to be about that very book. That said, if such is your aim, dear reader, stop reading this post and go read the book.

Rather to my surprise, The Eye of Osiris is narrated, not by Dr. Jervis, but by another doctor whose name I forget. Whereas Jervis was unemployed and came into the employ of Dr. Thorndyke, this doctor—his name is Berkeley, I just looked it up—is filling in for another doctor, who owns a private practice, and who is now on vacation. Dr. Berkeley is young, and was taught in school by Thorndyke, which is how he knows him. Other than these variations, he fulfills much the same role that Dr. Jervis did in the first book. It is for Dr. Berkeley to become a friend of the household, to extract information about it from passing conversation, and to fall in love with the beautiful and intelligent young lady who lives in it. Dr. Jervis, presumably now married to the beautiful and intelligent young lady from the household of the previous case, has precious little to do in this story. This will sound more significant when the reader understands that about a third of each book is taken up with its respective doctor falling in love with its respective lady.

The mystery, itself, is interesting, though the chief of the mystery isn’t really who did it—there are only two plausible suspects, and one of them swears that the other didn’t know about the will which could be his only motive. To give the barest summary of the plot: a rich man, John Bellingham, called on his cousin, Mr. Hurst, after a month-long overseas trip, but when Hurst came home and checked in his study, Bellingham was not there despite the maid not seeing him leave. Hurst rushed over to Bellingham’s layer, Mr. Jellicoe, and together they went to Bellingham’s brother’s house, where Jellicoe found a scarab Bellingham always wore on his watch chain. Two years later, bones from an apparently dismembered body started showing up in pools and rivers in an area near to where the missing man’s house was. John Bellingham’s will left a few thousand pounds to Mr. Jellicoe, who shared Bellingham’s interest in egyptology, and left the bulk of his estate to his brother if he was burried within his family parish and to Mr. Hurst if he was not burried there. This bizarre will caused much confusion and trouble.

It’s fairly clear from the description—which also involved Mr. Jellicoe being the last person to see John Bellingham alive before his trip—that it was Mr. Jellicoe who committed the crime. Murderers really should be more careful than to find chance evidence themselves. (It was also clear that when “Mr Bellingham” called on his cousin after his trip, no one who would recognize him actually saw him.) What is unclear, though, is why the body was cut up into so many pieces, and why it was done with medical precision—it was severed in places an anatomist might sever it, and moreover it was done without any scratching on the bones. Why did the murderer take such care to dissect his victim?

Having some experience of butchering large vertebrates (deer), and hence being familiar with why one would cut the arm with the shoulder blade rather than at the ball joint, I partially guessed at the answer: the victim had done a good deal of rotting prior to his body being dissected. It turns out that the egyptology was more relevant to the plot than one might have suspected, and the body was not that of John Bellingham but instead a mummy which Bellingham had gifted to the British museum. John Bellingham’s corpse had been concealed within the cartonnage that concealed the mummy.

The grand reveal, here, was done with x-ray photography of the mummy, revealing various features of John Bellingham such as a tattoo of the eye of Osiris on his chest as well as silver wire in his kneecaps from when they were surgically repaired after being broken. I think that this was a much more exciting reveal in 1911, a mere 16 years after x-rays were discovered and while they were still very much in their infancy as a technology.

Overall, The Eye of Osiris is a somewhat strange book. It’s enjoyable to read, though I did find myself skimming some of the more melodramatic parts of the romantic plot. Dr. Jervis, who was the best developed character in the first book, barely appears. Even Dr. Thorndyke shows up less than he did in The Red Thumb Mark. The scientific evidence, which in this case essentially means the medical evidence—is emphasized to an enormous degree over all other kinds of evidence. I suppose that this makes a certain amount of sense with a doctor both as the actual writer and the fictional writer of the story, but medical evidence tends to be the least interesting sort of evidence there is, with the possible exception of accounting evidence. And then there is the very strange ending where the crime is revealed, not to be murder, but merely to be concealing the body of a man who died by accident, together with casting suspicion upon innocent people for the murder of the man who wasn’t murdered. This was a very strange decision, since the book goes to some lengths to show just how uncaring of his fellow creatures Mr. Jellicoe was, but then instead of the strange events being the plot of Jellicoe they are merely his best attempt to avoid being convicted of murder for the accidental death of his friend.

I should note, though, that The Eye of Osiris, like The Red Thumb Mark before it, has the occasional clever wordplay. In fact, it may have a bit more of it. For example, in a probate court in which an interested party is trying to get John Bellingham declared dead:

“…As the time which has elapsed since the testator was last seen alive is only two years, the application [to presume death] is based on the circumstances of the disappearance which were, in many respects, very singular, the most remarkable feature of that disappearance being, perhaps, its suddenness and completeness.”

Here the judge remarked in a still, small voice that, “It would, perhaps, have been even more remarkable if the testator had disappeared gradually and incompletely.”

I doubt that I would recommend The Eye of Osiris to anyone, though neither would I counsel anyone to not read it. It is pleasant enough and is, at least, curious as an element of history.